I'm walking through downtown Manhattan and into the smart Meatpacking District, en route for my meeting with one of the world's biggest singing stars. This historic quarter (once a thriving river-side port) had deteriorated by the late 70s, becoming an insalubrious no-go area. But in the next twenty years or so, it rose again to become one of New York's most fashionable and stylish neighbourhoods, replete with high-end boutiques and trendy eateries.
Now, in one of the areas most luxurious hotels, in a suite over-looking a serene and glittering Hudson River, global superstar, Mariah Carey, has spent the best part of a humid autumn day giving back-to-back interviews to promote her sultry new album: Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel. In many ways, this little corner of Manhattan seems like an apt location for my meeting with the singer; it's almost like a geographical metaphor.
Mariah, too, has risen above her own humble beginnings to become the biggest-selling female artist of all time (200 million record sales worldwide and counting) as well as the recipient of numerous music awards, including five Grammys. And let's not forget that Carey is also the acknowledged possessor of one of the most remarkable voices in music an alto with a five- octave range.
So amongst all this, it's easy to over-look Mariah's song-writing and producing skills, although she's been doing both since her teens, and that includes working on the material for nearly all her albums, including her debut in 1990. With the release of Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel, however, reviewers are finally beginning to take notice. Carey co-wrote and co- produced all the tracks on the album (bar one) working with the creative production team of Christopher "Tricky" Stewart and The-Dream. In fact Billboard magazine, flagging up Mariah's way with words, has described the album as "refreshing and much welcomed."
The album's first single, Obsessed, has already given the star (now celebrating twenty years in music) her 27th top ten hit in the US. Not bad for the girl from Long Island who would sit at her school desk, dreaming of musical success. The reality, by now, must surely have outstripped those girlish dreams.
Now, making my way up to the hotel's Penthouse Suite where Carey is meeting the press I'm keen to know the singer's thoughts on this eagerly-anticipated album, and how she views her over-all success. When I arrive, the hotel door is flung open by a smiling management assistant. "Hi! Come in," she says, showing me to a seat. "Mariah will be with you in a few minutes, she's just finishing another interview."
Right on cue Carey bounds through the door and shakes me warmly by the hand. Dressed simply but elegantly in expensive black trousers and a figure-hugging shirt, her signature tawny curls cascade in ringlets over her shoulders. And although Carey might be 39 this year, she has the enviable, dewy complexionof someone at least a decade younger. Momentarily I'm caught off-guard, too, by her simple, unaffected demeanour. "Let's sit where it's more comfortable," she says, gesturing towards the sofa and waiting patiently while I set up my recorder.
Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel is Carey's twelfth studio album, and, perhaps, her most personal and 'autobiographical'. Overall, the feel is R&B hip-hop with quite a few heart-wrenching slow ballads that show-case Mariah's impressive vocal range. Is she happy with its reception so far? "Very happy," says the singer. "Actually, on the way here today, two policemen pulled my car over to tell me that they love my version of I Want To Know What Love Is (the second single from the album). "I thought that was kind of cool." Plaudits from the music press and the NYPD. That can't be bad.
The theme of the album love at all its stages is one that is close to Mariah's heart. "Like most girls, I've had my ups and my downs in love," she says. "A lot of the songs reflect specific, different times in my life, actual events that happened to me; some of them are way back in the past. In some ways this album was kind of healing for me because I was able to build humour and some sarcasm into the lyrics. I mean, if you listen to a song like Up Out My Face it's a joke, but there's also a truth in what I'm saying."
One track definitely without sarcasm, though, is The Impossible dedicated to her husband of nineteen months, Nick Cannon. She married the actor, rapper, millionaire and current host of America's Got Talent after a whirlwind two-month courtship. You rescued my love/ You did the impossible, she sings on that track. Did she know right away that he was The One? "Pretty much," answers the star. "The first time we sat down together we connected on a sort of spiritual level we really did. You know, it's impossible not to like Nick he's one of life's good guys. And there's no competition between us either," she reflects. "He just totally supports me." Except when it comes to her diet perhaps. "I'm trying to lose a few pounds on this bleak pak choi diet, but Nick is still eating ice-cream and candy!" she wails.
