It's 1978 and Mariah Carey has started fourth grade at Thomas J. Lahey Elementary School in Greenlawn, an aptly named suburb on Long Island. Mariah is a mid-year transfer because she's just moved, for the umpteenth time. In addition to getting the typical new-kid stare, she's getting a few extra double takes. First of all, she's not quite as dark as The Black Kid. But she's definitely not white. Then there's her hair light brown, bushy and all over the place. It's not an Afro, like The Black Kid's. But it's not shiny and straight either. There's a laundry list of stuff Mariah can be teased about on her first day. Her classmates decide to stick with the dress.
Rachel Wifall, Mariah's classmate, remembers the day vividly. Today, Wifall is an English instructor at Jersey City State University. She hasn't seen Mariah in nearly twenty years, but the memory of Mariah's first day at Lahey Elementary is sharp in her mind.
"Fourth grade was that time when you're fighting with your parents about wearing what you want to wear. So the girls were all wearing our Levis and corduroys and she comes in wearing this really frilly, feminine dress. She got teased for it."
It could have been worse. They could have focused on the fact that Mariah and her mother had just moved in with Ernie and Mort, a gay couple who'd given Mariah the most stable home she'd had since her parent's divorce. They could have taken issue with Alfred Roy Carey, the Black man who walked the streets of Long Island with his daughter on the weekends or Patricia Hickey Carey, his free-spirited ex-wife, who could be spotted with her during the week. And then there were the houses she lived in, usually the caretaker's place that her mom rented out from the owners of the "big houses" in some of Suffolk County's most exclusive areas.
But if the kids in her fourth grade class really wanted to get under her skin, they could have asked her if she had any possessions besides the book bag on her back. "I never could look at something and say, 'I own this.'"
Mariah sits perched on a sofa, blanket on her lap, ensconced in a tiny, candle-lit room at the top of the tower that is her downtown New York City home. She grabs the coffee table in front of her to illustrate her point. "In this one house, I would sit in the porcelain bathtub and think someone actually owns this... nothing in this house belongs to me."
Mariah decided early on that she would have to make some changes to her life's trajectory. "I knew if I wanted anything, I would have to get it myself. And I wanted a lot. I knew I wanted to live in Manhattan in a penthouse. I wanted a bathroom that was all mine. I wanted to be famous not Michael Jackson famous but I wanted to be famous."
Twenty-five years later, things have changed for Mariah, on paper at least. But a deep reflection into the life, past and present of the best-selling female musician of all-time brings up a host of other questions. Yes, she owns things. But does Mariah Carey own the things in life that money can't buy?
In a room four floors below the tiny alcove, Mariah shows off her family tree. There is a silver-framed photo of a young, blonde Mariah with Nana Addie, her paternal grandmother. Addie, a dark-skinned African-American woman, was born and raised in the deep South, moved to New York and made a small fortune in real estate. She was not pleased when her son Roy married Patricia Hickey. Even after they divorced, she still disapproved.
"You know that ain't your baby," Nana Addie said to her son, nodding towards the room where her four-year-old granddaughter was eavesdropping. Unlike her older brother and sister, as a child, Mariah had blonde hair.
As the years went by, Nana Addie's criticism softened, and she schooled Mariah on all the things Black grandmothers pass down, from how to store your wigs properly, to the importance of covering all your furniture in plastic slipcovers. But those conversations, and more importantly, those sentiments, stayed with Mariah, and she began her lifelong struggle to come to terms with her identity. "I really felt ugly. I did not feel like a pretty girl. I didn't look like my white friends and I didn't look like my Black friends."
Mariah's identity crisis continues throughout her adolescence. At Harborfield's High School, Rachel Wifall reconnections with a very different Mariah. By junior year, the outsider in the frilly dress became a tough-talking, cigarette-smoking wise-crack who was more likely to be the one doing the teasing than vice-versa. "She hung with an older, rougher crowd," says Wifall. "There was definitely some stuff going on emotionally. My gut feeling is that she was troubled and she was acting out."
Indeed, by the time she got to high school, Mariah and her mother had moved an estimated thirteen times. During senior year, she was living in what Mariah calls "a shack," on the grounds of a tiny Huntington Bay estate. She was the proverbial tragic mulatto: not white enough to enjoy the privilege, not Black enough to protest the indignity.
Today, racial ambiguity is de rigueur in the entertainment industry. "White" people have Latino surnames (Cameron Diaz), "Latino" people have little connection to their heritage besides their surnames (Christina Aguilera). Vin Diesel has steadfastly refused to address his ethnicity at all. But in 1990, when her debut album was released, Mariah's ethnicity was immediately questioned. And she was raked over a bed of hot coals for daring to make things complicated.
