"People ask me, "Isn't this really the vindication of Mariah Carey?" Not really. My whole life has been about obstacles."
"Let's drink from festive glasses," announces Mariah Carey, a bejeweled champagne flute in each hand as she tiptoes barefoot into "the Moroccan Lounge" - a sitting room on the top floor of her three-story New York apartment that is decorated like a Marrakesh hash parlor, minus the hash. She sets the flutes down on a table alongside the less festive glasses from which we'd already been drinking and then reassumes her position curled up in the corner of the couch. Her personal assistant brings in a tray that carries a large bottle of water for Mariah and a can of Diet Coke for me, and she hands each of us a small linen napkin. It's past midnight, and Mariah doesn't usually allow herself caffeine at this hour, because she's an insomniac and has a very low tolerance for "things that make you speedy." Still, she asks if I mind sharing a splash of my Diet Coke, reasoning that she's in an "awake moment" anyway.
Among her assorted Mariah-isms, the concept of "moments" looms large. In the course of the evening, she refers to precisely forty-nine different kinds: analytical moments, schmaltz moments, fairy-tale moments, complete-truth moments, celebratory moments, Biblical moments and, yes, diva moments. In 2001, following an embarrassing "TRL moment," Mariah says she had her share of "bleak moments" and even a couple of "woe-is-me moments." Her favorite canary-colored bathing suit from when she was nine, she says, was a "clingy-to-the-body moment." As is her current ensemble: painted-on jeans and itty-bitty white tank top with the number seventeen ironed on the front in bold black digits. Seventeen, no doubt, as in how many Number One singles Mariah has amassed in the past decade and a half. In December, when "Don't Forget About Us," the latest cut from her five-times-platinum The Emancipation of Mimi, reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Mariah tied Elvis Presley's record for Number Ones; four more top singles and she'll outpace the Beatles.
The thirty-five-year-old singer has had a momentous year and one that is all the sweeter because it came on the heels of a momentary - though devastating - slump. Released last spring, The Emancipation of Mimi, surpassed the low expectations with which it was greeted to become the best-selling album of 2005. Mariah says that Mimi, her tenth studio album, is a product of her newfound creative freedom. "In the past, I knew people wanted certain formulaic things from me," she says. "By 'people,' I mean executives."
But Mimi incorporates Mariah's cherished hip-hop influences in greater proportion than ever. She brought the Neptunes and her old friend Snoop Dogg in for Say Somethin'," traded verses with Twista on "So Lonely," duetted with long-time producer Jermaine Dupri on "Get Your Number" and teamed with Nelly on "To The Floor." Though there are still the belt-it-out ballads, they're R&B slow jams with a bangin' bottom end that often rivals Mariah's own bangin' bottom end. "The funny thing is, I"ve always known that what I really loved would be commercially successful," she says. Her instincts proved correct: The record has already spawned three hits - "Don't Forget About Us," "Shake It Off" and "We Belong Together" - and has earned her eight Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year. When we met just a few weeks before the awards, it was clear that - no matter how many Grammys she would or would not collect - Mariah had safely reassumed her pop-diva throne.
"People ask me, 'Isn't this really the vindication of Mariah Carey?' she says. "Not really. My whole life has been a series of overcoming obstacles. Since I've always had to struggle, I've always expected that I will have to struggle."
"She's on the third chapter of her career," says Island Def Jam chairman Antonio 'LA" Reid. "The first chapter had major successes. The second chapter had some major disappointments. Now, she's at the point where she has the wherewithal to stay in the game for as long as it takes, to withstand the ups and downs. It's like Muhammad Ali or Frank Sinatra. And I think her fans have a real love for her because she has had those ups and downs and she's still here.
Mariah arrived characteristically late for dinner at a Brazilian restaurant around the corner from her apartment, but she is also characteristically apologetic about it. Affecting exaggerated fabulosity, she purrs, " Sorry darling. The pedicurist fell on her orange stick. Stitches were required." And then, without missing a beat: "What are we drinking? Wine? Vodka has fewer calories. All right, you twisted my arm. I'll have a glass of wine."