Diet or not, Mariah Carey seems to be in pretty good shape. Slim and impossibly glamorous though she is, her fans might be somewhat surprised at the singer's transformation in the up-coming film Precious, in which she plays the small, but hard-hitting part of Ms Weiss, a drab social worker.
Carey underwent a complete 'make-under' for the part, enduring lank hair, dark under-eye circles and a dowdy wardrobe that left her virtually unrecognisable even to close friends. "So many people have said to me: 'were you really in that movie? We kept waiting for you to come on screen'", remembers the singer. "I just looked so unlike me. Of course, usually on stage I'm made up and glamorous, but I just had to let all that go. For acting I'm willing to do anything to make a role authentic, and I really am proud of what I achieved in Precious."
As well she might be. When the film premiered at the SundanceFilm Festival in January, it won both the Audience Award as well as the Grand Jury Prize for best drama, with one reviewer calling Mariah's performance "pitch perfect." The role also earned the singer a 15 minute standing ovation at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Little wonder then that there's growing speculation in Hollywood that Carey who stepped into Helen Mirren's shoes at the last minute to play the role could grab the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Mostly, though, Mariah just seems pleased that her hard work and determination has finally paid off.
"I've been doing independent films that people don't really know about and learning my trade that way," says the singer, who received good notices for her part as tough-talking waitress, Raychel, in 2002's indie film Wise Girls with Mia Sorvino. And last year's Tennessee had one critic enthusing about Carey's "understated and very effective" performance.
"I'd love to work with Woody Allen," says Carey. "He's a clever guy. Actually, Bullets Over Broadway is one of my favourite movies ever!" She just might be getting that phone-call if her past record is anything to go by.
"I always believed that this would happen for me. My mom always said: 'it's when you make it, not if you make it' so she helped to instil that self-belief in me. I remember at school, when I was 12, the teacher asked the class what we wanted to be when we left. Everyone kind of said basic jobs, except me. I said: 'An entertainer!' and the teacher was like: 'Oh come on that's not going to happen!" It did, of course, and before Carey was hardly out of her teens.But global celebrity can come with a high price attached not least the relentless press scrutiny which feeds the appetite of a ravenous world. Does she ever wish her fame would go away? "No, not really," says Mariah, who will also be launching her newest perfume line Forever early next year. "I really love what I do, although sometimes things are written which can be a bit hurtful especially on the internet. Mostly, though, I can shake off anything that isn't true, and just concentrate on the music."
Another thing Carey likes to concentrate on are her philanthropic causes. In fact her work mostly with youth-related charities has earned the star a Congressional Horizon Award. Carey is co-founder of 'Camp Mariah' (part of The Fresh Air Fund) which enables inner- city adolescents to explore educational and career opportunities while enjoying camping adventures outside the city. She's also a keen supporter of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, a charity that grants the wishes of children who have life-threatening illnesses.
Over the years, Carey has had some well-documented ups and downs both in her personal and professional life. Now, though, everything seems to have fallen nicely into place. Fulfilled in her personal life and with a stellar twenty year career to look back on, she's also beginning to enjoy success in her acting ambitions. Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel just might be the icing on two very successful decades.
Mariah Carey has been at the top of her profession for twenty years. That's no mean feat in the fickle world of music, but the singer thinks the reason is simple. "My key to longevity?" asks the star. "I think it's just that I've always loved music. You know what I always try and do? I try to keep it really uncomplicated and just make classic songs. But at the same time I like to experiment. If I hear something I like, then I'll see if I can collaborate with the artist who produced it. That, simply, is what I really love to do."
With 200 million album sales worldwide and counting, it seems her fans like her to do that too.