ATLANTIC CITY - An outing featuring a strong, soulful diva means one thing - date night.

Or so said many of the hundreds of couples who thronged into the Borgata on Friday, dressed to dance rather than just to impress. Ladies agreed: Decent boyfriends - or husbands - were the ones who had bought them tickets to Mary J. Blige.

"Mary J. - she's a total woman," proclaimed Fatima Hart, beaming at husband Doug as they settled in for a night of Blige's hard-hitting-yet-soulful brand of female empowerment.

"She just sings about what women have been through, are going through," she added with a knowing nod, hand on hip.

Hands in the air, minutes later, she and Doug cheered along as Blige sang to the ladies present, "How can I love someone else, if I don't love myself enough to know?"

In that song, "Be Happy," and countless others on her eight albums, Blige, 38, preaches acceptance - of one another and, most of all, of everyone's own imperfections.

So, waiting for her to step out on stage, her female fans maybe got whipped up about her Aretha-strong voice, her extraordinary beauty and her chameleonlike commitment to adjusting her style. But mostly, they said, they just wanted to stand next to her, and maybe see themselves reflected in her raw-yet-honest lyrics.

"I just wish I could get up on stage with her," giggled Barbara Hussey, 29, an Atlantic City local. She and her best friend, Catherine Dejesus from New York, had the next best thing - a posed photograph of themselves next to an airbrushed, graffiti portrait of Blige in profile.

"People say she can be too down on everyone, that she's 'drama, drama,'" Hussey said, "but she speaks the truth."

If her fans wanted to see the real Blige, the soulstress' Borgata show gave a glimpse at the supporting players and writers who help to create the image of the perfect, towering diva. Among them was The-Dream, otherwise known as Terius Nash, the up-and-coming songwriter from Atlanta who warmed up the crowd. Having previously penned Rihanna's "Umbrella," Nash's career got a boost when he helped write a track for Blige's latest album, 2007's "Growing Pains."

But when Blige herself took the stage - pausing, in pink sunglasses, for a dramatic ovation - she also made every dark lyric upbeat. She may preach against "hateration" in "Family Affair," or reference "the rain against my window pane," on "I'm Going Down," but, bouncing and loping across the stage, she drew even the last holdouts into the aisles for a dance.

And Blige made the most of her ode to sanity, "No More Drama," when she let her voice soar over the piano-only accompaniment, drowned out only by the crowd joining in.

"Ladies… We'll pull one another through," she yelled.

That's the kind of message every girl can get behind - even certain privileged ones with unchipped manicures. Bethenny Frankel, one of the Bravo network's "Real Housewives of New York," sidled into a row near the front just before Blige took the stage.

"She's the queen," Bethenny purred in Mary J.'s direction.

Finally, something women - real women and Real Housewives alike - could agree on.

E-mail Juliet Fletcher: