THE MARIAH NETWORK

Mariah, Queen Of Charts

Phenomenal sales, an industry marriage and an $80 million contract only led to breakdown and misery for Mariah Carey. Now she's back on her own terms, feted by rap royalty and being nice to orphans — but she's still Billboard's Number One girl.

Fully made up, with her honey-coloured hair just so, Mariah — her surname seems redundant — slides out of her Mercedes. She's wearing big Fiftees shades, vertiginous heels and a glorious little black dress with a distracting décolletage that reveals her breastbone, which sparkles gently and is clearly made up with as much care as her face. Despite the surroundings — a car park in a duff suburb of Amsterdam — she looks every inch the superstar, but this only partially explains the sense of anticipation of those waiting to greet her at the Esquire photoshoot, in truth, it's her reputation that has increased the collective heartbeat. Even if you can't hum one of her songs, you'll probably be familiar with the stories about Mariah's ludicrous demands — the orders for puppies to stroke backstage, stipulations that white carpet be laid outside hotels in which she is staying, the provision of three-foot scented candles, the supply of 47 Concorde tickets, the rumour that she "doesn't do stairs".

Having made her wait for several hours, due to an unavoidable airport delay, we are half-expecting fireworks but Mariah introduces herself with a soft, slightly breathless greeting reminiscent of old-school Hollywood starlets. Her natural, sexy New York street accent will only emerge when it gets darker.

Mariah is near the end of a European trip to promote The Emancipation of Mimi, one of the year's biggest albums. Her trip commenced at LIVE8 in July, and has since taken in a "wardrobe malfunction" on German television, during which her left nipple was exposed, and a sold-out show in Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens. Meanwhile, back in the US, her single "We Belong Together" became the first record in history to top all eight Billboard charts concurrently, an achievement that ranks alongside being the world's biggest-selling artist of the Nineties — which she was. Depending on who provides the figures, Mariah has sold between 160 million and 233 million albums; globally, she's the fifth-biggest artist in show business (only Cliff Richard, Julio Iglesias, Madonna and Michael Jackson have sold more records). You would have thought the numbers alone make her interesting, yet talking to people about her you sense a need to overcome their scepticism.

"I know I'm a bit of an enigma," she later tells me. "I know that people don't know what box I fit in." Is she the vocal gymnast who created the agenda for Britney and Christina and set a benchmark for marshmallow ballads that a generation of Pop Idol wannabes have to emulate? Or is she the star who popularised the r'n'b/rap crossover, by inviting Ol' Dirty Bastard to share her "Fantasy" 10 years ago? Since most people don't even realise she writes her own material, it's understandable why so few can answer the question, let alone recognise that she has helped change the face of pop. "I'll have a full interview with someone about my songwriting," she explains patiently, "and then the whole article will be about my hair. It becomes about bullshit."

Mariah's only real rivalry among her peers is with Madonna. While the latter's love affair with European dance music has delivered diminishing returns in recent years, Mariah's collaborations with urban America's brightest talents, from The Neptunes to Kanye West, has seen her undergo a renaissance. It seems the two women hold no love for one another; in an interview she gave to MTV in the Nineties, Mariah commented witheringly that, "I haven't paid attention to Madonna since seventh or eight grade...When she used to be popular." When their orbits came close colliding at LIVE8, the tabloids reported that Madonna instructed her assistants to keep Mariah "far away".

Mariah is wise to the raptorial tendencies of the papers — in review of the Hyde Park show, they chewed on her introduction of her personal masseuse and her "demands" for water without mentioning her remark about how the African Children's Choir with which she was performing represented the continent's 11 million orphans. She won't be drawn into commenting on the subject. "I don't believe anything I read about anybody anymore," she says wearily. This is hardly surprising given the ceaseless printing of gossip that infers Mariah is, a) a paragon of conspicuous consumption and, b) a demanding bitch.

Our photo session seems the perfect place to uncover evidence of unappealing traits, but the only obvious difference between Mariah's catering and what the rest of us is that her cheese plate includes some aged Camembert, while we must make do with industrially produced Brie. Her dinner, meanwhile, is a reheated Chinese takeaway, and even that is delayed until two in the morning, first by our seven-hour photoshoot, then by a Dutch TV interview and finally by my interview back at The Dylan hotel. Even then, despite a gruelling day, she is courteous throughout, and fulsome in her apologies for keeping me waiting so long. When I express surprise about this, she tells me, "Being humble is really important."

Mariah believes the rumours about her have been created to fill the void that existed during the years she was married to Tommy Mottola. The then President of Sony Music, 21 years her senior, kept her, in her words," sequestered away from the world" on their estate in upstate New York. These days, she relies on therapist's advice, which she quotes, "You've got to stop expecting anything from anybody else. Don't expect to be taken care of, it's never going to happen." She certainly seems to have given up on the press. "It's like Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, she says, stretching out on a sofa in her hotel suite, with only a small cushion in her lap to spare my blushes, "You can't handle the truth." The truth is too boring for people and it's not going to sell any papers."

This is somewhat disingenuous. There are truths about Mariah that are not boring, yet upon which she isn't willing to elaborate. While happy to confess to teenage misdemeanours — "Sometimes we might steal something," she admits. "Lord forgive me now; but I had to have those Guess jeans" — when interviewers stray towards personal relationships, her creamy voice takes on a steely tone and the drawbridge goes up. Her older sister Alison, who became a teenage mother, a drug addict, a prostitute and contracted HIV, is someone Mariah will refer to only in the most oblique terms. In conversation, Mariah regularly refers to people as "someone" or a "a person" rather than naming then, as though it's understood who she's talking about (Chris Martin apparently does much the same when talking about his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow). The subject of her marriage to Mottola used to be off limits too, though she was recently quoted as saying that he would frequently call her, "freaking out that I'm not at the house and out screwing a million guys, and that's not who I am."

