Chances are, nobody in school that day late last fall at Long Island, NY's Harborfields High School knew what to expect when that stretch limousine pulled up in front. The girl in that limo obviously didn't know what to expect either. By her own admission, she hadn't been a great student, and there was this assistant principal who had always given her trouble... "I was at a friend's house who lives near the school and I said, "All right, let's go by and check out the school. So I walked in and did what I always used to do," she continues. "Walked in to the left and went right into the girl's bathroom. Still the same."
The old hangout might be the same, but things have changed for Mariah Carey in the four years since she graduated high school.
It's been three years since the girl from Harborfields climbed the charts with that miraculous six-octave voice and a song called "Vision of Love," and rocketed to mega-superstar status, spinning hit after hit off multi-platinum debut album, Mariah Carey. Everybody wanted to know who the girl with the honey-colored curls and gold-tinted skin who "looked white" and "sang black" was.
But she didn't have time to talk. She was busy working on her second album, Emotions, which was released last fall and ended up fighting her first album for chart space. First there were those Grammys she picked up for Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal. Then came the Billboard Awards for Top Pop Album, Top Pop Artist, Top 100 Singles Artist and Top Hot Adult Contemporary Artist all of which made her a certifiable superstar.
And so, Mariah Carey had to cut her visit to the old stomping grounds a little short. "We walked in, and immediately people started going crazy. And the assistant principal, who really didn't like me when I was in school because he thought I was a bit of a troublemaker, was like, 'Oh congratulations, blah, blah, blah.' And I had to leave 'cause a bunch of students were pounding on the car and I thought I was going to have to pay for it if it got messed up. But it really felt good to be able to go back there," she says, her impossibly long legs stretched out on a black sofa, as she takes off her makeup.
In person, Mariah Carey's tall. Very tall (about five feet nine) with a figure most women would kill for, and cocoa-tinted skin so smooth it almost doesn't look real, even after she takes her makeup off.
"I hope you don't mind," she says, "this stuff drives me crazy."
Most stars would sooner die than be seen without makeup, but Mariah, besides being easygoing, funny and articulate, is committed to staying "real." And she's had it tough enough to know the difference between what's real and what isn't.
Mariah, who was reared by her mother, admits her childhood was anything but easy. Not only did her parents divorce when she was three, but by the sixth grade, she had moved 13 times.
Her ethnically-mixed background (her father is Venezuelan and black, her mother is Irish) didn't help either. "It's hard for me emotionally," she explains. "I don't really feel like I have anyone who relates to who I am on a different level. Someone black can't understand it and someone white can't understand it because I don't feel like I'm either one. It's a little bit hard on me when people make such a big issue of it. To say I'm Irish and just white is wrong because my father's black and Venezuelan. I'm all those things and I wish people would accept that instead of 'But what color are you and what do you consider yourself?' It's a very weird situation to be in, especially now because when I first came out no one knew and so I got a lot of comments like 'a white girl trying to sing black.'"
Nowadays, it's more about trying to be real in the face of her incredible success. "I don't let the diva persona control me," she says. "I mean, anybody can have success. It doesn't mean that you're talented. I just live my life day to day and I'm thankful every single day for what I have. I really don't have the time to go out that much and experience how well-known I am."
Or shop, or read, or do much of anything besides make music, and part of the reason for that, she says, is because she drives herself. "Most people put out a debut album, then they have time to sit back and they don't put out another album so soon. But I forced myself to do that, and so I was really hectically recording and writing (she writes all her own lyrics and collaborates on some of the melodies) and the minute it was done, I was out promoting it and doing stuff like that."
But that's okay with her. "There's never been anything else in my life that inspired me at all," Mariah explains. "It's crazy, but I've always loved music, and I've always knows this was what I wanted to do. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a singer. My mom [Patricia] was a professional opera singer, so it wasn't such a pipe dream. It's kind of like going into the family business, but more crazy. I love it. I'm really thankful to be having this success."
She gives her mother a lot of credit for that success. "My mother raised me to think that if you believe in something and you work hard enough toward that goal, you can achieve it. She always said 'Don't say if I make it, say when I make it.' So I've always had that in my mind. I would've never given up, and lucky for me it happened.
"I got my record deal like a year-and-a-half out of high school. It seemed like I condensed so much hard work into that time. I did not goof off. I would wake up in the afternoon, go to work, waitress until one in the morning, work in the studio putting together a demo tape until seven or eight in the morning, come home, get a few hours' sleep, wake up and do it again. I was really determined, and that's a major key factor. You have to be determined and you have to have a certain amount of talent. Some people make it on sheer determination and luck. And I prayed every day."
