THE MARIAH NETWORK

Butterflies Aren't Free

Behind the scenes of her busted marriage with Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola and her controversial new album "Butterfly."

Welcome to the newly single life of Mariah Carey. It is free and entangled, exhilarating and embattled. And it never stops moving.

At a Manhattan photo studio in late August, Carey is torn between posing for shots and dealing with the prelaunch mania surrounding her fifth album, Butterfly. Cell phones ring incessantly. Carey's new manager, Hollywood power broker Sandy Gallin, swings by to nail down details of her appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards. A stylist and hair and makeup artists commandeer the pop star's free minutes. At one point, Carey — who, these days, oscillates between moments of infectious playfulness and emotional rawness — shoves a tape into the VCR. It's the video for a remix of Butterfly's first single, "Honey." In it, she pinches the cheeks of rappers Sean "Puffy" Combs and Mase — a tender gesture, but one that also conjures The Godfather. "That freaked them out," she says, laughing. "They take that [gangster] stuff seriously."

At other moments, Carey disappears to her dressing room with a cell phone. One wireless conversation with a Butterfly producer erupts into a dispute. To the chagrin of her makeup artist, tears soon streak Carey's face. "Being able to handle things on my own is good," she explains later. The singer is in the midst of a complicated breakup from husband Tommy Mottola, the president and COO of Sony Music Entertainment and the man who, until this year, has overseen every aspect of her career. And behind the scenes, the split has sparked angry accusations of infidelity, abusive behavior, and artistic suppression. Carey's tears, she says, were inevitable: "It's so easy to become overwhelmed during the state I'm in right now, I just couldn't help it."

Around midnight, the 15-hour shoot is finally over, but the 27-year-old Carey's not ready to call it quits. Just before 1 a.m., she takes off for the Palladium nightclub with an entourage of friends. Carey throws off the day's stress by throwing in a tape by the Jerky Boys, whose antic juvenile humor proves the perfect release. "I love these guys," she says, mimicking along with the pranksters' mischievous phone voices.

At the club, Carey and party slip through a private entrance into near chaos. So many people fill every corridor that bodyguards are exercising crowd control backstage. Carey, however, makes her way through the multitude like an habitue. She kisses the night's headliner, the manically dreadlocked Busta Rhymes. Heads swivel as she sidles on, greeting a hot record producer here, an up-and-coming hip-hopper there, before climbing upstairs to a private office, where a bucket of Cristal awaits.

Carey hangs out in this cramped hideaway for most of the night. Her two bodyguards block the door, but a few VIP rappers, like Combs and Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, cameo in to say hi. "Mariah, she listens to rap. She's straight up just cool," says Elliott, a friend since the two cowrote a song for Butterfly. Contrary to tabloid innuendo, it's hardly the wild gangsta-rap atmosphere in which Carey has supposedly immersed herself. In fact, the only threatening thing is the guy blowing chunks just outside the office door. Carey — the pop diva who, in the past, has seemed so inaccessible — is experiencing it all. And as 3 a.m. approaches, it's still four hours before the insomniac will hit the sheets. She promises to make a 3 p.m. interview scheduled for the next day. "That's bright and early for me," she warns.

It's only a 50-mile drive from this scene in downtown Manhattan to the affluent white burg of Bedford, N.Y., where Carey lived for the last two years. But the contrast between environs - from nightclub to country club - is immense. In 1993, Carey, dressed in a $25,000 Vera Wang gown, married Mottola in a grandioso ceremony attended by the likes of Barbra Streisand and Billy Joel, and reportedly modeled after the royal nuptials of Diana and Charles. At the time, Carey gushed to PEOPLE magazine that her life had become a fairy tale - "Cinderella," to be exact. And the couple built an ostentatious, $10 million mansion in Bedford - complete with two pools and a recording studio - that became the talk of the music biz. The plush suburban life, for a time, clearly had its appeal. "She didn't get out much," says rap producer Jermaine Dupri, who began working with Carey two years ago on her 1995 multi-platinum album, Daydream.

Mottola and Carey had met in 1988, when she was an 18-year-old waitress/singer from Long Island and he was a married talent manager-turned-rookie label head 20 years her senior and on the hunt for the next Whitney Houston. According to industry lore, he grabbed her demo tape away from another exec at a party and within days signed Carey and her octave-scaling voice. While she was recording her 1990 debut, Mariah Carey, a romance blossomed. The professional and personal symbiosis turned Carey into the best-selling female singer of the '90s.

