"I am starving," Mariah Carey says. "Do you want something to eat?" Of all the things she could have said when meeting for the first time, she picked exactly the right one.
I've been sitting in Mariah's town house, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, waiting for her for about a half-hour. Not that I mind; a half-hour late is punctual, if you're on Diva Time. Meanwhile, I've been checking out the place, which is owned by a family that has decorated it in typical old New York town-house style: red toile wallpaper, Ming dynasty accents, dark wood furniture. Mariah rents the lower three floors, and by the time you read this, she'll probably have moved because she needs more space hell, the whole lower floor is just a giant walk-in closet. So the decor in the living room, dining room and kitchen areas is kind of transitional: The only hints of Mariah are lots of pictures of herself with her family and her pets, an occasional silver jar or box (monogrammed "MC"), and butterflies. Framed butterfly art, butterfly plates, four crystal butterflies.
In Mariah Carey's world, the butterfly is a not-too-complex metaphor for her life. She became an instant star with the release of her first single, "Vision of Love," in 1990. Her vocal range was nearly as unbelievable as her success story: A one mighty-lean year of struggling, Mariah met extremely important Sony guy Tommy Mottola at a party. She slipped him her demo tape; he popped it in the tape deck in his limousine, then high-tailed it back to the party to find her. The kicker, as you may remember: Three years, a few No. 1 singles and many millions of albums later, Mariah married Tommy, who was a little older than her. Okay, 20-ish years older.
This will be the third time in 24 hours that Mariah has eaten chicken tacos. "I had them for breakfast at 3 in the morning," she says. "Then I woke up at my standard 2 in the afternoon, and I wanted them again. And tonight, for dinner." There's something endearing about a woman who eats chicken tacos for breakfast. (Because she somehow intuited that I am a vegetarian, Mariah has considerately asked one of her helpers to make me some rigatoni. Now that's good home training.)
Mariah, 29 (God, is that all?), is dressed in Casual Superstar Mode: black stiletto boots, dark-rinse jeans, a black sweater and tube top, a perfect I Dream of Jeannie topknot and perfectly subtle makeup. Oh, but she has her normal side. She's got a great Long Island, N.Y. accent, and as she sits at the kitchen table, she puts forth a relaxing vibe. She's kind of like an insta-girlfriend.
Jumping at Mariah's elbow, also hoping for some taco action, is Jack, a long-legged Jack Russell terrier who's made cameo appearances in several of Mariah's videos. "How can you not love this guy?" she demands in her smoky voice. "I'm a total animal fanatic. When I was growing up, we always had animals." Mariah grew up with her mom (her parents divorced when she was 3), almost an only child because her older brother and sister had moved out by the time she was in third grade. Patricia Carey, an opera singer, taught her daughter to sing fairly early on and, at the same time, tried not to push too hard.
Do you have a favorite story your mother told you about your family or about yourself as a child?
Mariah: Well, my family history is a little more turbulent than most people's, and the stories are - nobody would believe it if it were in a Movie of the Week. Kind of, I try not to tell 'em, because I think it might look like I was trying to garner sympathy for myself. What's an acceptable story?
Well, like, your parents will tell you that you have a certain relative's eyes or something like that.
I didn't have any relative's eyes. I'm sort of a mutt. My mom's Irish, and my father's mother is African-American, and my father's father is Venezuelan. Everybody gets that wrong; they always say he's "black Venezuelan" because I once said I was black, Venezuelan and Irish. Black Venezuelan wouldn't be accurate, because my grandfather was light Venezuelan. And my grandmother was a beautiful, statuesque African-American. People also write that my mother's from Ireland. My mother's Irish-American, yeah, but from Illinois. What a combo, right?
Listen, they produced a nice-looking bunch of kids.
Well never mind. I don't think a lot of people would be able to understand it. When I was with my father, people would look at us like, "Whose child is that?" And my mother is very fair, so I obviously look more ethnic. Although it wasn't as extreme as when I was with my father, because it's different when people look at a black person and they see them with someone that you don't know what they are. They have a disdainful thing going on. I remember detecting that in people, and it kind of shaped my self-image. It made me feel like what I was wasn't okay.