Tonight is the singer's last night of indulgence before her personal trainer Patricia comes back on duty to whip her into shape for the Grammys. She's especially concerned about looking her best because of the jabs she took about the low-cut black number she wore a week earlier at the Golden Globes, custom-designed for her by Karl Lagerfeld. "The winner for the too-tight dress... goes to Mariah Carey," wrote one critic. "She takes the cake, and eats it too." Said another, "Carey, according to my seven-year-old, "blew up like a truck tire." "Satin is a very unforgiving fabric," Mariah notes. "And what was I gonna do? Call frickin' Karl Lagerfeld and say, 'Can you please make it out of matte jersey instead?' " Of course, Mariah is used to having her outfits panned: She made Mr. Blackwell's worst-dressed list last year ("The world applauds your musical emancipation... but please - leave that body to our imagination") and she often - let's face it - wears clothes tighter, tinier and generally more hooched-out than most thirty-five-old women. Still, though not a Zellwegerian stick figure by any stretch of the matte jersey, the five-foot-eight Mariah is considerably leaner than you might expect: not so much full-figured as sturdy. She says she has always tended to be muscular and notes that, in seventh grade, she beat every boy in her class at arm wrestling.
"I can't try to compete with people that weigh eighty pounds soaking wet when, look, I'm ethnic," she says. "I've got a butt, and I want to keep it because I like it. That's what it goes! I'm gonna pull it together and be as thin as I can be for the Grammys, but there's only a certain amount of weight that I wanna lose. The weight-obsessed workout monger is not my role model as a singer. They might be pop stars and icons, but they're not necessarily what I like to call a saaaanger. They ain't saaangin'."
Mariah's big voice may be her greatest source of pride - it is, in her words, her "instrument" - but she is equally keen to be known as one of the few pop stars who has had a hand in the writing and/or production of nearly every song she's ever recorded. "Even from the beginning, I said, "'If you want to put me with people to write with and collaborate, that's fine, but don't try to force me to record someone else's song.' I'm not saying I'm friggin' William Shakespeare. But even writing a melody, it's a release. And I really have a need to express myself."
Of course, there was a time when expressing herself was an uphill battle for Mariah. "They laughed at me at the label when I played them my 'Fantasy' remix with Ol' Dirty Bastard," she says. "They - one person - was like, 'What the hell is this? I could do that." But you can't explain to someone who didn't grow up on hip-hop and who's wanting to listen to the Good-Fellas soundtrack exclusively that this is hot and it will be a classic."
It's not Mariah's style to name names, whether she's dishing about a certain female artist who got skinny with the help of illegal pharmaceuticals or whether she's referring less than obliquely to her ex-husband, former Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola. It was Mottola who discovered Mariah and signed her to Columbia Records after a friend of Mariah's passed him a demo tape at a party in 1988. Mottola and Mariah became romantically involved shortly thereafter, and - once he had divorced his wife - the pair married in 1993. But, as is well-known by now, Mariah was miserable in the relationship, which she calls "abusive" and one that "purposely preyed on every insecurity I have." The couple divorced five years later, when Mariah still had a couple of albums remaining in her contract with Sony.
"It was real struggle being there while still having a certain person in power and being divorced from him," she says. "Things get a little awkward when you're dealing with someone who's obsessed, and angry, and powerful. Leaving him was one of the toughest things I've ever done. It's very easy to manipulate someone when you're twenty-plus years older than them. Whatever. I'm not placing blame. Nobody held a gun to my head." She pauses and smiles. "At least I don't think anybody held a gun to my head."
When Patricia Carey gave birth to a seven-pound baby girl at 7:27 A.M. on March 27th, 1970, the nurse turned to her and said, "That's gonna be one lucky baby." Patricia, an opera singer, even gave her daughter a moniker that she knew would work as a stage name: Mariah Carey. From the time Mariah was old enough to remember, Patricia told her, "You’re gonna be a star."
