THE MARIAH NETWORK

Iron Butterfly

While ruling he charts with her trademark brand of soft-rock balladeering, Mariah Carey suffered at the eye of a personal hurricane. Now, after separating from her husband — music industry heavyweight Tommy Mottola — and escaping her musical straitjacket, she is willing to talk about it.

On paper, Mariah Carey is the modern-day fairytale princess who had it all. Mini-series are written about people like her; she's the real-life Danielle Steele heroine who came from nothing to conquer evil.

As the biggest-selling female recording artist of the '90s her bank balance stands at $300 million. She has sold 80 million records worldwide and her Disney-esque rags to riches rise from the drug and vice-riddled streets of New York has become legend.

She is the product of a broken home. Her Irish-American mother — former opera singer — left her Venezuelan father when Carey was three years old, and struggled to raise her three children alone, moving house 13 times in as many years.

Her estranged sister, Alison, has contracted AIDS after years of heroin abuse and teenage prostitution. She has written a scathing book about her famous sibling with whom she severed ties after the singer and her mother "kidnapped" her nine-year-old son, Michael, in 1995, to save him from the squalor of his mother's life. Her elder brother, Morgan — who beat an attempted murder charge when he was 18 after allegedly accepting $2,000 to kill a neighbour's cheating husband — has also spoken out against his sister. An ex-boyfriend, currently in jail for dealing cocaine, is threatening to sue the singer for a chunk of her fortune.

And, as if that wasn't bad enough, three disgruntled songwriters are claiming Carey stole their songs. Taking all of this into account, it is hardly surprising to discover that behind the pomp and ceremony that precedes an audience with the 27-year-old Queen of Ballads she has never been truly happy in her short, mainly dysfunctional, life.

"Until recently I could very easily fall into depression where I was dealing with all the negativity that surrounds me. No matter how much success I've had there has never been a time in my life when I have been free from all of that," admits Carey, who now lives alone on the outskirts of New York.

With her braided hair hidden beneath a cap and dressed in a simple white vest and fashionably dar denim jeans, she looks every inch the model of the all-American dream. Yet, despite her rather brave front, there is an infinite sadness about her, which until recently had never translated into her videos or her music. She wears a wounded look that refuses to leave her even when she lets rip a dirty, playful laugh.

It tells you she feels hurt, betrayed, manipulated and sold out by the people closest to her — a look which even $300 million can't relinquish. "All of those experiences have made me very cautious and wounded because I've never had one person who I trusted completely... ever," she says.

"Especially now that all of these family things have been in the press. It's not something I've ever made public, I'm not the sort of person who airs her dirty linen in public, but I have to deal with it because they've chosen to out it," she says, still unable to understand what she has done to create such bad feeling among the people she once loved most.

"Fortunately I am very close to my nephews. One in particular is only two years younger than me and we've bonded because we've had these bizarre, crazy childhoods. He wants to be a lawyer and, like me, he has this amazing sense of hope. It's what has got us through all the s***. It's made us survivors, we are incredibly resilient because we've had to fight hard to get out of where we came from.

"My mother gets very upset and defensive when I say I had a crazy upbringing but it's not her fault. It was circumstances and the negative influence of others who were around at the time, they exposed me to a lot of the seedier side of life.

"My ticket out of there was my singing. It's always made me feel special as opposed to inferior and completely insecure."

But if life has been harsh on Carey in the past, it was merely to prove a training ground for what she has been through in the past 18 months. In May last year, Mariah and her husband, Sony Music Entertainment boss, Tommy Mottola, split.

Weeks later she fired her manager, Randy Hoffman and attorney, Alan Grubman, both close associates of Mottola's.

It was a brave move — especially when you consider Mottola is regarded as the most powerful man in the music industry, and that Carey had worked closely with all three since she was 18. They had championed her unstoppable career, made her Sony's most profitable artist and so famous that, inevitably, they needed her more than she needed them,

"Ending my marriage and my business relationships was a very gradual process of self-preservation," Carey explains. "When people have been with you since you were a teenager they always have this view of you as a kid, no matter what you do.

"This past year or so has been the hardest in some ways but also the most important. I've been scared, depressed and nervous but I had to go through all of that to get where I am now.

"At the beginning of the year I was in a really bad state. Nothing was fun anymore and nothing was easy because for the first time in my life I was very aware of what was going on around me."

She adds, "I had to empower myself for my own emotional stability. You have to look at what people's functions are and then decide if you want to continue having them in that role. I decided to move on.

"When I married I guess I thought it was for life. But with hindsight I don't think you ever really know if anything is going to last a lifetime. In your early 20s you think you know a lot in the same way you think you know a lot when you're 15. Years later you look back and think maybe you didn't know so much after all," she sighs.

"The most important thing to me now is having my own team of people around me. People who work specifically for me, it's not a control thing — it just means that I don't have to be concerned that there are other motives going on. I don't have this constant paranoia that if I wear a certain dress it's going to cause a drama. But more importantly it means that I can make time for myself, for fun — that's what I want more than anything."

Fun could not come in a more-all American shape. "Because I travel the world with my work I tend to spend any holidays I have at home in the States. My favourite place to escape to is Disneyworld in Florida, usually I hire a plane for a day and fly a group of my friends down there.

"It gives me a chance to let off some steam and if I pull on some old shorts and a baseball cap noone gives me a second look. Disneyworld brings out the child in me, besides I never had a chance to goof around like that when I was a kid."

It's now nine years since Carey's demo tape was handed to Tommy Mottola whom she met at a party as an unknown 18-year-old waitress and some-time backing singer.

Since then she has been "a workhorse" removed from the real world and imprisoned by her own fame and new-found good fortune. Some have said it was Mottola, a fiercely possessive man, who kept her locked away, an accusation she will neither confirm nor deny — although she admits that she rarely went out in the past, preferring to have "friends back to the house."

Since splitting with her husband, Carey has been hitting the town with her close friends and new colleagues, rapper and star producer Sean 'Puffy' Combs and the Wu-Tang Clan's Ol' Dirty Bastard, whom she refers to politely as 'ODB'.

These outings have instigated a series of false, tabloid reports that she is dating again.

"Puffy and ODB merely replaced some of the safer producers I was used to working with," she clarifies. "They are great friends whose influence had helped me to create a more modern and urban sound."

She is, of course, referring to Butterfly — her latest album that lyrically and musically encompasses the drama of her private life for the first time.

Her image has evolved along a similar line too with this record; gone are her cutesy denim shorts and shopping mall ensembles and in their place provocative, fashionable Guccy spike heels and short skirts with even shorter tops.

"Butterfly was like therapy to me because it was like putting my life on paper. I can't believe I've been so honest — some of those songs are so personal to me," she says.

"The last time I was single I was in High School and that's all the experience I have to draw on when it comes to being on my own. It's been scary at times," she explains.

"I don't know if I'll ever want to marry again. I've always been very fearful of marriage because I've never had a firm example of what a married couple should be like. If I did it would have to be because I want to have kids. I'm so careful about who I let in.

"That's why I have to laugh when I read these reports in the tabloids making out I'm the new slut on the block, going out with every guy in town.

"The truth of the matter is that because of the way I was raised I'm so self-protective and almost paranoid of being intimate with someone. I'm not a frigid person but I'm definitely not a loose freak that's running around with a different guy every week.

"It makes me angry when I'm portrayed like that. That just isn't me — for starters I'm too germ phobic — and besides, I have my self respect."

And that is something for which she has fought hard and paid dearly.