THE MARIAH NETWORK

Why Is This Woman Smiling?

One year ago Mariah Carey was suffering the most humiliating public meltdown in showbiz history: babbling TV appearances, a laughingstock movie, an ugly tryst with Eminem and — the topper — "an emotional and physical breakdown." But look at her now: A new album, a bottle of Pinot Grigio and a tell-all session with Blender seems to have worked wonders. "I just want to have fun!" she giggles.

Most celebrities, when you meet them, are disappointingly small. Mariah Carey is quite the opposite. A strapping five-foot-nine sans stilettos, with huge chocolate eyes, tumbling locks and the type of stop-the-traffic curves that Blender can put down only to a slip of God's pen, the most expensive pop star in history is a whole lotta woman.

She strides into a Chinese restaurant in uptown Manhattan just a quarter of an hour later than arranged (a blink of an eye in diva time) looking every bit the star — yet not scarily so. Four-inch spikes and diamond accessories? Check. But teamed with a plain black halter and second-skin jeans. Accompanying entourage? Yup. However, it includes two young teenagers, and the women outnumber the men three to one. As you'd expect, Carey's hair is big and curled. But her smile is bigger, curlier.

She's wearing a sparkling butterfly pin just above her jeans pocket. The pin is very Mariah: genuine diamonds, but the style suggests "shopping mall." Despite her forays into hip-hop and her high-end reputation, the 32-year-old Carey has always been more bridge-and-tunnel than Dolce & Gabbana, a suburban superstar, a Long Island lovely. A girly girl, not a nasty one. "Oh, no," she says. "I'm flirtatious and I like dress up, but I am so not like that. For me, clothes are like playing. I might as well still be playing with Barbie. I just want to have fun. Doesn't anybody else do stuff for fun?"

Carey laughs, as she does easily and often, and throws her hands around in campy gestures. "Do you drink wine?" she asks Blender in a voice it would be churlish not to call honeyed. "Shall we have a bottle of Pinot Grigio?"

We shall. Sadly, though, most of it will be drunk by Carey's entourage. Blender meets rapper Da Brat, cartoonish in a baseball hat and dinner-plate medallion, and learns that the teenagers are singer Isabel Gomes, 13, and rapper Young Nae Nae, 14, potential signings to Carey's new record label, MonarC (its sole signed artist: Mariah Carey). Gomes and Nae Nae have just performed at a showcase for new artists. "I wanted you kids to come here and have that celebratory moment," Carey says, beaming, "because the worst is when you don't have the celebratory moments. So..." — up goes the glass — "cheers!"

The benevolent boss would like to stay and party with her protégés, but she has another job to do: that of a hard-working pop queen who understands, from past experience, the importance of promotion.

She and Blender move into the main room of the restaurant. Diners catch her eye, chatting with her as she sashays past. She proves unfailingly polite, asking one girl, "Have I met you before?" You look exactly like someone I know," and signing autographs for a waiter. For a so-called diva, she has lovely manners. "If we weren't doing an interview, I wouldn't talk about myself the whole time," she says. "I'd be like, "What's up with you?"

To be truthful, Blender is both disappointed and delighted by Carey's apparent normality. Disappointed because we had half-hoped she would arrive with a selection of fluffy animals and an attitude (great copy!); delighted because Carey is perfectly capable of stringing a a coherent sentence together. Anyone who had witnessed her spaced-out performance on MTV Cribs last year — showing off her walk-in closets like a louche, lonely, Valium-conked housewife — would have wondered if there was anything at all behind those sparkling eyes.

Two thousand one was the year Mariah Carey fell — splat! — from her pedestal. Throughout the previous decade, she had appeared unassailable — a superstar from the moment she burst onto the charts in 1990, just 20 years old, with the self-penned "Vision of Love." Her debut album, Mariah Carey, sold 9 million copies, producing four number 1 hits. In the next 10 years, she sold a staggering 150 million records overall, posting more chart-toppers than anyone except the Beatles and Elvis Presley. These days, her five-octave voice is as familiar as your mother's, and her flouncy vocal style is much-copied, not least by just about every female contestant on American Idol.