Indeed, Carey appears to be taking charge of her music and her life. Along with the symbolic titling of Butterfly, she is stepping out in a number of ways. Boasting a host of R&B and rap collaborators, Butterfly reins in the ballads, explores an edgier street sound, and offers her most personal lyrics yet. At the MTV Video Music Awards two weeks ago, Carey showed up in quite a different Vera Wang outfit than the one in which she got married: a bandeau top with a skirt provocatively slit, on both sides, to the hip. Recently, she canned her manager, Randy Hoffman, and lawyer Allen Grubman, both of whom are long-standing intimates of Mottola. And now - like Whitney, Janet, and Madonna before her - Mariah hopes to go Hollywood. Since January, she has been studying with a drama coach. "My whole life I've wanted to act," says Carey, who hopes to make her movie debut sometime next year.

So far, the metamorphosis is taking wing. "Honey" rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its first week of release. That makes Carey — with her 1995 hits "Fantasy" and "One Sweet Day" — responsible for three of only six singles ever to accomplish that feat. And as befits a singer who can so deftly tip the musical scales, she's taking the high road in the split. "I love him. I care about him," Carey says, recalling a quiet dinner she recently shared with Mottola on her chartered boat in the Hamptons. That evening, Mottola dinghied over from his boat and cooked pasta. "He made sauce, which is his specialty," she says.

Talking about the split, Carey chooses her words carefully, as she is prone to do. At once candid and coy, she'll answer "yes," then hedge for five minutes. On the subject of her marriage, the indirectness is understandable in light of the unflattering attention it received in a Vanity Fair profile of Mottola last December. The article, rife with denials from the record mogul, painted him as a controlling, Mafia-connected obsessive who'd turned Cinderella into Rapunzel inside their Bedford estate. The picture was of Carey as a prisoner in her own home. "When you've experienced more than someone else, it's a natural tendency to try to protect the other person from things that you've gone through," is all she'll say about Mottola's purported behavior. "But now, I have to learn things for myself. I have to experience things for myself. I have to make my own decisions and live by them."

Then why is a controversy of the singer's own creation calling into question the sincerity of her cozy comments? Ever since "Honey" debuted on MTV six weeks ago, media watchers have been astonished by the video's seemingly too-close-to-home scenario. On screen, Carey, portraying a 007 type called Agent M, is handcuffed to a chair inside a magnificent palazzo. GoodFellas actor Frank Sivero, as a rug-haired Italian hood, threatens her with death. Luckily, pluckily, Agent M escapes by Jet Ski.

The parallels between the "Honey" plot and the Vanity Fair piece are eerie. "It's the most incredibly coincidental thing that you could put out," says producer Walter Afanasieff, who's worked with Carey since 1990 but who fell out with the singer last spring over the hip-hop flavor of Butterfly. (As a hitmaker for Sony artists like Streisand and Celine Dion, Afanasieff is an employee of Mottola's.) "Everything in the video is 'F--- you, Tommy,'" he adds.

With "Honey," is Carey presenting her true feelings about Mottola while also perpetuating the Mob talk? Someone who works for Carey but requested anonymity insists the video is a calculated, sharp-edged lampoon of the record exec, made to elicit sympathy for her alleged mistreatment. "It's like 'poor Mariah,'" the source says, adding "She's very smart."

But should anyone care if Mottola doesn't? In an undoubtedly difficult position as Sony Music's top man and the ex of one of its biggest stars, Mottola not only released the video, but publicly supported it. Mottola declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a New York Post article headlined MARIAH'S VIDEO VENGEANCE, a publicist relayed the mogul's enthusiasm. "Tommy loves the video," the flack offered, "and says it's the best yet from Mariah."

The day after her late night on the town, the video's auteur, dressed in a midriff-baring top and blue shorts, is installed in the penthouse of a downtown hotel. Since Carey has moved out of her Bedford mansion but not yet found her own apartment, this is her home for the week. Exhausted and stressed, she wants to talk from bed. Curled up under a pink blanket, she nestles a stuffed puppy close to her side.

"It's not intended to be a dis to Tommy," she says of the video, in her brassy but genial speaking voice. "All this speculation is really kind of crazy — the media hyping it and feeding it." According to Carey, an afternoon of jet skiing in Puerto Rico earlier this year inspired the "Honey" chase scene. "Her idea was just to do a James Bond kind of thing," says the video's director, Paul Hunter. The chief villain, Carey adds, was not conceived as a role for an Italian American. In fact, funnymen Chris Farley and Denis Leary were both approached to play the part but were unavailable.

A frustrated Carey would rather talk about Butterfly, which (as is the case with all her albums) she cowrote and coproduced. As an expression of her lifelong love of R&B and rap music, it's a project that's close to her heart. It's also one that seems intrinsically linked to Carey's ongoing exploration of her mixed-race identity. Her mother, who raised Carey, is Irish; her father is a black Venezuelan. The couple divorced when she was three. "Growing up, it was difficult for me to find people that I connected with," says Carey, "because of all my issues of feeling separate and apart."

