Forget Mariah's long, elegant limbs, the honey-blond hair or the Louis Vuitton bag that would keep me in clothes until the next eclipse. Today the centre of attention are Mariah's long and obviously fake nails. "Are you looking at my Rachel nails? They are so bad." I agree. Tacky is not a Mariah Carey quality, so the nails seem like alien beings attached to her tanned hands. Even the signing of autographs for two pint-sized fans in the discreet corner of the SoHo Italian restaurant looks decidedly awkward. My manicure catches Mariah's eyes and I end up giving my freshly painted digits a twirl. "See, those are good. That's the length of my real nails. But freakin' Rachel, she's got nails like this and she tawks like this. Whadaya dooin'?"
The jarring quality to 'Rachel speech' is a little too deep-Bronx for me, a little too Rosie Perez, but hey! what do I know? "I wasn't allowed to be her all day, so now I'm trying to get back into character. Whadeva. Me, I apologise for myself all the time. Rachel's like, 'yeah you gotta problem, awright, whadeva.'It's good for me to be able to act like that." This much we know is true. Mariah has had years when revealing too much was off the agenda. Her marriage to and divorce from Sony mogul Tommy Mottola left more of a mark than she cares to publicly admit and being in character giver her license to express herself in a way that was foreign to her a few years ago.
"With Wisegirls, being this character is so freeing in a way. It's teaching me so much about me. It's teaching me that it's okay to be like, 'no'. I never knew that that was okay. That's why I allowed myself to stay in that bad situation for such a long time." No prizes for guessing what she means by 'bad situation'. But professionally her marriage was a very productive time. Her albums Music Box (93) and Daydream (95) went multiplatinum and helped to catapult her to the status of living legend and aided her ascent to the very top of the music game.
During our conversation Mariah often says, "I hate to keep being redundant..." Whenever she talks about something, it must be for the thousandth time and, while aware that her fairy tale-turned-soap opera life will continue to entice members of the public, the weariness in her eyes is poorly disguised. Imagine being asked to continually dish the dirt on your former spouse and evoke painful memories for the sole purpose of adding grist to the rumour mill. Mariah sighs. "Nothing surprises me. I come from a place of love but utter dysfunction. hen you sorta have that, you don't expect anything from anybody. The need to feed on the negative is not something that I don't understand, but it says something about our society. I don't have that 'I hate the press' thing. I understand that we all have our jobs to do and not everything can be a fluff piece, and I think that...no, I know that that kind of stuff sells papers. I know that I'm a real person. I know that I haven't slept with every Tom or Dick, and I know who I am. I know the things I wouldn't do and the things I would do, therefore it really doesn't matter to me what people say."
She says this, but you can tell that she does care. "I don't expect you to know me from a 15-minute meeting. I say that I don't trust anybody, but in my heart I wanna trust people and so that's what hurts me sometimes, when I reach out and I end up getting twisted over. But then again, I can't blame people if they meet me and I'm in a mood or something."
Moody Mariah was absent on the day of our interview. In her place sat perky, attentive and courteous Mariah, the Mariah who walked over apologising for running an hour late for our chat and held the dictaphone so the drone of the other diners would be less audible. That sweetness must be underpinned by steel to keep her longevity in an industry littered with has-beens, but being burnt by the press on more than a few occasions has not stopped her from being forthcoming with information she must feel better buried.
Since the release of her eponymous debut album, Mariah's life has been lived out in the public eye. In the early days, when she roomed on a friend's floor in New York City, she could not grasp why celebs would often grumble about 'lack of privacy' and 'being harassed'. "I remember sitting at homoe and looking at famous people and thinking...'And your problem is...what? Be happy, you're on TV'."
The reality of being on the reverse of that situation was a little less one-sided. "My issue is why should I not be allowed to have feelings? I don't even eat sometimes because it's like 'we gotta go, we gotta go'." The 'ahh, poor thing' is not what Mariah Carey is looking for. "I'm so grateful to be here that there is no need, absolutely no need for me to be angst-ridden." This business has reinforced the old adage 'you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can't please all the people all the time' or is it'... can't fool all the people all the time?' "I've learnt recently I'm not gonna be everybody's best friend, not everybody's gonna like me no matter what I do. I may love it and you may love it, but it doesn't mean we can get that guy sitting over there to love it. He just doesn't like it. Period. I live life as I wanna live it. Be the best person I can be."
