THE MARIAH NETWORK

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Mariah?

In the year since a tired and emotional Mariah Carey suffered a very public breakdown, she has bravely soldiered on. David A Keeps meets a woman trying to find the proper balance between diva and doormat.

Mariah Carey has a big voice, big hair, and a remarkably big bust, but it's only her big, beautiful smile that's not always 100% genuine. Sometimes the 32-year-old singer-actress smiles because she really is happy; often, however, she smiles when she's tired or miserable but doesn't want anyone to know. Because if there's one thing Mariah Carey can't stand, it's disappointing people. So she smiles and thinks of things that do make her happy — music, ice cream, butterflies, the beach, your basic girlie daydreams — and she answers those questions that everyone wants to ask: Why did the pop princess who seemed to have everything almost lose it all? And how is she putting herself back together?

The diva-in-distress, as she has come to be known, has invited journalists from Britain and Japan to New York City, her home turf, to talk a little as possible about the former and put the focus squarely on the latter. On the business front, at least, there's much to suggest an imminent comeback. She has a new CD on her own record label (distributed by the very hip Def Jam — a division of Island Records) and a stack of favourable reviews for her turn as a saucy Mafia restaurant waitress in the independent film Wise Girls. And she's taking care of herself, tending to her hypoglycemia (low-blood sugar levels) by eating small portions of fruit and cheese and drinking Snapple Iced Tea with water. And limiting her interviews to a mere four hours a day.

Before I meet her, there's a playback session of tracks from the forthcoming CD, Mariah is in fine voice, trilling through five octaves from gutsy gospel to that unearthly whistle that is at the high end of her range. She belts out a ballad she wrote called Through The Rain, the song she hopes will be her next hit record: "And should they tell you/You'll never pull through/Don't hesitate/Stand tall and say/I can make it through the rain."

The song is a metaphor for the storms of her past, is it not?

"Well yes and no," she answers immediately. "But yes, definitely. You wouldn't be off. Yes."

Indeed. Mariah is perched on a leather couch, dressed in Sergio Rossi heels, a pink peasant blouse that she bought in Capri and took scissors to this morning, and a denim skirt so tight that she frequently has to wriggle it down her shapely pins in a most girlie fashion. She looks the picture of health, with glossy lips and Bambi eyelashes framing her dark brown eyes, and talks a mile a minute. To look at her, you'd never know the darkness she's been through, including the recent and sudden death of her father — with whom she's been rebuilding a relationship — from cancer.

The clouds began forming in Mariah's life four years ago. At first they were soft and fluffy, like candy floss. Having extricated herself from a stifling five-year marriage to the man who discovered her at age 18, Mariah reinvented herself as a sexy soul singer. She'd already earned a reputation as a tireless worker with tiresome touring demands — black carpeting and trees with fairy lights — that cost $50,000 per night. She was equally extravagant with her own money, shelling out six figures for Armani gowns for an awards show and over half a million at an auction for Marilyn Monroe's white lacquer baby grand piano.

The real deluge began in 2001. Managing herself because, "I figured it's not brain surgery," Mariah had signed a new $123-million contract with Virgin Records, was producing and starring in the semi-autobiographical Glitter, acting in Wise Girls, and jetting around the world doing press for all three. "I felt I had to do it because of the money," she explains. "I've never before made any decisions based on money in my life. And I never will again."

The routine was relentless but Mariah pressed on, choosing work over a "too serious" relationship with Latin pop star Luis Miguel, and rarely finding the time to eat or sleep. "When you're on camera, you've got to be all effervescent," she reasoned. "You're not gonna be sitting there eating turkey slices while you're talking on TV."

It was all naught. After 15 No. 1s, her first single under the new deal was tanking. Her accusations of foul play on the part of her former record label, where her ex-husband works, were written off as paranoia. In July, she visited London and her behaviour became headline news. Making personal appearances carrying a pink Hello Kitty boom-box with her, she rambled and was unfocused. By the end of the month, she's posted desperate messages on her own website telling fans she was leaving the music business. She was subsequently hospitalised for exhaustion — it was rumoured — a suicide attempt.

Asked about this, Mariah draws a deep breath and replies, "It was painful that it was called a meltdown, but I sure as hell know I didn't try to kill myself. Even in the darkest hour of my life, that would never even remotely enter my mind. I don't like to use an antiquated term and possibly have it misrepresented, but I'm a very God-fearing person. So that part really killed me."

Hospitalisation didn't help. "The purpose was to rest and I didn't. It just wasn't soothing. I needed to be home, sleeping, shutting everybody out." She ended up staying at her mother's house. Even there she could find no peace. "When I walked outside in my pajamas, there was somebody in the bushes with a camera. It makes you feel pretty vulnerable — like you're being attacked."

The scrutiny was intense, but she survived it. "I just went about my life and I went to therapy and did things that were healing. I think a lot of celebrities go through stuff like that and their 'people' just keep it quiet. But I feel comfortable enough to sit here and talk about it like, 'Hey, yeah, I'm human. You try to do what I did and let's see where you end up.' I'm not angry. I actually think it's good for people to see that someone who was put up on a pedestal, who looks nice and happy in her videos, can go through stuff and come out the other end OK."

She's even gained some much-needed perspective about success. "I always strove for this. In some ways it's been the answer; in some ways it's put more of a load on my shoulders. I clearly know how much I have, but for a long time I felt, 'I have so much — why should I expect to be happy as well?'"