"My mother was never like, 'Get out there and sing,' " Mariah says. "But her attitude was very much 'Don't say if I make it, say when I make it.' I don't know if that was pressure, but whatever it was, it sold me. I believed it and also had a need to make music, and I had a need to elevate myself from where I was, and I knew I didn't want to grow up and be in that - dare I say? tax bracket. I was like, 'I wanna grow up and have this glamorous life.' "
Her father, Alfred Roy Carey, was the pragmatic one. "He was always saying, 'I think you should do your math homework,' " she says. "He was an aeronautical engineer, whereas I'm not a left-brain queen at all. He had been in the military, and he was very rigid and strict."
Mariah's parents met in the late Fifties in New York, Patricia, a bohemian Irish girl from Springfield, Illinois, had come to Manhattan, according to Mariah, in hopes of meeting Broadway star Yul Brynner. Alfred, who was part Venezuelan and part African-American, was living in Brooklyn, where he was "the lone black man driving around in a Porsche with his shaven head." says Mariah. "He was the hot tamale of the moment, and I guess he kind of resembled Yul Brynner. My mom saw him and said, 'There he is!' And her friend was like, 'That ain't nobody but Roy Carey,' My mom said, "Well, I want to meet him."
After they married, the Careys moved to the North Shore of Long Island to raise their three children: Mariah, her brother, Morgan, and her sister, Alison, both of whom are close to a decade older than her. The community did not respond well to the interracial family, and they endured not only sneers and nasty comments but also having their car set on fire and their pets poisoned. By the time Mariah was three, her parents had split up. In the ensuing years, Patricia and the children moved at least thirteen times, and getting settled in at a new school was always a challenge for Mariah, who says she never quite fit in with either the white kids or the black kids. Additionally, Alison reportedly was involved with drugs and prostitution, and at fifteen she had given birth to a son, Shawn, with whom Mariah is still extremely close.
Though Mariah says she is legally constrained from providing specifics (she and her sister are rumored to have signed a non-disclosure agreement preventing each from talking about the other), she makes it clear that her home life was fraught with peril and that she was often in very scary situations. Her mother spent a lot of time away from home, working two or three jobs to keep the family afloat, and Mariah often had to fend for herself. "I was six years old," she remembers, "and something happened in my house where I had to call some friends of my mother's to come and get things together. There was no adult, there was no teenager, the person left in charge had run out of the house, and I was there alone. My mom's friends came over, and you know people tend to talk over children and think that their kids don't hear? Well, I was very sensitive then, and I still am. I had very good hearing then, and I still do. I heard these words, and I'll never forget it. They said, 'If this kid makes it, it'll be a miracle.' It was a defining moment for me. Because, you know what? I believe in miracles. I think I must have been having spiritual arnica injections to get through all the mess I've been through and not be a completely bitter, angry human being."
Another frequent Mariah-ism: She's always saying how she's "eternally twelve." Which could explain why she sometimes dresses like a preteen who happened upon a Frederick's of Hollywood catalog. There is even something vaguely adolescent about her diva-ish-ness: When she requests that the waiter not place her meat on the same plate as her hearts of palm, it's almost like something she imagines a pretty, pretty princess would have done. With the exception of the dark and masculine Moroccan Lounge - inspired by a trip Mariah took to Morocco with her ex-boyfriend, Latin singer Luis Miguel - her apartment, too, looks like it was decorated by a teenager run amok at Laura Ashley, with flowery prints and crystal sconces. Her Jack Russell terrier, Jack, even has his own miniature velvet sofa to sleep on. She loves Hello Kitty just as much t thirty-five as she did at twelve. Only difference is, now she's got one of four bathrooms in her luxe home decked out with an overwhelming array of Hello Kitty merchandise. (There's also the Marilyn Monroe bathroom, the butterfly room and her own personal bathroom, where she soaks in a giant tub as part of her pre-bedtime "wind-down" routine.) Occasionally, on her rare nights off, she'll hit the clubs with Shawn or Dupri or DJ Clue or her girlfriends Rachel and Jasmine. But since the smoke bothers her, she's more likely to invite friends over to watch her favorite DVDs - Mean Girls, Zoolander, 13 Going On 30 - in her mermaid-theme living room.