Long before Tiger Woods offended Black America by refusing to label himself as just a Black man, Mariah Carey was the original Cablinasian, insisting that the sums of her parts be acknowledged equally. (All together now, her mother: Irish, her father: Black and Venezuelan.)
For white America, it was simple. She was Not White. She could have been half-Sicilian and a quarter-Martian, she was still thrown in the same pot: Not White. Black people, for the most part, sucked their teeth and rolled their eyes. Her father was Black and Venezuelan? How come he couldn't just be Black? Mariah's decision and ability to acknowledge more than just the two races became a distracting issue.
"It was a problem because of the way I look," says Mariah, running a hand up her bare arm. Her skin is lighter than the average Italian. "We're such a visual society. As soon as we look at someone, we have to put them in a box." (Indeed, the caramel complexions of famous biracial figures like Halle Berry, politician Barack Obarna, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz make them Black, period.)
In his review of her debut album, noted Black music critic Nelson George alluded that Mariah was a white girl who sang like a Black girl. When Mariah read it, she was furious. But she was politely encouraged by her label to let it go. What would be so bad if people thought she was, say, Italian?
"It's not like they overtly said it," says Mariah. She stops herself and rolls her eyes. "I mean, they did," she tosses off under her breath. "But I could not control my response to him because I felt very offended. I understand people being put off by me. But I'm only going to sake so many shots."
At a luncheon with Black music journalists, 20-year-old Carey confronted George. "I told him I didn't appreciate what he wrote. And that was at the very beginning of my career. There's never been a time when I didn't spell out exactly what I am. But for some people, I was still just a white girl. To others, I was a Black girl who was just passing."
Years later, Mariah went toe-to-toe with a stand-up comedienne who used the "n-word" when referring to Mariah and mocking her friendship with rap artists. "This is a woman that belongs to two groups that I do not belong to," says Mariah, her voice rising. "If I'd ever said anything about those two groups, people would be picketing in the streets. And you know what?" She spreads out her hands, "If I was two shades darker, there'd have been people protesting for me." Instead, Mariah called the NAACP herself to complain. She says that the comedienne's one-woman-show was taken off the air as a result.
"It's easy to take shots at me," she says, shrugging her shoulders. "No one feels like they need to protect me." It's a strange position to be in. All of her life, Mariah admits to being desperate to fit in. And yet, for better or for worse, she's consistently rallied against anyone who attempted to create any kind of box for her literally and figuratively. Even if it was the head of her record label, or her husband or both.
For the four years that she lived in the sprawling $20 million dollar estate she bought with her husband Tommy Mottola, Mariah always kept her pocketbook nearby. Whether she was at the indoor pool, (one of two in the house), somewhere on the 56-acre-grounds, or just in the living room watching television with friends, she always had her pocketbook sitting right next to her. Mariah raises an eyebrow at a reporter's disbelief. In a multimillion-dollar mansion that she insisted on paying half for, she never walked around without her pocketbook? Mariah shakes her head slowly.
"Even though I owned that house, the only thing I felt like I owned was my pocketbook. Tommy didn't even know why I always had my bag with me. But in my mind I thought, 'If something jumps off... I'm ready.' I lived like that for a long time. I used to wish, hope and dream that someone would kidnap me.
"It's funny, during that time, all my songs were like, 'sweet sweet fantasy baby' and 'dreamlover come rescue me' and then as soon as I was single, it was all about" Mariah does a little shoulder shimmy and starts singing, 'Honey you can have me when you want me...' She breaks out into laughter and then shakes her head. "I didn't even realize it when I was writing that."
Tommy and Mariah married in 1993, in a ceremony modeled after the nuptials of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. "Yeah, everybody talks about that," cracks Mariah. "But no one saw me on the honeymoon, running down the beach, miserable, crying and alone." Mariah catches herself and waves a hand in the air as if to say, "I don't need to go there." But she wants to. And she does. "It's part of my story," she said, placing a hand to her chest, "If you're talking to me about who I am, that relationship shaped who I am. It beyond shaped me. I still have nightmares about it."
Mariah maintains that initially, Tommy was charming. But before long, the relationship became stifling. There were the couple's counseling sessions. "They did nothing for me because I couldn't talk about myself and my own issues from childhood. It was all just a tool to get into my head."
And then there were the servants who never made eye contact. "It was like, every time I came around, somehow everyone was about their business. It wasn't until I left, that I found out that they were told not to look me in the eye."
In addition to the occasional nightmare, it's obvious that Mariah still carries bits and pieces of the marriage with her. Tommy Mottola was her first sexual partner. But their union was not fulfilling in that way. "My relationship with my husband was not a physical relationship. It just wasn't."
