What you don't realise about Mariah Carey, if you've only seen her on television, is how big she is nearly 6ft, with breasts that look as though she's taken a football pump to them, they're so inflated and bouncy. Her hair tumbles over her shoulders and her bare, honey-coloured thighs are magnificently honed. She is Amazonian, an impressive specimen of corn-fed humanity which makes her waif-like sense of herself as having lost out on some crucial part of growing up all the more poignant.
The past 18 months have not been good for Mariah Carey. In July 2001, after posting several rambling and plaintive messages on her website, she suffered what was officially described as a 'complete emotional breakdown' and was admitted to hospital amid rumours that she had tried to kill herself, although the cuts on her body were explained away by her publicist as 'an accident with plates'. Not long before this, she had broken up with her boyfriend of three years, South American singer Luis Miguel. Shortly afterwards on 11 September her movie, Glitter was released and did dismal business at the box office. The soundtrack to the film was her first outing with Virgin, to which she had signed in the biggest recording deal in history. The album sold a mere two million copies, compared with a career average of eight million. Last February, Virgin's parent company, EMI, terminated her contract with a pay-off of $35 million.
But now she is back, with a new single, and an album, Charmbracelet, recorded on her own label, in a joint venture with Island/Def Jam. How album and single fare will go some way towards answering the question of whether Carey is fundamentally the creation of one man, her former husband, Tommy Mottola. With her soulful five-octave voice and songwriting ability (she composes all her material) there ought to be no barrier to many more years at the top. But it remains to be seen whether she has the confidence to market herself, now that he is no longer there to do it for her.
Mottola, president of Sony Music, famously discovered Carey when she was 17, after she pressed a demo tape into his hands at a party. This publicist's dream of a Cinderella story (which even has her wearing unreliable shoes her mother's black trainers, a size too small) goes that Mottola listened to the tape on the way home in his limousine, realised how good she was, and turned around only to find that she'd left the party and that he had to spend a couple of days tracking her down. They worked for two years on her first album, which sold five million copies and provided her with four number one singles in the US. They also had an affair and he left his wife and children to marry her. The bride wore a tiara modelled on the one Princess Diana wore for her wedding and a 27ft train. She was 23; he was 44.
Mottola controlled every aspect of Carey's career and her life. The couple built a hideous house in Bedford Hills, with 12 bedrooms, a recording studio, ballroom, firing range, helicopter pad and two swimming pools, where Mariah, who wasn't that long out of high school, felt trapped. There were minders everywhere. 'It was,' she says now, 'very intense and confining and stifling and not natural'. She chafed against the restrictions and the couple divorced in 1998 after four years of marriage and nine months of separation. But Mottola continued to be boss of her record company and she had a contract to fulfil though for her last album with Sony (called, with heavy symbolism, Butterfly) she was allowed to get a little more R&B and to cast off the chrysalis of her diva long dresses for sparkly Spandex and thigh-skimming 'glamour'.
Mariah Carey had a number one single in every year of the 1990s. She remains the best-selling female recording artist of all time and has achieved what seems to be the main dream of little girls in the Western world, to have other little girls screaming on the pavement outside Claridges at the sheer, hysterical thrill of having seen her. But the process has evidently often been painful and last year caused her to collapse. She must be worth somewhere between $100m and $200m, so it's slightly difficult to understand why she wants to keep on putting herself through it.
Before she emerges onto the pavement in front of Claridges and into the screams, I ask her. There are two parts to her answer. The first is that 'just the act of singing is freedom for me, a healing thing that's always gotten me through everything'. It's what she does, and what she loves, and she's rich enough now to be able to write most of an album, as she did this one, lying on a catamaran off Puerto Rico. What she doesn't have to do any more, of course, is market herself so relentlessly but that, she says, 'has to do with the way I grew up. I have always been overcompensating feeling like, in the beginning, I want to become successful so that I'm not broke when I grow up and I want to be famous because I don't necessarily feel like I fit in, or that I'm good enough as I am.'
Rumours swirl around Carey, of princessy behaviour and vast entourages, and, while there is plenty of evidence of the latter, there's no sign, at least while I'm with her, of the former. She seems warm and eager to please, and chatters away with the frankness of someone who has excavated her past in therapy and found a story she understands. She's a thoughtful, if curious, mixture of global nomad and teen from Long Island. (It tends to be the teen who writes the lyrics: 'I can make it through the rain, I can stand up once again, on my own, and I know that I'm strong enough to mend. And every time I feel afraid, I hold tighter to my fate, and I live one more day, and I can make it through the rain.')
She doesn't feel good enough, she explains, because of her messed-up background. Her father, who died this year, was a part African-American, part Venezuelan aerospace worker; her mother is Irish-American, from the Mid west, an opera singer and voice coach. 'My mother's family disowned her when she married my father, so just having that in your mind is like, I'm this unclean person, I'm not worthy of being alive, their union was so bad that the family lied to all their friends and relatives and said my mother never got married. That sort of thing just sticks with you.'
She ought, by rights, to feel incredibly proud. Her parents split up when she was two and she moved with her mother 13 times 'and sometimes we didn't have a place to live and she was very unconventional on a lot of levels and I ended up self-parenting a lot of the time'. Her older sister Alison had her first baby when she was 15, was married at 16 and became a prostitute. She is now HIV-positive.