The first part of the answer to her prayers came when she landed a job singing backup for pop singer Brenda K. Starr, who gave Mariah the "leg up" she needed for superstardom. When Brenda ran into Tommy Mottola, president of Sony Music, at a party, she handed him Mariah's demo tape and told him it was by a friend of hers and that he should listen to it.
In this case, Tommy Mottola, who gets hundreds of demos a month from aspiring singers and musicians, took Brenda's advice and was so impressed that he wasted no time in signing up the Long Island girl with the six-octave range with his record company.
"It was obsession," says Mariah of making a name for herself. She still appears to be obsessed and it's a good thing, since her superstar status leaves little time for much else. She uses what time she has to stay close to her family. "I see my mom all the time she still lives on Long Island. My brother, Morgan, lives in L.A. and I see him when I get out there; he's a personal trainer, and he works with the girls from Wilson Phillips Carnie and Wendy. My sister, Allison, is married and has kids."
She says she rarely see her father. "It's hard when you don't really see someone that much growing up, and their interests are really different from yours, because when you get older, you really don't have that much in common."
She buttons her lip when it comes to her love life, responding "Ugh!" when asked. "I know your life is not your own when you're in this business, but some things I like to keep private." She is rumored to be involved with 42-year-old Tommy Mottola, who guides her career, but she will only talk about her two Persian cats. "The black one is Ninja, the white one is Tompkins. I didn't give them these names, they were my brother's. And I have a Doberman pinscher puppy who I'm right in the middle of paper training what a pain!" she groans.
Even superstars, it seems, have to clean up the floor once in a while.
How do you hit your high notes? Dorian Espinoza, Hudson, MI
"I just do it. I've been working on my range for a long time. It's easier for me to hit those notes than a mid-range note."
What was your most embarrassing moment growing up? Holly Schultz, Girard, PA
"When I was in the seventh grade, I was an ugly duckling. And I shaved my eyebrows because I didn't know you plucked them. And I was starting with makeup and didn't know what to do. And we didn't have much money so I wore the worst clothes. And then I tried to lighten my hair. I didn't know that you didn't peroxide. The package said 'Golden Blond,' so I figured it would be really nice. And I was drying my hair with an orange blow-dryer and to my utter shock, my hair started turning the same color as the blow-dryer. And I went outside and there was this guy that I liked and the minute I walked out, he said, 'What happened to your hair? It's orange!' It was embarrassing, I had to live with it for a year."
Where do you see yourself going? Holly
"I want to make music that I can be proud of, as an artist, as a producer and as a musician. Having hits isn't always the most important thing."
What do you look for in a guy? Jenni Lanier, La Grange, GA
"Someone who's understanding. 'Cause when you do what I do, it's insane. The hours that I put in, what it entails. It's not easy for everyone to deal with being in the public eye. It's not even easy for me to deal with all the time. Someone with an interesting life as well. Because you don't want to be sitting around talking about yourself all the time."
How do you feel about being famous? Tanya Joo, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada
"Well, I can't complain about anything, because when you get into this you realize that your business and your life are not entirely your own. People are going to be taking shots at you and digging into your personal life. I'm fine with that because that's the price I have to pay. The most annoying thing is when people exaggerate a situation. Like, this talk show hosted by a woman I won't say who, an older woman had this guy on who said I wouldn't give someone an autograph who was fixing my TV. I give. I do anything because I feel that if people respect your music and care about you enough to ask, then you should oblige them. I go out of my way to be nice and generous to fans. It bothers me when people make things up just to have a bite of gossip. And who cares? You know? Wow, big earth-shattering news, even if I did do that!"
Where do you get the inspiration to write your music? LaReesa Adams, Middletown, OH
"It comes from different places. I write the music first and the lyrics second, almost always. Melody comes to me really, really quickly sometimes when I don't want it to like when I'm trying to sleep and I have to get up and record a melody so I don't forget it. I keep a tape recorder by my bed for this. If I'm cowriting a song, we'll sit at the piano and I'll say, 'This is a chord progression I'm working on' and we'll work it out. We'll bounce ideas off each other, and I'll take it home and whatever the music makes me feel, that's what I write about."
What is the highest note you can sing? Tara Ewing, Bess, OK
"I don't know. I've never measured it. I'm always experimenting. My mom gets scared, she'll be like, 'You can't be hitting that, that's off the piano!' She goes crazy, because she's a traditionalist."