THE MARIAH NETWORK
The New M.C.
Her life may be a fabulous hurricane a new album, a new movie, and a new love but Mariah Carey has everything under total control. Almost. The five-octave, high-octane, nonstop pop diva slows down just long enough to talk with Thomas Beller.
1. TIME AND MONEY A few minutes before midnight, Mariah Carey steps out of her black stretch limo. She moves briskly into the dark lobby of Manhattan's Tribeca Grand Hotel, a bodyguard in front, an assistant behind. She is carrying a bushel of roses. She moves across the lobby like a fighter place: sleek, quick, shiny, expensive. Her platinum-streaked hair is in a tight ponytail. She's wearing a stiff denim jacket and tight Sergio Valente jeans. Her shoes are open-toed and high-heeled, but they're not slowing her down. The words time and money come to mind. Her manager (also carrying roses) points me out and Mariah waves, makes a "just one minute" gesture, and disappears into the elevator. The whole episode is like the glint of a diamond bracelet.
"Let me give you a little warning," Carey says when I walk into her hotel room in a few minutes later. Her voice is low and throaty, almost whispery. The room is filled with a quantity of roses not usually seen outside wholesale flower markets. "I'm tired," she says, though she doesn't look it. "And I want you to say when I should be concise, because the fact I'm exhausted doesn't help in my ramblings."
"Have you eaten dinner?" I ask.
"No. And I haven't eaten breakfast or lunch..." She half sings the "or." stretches in way out; it's a gigantic, hands-on-hips, wide-eyed, room-filling "or." But I do have the remainder of a protein bar," she sighs. "Isn't this glamorous of me?"
"How's you day been?" I ask.
"My day?" she says. "My day has been going on for, like, three days!" She flops on the couch. Her face is made up, eyebrows plucked. There is glitter on her chest. Her shirt is black and sheer Givenchy she's got a black halter underneath. She has just returned from a meeting with executives from her new record label, Virgin, where she played them her new album, Glitter, for the first time. Like many music fans, Virgin purchased Carey's record without knowing what was on it. Unlike many music fans, they're said to have laid out an estimated $23 million the most ever paid for a single album for the privilege. "I made this deal without anybody hearing one note of music," she says.
"Were they worried?" I ask.
"Probably," she says, one eyebrow up, as if to say, Wouldn't you be? Carey does not look worried. At thirty-one, over a decade after her debut at age nineteen, she is the godmother of the G-string divas, the Britneys and Christinas and Dentiny's Childs for whom self-empowerment and self-exposure are completely entwined and sugar-glossed with a multi-octave range. Mariah's voice, however, is a Howitzer compared to most other singers' water pistols, her not-at-all-secret weapon.
Virgin is taking a gamble, but it's not irrational: Carey has sold more than 140 million recordings since 1990's Mariah Carey. She has had fifteen number-one singles, placing her third behind the Beatles (20) and Elvis Presley (seventeen or eighteen, depending on whether you count "Don't Be Cruel" b/w "Hound Dog" as one or two records). Her hits have spent more weeks (sixty) at the top than those of anyone else, including the Beatles (fifty-nine). She had a number-one song every year of the '90s, the only recording artist to do so.
The new record is the soundtrack to next month's All That Glitters, in which she stars. It's the story of a mixed-race girl who has been abandoned by her white father, taken from her black mom, and raised by foster parents. As a teenager she hangs out in Manhattan clubs, circa 1982, gets discovered by a DJ, falls in love, and becomes an overnight sensation. The affair ends badly; she looks for her lost mother. Which is to say it's about someone with a more than passing resemblance to Carey. Besides doing the soundtrack and co-producing the film, M.C. worked with scriptwriter Kate Lanier, who wrote What's Love Got To Do with It."
"I had this idea four years ago," Carey says. "And people said, ''80s? Nobody's ready for '80s.' I said, 'I really feel strongly about the '80s, 'cause it's nostalgic.' Some of the executives were concerned that it was too soon, and people weren't ready to go there. And I said, "Trust me, they are." According to director Vondie Curtis Hall, "It's a classic Cinderella paradigm, like Funny Girl." M.C., the hip-hop Barbra Streisand.
"Most megastars don't have the time or patience to get involved in developing a script," Lanier says. "But Mariah was hanging out in my hotel room, reading pages and giving me input. It blew me away." Lanier says M.C. wasn't at all the person she was expecting. "I was thinking pop. But she wanted to do something dark and edgy. I didn't think she would be that sophisticated or that smart, but she really is."
