THE MARIAH NETWORK

Miss Mariah

As her new hit single, "Honey," debuted at number one, the no-longer Mrs. Mottola had gone single herself. With an R-rated new look, the number one-selling female artist of the '90s is out to prove she's Queen Bee.

"You're torturing me!" cries Mariah Carey. No, the 27-year-old pop diva is not manacled to a chair as she was in the instantly-infamous action-adventure video for her hit single "Honey"; she's not being hounded again by the tabloids about her supposedly torrid dating life; she's not being rejected by another New York co-op board for consorting with rappers; she's not even being asked to wake up at 4:30 A.M - the time she's usually just getting ready for bed - as she did earlier this week to do The Oprah Winfrey Show.

This particular evening, Carey's tormentor is a camera crew that has chosen to film an interview with her in a cramped, sweltering New York City recording studio on an unyielding black leather couch. Carey has spent the last half-hour contorting herself into endless spine-wrenching positions, trying to find a pose that looks relaxed and natural.

As Carey scrutinizes her appearance in a TV monitor, every slight shift creates a new visual vexation: First, her left knee is too shiny; next, her chocolate-colored tank top bunches unflatteringly; and then, her cascading hair falls the wrong way. Finally, she settles back into a corner of the couch, splaying her long legs sideways, and twists her head toward the camera. She sighs, "It always has to be the most uncomfortable position that looks the best."

That maxim suddenly seems fitting for Mariah Carey's career: Her recent personal strife has heated up her image more than, say, the fact that after "Honey" debuted at number one, Carey became the decade's best-selling female singer, beating out Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston. Indeed, Carey's pop ballads and dance ditties have always sold exceedingly well - 80 million-plus albums since her 1990 self-titled debut at age 20 went multiplatinum.

Single Sensation

Carey's career had always been shadowed by her relationship with Tommy Mottola (the head of her record label, Sony), which remained an unsubstantiated rumor almost up until their wedding in 1993. Mottola, who is two decades her senior and was married to someone else when they met, supervised Carey's intense marketing push. Despite the dicey beginnings, once they married, she and Mottola seemed to settle quietly into the virtual palace they'd built in suburban Bedford, New York. Then last May, following months of speculation (and an official denial just a day earlier), the couple announced their separation, and Carey tentatively began to extricate herself from the chaste, safe image that some say Mottola had perpetuated. Her new album, Butterfly, boasts some edgier grooves, pointedly personal lyrics, and a decidedly sexier look.

Overnight, Carey became the object of gossip-column fascination. Every man she encounters is declared her new beau. While making the "Honey" video, she was snapped while having her hair done by a stylist - and the photo wound up in an Australian tabloid captioned "Mariah frolics on the beach with mystery man." She's been linked to Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, David Fumero (the chiseled model in the "Honey" video), rapper Q-Tip - basically "everybody from Puff Daddy to Donald Trump!" she marvels. "I mean, let's be real; it's ridiculous! No one saw me out for six years, so suddenly they think, She's gone bananas!"

Despite her protests, Carey has been wearing the notoriety as comfortably as her body-hugging outfits. Unlike some other professions, in the music business, personal drama can be a commercial boon - just ask Madonna or Courtney Love. And Carey is clearly game: The "Honey" video showcases her body as never before and portrays her as imprisoned in a mansion and threatened by dark-suited goons. In the lush title song, "Butterfly," she asserts, "Wild horses run unbridled or their spirit dies. Spread your wings and prepare to fly."

Butterflies Are Free

"I'm not this one-dimensional girl who sits in a field wearing a flannel shirt or stands onstage singing only ballads," Carey says, referring to her former image. "And I feel I'm in a better position to express myself at this point."