Initially, cynics attributed Carey's world-beating success to her then-husband, hugely powerful Sony boss Tommy Mottola, whom she married in 1993. Mottola, 20 years her senior, certainly had an excessively guiding — some would say controlling — hand in his young wife's life, down to making her swap her tiny tops for less revealing outfits. But when the parted, in 1997, Carey rode the split apparently without effort: releasing Butterfly, following that with 1999's Rainbow and squaring up her contract with the best-of collection #1's. She dated both New York Yankee short-stop Derek Jeter and Latin American pop hunk Luis Miguel.

In 2001, she left Sony, with great fanfare, for Virgin, which signed her to a four-album deal worth $80 million, the most lucrative in history. Her first LP was set to be Glitter, the soundtrack to the '80s-style movie of the same name, which would showcase her acting in a story based on her life. But during that summer, before either the movie or the CD was released, Carey began to unravel.

She split from her "too serious" relationship with Miguel. She acted strangely on TV, most memorably MTV's Total Request Live, on which she prevented host Carson Daly from going to a commercial break and delivered a weird monologue about ice cream. At other times she announced that she was invisible and that Marilyn Monroe was speaking to her through her piano. She left strange, sad messages on her Web site: "What I'd like to do is take a little break or just get one night of sleep without someone popping up a video or something."

Headlines blazes: She had trashed her room in New York's Tribeca Grand Hotel; she had been taken into North Western Hospital in Westchester County, New York, with bandaged arms; she had gone out for a burger dressed as Wonder Woman; she had checked into rehab twice, in Connecticut and Los Angeles. Suddenly, it was hard to find a report on Carey in which the word troubles didn't precede her name.

Events raced to a nightmare close. Glitter, the film, was a flop, costing $22 million and making just $5 million. Glitter, the LP, hit stores on the worst day ever to release anything: September 11, 2001. Though it finally went platinum, it was widely regarded as a failure, and in January 2002, Virgin bought out her contract for $28 million — in addition tt the $21 million she had already been paid. Financially, she was riding high, but creatively and emotionally, Carey appeared to have drained her account.

In May 2002, she signed, quietly, with Island Def Jam, which gave her a $20 million, four-album deal and her own label. Charmbracelet is the result, recorded over six months in Capri, the Bahamas and the U.S.

"It's called Charmbracelet because charms are like pieces of yourself that you pass on to other people, like a song," she explains. The album is a return to Carey's earliest, friendliest incarnation. There's nothing here to scare her long-term fans: a couple of ballads, including the single "Through The Rain"; two cute, almost-urban tracks featuring Jay-Z and Cam'ron; a Latin-ish track; a gospelly one. Carey had returned to favored producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Randy Jackson and Jermaine Dupri. The subject matter is love, mostly: love failed, love wanted, love of God.

One track, "Clown," stands out, as it appears to be about Eminem — whom Carey was rumored to have dated last year — with lyrics like "I should have left it at/I like your music too" and "You should have never said that we were lovers/You know we never even touched each other." It also refers to "Superman," one of the tracks on The Eminem Show that mentions Carey (the other "When the Music Stops"). Neither is a love song, to say the least. ("Superman" disses every woman who has ever come into Mr. Mather's life and includes the line "Am I too nice? Buy you ice Bitch if you died/Wouldn't buy you life/What you tryin' to be, my new wife? What you Mariah?")

But when Blender presumes that "Clown" is about Detroit's mouthiest, Carey laughs.

"No, we can't presume that," she says. "With all the clowns I've come across in my life, how the hell would narrow it down to one?"

He was rude about you, though.
"For him, I don't think he was that rude. For him, that was mild."

Carey shrugs and tosses her hair. Subject closed — but only for the moment, as we'll see. We move on to the events of 2001. Though at one point she sighs — "This is so last year" — Carey has clearly made the decision to tell her side, to try to clear things up. She launches into an explanation that lasts the better part of an hour. Settle back for the story of a butterfly life.

"It's been a domino effect from the beginning," Carey says. "I started as a teenager. I was totally broke; I lived on my own from the age of 16, working really hard. I would work at a restaurant till 1 A.M., then go to the studio until 8 A.M., sleep for a few hours and start again. I've always been a worker. But when record-company executives see that kind of work ethic, they use it. And they'll use you up until you're dry."

The way Carey tells it, once Sony established early that she was able to turn out high-quality product on demand, that became her life's routine. She snaps her fingers — "Another album, another album, another album" — to illustrate the point. When she and Mottola split up, the pressure didn't lessen but became more intense — she was still signed to Sony, but "the support was different in terms of the belief from the company," as she puts it. Plus, she really wanted to prove that she could succeed without her husband.