'Rachel speech' resurfaces for a moment as Mariah stops to reply to a text on her Motorola Two-Way pager, the de rigeur accessory of New York's rich, famous and infamous. "It's really hard with these nails! The freakin' girl is a Staten Island girl tawking like this. I can't handle it. All of a sudden I'm Mariah Carey and then I'm Rachel again and I can't take it!" There are 135 messages in her in-box. "How crazy is that?" she asks. Like I would know.
The difference between Mariah circa 1993 and 'new' Mariah could not be more pronounced. These days Mariah collaborators include ODB, Nas and Bone Thugs n Harmony. A few years ago that would have been front-page gossip, but now fans young and old barely bat an eyelid to Mariah's open relationship with hip-hop. These days the tresses are more Britney than some of her fans would like and the hot pants come as standards. Mariah takes the criticism on the chin. "The first half of my career they made me wear a turtle neck and friggin' boots and pants over my ankles. You don't think I'm gonna throw on some hot shorts when I get a chance?" Hell, yes I am and I don't care. Id that's what's going to make me happy whadeva." Was that Rachel or Mariah talking? Hard to say, really.
By way of a defense, Mariah admits that her 'new-found' obsession with how she looks is not that new. "My stuff comes outta insecurity. Most people I know who are told they're beautiful their whole lives are not even into the glamorous side of things." You get the feeling that, even though she's wearing a sleeveless blue top, jeans and minimal make-up, she would feel naked leaving the house in jogging bottoms and trainers. "It's like playing dress-up for me, but when it comes to men, and I hate being redundant, I really have slept with fewer men than people think. I can count them on one hand and I'm proud of that because what do I need to go there for, especially in today's world."
The unspoken accusation that she went from virgin to vamp does not rest well with Mariah. "See, I prance around in these little ensembles, but the truth is I'm very Mary Poppins when it comes down to it. I kinda have a six-year-old's perspective on it like I'm playing dress-up and 'Oh, isn't this fun?' then it's like, 'Oops.' I guess people think something's gonna happen from this, but they're wrong. Honestly."
Her experiences of being around men who would not hesitate to exploit the situation have taught Mariah the benefits of the element of surprise.
Be warned, Try something that you think lil' Miss Prim-and-Proper might not be able to ward off and Mariah promises a "freakin' elbow to the head. Although I'm very nice, I will not hesitate to smack somebody upside their head. Believe me. That's the problem we have here; the duality of me again."
Mariah's duality is something that is always in evidence. Born to an Irish-American mother and an African-American/Venezuelan father, the struggle to gain full acceptance by either racial group is something that has always cost a shadow over her personal growth. Married in the early 1960s, her parents Alfred and Patricia divorced when she was only three, but America's unease with result of interracial love spilled over to Mariah's daily life. The periods of car explosions and poisoned dogs was not one that she experienced first-hand, but the stares and the snide remarks persisted.
"I remember being with my father and people looking at him like, 'did you kidnap this kid or something?' And being with my mother and people looking at us and thinking, 'why does she look darker? Why does she look more ethnic?' I remember little things like being in in kindergarten and drawing a picture of my family and making my father brown and the two teachers behind me laughing and thinking I didn't know what I was doing."
For young Mariah this meant that "I was not okay. If my mother's family disowned her and there's this little bit of uneasiness from all sides, what does that make me? It was an inner struggle more than anything." On Oprah last year Mariah spoke of the slow process of loving herself and accepting her mixed heritage. In 2000 (when the programme was filmed) she came face to face with young girls who were still struggling to come to terms with their racial make-up. "What really was heartbreaking for me was a little girl named Hailey. She looks less ethnic than I do, and she has this identity crisis and she's seven years old. She wrote a poem called 'Am I Invisible?' It went a little like, 'My shirt is blue/my pants are red (or whatever), do you see me? Am I invisible to you?"