Today, seven years after the divorce, Mariah insists she can still count on one hand how many sexual partners she's had. In some ways, she's proud of it. "I've never been driven by the need to be with a lot of people. I was always focused on other things." And in other ways, she sees her lack of lovers as a liability. "I would like to be more experienced," she offers. "I feel like in certain relationships, had I been more experienced, maybe things would have been different."
And then, of course, there's the requisite one-that-got-away. On her way back upstairs from the photo-room, she passes through the kitchen. On the wall hangs a framed photo of Tupac Shakur immersed in a bubble bath. She fans herself dramatically as she points it out.
"Everybody always told me that he liked my music and I was always complimented by that." When asked if they ever met, Mariah lets out a rush of breath. "Mmm hmmm," she says. "But it was real brief. It was at the Grammys. He was driving by in this white Rolls Royce this was when I was still with Tommy and he just stops and I see him, and he's like, 'Hey Mariah.'"
She does her best Tupac-in-a-white-Rolls Royce impersonation: one hand on the wheel, one arm hanging out the window. "I just said hi and then had to go back in. He said, 'Bye Mariah,' and I ran back inside like this..." She runs up the stairs to the alcove, lifting and imaginary ball gown and looking wistfully over her shoulder. "Ahhhh," she groans, half-laughing. "It could have been perfect."
Remaining a virgin until marriage, and not having many sexual relationships since then, has as much to do with another relationship one that Mariah is legally forbidden to talk about as it does with her ex-husband. Mariah's sister, Alison Carey, was pregnant and married by age 15. Mariah was five.
"What I saw as a kid... growing up, I saw what promiscuity could do to you. I saw some people use sex as a way to feel wanted and loved. And I saw the lifelong commitment that came with a child."
Alison's son, Sean, Mariah's nephew, is one of her closest relatives. "He's like my brother," she explains. With an undergraduate degree from Cornell and a law degree from Harvard, Mariah predicts that her nephew will be "the first Black president." Her pride is palpable, even as she picks her words very carefully when discussing his troubled upbringing.
As recently as four years ago, Sean's mother Alison was peddling a book, Mariah and Me, which was purported to reveal Mariah owned her early career to her sister because she supposedly worked as a prostitute to cover Mariah's recording expenses. Whether or not the story was actually true was overshadowed by the scandal of having a sibling go to the media with such a sordid tale. (In the room with all the silver-framed pictures, Mariah pointed out Sean graduating from Harvard, and her brother, Morgan, striking a martial arts pose. Her sister's name was not mentioned, her likeness not pointed out among the hundreds of photos.)
Mariah's family, as such, seems to be the people she's assembled: staff, close friends and employees who roost in her downtown apartment. Her father died two years ago; her mother lives in upstate New York. Her brother is a fitness instructor in Los Angeles. Nana Addie died years ago. She has various cousins and distant relatives sprinkled throughout the city, but she seems to be together with the hired hand than any blood relatives.
First there's Ruby, the Jamaican woman who may or may not be a maid. "I don't want to say she's my housekeeper because she's like a mother to me," says Mariah. Then there's Rachel, a soft-spoken African-American who pops in the tiny room from time to time to check on Mariah. "Rachel is my friend. She's helping me out because I don't have a personal assistant right now. But she is my friend. Her daughter is like my godchild." Her publicist, Marvet Britto, pops in and out of the house like she's got her own set of keys. Mariah just shrugs her shoulders. "The people that work with me end up being really close to me."
By definition, Mariah's been a careerist since junior high. That's when she went up against Rachel Wifall for the lead role in a school musical. "I was pretty sure I got it," says Rachel, sounding a bit bemused. "And then I found out she got it instead. I didn't even know she sang."
Depending on where you get your numbers, Mariah Carey is either the best-selling female recording artist of all-time or some other over-the-top superlative-laden-title that's damn near close. The sheer output of her product is dizzying 11 albums in 12 years. Two albums, Music Box and Daydream, were certified by the RIAA at ten million albums sold. At the most conservative estimate, she's sold over 150 million records worldwide. But she's never had the amount of respect that a few Diamond Awards should afford a singer-songwriter-producer. In the beginning, the media had a field day ruminating on Tommy Mottola's studio creation, overlooking the fact that five of the songs she wrote before she was signed become No. 1 singles.
"I still do interviews where people comment on the fact that I've written songs on the album. And I say, 'Yeah, like I did on every album.' Or they'll mention that I'm working with a new hot producer and I'll say, 'Well, actually, Jermaine Dupri and I wrote "Always Be My Baby," one of my biggest hits. And I've known him since the Kriss Kross days.'"
She also feels that she hasn't been given the same room to grow and make mistakes as her contemporaries.
"In the beginning, I wanted to be taken seriously. I didn't want to be taken as a teen act. But as I evolved... I think a lot of people don't want the girl who can sing the long notes to be sensual. I know I've gone over the top with it sometimes, but because of my voice, and for what's palatable in Middle America, I'm not supposed to be sexy."