Even when I visited cousins who lived in Queens, people would say to them, "That's not your cousin!" because I wasn't exactly the same color as them. And I didn't see my mother's family very much growing up, because she was from a very traditional Irish-Catholic family who looked down on anything that wasn't the same as them.
So I think my issues are much more internal. People look at me and they don't see one specific thing, so they'll say things in front of me; you hear people's prejudices. That's why I'm fascinated when I meet other people who are mixed. Not everybody can relate to it, but it does have a lot to do with who I am.
Right about now, a big gorgeous bowl of rigatoni with parsley and olive oil is set on the table. "We might have to swing some of that this way," says Mariah.
Put two women at a table with some pasta and wine, and the conversation naturally turns to men.
"It's the worst when a guy who smokes cigars tries to kiss you," Mariah says. "I went to a charity event last night with all these older, distinguished actors. Afterward, I wanted to go downtown, but they wanted to go to this stuffy cigar bar. I was like, 'Ugh, how could you?'"
An interesting thing about talking to Mariah (or "MC," as everyone around her tends to call her, and which I can't bring myself to do) is that she's smart/coy enough to bury the details from one story in an unrelated, not as hot, story. So she'll tell you stuff just don't ask her to name names. For example, her marriage, pre- or post-bust, is "my former situation." A situation that, specifically, came to a close in 1997. Mariah will only allude to what went awry in her marriage; she insists that her video for "Honey," where she's held captive in a mansion by a bearded man and eventually escapes (via Jet Ski, no less!), isn't autobiographical. Here, in case you haven't seen in coming, is the butterfly metaphor in action: Mariah is finding out that there's life after divorce. An occasionally confusing life.
"Sometimes guys feel threatened by me," she says, "and I don't understand it. When you look at someone who's big in the world, you assume they're okay. I would be happy when people would ask them for their autograph. But when someone came up to me, like, the whole table would tense up. [Okay, my guess Derek Jeter, a shortstop for the New York Yankees, whom Mariah dated briefly post-husband.] It was enlightening to see how other people's emotional issues come into play. A lot of those issues might be feelings of inadequacy; I'm very insecure, so I don't know why I don't assume other people are."
Excuse me. You don't strike me as an insecure person at all.
Uh not at all. You seem like you know who you are, but people occasionally disappoint you.
True, but within that there's the undercurrent of insecurity which drives me to be a workaholic. It all stems from childhood and the whole race issue, but it's also that I'm not very experienced with men, because of my situation. I got into an intense relationship so young without any prior experience. Most people, by the time they're 19, have had, like, three boyfriends. I had boyfriends that were serious, but it wasn't you know, they were sexual on some level, but it wasn't like I was having sex with the guy. It was my own little "hold back" mechanism, because of things I witnessed growing up and not wanting to be pregnant at a young age. It was very ingrained in me from childhood, because I saw that kind of thing as a 6-year-old. I knew things that other kids didn't know, on a lot of levels. The whole racially mixed level, the forward, artsy family thing, whatever other kind of dysfunctional stuff was going on [possible translation: Mariah's sister Alison has, unfortunately, had trouble with drugs, among other things. Or Mariah may be referring to other family stuff that she doesn't want to go into, and that is none of my business].
So I was in this relationship at a very early age, which was kind of inappropriate, because I was focused on my career and I wasn't doing the normal things that my friends were doing. I was having dinners with people in their 50s and having to present myself in a way that wasn't necessarily who I am. I mean, part of it isn't and part of it is. My mother used to say when I was a kid that I was 6 going on 46, 'cause I was always the little adult. That's cool, but a certain point you have to be the young adult.
At this point, Mariah excuses herself to go to the ladies', shall we say, lounge. In keeping with her complete lack of pretense, she starts unzipping before she gets to the bathroom door and keeps talking once she's in there. A moment later, she returns.