"All the personal things I went through while making this album were very draining," she says of the more than year-long process, "but I'm the type of person to throw myself into my work. When I was a child, music was always my saving grace, the thing that pulled me through, made me feel special, gave me hope." Butterfly, she says, feels like her most gratifying achievement, "because it's something that I feel fully responsible for and because I took chances." Previously, she'd been cautious in her musical and visual presentation, she says, "because of the way I grew up. I always felt like the rug could be pulled out from under me at any moment."

This attitude resurfaced recently when she began taking acting lessons. Her teacher asked her to remember a place where she felt safe in her life, and Carey says, "I didn't have one. I couldn't think back to a place that didn't give me a feeling of shakiness or some negative memory."

Carey On

Carey is referring to her tough childhood. Her parents separated when she was two and divorced when she was three. She and her sister and brother, both nearly a decade her senior, are products of an interracial marriage: Her father, Alfred, an aeronautical engineer, is black and Venezuelan; her mother, Patricia, who was trained as an opera singer, is Irish. "I'm triracial," Carey says

Living in white neighborhoods on Long Island, New York, the family experienced a lot of racial hatred - "my family had their dogs poisoned, cars blown up, my brother was beaten up," she recalls - which no doubt hastened the divorce. Her mother, who once had sung professionally, worked different jobs to get by.

"My brother was supposed to watch me when she went off to work," Carey says. "I was, like, 6 and he was probably 16, and he would leave and go out with his friends; he was wild, so I got very used to being on my own and feeling very vulnerable and scared. I saw a lot of craziness in my house." She won't get too specific, but drugs and other seedy elements were around. "I could've ended up a psycho drug-addict nutcase," she says, "but I made the right decisions by looking at people who made the wrong decisions and saying, 'I'm not going to be like them.'"

Her family moved "at least 10 times and was sometimes forced to stay at friends' homes. They were so poor that at one point, her family couldn't afford to buy her a new pair of shoes. By high school, Carey had convinced herself she was going to escape by becoming a successful singer. She was often absent from class, leading to her nickname Mirage, because she and then-writing partner Ben Margulies were spending late nights in New York City, working on a demo tape.

For the proverbial "something to fall back on," Carey took 500 hours of beauty school. She learned "pin curls, roller sets, finger waves, manicures, pedicures," she recites. "Our style was tacky, but hey babe, it was the '80s." She took a job sweeping hair in a pretentious salon and quit after one day, when the owner demanded she change her name to Echo. "I was like, 'Bing-bong, these are not the slave days, good-bye.'"

She briefly waitressed and checked coats, then got a gig doing backup vocals for R&B singer Brenda K. Starr. In November 1988, Starr dragged Carey to a record-industry party where Carey tried to hand her demo tape to another Sony executive, but Mottola grabbed it. Then she began living out her dream.

Happily Ever After?

Fear of becoming tabloid fodder has made Carey understandably reticent when it comes to talking about the specifics of the separation. Even Oprah couldn't get her to illuminate the particulars, except that she's now on path to "personal growth."

Tonight, she leaves the recording studio via five flights of stairs, despite her three-inch wedgies, declaring, "the elevator here takes forever." Then she takes a waiting limo back to her temporary quarters in a hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Before she addresses the big "Why?" Carey pours herself a glass of red wine, kicks off her size 9.5 shoes, stretches her surprisingly tall 5-foot-8.5-inch frame on a couch, and pulls up a blanket. She's nursing a sore throat (nothing serious: allergies and smoky clubs) and proudly pulls out a sonogram of her improving vocal cords like a mother might of an infant in the womb, adding, "All I need is two days of good sleep and I bounce back. But I haven't had that."

Accustomed to working all night and sleeping till noon, she's been taking melatonin to help her slumbers, "but," she says, "it gives you weird dreams." She incorporated one into the video for "Butterfly" - she chases something but it leaps over a barbed-wire fence, and when she tries to follow, she can't and cuts her finger. "I didn't put the blood in the video," she says, "Too gory."