Perhaps a serious vocalist should not let their writhing, moaning and all around sex appeal overpower their pipes? Mariah rolls her eyes.
"Patti Labelle doesn't wear clothes up to her neck! Minnie Riperton came out with little shirts, licking ice-cream cones. Even Barbra Streisand!" Mariah jumps off the couch and sticks out her butt, mimicking the revealing pose from the cover of Streisand's 1979 soundtrack album, The Main Event. "She had her butt cheeks out just like this... she's even done nude scenes in movies and it's fine."
Mariah bemoans the fact that she can't even be the main chick in a rap video. She sings a breathy chorus on Jadakiss' "U Make Me Wanna" yet only has a brief cameo. "I should have been the main girl in that video!" she says. "I could have done it and would have done it," but she says "her people" didn't agree with such a role in a rap video. "I couldn't fight it that much because I have to save my battles for my own projects."
But it's not just her evolution from flannel shirts to skintight wet suits that have put critics off. Even while she's shattered chart and sales records, Mariah Carey has consistently been knocked for being cheesy, schlock-y and over the top with her vocal histrionics and ear-piercing high notes. The first problem comes from attempting to define what it is she does exactly. Critics don't take kindly to full-on pop music. (Old-fashioned journalists similarly dismissed Whitney Houston for much of her career, even more so, because Whitney didn't write her own music.) Mariah's voice, with its range, vibrato and melisma, is on par with Houston's. But also, like Houston, she's often used her voice as a weapon more than a vehicle of expression.
Mariah discusses songwriting as her true passion and her outlet for creativity. Her voice is an instrument; her high notes a hat trick. With very few exceptions, Mariah's delivery has seldom had the intensity to be classified as soul music. Case in point: Carey could easily have recorded Beyonce's wrenching delivery on the melodramatic "Dangerously in Love." (And it is, in fact, similar in concept to Mariah's 1990 debut single, "Vision of Love.") But Beyonce firmly plants a foot in both R&B and pop and has been allowed to co-exist.
It's as if Mariah's music is bi-racial, too. Both sides accept her. Neither really holds her down. And when she has failed as she did spectacularly with the movie Glitter and its accompanying soundtrack both sides have exhibited levels of schandenfreude usually reserved for corrupt politicians and Martha Stewart.
"How many moves by insert star's name here are not that good?" she asks rhetorically. "I feel like had that movie been a priority, I would have had the same amount of support Marshall Mathers received from Interscope and Jimmy Iovine. They treated Eminem like someone who was making a lot of money for that company, and I made over a billion dollars for Sony. It should have been handled properly and it wasn't. I was in over my head. Glitter was a mistake. Period. I would love for people to see Wisegirls with Mira Sorvino. That movie got a standing ovation at Sundance."
F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American lives. But in entertainment, there are third and fourth acts. Just ask Flavor Flav.
Since 1995's 10x-platinum Daydream, Mariah's sales have declined somewhat significantly. Her last studio album, 2002's Charmbracelet, sold one million copies. The Emancipation of Mimi is Mariah's newest work. It is a return to form the high notes Tommy told her to tone down after the second album are back. She's got the power ballads with backing choirs, the requisite rapper-on-hook track and a few full-on party songs, including the first single, "It's Like That," produced by Jermaine Dupri. What's most pleasantly surprising is that after fifteen years, her voice is as pristine as the summer that "Vision of Love" took over the airwaves.
The Emancipation of Mimi is undeniably a pop album, with all the elements of hip-hop and R&B that she has embraced in the recent past. How it will be received is hard to predict. Her diehard fans need no convincing. But how many of those are left? After fifteen years and hundreds of millions of records sold, Mariah doesn't need any more money or fame. But her legacy as an artist, not a chart-breaker has yet to be cemented, one of those things money can't buy.
Diptyque candles light the tiny room at the top of Mariah's tower. It's a cozy place, stuffed with comfy sofas, throw blankets and framed photos of Mariah with friends. Over the few hours of conversation here, she's talked at a rapid-fire pace, hardly waiting for the end of a question before leaping into a soliloquy. She talks with her hands and keeps intense eye contact. It's hard to believe that someone whose been talking about themselves to the media for over a decade would still feel like they have something new to say. But she's as eager to set the record straight as a newcomer.
She lives in Manhattan now in a penthouse. She's got more than one bathroom all to herself. And she's famous not Michael Jackson famous but she is famous.
"Growing up, if someone would ask me if I wanted to be famous or rich, I would always say famous. I thought it would validate my existence."
Mariah opens her mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. She furrows her eyebrows and bites the inside of her lip... takes a swig of water, looks up at the ceiling. Silence.
Finally: "I don't know."