All of which suggests that maybe Mariah isn't the bubblegum pop star with the diva voice, controlled by a behind-the-scenes mastermind, which, to be honest, is how I'd vaguely thought of her. Today's pop culture is so heavily marketed, it's hard to imagine someone like M.C. without a Svengali pulling strings. And though she was launched by Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola, whom she famously married in 1993 and famously divorced in '97, she now seems to be the puppeteer of her own act, writing and producing records, starring in a movie that borrows from her life story. Her euphemism for the marriage is "the situation," and what that apparently entailed, besides a Cinderella story, was Rapunzel story: M.C. trapped in her Bedford, New York, castle, longing to get out and take control of her life.
Well, she got out. Sitting on the couch with a glass of white wine in hand, feet up, she has the issue of food. Twenty-three million dollars will buy you whatever dinner you desire. What M.C. desires this evening is macaroni and cheese. "It's not what I should be eating," she says, stabbing it with a fork. "But hey I did have the protein bar." As she tells me about her endless day, her face takes on a bashful pride, as though I have walked into her house in the middle of renovations, but she'll show me around anyway, proud of the changes under way. It's all a work in progress.
Right away, I notice the eyebrows and the eyes. They have this quality hopeful, expectant, amazed, as though she still cannot believe her life. Everything else about her appearance gives off a vibe of being smart, tough, of knowing what's going on. The meetings, agents, deals, the two shiny electronic devices pager and cell phone that sit on the couch. Her hair, her body, her manicure, it all says celebrity, businesswoman, diva. But her eyes, particularly her eyebrows, say Holy shit! Can you believe this?
"I was in Spain doing the vocals for the soundtrack," she explains. "I go out of the country because this pager and this phone" she points to them as if they were demanding pets "will continue to go off. And so I'm out of range here."
In Malaga, she worked at a live-in studio, leaving only when her boyfriend, Luis Miguel, came to visit. He is a "huge Latin superstar," she puts it. "We got mobbed because they all love him. Of course," she adds demurely, "I have a few fans in Spain, as well."
I ask if they discuss their pasts. "A lot men don't like to tell their stories," she says. "Maybe it's a power thing? Usually, I'm the one who's open. I mean, I've had intense stuff happen to me, but I haven't been through the wringer with lots of men. I could count on less than one hand the men I've been with in my life. I really hate the thought of being intimate with somebody, and then it's over." She snaps her fingers. So was she a prude in high school?
"Well, no. As a kid, I would walk around with the tight ensembles on, and the makeup... But it wasn't like I had boyfriends that were serious or that I was having, like, intercourse with. I knew I wasn't going to get married..." She rolls her eyes, give a loopy grin. "Well, I did get married, but I knew I wasn't going to be doing the housewife thing."
2. THE SAFE PLACE M.C.'s father left when she was a toddler. She moved thirteen times while growing up on Long Island with an older brother and sister and her mom, Patricia, a Midwestern Irish American whose family never quite forgave her for marrying a man who was half black, half Venezuelan. When her parents met, Alfred Roy Carey was "a swinging aeronautical engineer," as M.C. says; she explains that now he is in no way swinging, with-it, or hip.
"He thinks I've had one album," she says as if this were the funniest thing. "Honestly, he doesn't know any of my songs!"
"I bet he's a connoisseur of your accomplishments," I say. "Connoisseur?" she says. "He doesn't know any..."
A few minutes later, M.C. is on the floor giggling, and her mother, a former opera singer now ensconced in an upstate New York house that M.C. bought for her is on speakerphone, confirming that yes, "he thinks she only made one album."
"And what do we call it?" asks M.C. They say together: "The Album." M.C. is in hysterics. "We can't diss him," she gasps. "He's just not into music." Considering she hardly knows him, she's talking with real warmth, as though he were an eccentric neighbor.
The subject of M.C.'s father makes Glitters seem all the more personal: a Poor Girl Making It story entwined with a Love story and a Lost Parent story, and, finally, a Mixed Race story. "There are a lot of mixed-race girls and young women who hold Mariah up as a hero," says Lanier. "She's proud of that. For a long time she was encouraged to play up her white side. Since she's been allowed creative freedom, she has related more to black culture."