Is the split with Mottola too gory to explain? "It's hard - I don't want to look like I'm dissing him or trying to garner sympathy for myself." Carey finally says. Her most revealing statement is her description of her life when she first started seeing Mottola: "I had my own apartment. I was independent. I was still connected to my past. I had more of my friends from when I was growing up around me." Though she had always claimed Tommy was her best friend, clearly, as they spent more time together, she felt isolated, dependent, and depressed. She never enjoyed the self-discovery allowed most people in their 20s.

Bye Bye Bedford

She and Mottola built their $10 million mansion together - "financially down the middle, because I didn't want to be in a position where someone could ever say, 'Get out of my house.'" But, she says, "I prefer not to be there right now," despite the home's private recording studio, indoor pool, rifle range, and other luxuries. The house has yet to be put on the market, but Carey is looking to buy a place in Manhattan.

Her advice to women going through a separation is "Don't look to someone else, don't do the rebound thing, just try to understand how you can grow from the experience." She's unsure what her own romantic life will bring. "I have a lot of trust issues. I don't know if there's anybody whom I fully trust. And I don't need to sleep with, like, 100 guys to make up for lost time. If I'm with somebody, it's going to be because I really love him, not because I feel the need to go wild."

If she does ever settle down again, she says, it will be to have kids, "and I'm not emotionally prepared to do that yet. To have children and not be 100 percent focused on them would be really negligent. I would never want someone else raising my child. I would have a nanny, because we all need a little help, but I would have to be the dominant force in my child's life and have a positive role-model father on the scene."

Carey fingers the chain she wears around her neck; on it hang a cross, a heart, and two rings. One ring is from a high-school boyfriend, the other from her sister. They're nothing fancy - one's cubic zirconium, the other a "cheesy flea-market ring." But she's always worn them, even after they were "busted, bent, and the zirconium had fallen out."

And when she signed her first record deal, after buying an apartment, her first present to herself was getting the rings melted down and restored. Today, she never takes the chain off. "It's a part of me, from then to now. It's like holding on to myself."

Carey falls silent. Those rings are still with her; the six-carat, pear-shaped diamond wedding ring is not. A few nights earlier, at her record release party, she'd been all smiles as she was interviewed by CNN, Access Hollywood, Vibe and others. And every now and then, her right hand would toy with the ring finger on her left hand, now bare. Old habits die hard.

Mariah's Beauty Hit List! Cosmo cover girl Mariah Carey must have music in her DNA. Raised by an opera-singer mom, the Long Island soloist had her first hit album when she was only 19, garnering her two Grammy awards. Since then, the 27 year-old singer, songwriter and video director has had 11 hit singles to her name. She is also the spokeswoman for the Fresh Air Fund, an organization that sends inner-city kids to camp, and has recently become CEO of Crave Records, a new Sony Music Independent label, where she uses her creative sense to shepherd the careers of new musicians.

Q&A With Mariah

How do you stay in such great shape?
I don't do aerobic exercise when I'm singing because it depletes my energy and takes the edge off my voice. So instead, I do sit-ups, leg raises, and push-ups.

Do you follow any special diet?
No. In fact, when I'm really tired and working a lot, the only thing I feel like eating is McDonald's cheeseburgers and fries.

Have you learned any great beauty tips?
Yes. To calm irritated skin: Soak a cotton ball of milk and ice, and then use it as a compress.

What's your biggest beauty blunder?
Once I used a razor to shape my eyebrows. I kept shaving off more and more to get them even. Pretty soon, they were gone. I stuck to tweezers after that.

What's in your makeup bag?
It's so full, I'm not sure, though I always carry a M-A-C Spice lip pencil. I'm into makeup and good at doing my own - I had 500 hours of beauty-school training in the 11th grade.

Your hair looks lighter. Have you highlighted it?
Yes. My hairdresser's sister, Martha Burke, flew in from Alabama and did it for me. It's funny, whenever she's around, I can't help speaking with a Southern accent all day.