Her reluctance to air her private grievances hasn't always been appreciated, even by some within her own camp. Earlier this year, Mariah told The Big Issue that when promoting 2002's Charmbracelet album she was advised to play on her personal trials. "People wanted me to talk and to cry on television with Oprah," she said. But personal stresses have taken their toll. In 2001, an ambulance was summoned to her mother's house in New York. Mariah denies that this was the suicide attempt the tabloids described, and has always downplayed the gravity of the breakdown. A bad year got worse when the release of her film, Glitter, coincided with 9/11 (though that could be said to have been the least of its problems). The soundtrack sold more than four million copies, but Virgin Records, who had signed her to a deal valued at $80 million, promptly terminated her contract with $28 million payoff. Retirement must have looked tempting but she threw the dice one more time, signing to Island Def Jam Records, the latest incarnation of the legendary Def Jam hip-hop imprint. And she rolled a pair of sixes.

Champion of breakthrough R'n'B stars TLC and Usher, Antonio "LA" Reid is a titan of the music industry. Where Sony, and Mottola, emphasised Mariah's Caucasian roots (her mother was a frustrated opera singer) by giving her Pavarotti and Whitney Houston duets, the head of Island Def Jam fostered Mariah's love for r'n'b and hip-hop, partnering her on recent records with the likes of Jadakiss and DJ Clue. The singer finally feels she's on a label that understands her, and that she no longer has to argue "over artists that I wanted to work with, collaborations that I wanted to have and remixes of songs that I thought were better for the album".

For Mariah, these battles were significant. Growing up poor and mixed-race in Long Island — her mother is white and her father was part African-American and part Venezuelan — left her hoping that fame would bring more than just material rewards. "Of course I wanted all that stuff too," she says, "but it was more about validation because — and this is me analysing myself as a kid — 'People look at me and see this girl who doesn't fit in. They see these shabby clothes, they don't really know where to put me, if I'm black, if I'm white, if I'm Venezuelan...' If you'd asked me if I'd rather be rich or famous, I'd have said famous." Her voice, and that appealing New York accent, softens in tone and volume as she says, "When I was a little kid, I always felt like an outsider."

Despite the demure outfits and ballads, she didn't lose touch with her roots. 1993's "Dreamlover" was co-produced by Dave "Jam" Hall, who had worked with hardcore New York rappers Brand Nubian and r'n'b queen Mary J. Blige. "That was his clientele," says Mariah. "I'm a fan of hip-hop records until we found 'Blind Alley' by David Porter — and that's the loop in "Dreamlover'." Then in 1995 a remix by Sean "Puffy" Combs of her song "Fantasy" appeared, featuring deranged Wu Tang Clan member Ol' Dirty Bastard. "It wasn't the record company who suggested I work with ODB," she says. "They were like, 'Who?' They said, 'Rap is a fad. Why do you want to associate yourself with this?', and that certain people — I'm talking about big stars, multi-millionaire people who started out as rappers-slash-producers — would be 'working at McDonald's next year'."

Those execs were wrong about P. Diddy, but that was another era and at the time those songs, while great, sat uncomfortably with her Sony image. Yet, talking to Mariah, it's clear that she loves hip-hop. She enthuses about staying up late for DJ Red Alert's radio show ("It was part of the soundtrack to my childhood"), obscure New York trio Whodini, and Sugarhill Gang's landmark "Rapper's Delight" ("We all bought it and memorised it").

When Mariah talks about "Dreamlover", and its sample from "Blind Alley", she says that Q Tip from A Tribe Called Quest once told her: "You do realise you're the catalyst for all this stuff?" He was referring to both r'n'b's domination of the charts, and the way all r'n'b singers now employ rappers to appear on their records — a trend that has filtered all the way down to Elton John, whose sepulchral collaboration with Tupac, "Ghetto Gospel", recently topped the charts.

Mariah's best old songs, like "Dreamlover", "Fantasy" and "I Know What You Want", symbolise everything that's great about the genre. Meanwhile, the new album's highlights, such as "We Belong Together", "It's Like That" and "One and Only", have seen her reach new creative heights. Has anyone put her voice to better work than Kanye West has for the chorus of "Stay The Night"? Make no mistake: if Phil Spector or Berry Gordy were starting a label today, they'd be as interested in working with Mariah as they would with Beyonce.

Approaching the end of our interview, I finish by asking how and why she keeps going, since there's little to gain and so much to lose. Despite its success, the new album will never match the tens of millions she sold in the Nineties — the record industry has changed so much. After nearly choking on the popcorn she's been nibbling, she hesitates and then qualifies her answer, saying, "I don't want to come across as preachy." She just wants to convey how much she's learned from God, The Bible and the True Worship Church, which sits opposite a housing project in Brooklyn. "People still don't believe I really go there," she says, despite her pastor, Reverend Dr. Clarence Keaton, appearing on the new album's final track, "Fly Like A Bird". Mariah thinks the line he quotes from Psalms 30.5 — "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning" — is particularly pertinent. "It's a message needed so bad at one point in my life," she says, "and nobody said it. That's why I was so grateful when he thought of that passage."