When I tell M.C. that her mixed-race background seems, visually, pretty subtle, her face softens. "Well, that's part of it," she says. "A lot of people say things that they wouldn't say if they thought somebody, you know, black was in the room. Or vice versa. Or somebody Latin. I'm a mixture of a lot of things. Because of that, I didn't really like I had one person that I identified with."
It was around the time her marriage to Mottola dissolved that M.C. began working with acting coach Sheila Gray. She's acted as a kid, but in her "other situation," she was encouraged to focus on her music. "Sheila was one of the catalysts for helping me move out of that situation," she says. "I was so blocked, emotionally. I sat on her floor and did relaxation exercises, and immediately started crying, 'cause she said to me, 'Name a place where you feel safe.' And I was, like, 'I don't have one,' I own, contrary to popular belief, half of everything in that mansion" that she shared with Mottola "and paid for half of everything, down to the electric bills. So I didn't have one space to think of. And she said, "Well, use something from your childhood.'" The once scaldingly awful thing I know about M.C.'s childhood, which I don't bring up on this otherwise festive occasion with white wine and macaroni and cheese, is that, in a newspaper article, her sister talked about having been a prostitute and drug addict.
"So," she continues, "it was this burst of emotion, and I was just, like, Whoa! It helped me realize that, like this is not right. [Sheila] used to always say, 'Relax your shoulders,' because I walked around like I had to fight, constantly. I grew up with such free rein. And suddenly, it was this enclosed situation. I wouldn't be the person that I am if I hadn't gone back into that and gotten in touch with myself. Not to sound New Agey or corny..."
A lot of these themes play out in All That Glitters. "I think people will be blown away by her acting," Lanier says. "She is able to carry off a lot of pain and show a lot of soul." Soul, however, does not interfere with business.
"I personally met with everybody," M.C. says of her label negotiations. "I grew up with some of the smartest and most shrewd businessmen." Before she signed with Virgin, Carey got advice from Lenny Kravitz, who knew her when she was seventeen, sleeping on friends' couches waiting for a break, and from Prince, of whom she is a huge fan. "I learned a lot. It's not like somebody can lie to me and say, 'We're gonna do this and this,' and have me not go, 'Wait, who's your distributor in Taiwan?'"
3. A FISTFUL OF DIAMONDS "I don't give a f--k!" The $23 million voice booms from the ELLE studio dressing room. The controlled frenzy of the photo shoot has been compounded by news that M.C. had to fly to L.A. tonight to score her movie. Cell phones chirp, assistants swarm, and a guy in a suit stands near a briefcase guarding diamonds from Harry Winston.
"She's pulling it together," says Carey's publicist. "There's the record, the single, the radio promos, the videos, the movie, the next movie..." The trades have announced that M.C. will star with Mira Sorvino in Wise Girls, basically Wise Guys for women. The logistics of it all are an enormously complex algebra equation, a hurricane.
Then the eye of the store emerges, in pigtails, loose Levi's, a green cardigan with buttons straining across her chest. She teetering on pink marabou slippers, a glass of champagne in one hand; in her other, the diamonds, dripping and dazzling. Last night was business. This is M.C. unbound, feeling it. She offers a big "Hi!" followed by "I'm having the biggest fucking spiral day of my life!"
She has a cell against her head, and she's talking about Busta Rhymes; from the sound of it, he may be in her next video. She notices me scribbling and laughing, says, "You are seeing me at my most..." Eyes bulging, she trails off. Most what? Most perfectionist? Most confident? Most psyched? Most pissed off? All of the above? She's got a million words at her disposal; they come bubbling out like a fountain. She asks if I'd like a glass of champagne, sees hers, most empty, and belts, "Will someone get me a glass of champagne!" Then, in a whisper, "They're probably trying to keep it away from me, thinking I'm going to get drunk."
The shoot commences, and I ask an assistant, Jill, if Carey's world is usually this intense. "This is the most intense day in a long time," Jill says. "M.C. is the hardest-working girl in show business. She has a hand in everything." Right now, she has a hand between her breasts. She's mugging for the camera, rapping along to the boom box, using the fluted glass as an improvised mike: "Hate to sound sleazy, but tease me."
During the next break, she pulls me aside. "Listen, that stuff I was saying about my father. I don't want it to sound I just really want to build a relationship with him." I assure her that it was cool, warm even. Her eyes get all soft. What an operator! I think. Not that she's insincere. She just moves fast, shifts gears, and moves on. She turns, and her fistful of diamonds sparkles.
"I need to talk to Busta!" she says to no one in particular, but everyone hears her, because everyone is listening.