And she would rather you didn't break out the violins. "I used to be one of those people sitting there in my little shack watching someone on TV telling their woes and I would take the remote and say, 'Oh please, you're rich.' Click. But the truth is, money doesn't solve everything. And I don't feel that I should be less entitled to emotional support because I have financial success."

To understand Mariah today, you have to know that she grew up without much of either. The youngest child of Alfred Carey, a Venezuelan and African-American aeronautical engineer, and Patricia Hickey, a convent-schooled opera singer, Mariah, born March 27, 1970, always felt the sting of racism. Her mother was disowned for marrying a man of colour and the couple was victimised in middle-class Long Island, New York. "People tried to poison their dog, they had crosses burned on their lawn and their cars were blown up," Mariah recalls. The strain tore her parents' marriage apart — they divorced when Mariah was three — and dramatically affected her old siblings, Morgan and Alison. Morgan was the victim of violence while her sister struggled with drug abuse (from which she contracted HIV).

She looked "ambiguous" and says she felt like "this weird entity." In kindergarten she was drawing a picture of her family using a pink crayon for her mum, a beige one for herself, and a brown one for her dad. The teaching assistants told her she was doing it wrong and when Mariah told them that was how her father looked, she recalls, "They retreated and started whispering. I felt like an outcast. And I felt ugly."

When she was quite young, Mariah watched a TV programme on Marilyn Monroe and became "totally enthralled." There was a gay couple that her mother was best friends with — "They were the one stable family I knew" — and one of them was a photographer who would always take Mariah's picture. Emulating Marilyn, she'd "wear bikinis and little short outfits and ham it up."

Most of her childhood, though, was more Dickens than Disney. Her mother struggled with money and they moved over a dozen times, sometimes to places where "I was put in harm's way with men and with drugs, which thank God, I never took."

Instead, Mariah escaped through music and her dreams of life as a glamorous pop star. Determined not to be poor, she took odd jobs and briefly went to beauty school. And classmates at her high school, who saw her so rarely they called her "Mirage," recall that she once threw a party at her house, charging admission so she could buy a dress for the prom.

After graduation, Mariah followed her Saturday Night Fever dreams to Manhattan, where she waited tables and checked coats. In 1988, at a party for Columbia Records, she gave the label's Tommy Mottola a demo tape. He signed her, moulded her image, and five years later — despite a 19-year age difference — became her husband in an over-the-top ceremomy based on a video they'd seen of Charles and Diana's wedding.

Mariah now realises the marriage was doomed from the start. "My thinking was, 'If this person really wants to do this and they're so super-paranoid that I wanna go out and be with a bunch of young guys (which was so not on my agenda) and if getting married will soothe him — then fine.'" She spent most of the time in a $10 million mansion outside of New York City or in the recording studio, where she met other musicians who began to make her feel that her life was not her own. Despite couples counselling, the marriage foundered and the couple split in 1998, when Mariah began seeing baseball player Derek Jeter.

Still signed to Mottola's label, she shed the "turtlenecks and long leather jackets covering me up" for vests and cut-offs as a declaration of her independence. "I'm not Little Miss Priss," Mariah says. "Well, I am in my own way, like the fact I can count the number of men I've been with in my life on one hand. I was with Tommy, I was with Derek and I was with Luis. I didn't date anybody else."

Not even, as it has been reported, Eminem?

"No, I did not date him and I certainly did not have sexual relationship with him," Mariah replies. "Is that clear enough?"

So is that image of come-hither sexuality a front? Mariah says that yes, it is. "People can make up as many rumours as they want. I know the reality. There isn't a chance in hell that I'd go there — even if I hung out with a person and slept in the same bed. I don't like the whole sex game thing where men think they've psychologically conquered you if you allow them to go there. I'm very guarded. I really will not let someone in my life that way unless they're willing to stick it out for a year or so to see if I'm ready to be with them. If they haven't been through a lot of stuff with me, if we haven't gone through the wringer, there's just too much at stake."

Though she has made a career singing about love, Mariah says her actual experience is rather limited. "I don't know that I've ever been in love," she reveals. " I think I've romanticised about certain people and certain relationships I let drag out even though I knew it wasn't the right thing, but because it was convenient."

She's already been a wife, but she's not at all ready to be a mother. "Maybe one day, but I would want to do it properly," she says. "Because I know that children always want what they don't have, no matter what." Indeed. And it is no small irony that Mariah's life has been a case study in deprivation and overcompensation. And, apparently, it will continue to be. "Now I need to be — I don't want to use the word — selfish, but if I'm gonna do The Career, I'm gonna do The Career."

Does she ever consider that as far as love and happiness goes, maybe The Career is in fact a convenient little...

"Barrier?" she interrupts, and acknowledges, "Maybe."

Then again, it's not easy for someone like Mariah to meet men. "It's not so much a barrier as a reality. If I go out, I'm still Mariah Carey. I think I do gravitate towards famous people because maybe they'll get it. Would I go out with Joe Schmo? Yes, if Joe Schmo would come and talk to me," Mariah says with a laugh. "And had a job."

Right now, she says, she's completely content to be single, spend some quality time with good friends and lavish her attention on her two beloved dogs, Jack and Ginger. Mariah is taking care of herself, letting other people take care of her career, and relying on a sense of humour: "Where I think, 'OK this sucks, but let's laugh about how bad it is rather than be all melodramatic."

And, of course, she does still have that sweet vision of love: "I guess I would like to be with someone who was funny, who understands what it's like to be me, and doesn't expect me to be the way they see me on TV. You can never live up to that image. I'm still the same person I was," Mariah concludes. "Only now there's a lot more hoopla that goes along with it."