The R&B world is where, Carey believes, she's found her peers. "I grew up in New York. I grew up on urban music," she says. "It's totally a part of me." Adds Afanasieff: "She gets in her car, puts on her radio stations, and it's always R&B. She knows every song, every word, every rap out there."

Not naming Mottola specifically, Carey maintains that her label has opposed her interest in the genre. Two years ago, while making Daydream, she hatched the idea of teaming with hardcore rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan on a remix of her song "Fantasy." How dirty is Dirty? Expressing his unrequited feelings for Carey, he says, "I want to tear her a-- up."

According to Carey, Columbia, worried the pairing would damage her crossover appeal, discouraged the experiment. "Everyone was like, What are you, crazy?" she remembers. "They're very nervous about breaking the formula. It works to have me sing a ballad on stage in a long dress with my hair up." Columbia president Don Ienner responds: "I was incredibly positive about ODB. There might have been some [who fought it].... I can only speak for myself."

The remix was ultimately made, boosting her hip quotient. Says Carey, "They started to realize, 'Maybe she does know what she's doing.'" And on Butterfly, she takes her passion further. Combs produced "Honey," Mase and Da Brat rap on remixes, and members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony guest-star.

According to a source at Sony, Mottola, who gave Carey complete freedom on this project, worries that Butterfly may have flown too far from Carey's fan base. "Tommy's looking at it from a business standpoint, saying 'You know what? We sell about 3 to 13 percent of your sales to [the] black music [market].' He's not saying 'Don't make black music.' He's saying 'Don't go totally left of what you've already built.'"

The concern may be overwrought. For one thing, groups such as Sony's Fugees have proved rap's international appeal. And Carey herself may turn out to be a powerful popularizer.

More important, a quick listen to Butterfly reveals that the ballads are still there — though they don't soar as they used to. "I wanted to do so much more, and she wanted to keep it light and R&B," says Afanasieff. "She was trying to prove herself to be this Mary J. Blige kind of thing: 'Let me show my independence and streetness. Let the conglomerate of Tommy Mottola and Sony Music drop off of me for a while.'"

Still, Carey's rebelliousness didn't overtake common sense: Butterfly is in no danger of requiring a parental advisory sticker. "We can't be cursing and all on the record," says Elliott. "She's still Mariah. You've got to be careful not to change too much."

In all, it's a quiet, even melancholy album, with lyrics that dwell on the acceptance of love gone bad. "For the first time since the first album," Carey says, "it feels like I'm letting a piece of myself go."

She credits her acting lessons as an important tool in discovering herself this year. "People have told her to be so careful about what she says and presents," says her coach, Sheila Gray. "I think a lot of her real voice got lost." Carey has even been revisiting, through drama exercises, some of the difficult terrain of a poor and unhappy childhood. "It's helped me to get in touch with my feelings," she says. (In lighter moments, she's rehearsed Judy Holliday's role in Born Yesterday, the story of a young woman whose thuggish older boyfriend wants to refine her. One day, relates Gray, Tommy "did Born Yesterday with us." A testament, apparently, to Mottola's highly developed sense of irony.)

Still lying in bed at her hotel, the new Mariah wants to make clear she's not disowning the old one. "I realize who I am, who my audience is," she says, her voice tiring. It's 10 p.m. Carey needs sleep. She also needs to rehearse her dancers, with whom she'll appear on London's Top of the Pops. And she wants to stop by a remix session for Butterfly with the rap group Mobb Deep. "Lately, I find myself wanting to cram in everything," says Carey, who stays out for a second night in a row.

So what did go wrong with the marriage? While the singer is in London, friends and associates of both Carey and Mottola come forward to tell highly polarized stories. But one theme is central: The couple was undone by a generation gap that became a chasm. "This was doomed from the beginning," says a source close to both.

Friends of Carey's assert they witnessed a pattern of controlling behavior on Mottola's part from the start. According to one, he strove to regulate Carey's desire to dress as she likes. Her tastes are tight and tighter; he wanted her in Armani and Calvin Klein. "He did not like her to look too sexy," the source says.

Another friend claims that Mottola forbade her to even discuss her wish to act. "She wasn't allowed to grow professionally," he says, charging that scripts sent to Carey were never passed on to her. Debbie Allen, of Fame fame and a producer of Steven Spielberg's upcoming Amistad, confirms she called Randy Hoffman's management office a few years ago with a project for Carey. "I was told she wasn't interested in doing any acting or any movies. Point blank. I found that very surprising." Allen, who met Carey just a few weeks ago, relayed the story. "Mariah said, 'I never even knew you called.'" (Hoffman did not return several calls for comment.)