Here's a really personal question about your personal situation: What did you do with your wedding and engagement rings?
[The face falls] I have tucked away somewhere.
Did you try to give them back?
It's different if you get married and it's years of your life that you went through a lot of stuff. I was never a person who grew up thinking [brightly], "I'm gonna get married one day!" I contributed half of everything to the house, to the bills, to everything I was not a kept woman. I bought him a lot of gifts that were extravagant. We both did that. It's like if someone buys you two cars or something as gifts, and you're not there, so they sell them. I don't think that's the proper etiquette. It was a moment in time and... and it's over. I don't dwell on it. My sanity is more important. My independence, which contributes to the sanity.
She puts her head in her hands suddenly. Is the conversation painful? Actually, no. "My hairdo is really tight on my scalp, so I'm trying to loosen it," she says, pressing down on her Jeannie. "It's pretty, but it's killin' me."
"The other day, I was really stressed out, and I was having heart palpitations. I know it was just that I was exhausted and had too much going on. So I had an EKG and all this stuff, and it was fine. My doctor was like, 'You never sleep; you never relax.'" As Mariah says this, we're being hustled from her town house to her limousine to go to the airport for her evening flight to Los Angeles, which comes after the interview which was preceded by two business meetings and God knows what else. And she wonders why she feels stressed?
"I'm just gonna lie down, if you don't mind," she says, stretching out on the seat opposite me. She pulls a down pillow and comforter from a storage area, off go the stiletto boots, and Mariah curls up. "My travel time is usually my reclining time. These seats can be moved together to make a bed." How very Elvis Presley. "Isn't it? If I don't rest when I can, I never will. I have really bad insomnia."
We're in the limo/La-Z-Boy to the next phase of MC World Domination: movies. "I just did this cute part in a Chris O'Donnell moved called The Bachelor. I sort of wanted to surprise people with that. Some people might not really notice me [you think so, huh?] 'cause it's a small scene where I'm this dramatic but funny, intentionally over-the-top opera singer. My goal was to do a bunch of little things prior to this project that's being written for me."
This would be the project formerly known as All That Glitters, for which Mariah came up with the original concept: A singer is discovered by a DJ, they fall in love, she hits it big, and his ego explodes. "But the concept has changed because this has been in the works for two years," Mariah points out. "And now I'm going to L.A. to meet with a director about something else. I've been craving and dying to do movies for so long, but my personal situation [translation: guess] didn't allow it."
For an admitted insomniac, Mariah is starting to look pretty darn sleepy, so I think I'd better get a few questions out of the way.
Everybody calls you a diva. What's the most diva-esque thing you've ever done?
A lot of the nature of my life is diva-esque. I travel with a lot of shoes. That's a lot to do with... I've been in a hotel room and had people who are I'm tired, so I'm saying the wrong thing people who are unaware of what my life is like. If I'm on tour, I have almost my whole wardrobe with me, and it's part of work. But it's not like I change shoes, like, five times a day.... I’m saying like too many times.
What do you like best about yourself?
I don't know... it's hard to say. I guess that I have an adventurous spirit. But I don't have one trait that I'm, like, "Whoa, that's the best thing about me." I have a lot of issues with myself. I'm not in therapy, even though I probably should be. I mean. I try to be very thankful for things that I have. But sometimes I don't feel I've been thankful enough, so I feel guilty.
Buying a house for your mother is a way of being thankful, because you're giving something back.
Right... oh, I'm sorry. I didn't think I was tired, but I guess I really didn't sleep that much. It's just that you have such a soothing voice... I don't want you to think ill of me because I'm nodding off like this...
That's right. But, um, since we're at the airport, I think I'm just going to go outside while you nap.
[Sleepily] Oh... but you can stay, it's all right....
The idea of sitting in the back of Mariah Carey's limousine and watching her sleep strikes me as rather stalker-esque, so I leave after she gives me a goodbye peck on the cheek. Interviewing celebrities is fun, but I think I've stumbled on a new talent: I have the ability to put celebrity diva insomniacs to sleep.