When Nairika Cornett thinks back on her childhood, she can’t help but drift to Freddie Mercury.
Not because Cornett grew up with his music, or even because of the new movie about Queen now in theaters — it’s because they’re family.
“We belong to a very tiny community, including Freddie,” said Cornett, who grew up in Bombay, India, which is now called Mumbai. Cornett now lives in Gainesville. “The largest population of Zoroastrians today is in Bombay, which is where Freddie’s original family came from. We all tend to be related because we are a tiny, tiny, tiny community.”
Cornett and Freddie Mercury, whose real name was Farrokh Bulsara, are cousins. She would visit him in London while traveling for ballet in the late 1980s.
She said worldwide estimates of Zoroastrians, one of the world’s oldest religions, are 350,000-strong. Cornett’s grandmother and Freddie’s mother are sisters, but most people in Mumbai call him “our Freddie,” now anyway.
Growing up in India, Cornett said she didn’t hear a lot about her famous second cousin. His music didn’t make its way to India until after his death in 1991, and the Zoroastrian community didn’t accept him because the stories “that would trickle into the community were about him being flamboyant, him being gay.”
But on a few different occasions, Cornett visited Freddie at his apartment, which she said was just as colorful as he was on stage as the lead singer of the famous British rock band.
It was a little strange for me seeing the film because the film, I guess is only from his musical family’s perspective. I think a lot of personal Freddie the man — they’ve shown Freddie the musician — but I think Freddie the man has been completely left out of the movie. Everybody loved the movie. I came out feeling very emptyNairika Cornett
She said that’s what Zoroastrians do. If they’re going to a new town, they have to visit fellow Zoroastrians, especially if it’s family.
“Because of our community being so small, you’ll find his relatives abundant in that tiny community,” Cornett said. "He never grew up for any length of time in Bombay. He went to the same school as my father, but just for a year, and at that time being a child, he was not Freddie Mercury. He was Farrokh Bulsara that nobody knew.”
But when Cornett was about 10 years old, she spent time with him on those trips to the Royal Ballet, still not understanding exactly who Freddie was.
“I truly didn’t understand his fame,” Cornett said.
She didn’t understand a lot about him.
“I almost used to think he was extremely weird,” Cornett said. “He was extremely aware of his teeth, and he would never smile without covering his mouth.”
And when they went out into his Kensington, London, neighborhood, there was a lot of covering his mouth. Even though the neighbors that lived there didn’t make a big deal of it, the ones that didn’t know he lived in the area couldn’t help but stop to ask for an autograph.
“I would just kind of want to step aside, but he wouldn’t let me,” Cornett said. “He would keep me close because I don’t think he knew if there would ever be a mob or something.”
Cornett said she always saw Freddie as shy.
“He was very soft spoken, almost to the point where he would mumble almost,” Cornett said.
When out in public, he would walk with his head down. She’s not sure if it was because he didn’t want to be recognized or didn’t like being recognized. But even with a shy demeanor, people noticed him.
Still, young Cornett didn’t understand.
“I just thought he had like a tremendous amount of friends in London that were just really happy to be around him,” Cornett said.
To get away from that, Cornett said they spent time at his apartment. Although it was filled with large pieces of art, she said it “never had that museum feel.”
“It was large, but very cozy,” Cornett said. “The lighting wasn’t loud but there was a lot of color. It was a very warm house. The walls were filled with art, plush furnishings. He definitely enjoyed the good things in life. There’s no doubt about that.”
She remembers walking into the home and seeing an arch in the foyer with a large, abstract painting of different shades of blue. Apart from that, there was one thing she said you couldn’t miss.
“The piano was definitely the focal point, and I saw him constantly at the piano,” Cornett said.
She knew he was a musician because he would play his songs on that piano and have her sing along, teaching her how to clap on rhythm. She said they would sit in the apartment and he would have her clap along to “We Will Rock You,” one of Queen’s most popular songs.
“I think it just fed him,” Cornett said.
It wasn’t all about Queen’s music on those trips, though. She said Freddie took her to a Pink Floyd concert once. She said she wasn’t a fan of the music — she was a “bunhead” who liked ballet, so classical music was more her thing — and it seemed like the rest of the audience wasn’t either once they saw Freddie was in attendance, too.
“They wanted pictures of him and for him to sign things,” Cornett said. “And of course, when I would come home and tell my parents they would say they have no idea what it was about.”
They know what it was about now, and so does the rest of the world.
Cornett, who eventually immigrated to the United States to train as a dancer, is revisiting her history with her cousin now that “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the movie exploring Queen and Freddie Mercury, has been released.
She said she’s proud to be related to him and was happy to have spent time with such an iconic musician, but the man behind the music doesn’t surface in the new movie.
“It was a little strange for me seeing the film because the film, I guess is only from his musical family’s perspective,” Cornett said. “I think a lot of personal Freddie the man — they’ve shown Freddie the musician — but I think Freddie the man has been completely left out of the movie. Everybody loved the movie. I came out feeling very empty.”
Maybe it’s because she visited him and knew the man more than the musician.
But the man — the shy piano player who thought too often about his teeth — preferred the strength he found on stage.
“I think music fed him,” Cornett said. “It’s who he felt best being.”