Five-foot nine inches of athlete-fit Mariah Carey lunges towards me with a glass bottle. Pffft! comes the spray onto the wrist as she takes my hand, pulls me along a studio floor and pirouettes the pair of us through a cloud of fragrance called "M". Naturally, it's her own. "M" is a light, floral/incense affair with a toasted marshmallow "top-note" personally requested by Carey because it reminds her of being young. Just about the most successful female recording artist the world has known, aged 37, believes she's 'eternally 12'.
"So how are you?" she coos in her husky New York timbre. "I see your new haircut [fondles the bottom of my hair], it's cute..." And on we go, across the floor Pfft! pirouetting through the marshmallow clouds in Mariah Carey's infinitely preposterous parallel version of reality.
When we think of Carey, the words "hands on" don't spring to mind. What does spring to mind is an image of her being carried overhead on a silken sedan chair by four bare-chested Egyptian princelings, fanning herself with a plume of exotic fern. We've met twice before and each time she's been less the Demanding Diva of showbiz legend, and more a Looney Tune high-camp drag queen, endlessly caricatured by a gleeful press with the kind of urban myth, which says Carey "doesn't do stairs." But, as she confirmed, "I prefer stairs. I've had experiences being stuck in elevators so I prefer the stairs, even in shoes like this [5in Alexander McQueens]. And now it's gonna be, Mariah says, "'build me some stairs, dah-ling!' Joan Crawford style! The diva stuff, to me, I'm laughing at it."
She is certainly, as she puts it, "slightly over the top." In 2005, we spent three hours alone inside her rented Los Angeles mansion, a colossal homestead with a vast, Old Colonial living area where 20ft palms swayed over a grand piano. We sat in two switched-on-the-state-of-the-art massage chairs, her buoyant bosoms (all her own) sashaying from side to side as the chair pummelled across her back. She told me about Jack, her Jack Russell dog, and how he is disqualified, for being "too big" from flying first class in his very own seat between her homes in LA and New York. Jack, therefore, travels the 3,000 miles in Carey's chauffeur-driven Mercedes, making Jack (as far as we know), the only dog in the world with a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. One day, she twinkled, Jack will surely have "his own private jet..."
Two and a half years later and this is a different, as Carey would say, "moment." We're in New York, in a photo-studio complex in west Manhattan where a group of us are perched in a row in an L-shaped office having a "listening session" for Carey's new album, the spectacularly titled "E=MC²" (Emancipation equals Mariah Carey to the second power), a vibrant R&B club-pop record lyrically obsessed with love, heart-break, and sex.
At the album's close, a Carey official issues instructions for our forthcoming interviews."So, we're here to talk about the music," he says, crushingly. "Mariah is a big celebrity and we understand personal questions will come up. But if there's anything too personal the interview will be wrapped up. And these interviews are being recorded."
Suddenly, the lyric sheets we were handed earlier, which we've used for our album-listening notes, are being brusquely confiscated because they must not "leave the building." Cue a number of journalists, mid-handover, furiously scribbling over any less than rapturous remarks.
In 2005, no one expected Carey's 10th studio album, the cool R&B comeback collection "The Emancipation of Mimi" to be the biggest -selling album of the year worldwide (10 million copies sold), taking her career total to well over 160 million. In pure success terms, her status is undeniable: 17 American Number 1 singles, six more than Madonna, one less than Elvis. Last year, Forbes magazine estimated her worth to be around $225 million.
In 2001, she was supposedly finished, buried under the rubble of the trifling, contrived "Glitter" album (and "Glitter" movie); its global failure caused a highly publicised, exhaustion-related "breakdown." As her supernova waned, the critics inevitably cheered. Carey had been the undisputed titan of the drearily billowing ballad since her debut in 1990, a yodelling cartoon calamity whose gift voice is like a dolphin's. To her fans, though, Carey has single-handedly redefined what it means to be a female singer. She's now the single greatest influence on the Pop Idol/American Idol generation bar none. Today, she cites her 2001 meltdown as her "breakthrough," leaving her "creatively-free" to all but abandon the showboat balladeering for knowingly sultry, stylised R&B. Her latest single, Touch My Body with a sexual fantasy concept video part Beyonce part Benny Hill sends herself up as a coquettish, breathy saucestrel.
"Did you say saucestrel?" she blinks. "Is that a bad word? It's like saucy? Oh, leave it to the Brits to make a demented moment. Well we're not taking ourselves that seriously. It's not [po-faced] 'touch my body, I'm so amaaaazing.' In the video we have a unicorn, so let's face it, we're taking, as you guys say, the piss."
It's half past midnight and we're sitting in the dark, in a vast, white 13th-floor photo studio with the lights switched off. In the corner, Carey sits on a chaise-lounge, casual in jeans and a sleeveless vest, legs to one side, beneath the enourmous windows where tea-lights on windowsills and the thrusting skyscrapers of moonlit Manhattan provide low-key, high-glam illumination. She's been working since midday (photos/interviews) despite working 'til eight this morning (album mastering) and therefore is amiably woozy, sipping white wine and prone to dreamy, melancholic reflections. She rummages, suddenly, at the back of her skinny-fit jeans.