Mariah went in a different direction altogether. 'I suppose I saw what I didn't want to have happen to me; I saw it as a little girl on a lot of levels and I wanted to rise above where I came from. So that's another reason why I made myself work twice as hard: if they'll give me this I'll work three times as hard, four times as hard.'
It was all the working, she says, that caused her breakdown. 'The bottom line is that I was severely exhausted. I've always had trouble with insomnia. It's more falling asleep than staying asleep, especially when I've been performing or doing interviews there's a certain amount of adrenaline goes along with that and when I'd finally unwind and go to sleep I'd be woken in another couple of hours to speak to someone in Australia, and then they'd say "Oh, there are just a couple more reporters and they're going to ride with you in the car", and there was no downtime.
'I was physically gone, drained. Sleep deprivation is a reality, though it sounds like some Hollywood thing: some people are like, "Oh please, you're exhausted. From what? Standing there and singing?"' But there was no lunchbreak, no weekends, no caretaking of the human being. So there was this video that I was supposed to do and I said "I can't, not today" and until then, nobody had ever heard me say no to anything business-related.'
Despite her keenness to play it all down, her people were worried enough to get her to her mother's house. Her mother was worried enough to dial 911, the US emergency number. It's been said that she believed her daughter was going to kill herself, though Mariah denies that she was ever suicidal 'not that you don't have thoughts about "I can't take this any more" but they were saying I'd slit my wrists and I was like, where are these people? Can they come and inspect my wrists?' She thrusts out her wrists for examination. There are no scars.
'When my mother saw me like that she was very shocked because she's used to me arriving positive and [singsong voice] "Here I am, I'm the cheerleader, and let's keep going, here are the balloons and ra-ra-ra" kind of the caretaker of my whole family. The reports said I was in rehab, that I'd gone crazy, tried to commit suicide. I was exhausted, that's all, and thank God it happened at that point rather than down the line, with kids, where it could have been irreparable damage for a child to see their mother like that. And I know, because it happened to me as a little girl: I saw something similar... I had to take control and be the caretaker from the time I was a little kid.'
Was this her mother or her sister? 'I can't technically say. It's not even that I don't want to talk about my sister; I legally can't. But let's just say that there was a lot of stuff that made me become the responsible one and I've remained in that role.'
She rested, recuperated and took to therapy. 'The first time I went there, the therapist put an apple and an iced tea on the little table next to where I was going to sit and he said "Why don't you have some food, take a sip", and I suddenly realised, yeah, I am hungry, wow, no one ever asks me how I'm feeling, like I'm always an object, a thing, like I'm on TV and in their minds I'm always smiling and that means I don't need nourishment, everything's OK.
'It almost moved me to tears, and I realised I need to be doing that for myself; I need to make sure this plate of vegetables is here' she gestures to a dish of carrot sticks beside her. 'I have a nutritionist now who travels with me it sounds like a bunch of extravagant stuff, I know and a masseuse who will help me fall asleep.'
It's a funny thing about Carey that while she has an extraordinary voice, a lot of her songs have been fairly forgettable. It would be great to hear her sing something much more raw and soulful, rather than the over-produced, slushy ballads in which she has hitherto specialised. Charmbracelet does have a slightly more contemporary, edgy R&B feel than much of her previous work and she is quick to talk about 'the urban music that has inspired me'. She also makes the point that, at Sony, 'there was always that kind of imposing, looming thing, I've just done something that I love, let's see how they respond to it and sometimes it would be not great, or we need something a little more pop.' But fundamentally, the new album is produced in the knowledge that Mariah Carey is a brand, that much of her audience is very young and that there's a limit to how far she can move away from poppy, unthreatening romance. And, incidentally, she is sick of people advising her which direction to go in musically: one reason she wrote the album in Puerto Rico, she says, is she was tired of New York record producers sending messages on her pager and telephoning to tell her just that.
Now 32, Mariah Carey has had very few boyfriends: Mottola; the baseball star Derek Jeter and Luis Miguel are the only ones we can be sure about. 'I'm very, very protective of myself,' she says. 'My sister had her first baby when she was 15 and all my life I was aware this is what can happen to you. I was not promiscuous, and I'm still not, because I saw what that can do. I'm not interested in having flings with a bunch of guys, because that's not really how I am. I have a certain amount of respect for myself, and a certain fear of intimacy, because of what I saw.'
The poverty of Carey's background has probably been exaggerated by the sleeve note writers, but not, I think, the emotional difficulties and you would have to include in those the sudden shift from sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a room with five other girls at 17 to being a superstar at 20. But though she knows now that fame has had its costs, she's still up for its games. The outfit she tells me she has 'just thrown on' is the one I see her wearing on television later in the day. Looking weary before she leaves Claridges, she puts on a show once she hits the pavement, pushing her sunglasses down her nose so that some paparazzo can get a sexy shot of her looking into his camera over the top of them.
I'm still a bit confused about why she pushes herself so hard, or, at any rate, lets herself be pushed. 'I love the creative experience singing, making up melodies, writing poetry,' she says. 'Even as a little girl, that's what lifted me out of whatever kind of stuff was going on in my house, and from feeling, not least because I am mixed-race, like an outsider. It gave me the feeling that I have something that nobody can take from me. It made me feel special and that's what it still does.'