THE MARIAH NETWORK

Madame Butterfly

Mariah Carey takes flight, finding a new home and a new love in New York City.

"You wanna see something funny?" asks Mariah Carey, standing in the spacious kitchen of her new townhouse apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Carey walks over to an oil painting hanging on the wall, opposite an enormous stained-glass window and a towering 19th-century cabinet. The work includes a certain delicate, winged creature for which the singer named her latest multiplatinum CD: the butterfly. "I noticed if after I moved in," she says in her husky, sultry voice. "Butterflies are always following me, everywhere I go." Inscribed near the top are the Latin words levior aura, which translates as "lighter than a breeze." But for Carey, the painting "has something to do with freedom."

Certainly, freedom has been a major theme in this 28-year-old superstar's recent history. Shortly before releasing Butterfly last September, Carey announced her separation from Sony Music Entertainment president and CEO Tommy Mottola, the man who discovered her in 1989 and married four years later. While the couple, who remain on amicable terms, fielded offers for the mansion they had built (complete with indoor pool, ballroom and recording studio) and decorated together on a secluded suburban estate in Bedford, New York, Carey embarked on a diligent search for a place of her own. That search instinctively led the Long Island native to the Big Apple. "I remember being 5 or 6 years old, looking at New York from the back of a car, thinking, I'm gonna live in the city one day!" Carey recalls.

So, last year, Carey leased three floors of this townhouse in one of the city's most elegant enclaves. It's a comfortable setting for Carey, who in spite of her newly liberated status and her penchant for staying hip to the latest music and fashions also craves security and stability. "The thing about me is I always felt like an outsider," she says. "That's partly because I'm multiracial" — Carey's mother, a former opera singer, is Irish-American; her father is a black Venezuelan — "and partly because of not having much money when I was a kid." Her parents split up when she was a toddler; after that, Carey and her older brother and sister moved around Long Island with her mother, who often had to struggle to make ends meet.

Life with Mottola was far steadier. "[With him] I was definitely in more of a controlled environment than I'd ever been in, and that was an important part of my growth. Now I feel more independent, more comfortable being alone." Not that the best-selling female vocalist of the decade — Carey has sold more than 90 million records — is exactly spending her days and nights in solitude. She has a new love interest in New York Yankee star shortstop Derek Jeter (more about that later) and has also set her sights on a movie career. Later this year, she begins shooting the action comedy Double-oo-Soul; in addition, she is developing a script and sound track for a dramatic film centered on a family musical act. Most significantly, Carey is feeling at ease in her own skin, and in the city she loves. "Before, it was a big drama for me to hail a cab by myself. Now I was around and do what I want."

To make the transition from living in a giant manor to living by herself, Carey wanted a sizable place with a homey feel. The townhouse clearly fit the bill. "It felt like home the minute I stepped into it," Carey says. "And you know what's great? I can get up in the middle of the night and get something to eat, and I don't feel there's a goblin lurking behind the door. Being in a humongous house out in the country can be frightening. It was a beautiful place, but kind of formal and imposing. This feels cozy."

Part of the coziness can be attributed to the way the current owner, an investment banker in his 30s, furnished it. Carey says she favors the rich, warm tones that dominate the apartment, from the deep red accents in the guest bedroom to the abundance of cherrywood and mahogany in the library. She is equally pleased with the limestone fireplace in the living room — one of five fireplaces in the apartment. "That's something I would have chosen. It's very me."

Carey has also peppered the place with distinctly personal touches. Photos of her at various ages — as a toddler on the beach, as an adolescent with her mom, as an adult with Diana Ross — are everywhere, alongside shots of her friends, relatives and numerous pets (among hem, her dear departed cat, Clarence, and, of course, terrier Jack). There is more butterfly paraphernalia as well, her hair clips to jewelry boxes; Carey explains that her pals, who call her M.C., have been lavishing such trinkets on her since the album came out. In the kitchen are two framed letters from Bill Clinton. "I hope to hear you in person someday," the President scribbled on one.

But it is in the basement that Carey's impact on the apartment is most obvious. She has converted it into a walk-through closet, complete with a beauty area boasting a professional-style chair for facials and electrolysis ("People see it and they're like, 'What, do you get dentistry done in here?'"). Even so, Carey is reluctant to buy this home because it lacks the space "for a workout facility, and all that jazz" — "that jazz" meaning storage space for clothes and shoes, of which she has a mind-boggling supply. The singer often has to throw on a robe and ride down to the basement in the elevator — which she shares with the family living above her in the townhouse — simply to get dressed.

Carey's clothes are neatly arranged and scrupulously color-coordinated. Pants, dresses, jackets, miniskirts, halter tops, T-shirts and handbags form rows and rows and stacks and stacks. While living in the Bedford house, where she had even more space, Carey "was so organized, I had my clothes numbered," she laughs, pointing to a marked tag on one jacket as proof. Her wardrobe reveals a personal style that veers toward the funky and formfitting, a look that her tall (5-foot-9), slim ("I go down to a 4 and up to an 8 or 10 when I'm bloated"), perfectly proportioned frame readily accommodates. A favorite item at the moment is a white elastic tube top ("Seven dollars!" she boasts playfully); she shuns blazers, though, preferring to slip a short black leather-and-nylon jacket over her painted-on jeans.

An anomaly in Carey's jacket collection is a hulking navy-blue number emblazoned with the New York Yankees logo. "I went to a game the other day and I got cold, so I bought one," Carey says coyly. Without much pressing, she tells the real story: The rumors that she is dating Derek Jeter are true. She met him, she says, about a year ago, and their relationship evolved from a friendship and has been strengthened by the common ground they share. "His mom is Irish and his father's black — same thing as me. I had never met anybody like that, and that's always been a big part of who I am."

Of course, as the ex-wife of a prominent entertainment-industry figure, Carey understands that celebrity couplings can be tricky affairs, particularly for those who crave privacy. "It's bad enough when just one public person is involved," she says. "But with two, it's really hard to have something to yourself." Also, after moving to Manhattan — she stayed in hotels until finding her apartment — Carey quickly developed a reputation as a night owl. "Since I didn't really go out in the past, I tend to go overboard more these days," she says. "[But] to get my voice into a good place, I have to sleep. When I'm touring, I feel like a hermit. My dancers and singers will all be out having fun, and I'm in bed, like, Woe is me."

Her social schedule in New York involves dining out in certain restaurants so frequently that the maitre d's know her favorite foods. During a recent visit to a gourmet Chinese hot spot, for example, two dishes — chicken with walnuts and leeks and prawns brushed with Grand Marnier — were ordered by the host on her behalf.

Carey is not a woman who obsessively diets to keep her figure in check. Her secret: moderation — and good genes. "I'm not one of those who inherently skinny people, but I'm naturally pretty muscular. If I ate a lot every night, I'd get fat like anybody else. But if I don't love something, I won't eat it." For exercise she does sit-ups and leg raises at night, and occasionally she jogs.

The apartment has turned dark by the time Carey returns from the basement, and as the singer settles onto the living room sofa she savors a recent memory. "I had Easter in the apartment, and it was very nice. I had guests, friends — some of the people we talked about before," she says with a telling smile. "It wasn't stressful, you know" For so long, everything was stress-fest. I used to think that that was penance for success." Carey leans back, stretches her arms, and sighs contentedly. "Now I'm just trying to enjoy my life."