"What's this in my pants?" she wonders, snapping off a stray string. "This would be my jean trousers tag!" hands over tag "To prove to you that it is a size 27..."
And so I find myself pocketing Carey's new jeans tag: "Miss Sixty, Size 27 (UK size six) Radio Trousers 30in L, $239." Her much-admired new physique has come from "had work with Patricia," her personal trainer after she'd gotten, she insists, "too bulky. Now I'm down to my 11th-grade size and it feels good yet it doesn't feel good because I can't eat what I want." She reverted to her famed Morsel Diet, replacing some meals with bowls of low-carb nibbles, "so they're been some olive/almond moments."
In the past two years she's simultaneously worked harder at everything else: a global tour, the new album, launched her "M" beauty product range, and appeared in two new films, the road-trip drama Tennessee playing a waitress/aspiring singer and playing herself in the Adam Sandler comedy You Don't Mess With the Zohan. Queries to what drives her these days elicit a scarily earnest and bewildering response something about "not letting the bad times overpower what the goodness is." Her campy tomfoolery is perhaps compromised tonight by the evident sleep-deprivation or perhaps the official foot-long record label microphone pointing directly at her head.
"It's been tough for me to embrace who I am as a human being," she eventually decides. "Just from feeling like an outsider a lot of the times. So, to not be redundant, I just decided to let me be me. And that's a big place, you know?"
Carey describes her life as a "friggin' mini-series." She was a mixed-race kid whose mother was disowned by her family for marrying a black man. Their all-white, hate-fuelled Long Island neighbors poisoned the family dog and set fire to their car. Alison, Carey's older sister by 10 years, who had a baby at aged 15, became heavily involved in drugs, turned to prostitution, contracted HIV (and still lives in York Mariah is "legally" forbidden to talk about her).
Her parents divorced when Carey was three, and she was raised in "a shack" by her mother, Patricia, an Irish-American opera singer. The family moved 13 times and Carey developed a profound fear of poverty, the insecure mind-set of an "outcast freak" and the blazing conviction that her always-astonishing voice could save her life. Aged 18, as a waitress, beauty school dropout and fledgling singer/songwriter with a demo-tape, she met Tommy Mottola at a party. Mottola was the chairman of Sony Music Entertainment, and 20 years her senior. After a four-year courtship, they were married in 1993, with Robert De Niro among the guests.
"He was in it," smiles Carey. "There were a lotta people there."
Barbra Streisand, I believe.
"Yes, she was," she nods, "and I've seen her since and it's all been good. Y'know... I was really young. When I got in that relationship, I was very very young. And inexperienced."
They lived a life of absurd extravagance in a 12-bedroom mansion with a ballroom, firing range, two swimming pools and a helicopter pad while Carey made albums for Sony. "That company," she says, "made a billion dollars from the raggedy girl he met at that party." Tommy was a deeply controlling husband who left Carey feeling confined to the house (where she obsessively over-decorated). He aggressively dictated every aspect of her career, from the soul-less music to her sexless clothes to her holographic public persona taught as she was "to say as little as possible, don't be as yourself." Her new album contains a song specifically detailing her escape from Mottola, called Side Effects: "You were scared that I'd become much more/Than you could handle" she lilts. "Shining like a chandelier/That decorated every room inside this private Hell that we built."
Since her divorce in 1998, she's kept a stringent of privacy over her relationships, but reportedly dated Latino singer Luis Miguel, music executive Mark Sudack, acerbic rapper Eminem and baseball player Derek Jeter. In 2005, however, when questioned about Eminem, she gave an uncharacteristically full response. "Please!" she roared. "I never had any type of sexual relationship with that man. I can count the number of people I've had sex with on less than the fingers on one hand."
You've never had many boyfriends and you've never been promiscuous, I say. Why is that?
"You're right, and I'm still not. Because... maybe if I had been a promiscuous person, I'd feel even less able to be um, forgiving of myself. Because...there were examples of ways I didn't wanna be that I saw when I was growing up. And that made me feel really vulnerable. And I still do. And I hate that I still do. But I do."
She's talking about her big sister, the person she also credits with her lifelong aversion to drugs. "I just saw too much of it as a child." She also finds it almost impossible to trust men, not least because of our rapacious kiss-and-tell showbiz culture, mobile phones, and cameras everywhere. (This is a lyrical theme of Touch My Body post anything private on YouTube, she sings, "and I will hunt you down.") "We live in a world of extremely high technology," she nods, "it is so difficult and so hard for me to trust people." In 2005, she said she wasn't sure she'd ever been in love. Is this still the case?
"But have you?" she replies. "Have you been totally in love? See, I can answer that I've been infatuated. With me it's like, well do I love this person? They say they love me, why can't I accept that? I can't accept it because I've had a difficult time feeling worthy of being loved. [directly into tape-recorder] I can't accept it because I've had a difficult time feeling worthy of being loved."
Do you still feel that?