This was harder than she had imagined. She felt that she couldn't trust anyone, because, although she won't say this in so many words, Mottola's influence reaches to all corners of the industry. So she developed her own management company, employing only people she trusted, even if they were inexperienced. "It's not brain surgery," she says.

In 1997, Carey released Butterfly. She was happy. She made the "Honey" video, messing around on Jet Skis with P. Diddy and Mase. "That's me, the frolicking, happy girl on the beach with the dog," she recalls. "If I could eternally be that, I'd be happy. No wearing a turtleneck up to here; that's not me. But that showcased my voice in the beginning, so that's OK." This last sentence is typical of Carey. Every time she utters even the slightest criticism, she qualifies it. She even followed her comment about record companies bleeding artists dry with "...but that's just the corporate world." When Blender brings up a story about her travails that was published in the New York Post, she explodes — "At this point, in my opinion, any paper is a crock of lies!" — then, without drawing a breath, she continues: "For the most part, I mean. No offense to the Post or any paper."

She doesn't want any trouble. She just wants things to be nice. Which helps explain why, when she broke her ties with Sony, she went into overdrive trying to please Virgin. she was working on two films — the recently released Wisegirls (for which she garnered great reviews) as well as Glitter — and she had a mere four weeks to record Glitter the album.

"I was in a new place, expecting things to work like clockwork," she says, "and when they didn't, I overcompensated. From 14-, 15-hour days, it became 22-hour days. I was digging myself a real hole. I wasn't eating right, working myself into a grind.

"I was just really exhausted. I went to do in-store appearance, and somebody told me that a DJ was ragging me on the radio, saying I looked fat — but they told me one minute before I walked out in front of, like, a thousand photographers and press. So I get up there and start spewing all this happy crap so I wouldn't look angry on camera. I'd had one hour's sleep, and my publicist grabbed the mic from me. I mean, I could have finished my sentence. She was wrong to do that — though I love her to bits."

From there, things quickly fell to pieces.

"I got to the point where I was just so tired from flying around the world and not eating and not sleeping, and my body just shut down. I never say no to anything, and I get this phone call saying, 'We've got to do this video,' and I said, 'I can't do it; I have to cancel.'

"But nobody would accept that answer — they were hunting me down. So I ran away, went everywhere I could go. I hung out in my friend's house in Brooklyn for a while, and I ended up going to my mother's house and collapsing, and my mom called 911. I was like, 'Maybe this way these people will leave me alone, because they'll realize the severity of this issue.' I hadn't slept for seven days."

Aside from a lack of shut-eye, there was another, stranger twist to Carey's breakdown. It has been alleged that Mottola's newest diva, Sony recording artist Jennifer Lopez, swiped two ideas from Glitter for her hit "I'm Real": the sample from "Firecracker," a 1984 track by Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the call-and-response with Ja Rule. Carey had planned to use "Firecracker" for "Loverboy," Glitter's first single. But before the single or the album came out, Lopez used that sample on "I'm Real," and Carey was forced to use Cameo's "Candy" — resulting in a far weaker song that got terrible reviews. (Insiders say that Mottola knew what Carey was planning because he had access to the advance of Glitter, which was a Sony film.)

The remix of "I'm Real" was released on July 24, 2001. Carey reportedly trashed a hotel room that very next day.

"No," she says, firmly. "I did go to a hotel room, but they wouldn't let me get any sleep there. They kept knocking on the door, so I left. I wasn't slicing my wrists, or smashing glasses — a freaking plate broke. And I knew about [Lopez's] album long before that. Someone told me the minute they used the sample."

Do you think it was coincidence or sabotage?
"Well, if I say sabotage, it's going to sound like paranoia. But there was a lot of personal vendetta-type stuff going on."

Has it stopped?
"I hope so. Every day there's a new story, so I've learned to let the negative stuff roll off. I'm Teflon."

What did they do for you when you were in rehab?
"Showed me to a nice pillow."