"I love sleigh rides and Christmas and the Tower of Terror at Disney and silly movies, she says. Twelve is significant for another reason. "I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that I'm not sixteen," she continues, lowering her voice the way she tends to do whenever the subject of sex comes up. "Because sixteen-year-olds are sexually active and promiscuous. I guess because I have a family member who had a baby at fifteen, like, I definitely see myself as younger than that. In my mind, I thought fifteen was old. When I was that age, most of my friends were having sex. But even if I had boyfriends, it was like, 'I'm going on to bigger and better things, and I'm not going to potentially screw my life up.' At twelve, I was also like a grown-up too, because I've been a caretaker since a very early age."
Taking care of others, Mariah's friends will tell you, ranks first in her mind ahead of taking care of herself. And that, ultimately, is what she says led to her infamous breakdown in 2001. The story is notorious: As part of a torrent of promotion for her movie Glitter, and the album of the same name, Mariah made an impromptu appearance on MTV's Total Request Live, where her behavior seemed erratic and she performed some kind of ill-conceived striptease. She insists the reaction was, and continues to be, overblown. "I had three freakin' layers of clothes on!" she says.
Shortly thereafter, she posted two recorded messages on her Web site that seemed to point at some kind of emotional collapse. "I just can't trust anybody anymore right now because I don't understand what's going on," Mariah said, according to transcripts that have since been purged from that site. "Because I'm desperately trying to get out of this room. And I don't know if that makes sense to anybody, but the truth is that I'm calling to say that I love you to my fans... and I'm gonna be taking some time off." On August 1st, Mariah's publicist at the time confirmed media inquiries that the singer had checked herself into a psychiatric facility and attributed the hospitalization to an "emotional and physical breakdown."
Mariah refutes the idea that she was ever that bad off: "Honestly, even my therapist - who's a genius and knows when he's talking about - was like, 'You did not have a breakdown. You had a diva moment of exhaustion and a physical moment when your body couldn't take it and it got you pissed off.' "
The Glitter soundtrack was Mariah's first album for Virgin Records, the company she joined after she finally extricated herself from Columbia. It was also her last. Following the momentous failure of Glitter, the label paid Mariah $28 million just to get rid of her.
A few years ago, before her father succumbed to cancer, Mariah says she tried to explain to him just how difficult that time had been for her. "I was blessed to be able to have moments with him prior to him getting sick where I got a better understanding of him as a person and didn't feel like, 'Oh, he abandoned me.' I realized we have a lot more in common than I knew. We were having this telephone conversation and I was like, 'I feel like I've gone through the worst thing I could've ever gone through, with the exception of dying.' And I said, 'So I'm not scared of dying.' I don't think he really knew how bad it was for me then, because he's not the kind of guy to read the tabloids. I only wish he had lived to see this, because I think this would have given him another kind of faith. And this business requires faith. I don't care what anyone says."
Though we have our festive glasses in hand, Mariah disappears and her chin starts to quiver. "I have so much gratitude about where I'm at personally and professionally that I don't think I've even expressed it to anybody fully, because it's teardrop moment," she says shakily. "It's not even a teardrop moment, it's a well-of-tears moment. You think I don't get down on my knees and thank God for every single thing I have? I could have been somewhere in a gutter the way my life was going, at twelve. I could have been dead; I could have had a disease. I was in some very dangerous situations, and it's only by the grace of God that I survived. People can say whatever they want, but ultimately I'm the same person I was before I became famous. I'm still the girl in the pictures on the wall downstairs in the yellow bikini. I wasn't anybody in the world back then. I was a little interracial child with a dysfunctional family, and I still am. Except I have money now," She lets out a low, husky giggle. "And that helps."