According to the second source, Mottola also pushed away many of Carey's friends, banned cute guys in her videos, listened to her conversations through the intercom system in the mansion, and on occasion hit redial to find out whom she'd been talking to. If Mottola did behave this way, what motivated him? "It was an obsession," says the source, adding hyperbolically, "It was exactly like Sleeping With the Enemy...but without the towels."

Mottola defenders deny that Carey's life in Bedford was harshly circumscribed. "This was the queen's castle; it wasn't, like, his and he put her there," says one. "She loved being there." They concede that Mottola could be overly possessive. But they insist this was in reaction to Carey's behavior. A deep-seated insecurity, they say, prompted her to continually seek attention from other men. "If she knew there'd be guys around, she'd wear really short shorts and get all made up, just to make an entrance.... She didn't realize you got a husband here. You can't be flirtatious just to boost your ego." A year ago, according to these accounts, as problems escalated, Carey started spending much of her time in Manhattan, using a studio there instead of the one in Bedford to begin work on Butterfly.

Soon after, she met 22-year-old New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter at a Nov. 21 benefit for the Fresh Air Fund, a charity the singer has long supported. Recently, the pair — who share a similar mixed-race heritage — have been reported to be an item. But the reputedly on-and-off affair, say sources close to Mottola and Carey, began shortly after their initial meeting — and about six months before the separation announcement. "One of the major reasons this marriage fell apart is because she was seeing this guy," says a Mottola sympathizer, who's galled by the video portrayal of Carey as victim. "The idea of her as this spirit who has broken free is absurd.... Mariah is no innocent." (Jeter's spokesman did not return calls.)

Charges of opportunism fly back to the dawn of the relationship. "Tommy was so much to her that I'm sure, in the beginning, it was her looking for a career," says a Sony staffer. "She was his trophy," counters a friend of Carey's. "Personally, she was this beautiful, incredibly sexy 19-year-old. And professionally, she was his ticket."

Allies of both agree on a few things: that Mottola didn't want the marriage to end; Carey was too young when she married; she felt indebted to him; and she tried to make the marriage work. "She gave it a million percent. Anybody else, it would've been annulled in six months," says a Carey pal.

As in most breakups, a measure of truth seems to reside on both sides. "Mariah, you knew the control freak Tommy is," says Afanasieff. "You knew what he would do for you, what he was planning for you, what he didn't want you to wear — and still you married the guy.

"And Tommy, look at who you're marrying. This girl listens to rap 24 hours a day. All she talks about is acting in movies. Don't you think she's going to want to do this? Why do you guys deny all of this?"

Perhaps they don't have any choice. Recently, Mottola signed a five-year contract with Sony. Carey owes the company four more albums. The exes may be working together into the millennium. So a certain forced public amicability is apparently a necessary fact of life.

On Sept. 4, the day of the video music awards, a more forthcoming Carey shows up for another interview. This time, she's staying at an uptown hotel. At a restaurant downstairs, she orders comfort food — a milk shake — to calm her nerves. "I'm just feeling a little bit vulnerable and wounded by a lot of things," she says.

In the past few weeks, gossip about Carey has been hitting the tabloids almost daily. One item recounts how a co-op board turned her down. In addition to the Jeter rumor, she has been linked romantically to Combs, rapper Q-Tip, and David Fumero, a model in the "Honey" video. "I can't comment on people out there spreading negativity. They don't have my interests at heart," she says.

Confronted with some of the accusations that have surfaced, Carey lets out a sigh. At times, she hyperventilates. Yes, she concedes, Mottola did oppose her acting. The separation, she states, began in December. But no, she insists again, the video is not meant to be a slap. "I'm not trying to be his enemy," she says.

Is she seeing Jeter? "No, nope." Anyone else? "I'm not involved with anybody at this point, now as we sit here." But did another person pull her and Tommy apart? "This didn't happen because of another person," she says. "The other person was myself."

What angers her most are charges of opportunism. "It's like when people used to say, 'If she weren't married to him, she wouldn't have this, she wouldn't have that.' I don't care if you're married to the President of the United States or Houdini! Nobody can make the public buy records.... I've worked my a-- off for years, and contributed as much to the company as the company contributed to me."

Carey just wants the grilling to end. "What's the issue? Is the issue that I shouldn't have left?" she asks. "Who the hell is perfect, and why should I be expected to be perfect?"

It seems clear that a troubled marriage, inextricably tied to a multimillion-dollar recording career, isn't letting go of either party. If charges that Mottola suffocated Carey as an artist are true, she deserves the opportunity to grow on her own. If, indeed, the video is about Mottola, then perhaps Carey isn't moving on at all. The butterfly, now freed from her protective cocoon, may still be learning to use her wings.

"What really matters at the end of the day is not how many records I've sold, who says I was manipulative, who says I was manipulated, who says I was caged, who says I planned the whole thing," she says. "I know who I am." Sounds like the beginning of a compelling solo flight.