What was poignant about this moment for Mariah was the fact that so little had changed since she waged these same battles during the 1970s and 80s. "Why do we need these labels so desperately? My answer is fear. If you don't know how to categorise somebody, you're afraid, it scares you. How do you place yourself? It's taken me a long time to come to terms with this and to understand it."
For Mariah, the issue of whether motherhood is an option for her is still under advisement. The question of a suitable husband/father figure remains central, but her racial heritage continues to play a significant part in the decision-making. "The truth is, I don't know if I'm meant to have kids. I wouldn't do it unless it was with the right person. I used to think, 'Let me be with another person who's mixed just like me and then we'll both have the same type of reality and won't that be great 'cos then I'll be a whole person.'" That idealised scenario began to look less appealing as Mariah realised that that equation lacked something. "Guess what, if they don't understand you on an emotional level or on any level, it's not gonna work. I would feel very selfish bringing a child into this world without a proper union. I don't need it for my ego. I have enough people to take care of and I enjoy doing it."
At 31 Mariah has broken free of what she calls 'negative forces'. With her first feature film, Glitter, set for release later this year and Wisegirls with Chloe Sevigny and Mira Sorvino scheduled for a 2002 outing, Mariah is firmly in control of her own destiny now. Sony released her from her eight-album deal with one more album owed and Virgin was quick to seize this opportunity, winning a fierce bidding war for a reported £60m plus deal. Rumours of a rivalry between her and fellow Virgin artist Janet Jackson are dismissed as originating from "people who operate from a place of negativity." She admits to being a Janet fan and argues that, had she signed for Arista, she would be denying rumours of a further rift with Whitney Houston. The competition aspect bothers, but does not surprise, Mariah. "In a way it's sort of a sexist thing. They want females to be in competition all the time." The decision to join Virgin took less than an hour to make. She called her old friend Lenny Kravitz, who reassured her, and the deal was done. The added bonus of being far removed from the 'old boys' network' and working under strong females like Virgin boss Nancy Berry made Mariah trust her gut instinct which, she claims, has never let her down.
Those nails tap the Motorola pager again and this time the message leaves Mariah cracking up. "Wait, do you wanna see someone's funny tag line? I only know how to use this thing because of my friend Maryanne. She's telling me she couldn't come because something happened in Brooklyn. Look at her tagline her little signature. 'Loverboy 2001 Support it or kiss my ass.' You know, you read something and it's funnier than if you heard it. It amuses me Whaadeva..." No Mariah, it's pretty funny when you hear it too. Rachel would be proud.
Q & A with Mariah
Waxing or shaving?
Electrolysis, when I have time. They don't come back at all. You kill the follicles.
Blonde or brunette?
You mean for me or for a guy? For my hair on my head?
Right now blonde. When I was little it was light like this, that's why it was weirder me being mixed.
Mayonnaise or salad cream?
Sour cream? Oh, salad cream. Is that like dressing? We don't call it that. I don't use any of it. Salt and pepper, baby.
Britney or Christina?
Mary J Blige. (the unique third way Ed.)
Is sex on the first date too soon?
I would never have sex on a first date. Maybe in ten years from now, when I get over my issues, but I doubt it.
What's on your CD player right now?
Ante Up by MOP and Busta Rhymes, over and over and over again. That's my favourite song right now. The remix is my favourite. I'm obsessed with it. I am.
What's the most impressive thing someone has ever said to you?
Someone told me today, 'I wouldn't be alive if it weren't for you.' It was in the middle of a thing where we were all meant to be happy. This was somebody really young too.
Favourite old video of yours?
'Fantasy' with ODB. They didn't really show it on the pop channels, but it was such a fun moment for me.
Do you think you would have been able to pull the plug on Timothy McVeigh the 'Oklahoma Bomber'?
I could never pull the switch on anybody. I can't even kill a bug. It's not my place to pass judgement. I'm not here to judge.
What's turn-off in a guy?
What irks me about a guy? I guess when people feel threatened by my... whatever it is status. I don't even see myself in that way. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I don't. I don't have a twisted perception of myself, bigger than life I don't. Because I still remember sleeping on the floor and having one dollar to live on for that day.