"No, I feel like I'm worthy of being loved but because I felt like I wasn't worthy of being loved for so many years I've put myself in situations that were maybe not the best situations for me," she says, obliquely. "And I need to find a way to fully grow out of that. 'Cos you know what? There are so many I don't wanna emulate. It shouldn't take people to be freakin' 60 years old 'til they feel like 'I finally found the person I'm supposed to be with'."
"Most people get caught up, they have their babies, they raise their kids, and they're not with those people any more because they never really had anything in common to begin with but the kids. And that's what I was always scared of. You know, it's been tough for me to say: 'OK, I'm allowed to be happy.' To be working at this pace. To be successful. And also believe that I'm in love and this person isn't just in it for the moment. Whoever it is [in the future], I hope that the person is genuine. No matter what, it's always about a genuine person."
This month, Carey will be 38. She lives in the TriBeCa area of New York, in a three-tiered apartment co-designed by herself and Mario Buatta, the billionaire's favorite and so-called "Prince of Chintz." The apartment's visual (indeed emotional) themes are mermaids, butterflies, and Marilyn Monroe, her "humungous Marilyn bathroom" featuring pale limestone walls, a gold ceiling, pink and beige satin drapes, recessed lighting and two steps up to the bath. Her dark-green marble kitchen, meanwhile, hosts its own chaise-lounge. "Because I like to recline when I eat," she smiles. "If you can lay down, why would you sit up?" The last time she used a subway was perhaps 1992 and as for the bus... "I hate the bus!" she cackles. "I've already been on the bus, I don't need to go back on the bus." With her unimaginable wealth comes negligible guilt: she feels only "grateful" for "God's majesty and his gift of creativity." There's evidence in her apartment of her claim to be "eternally 12" (or possibly a great deal younger); pink "Hello Kitty" guitar, pink CD player, "Hello Kitty" slippers, the "Bambi" pajamas she sleeps in.
How would she feel about being 40? Even though it's a good couple of years away...
"And a good couple of years away it's gonna stay!" she mock-wails, "because I'm eternally 12."
But you're not 12, Mariah. At almost-38, isn't it time to want to be a grown up? "No," she says. "Because when I was a kid I said to myself, 'I'm never gonna forget what it feels like to be this age.' I try to stay in touch with the me that has never left me. The inner child that is me."
The funny thing is, when you were actually 12, you were, as you said, a "hideous mess." You were emotionally berserk, had barely a stitch to wear, accidentally shaved your eyebrows off and dyed your hair orange. "Yeah. I had orange hair."
So let's go for straightforward cod-psychology here: a huge part of her life is all about trying to replace the real Mariah at 12 with a fantasy Mariah at 12, forever.
"Well I think you are very close to something that's pretty accurate," she says. "But you know, I wouldn't say it's anything that consciously done. "Eternally 12" was a phrase that just happened from always going on roller-coasters and hanging out with friends at Disney World and really feeling like, y'know...free."
It seems she's very simply part of the greatest tradition in showbiz history: filling the enormous hole in your soul with the love of the enourmous crowd.
"I think it is kind of tradition," she says. "Another female, she's not a singer, she's a very famous actress, and I'll protect her privacy, but she said to me: 'You know, Mariah, I think we just have to go through things a little bit more than other people do. Because we've been given this thing, this gift.' And I think she's right. But I think when you're given a musical gift, it's almost on another level because people feel music deeper than most things they feel. And that's my testimony as a human being who's gotten through some of the worst times. A song like Side Effects goes out to somebody who needs to feel cleansed of an abusive relationship. They're gonna hear it and hopefully be healed. I remember singing songs at the top of my lungs, growing up, because I needed to. Y'know? It's healing."
And with this momentous soliloquy of scorching luvvie-ness, Carey's man twitches and announces our time is up.
I hope Jack, by now, has flown, alone, in a private jet.
"Of course he has!" she hollers. "Jack lives on a private jet..."
She leans back on the chaise-lounge, onto a black pillow. "Dah-ling," says the incorrigible Ms. Carey, with a final waft of toasted marshmallow, "you know how I like to lie down..."
165m Total record sales worldwide. Carey is the second-bestselling female artist of all time behind only Celine Dion (175 million).
0 The number of singers in the world who can hold a note higher than Carey, according to The Guinness Book of World Records. A dolphin is the only mammal capable of producing a higher one.
1 The number that Carey finished in a 2003 MTV chart of the "Greatest Voices in Music."
25,000 The cost, in dollars, of the Vera Wang gown worn by Carey at her wedding to music mogul Tommy Mottola in 1993. The 27ft train needed six bridesmaids to lift it.
17 The number of American Number 1 hits she has had. Only the Beatles (20) and Elvis (18) have managed more.
6 The number of kittens Carey reportedly demands, as company in her dressing-room before a gig.
20,000 The alleged daily wage, in pounds sterling, of Carey's "lighting consultant." (He ensures the lightbulbs, wherever she visits, are of the requisite colour, shape, and brightness).
105,000,000 The total outlay, in pounds, that EMI Records on Carey in one nine-month period: £70 million to sign her up, on a five-album contract, in April 2001; and £35 million to terminate the contract, one album in, in January 2002.