THE MARIAH NETWORK

Madame Butterfly

Goodbye, Tommy. Ta ta, Bedford mansion. Mariah Carey has a new life and a new album, Butterfly. But is being free all it's cracked up to be?

Watching the preliminary version of a music-video edit for the single "Honey," from her new album, Butterfly. Mariah Carey watches herself being carried down a secluded beach by a buff Adonis of the dunes. "Jack kept trying to tear off my skirt," Carey says, smiling impishly, watching the screen, and sucking on a straw in a can of Coca-Cola Classic. Here we go! Millionaire songstress recently separated from husband reveals tropical romance! Not quite. "Jack's the dog," she says. And there he is: Carey's Jack Russell terrier dashing down the beach, nipping at her hem.

At this stage of the Mariah metamorphosis, she's somewhere between having muscled her way out of the pupa (the cosseted splendor of the $15 million mansion in Bedford, New York, she shared with her husband/musical Svengali/corporate sponsor, Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola) and fluttering free. The wings aren't hardened yet; they're still a little mushy, but she's gulping air and testing them... tentatively.

Carey's going out to clubs but not really dating. Dumping Mottola but on the phone with him almost every day. She's landed her first acting job but is not talking about it. And she's defying Sony with Butterfly by indulging her passion for rap music — well, at this push-me-pull-you juncture in her career, "indulging" might be a bit strong. But she's emphatically, incontrovertible dabbling. Carey would like to latch on to some aura of the street after years up on the curb, in the chilly remoteness of a perfect pop vacuum. But it's hard to surrender the whole hair-teased, Michael Kors-frocked, Prada-shod dreamworld of a suburban mall rat made spectacularly good. Seeing Carey-on-the-cusp is like watching a high school cheerleader venture over to where the cool kids are hanging out by a chain-link fence: The girl bravely burns a cigarette, takes a drag, and for one hovering half-second no one is sure whether she's going to start coughing up her esophagus or smile and blow a smoke ring in the coolest guy's face. In other words: perfectly developed except for the wings.

Meeting Carey, it's hard to know what to expect. Aspiring harridan? She reportedly reamed out Mottola in the lobby of the Peninsula hotel in Los Angeles last year after a grim shutout at the Grammy Awards, and she was seen berating producer Walter Afanasieff on a New York sidewalk not long ago. ("When I have an issue or a problem with somebody," Carey says, "I like to settle it. Get it out in the open, deal with it. And go ahead.") Spoiled diva? Having a fabulous career dumped in your lap at a tender age (she and Mottola hooked up when she was 18) can be a tad warping to the personality; Carey arriving for work at the Quad recording studio near Times Square with her other dog, a yappy Yorkie named Ginger, isn't an encouraging sign.

But here's what you get: a nonharridan, not particularly diva-ish young woman in a teensy white dress with a powder blue Ballantyne