Carey might be flip about it, but it's clear that rehab and therapy have helped her. She talks confidently about "codependency" and learning early to be "a caretaker" within her family, despite being the youngest of three children. She refuses to go into detail — "it would upset other" — but her Irish-American mother, Patricia, and Venezuelan/African-American father, Alfred Roy, split when she was 3. Three years later, her 15-year-old sister got married and had a baby. "A lot of things happened where I had to take control. At 6 years old." She has an older brother who left the house soon after, leaving just Mariah and her mother.

The pair moved around — Mariah changing schools a couple of times, Patricia holding down several jobs. The house on New York's Long Island that they would finally call home was "like a shack," she says. "I was very embarrassed about that place."

Her room was "a disgusting mess," with posters of Matt Dillon and Marilyn Monroe on the walls. The only real discipline she received was during her weekly visits to her father, a former military man. He was very strict: "Bounce a quarter on the bed, you know." (He died last year of cancer, just as he and Mariah were becoming close; she gets teary when we talk about it.) By contract, her mother let her do pretty much whatever she wanted, and gave her talented daughter constant encouragement. "She would say, don't say 'If I'm gonna make it,' say 'When,'" Carey remembers fondly.

Make it she did, and very quickly. DJ and producer Arthur Baker (New Order, Africa Bambaataa) was an eyewitness to the legendary meeting between Mottola and an 18-year-old Carey at a record-company party. Carey showed up with singer Brenda K. Starr, with whom Baker had worked. Mottola indicated his interest in Carey — "He said, 'Who's the broad with the body?'" Baker recalls — so Baker introduced the two of them, and Carey handed Mottola her tape. After the party, Baker took Carey and Starr to his studio. He gave Carey's tape a whirl. It was "Vision of Love." "You knew," Baker says. "Right then."

So Carey's career began, and her work ethic kicked in. It's still there, but she has learned from her 2001 experience. Now, she makes each of her employees sign a contract that guarantees her at least a half-hour break a day and five minutes between interviews. She employs a nutritionist. "This is gonna sound diva-ish," she says, "but when I'm on a tough trip, I have a massage."

That doesn't sound too bad.
"Well, they're on call... If I wake up, at any time, they come and put me back to sleep."

But you seem entirely healthy.
"The world thinks I had this traumatic nervous breakdown, but I didn't I'm not saying nothing happened — I did have an emotional and physical breakdown. But it certainly was not what it was reported to be. You can talk to my therapist, and he's just like, 'You need some sleep, and your only issue is the caretaking zone of Mariah.' That's it."

Of course, nothing's quite that simple. Carey's fall from grace was spectacular and gruesome. Yet she didn't garner the sympathy given to, say, Robert Downey Jr., because she has never won the hearts of journalists, who file her work under MAINSTREAM and her persona under TRIVIAL. Her diva reputation didn't help; plus, it's hard to feel sorry for someone who walked away with $49 million for failing to deliver.

In order for Carey to get back to the top, she has to get the public to root for her again. Lyor Cohen, the executive who signed her to Island Def Jam, knows this. "At the moment, the public have their fists up in front of their faces when it comes to Mariah," she says. "We just have to get them to lower them a touch. Then we can deliver the killer blow."

When Carey's world went strange, she was looked after by friends like Da Brat and Jay-Z, and received support from others she didn't even know: Olivia Newton-John, Sharon Stone, Elton John. Plus, of course, her constant, faithful fans — her "lambs," as she calls them.

And there wasn't and still isn't, was a man. Frankly, Blender finds this ridiculous. A multimillionaire with looks, talent, charm and humor: What's wrong with you fellas?

"How's my love life?" Carey hoots. "Where's my love life! Look, if there was someone who was cool, fun, someone who would let me be me... Someone who didn't have [my] poster, because you can't live up to a poster. I think men expect me to sit there in a black dress and sing 'Love Takes Time' in their ear."

She warms to her topic. "I don't want to be with another older person. I did that, and I can't do with the confining. I don't want to say that I want a man to like me for my mind, because that's going to make me sound like I think I'm Albert Einstein. But I would like somebody who doesn't accuse me of making up words like segue..."

Carey stops. She has spotted the lyrics to Eminem's Carey-baiting tracks in Blender's bag. "Can I see them?" she asks. We hand them over, and she scans. As she does, her face flickers between amusement, resignation and disgust.

"You know what?" she says. "I went to his house and played on the trampoline. That was it." And with that innocent, irresistible image, Mariah Carey decides to join her friends for some fun.