THE MARIAH NETWORK
The ultimate pop princess enjoys a very intimate encounter with Paul Morley.
It's an hour or two before midnight. For some people in some situations this is seen as the beginning of the day. 'Here's the thing,' says a chatty, relaxed Mariah Carey, clad in costly stretchy skintight black from neck to ankle, wearing shoes that blend the architectural and substantial with the glossy and ephemeral. Her legs are coyly folded underneath her body. Her long hair is tightly pulled back from her face, which is expertly made up to conquer tiredness and appear fresh. Her skin glows with success. There is no hint of any dubious celebrity tightening or enhancing around the eyes, nose, ears and mouth. Her figure implies a certain amount of almost surreal attention has been paid to maintaining fantasy curves. Oddly, when in the presence of pop performers whose image has been defined for many years by cliched magazine covers, glamorous videos and spiteful internet gossip, you find yourself checking out such things.
The singer turned 38 a few days before, and maybe this is the reason she's got a comfortable sofa all to herself. I'm on a stiff-backed dining chair to her left at the correct journalist distance from her superstar shape. We are alone in the dimly lit room except for a member of her management team who sits a careful few metres away from us concentrating on a laptop as though he isn't listening to a word we say.
'Here's the thing,' confides Mariah, softly, extremely skilled at talking about herself to a total stranger and pretending it's a very natural thing to do.
'Here's the thing,' firmly decides Mariah, definitely not clutching any fluffy animals.
'Here's the thing ... As a human being, this is a very abnormal state to be in,' admits Mariah Carey about where she finds herself these days, trying out new ways to say things that she has found herself saying for years, for her benefit as much as anyone else's.
'To have people meet you who have already formed an opinion of who you are prior to meeting you based on these sweeping generalisations that they have read, well, not that it doesn't happen in other jobs but clearly it happens more in this job ... which happens to be a job even though people don't think of it as a job, but it is ...'
She laughs one of her sudden, winning laughs. She has many laughs for all sorts of purposes: some defensive, some cute, some really quite lusty, some fake, some perfectly calculated to woo the listener, some to demonstrate that she's got charm, some because she just likes to laugh, some to make you see that she is very aware of the absurdity of her situation and the fact that she's Mariah Carey, which if it is a joke and there is a world where it has been turned into a joke then: 'I get the joke. Most of the time I am not taking stuff too seriously. Sometimes I will have a serious or cathartic moment when I am writing a song and doing whatever ... but the truth is that this is freaking entertainment, you know, and I get "the joke". A lot of the things I do are done with a wink.'
When she uses the phrase 'the joke' and it is another one of her favourite phrases she likes to represent with her fingers and her eyebrows that she is placing quotation marks around the words. Sometimes she will use the phrase 'quote unquote' occasionally in collaboration with the finger and eyebrow movement, when she is using certain of her other favourite phrases, or when she wants to indicate her suspicion of certain words, or when she is describing how there are those that 'get her' and those that 'love to take a shot at her'. When she talks about those that hate her, mock her, repeat lies or even just unsettling truths, because of what she wears, or because of what they've read, or because of her obsession with butterflies, or because she's always late, or because she has a personal masseuse on call 24 hours a day, she wears an expression that communicates much of the following:
1. Everyone is always passing judgment on me based on an image of me that's not even real! Well, judge not, less thou be judged!
2. 'Everyone has to have something that makes them easy to categorise. It makes people very uneasy if they cannot put you in a box. First of all me being bi-racial already makes people a little freaked out it messes with their head, it always has and it always will.'
3. When I go to church, I can have that Mary Poppins look going.
4. I have a real connection with my fans, truly fans, who have listened to albums and not just seen a couple of videos and read some tabloid stuff. They fill a void like an unconditional love type of thing. I know that sounds strange but it's true.
Eventually, as long as you have been invited, you get to meet Mariah Carey. You may have to wait a few hours, as the closer you get to meeting Mariah Carey, particularly when she's got a new album to sell, the more you notice that there are other people waiting to meet Mariah Carey. Many of these people don't know that they're not the only ones waiting. I have been given a time slot of 5.30 in the early evening. I notice that other people expecting to meet Mariah have been given the same time slot. We are all waiting in the George V Hotel in Paris; naturally, because this is as much fairy tale as routine business, Mariah is occupying the most expensive suite in the city.
Five thirty comes and goes. It appears that journalists are slowly getting to meet Mariah and talk to her, no doubt, about her one time 'complete emotional breakdown', the tragic Glitter movie and subsequent fallout, her aborted multi-million record deal with Virgin, the question of whether she was the creation, prisoner and possession of her former husband, Sony president Tommy Mottola, her immense Nineties success, her 1998 divorce from the controlling Mottola, her notorious princessy behaviour, her insecurity, the falling from her pedestal in 2001, her five-or six-or seven-octave range singing, her surprising 2005 comeback with the club-pop classic The Emancipation of Mimi.
There are so many journalists waiting to see her some of them go in two at a time. Eventually, after five hours, which I spend in splendid meditation, it's my turn. I follow the Sun, whose 5.30pm slot turned into a 9.30pm slot. There is a sudden sense of urgency as I am ushered through the grand hotel lobby, not towards the most expensive suite in hostelry history where some of Mariah's outrageous, or mundane, secrets might be strewn across a vast luxurious bed, but a more anonymous conference room. Arranged in various states of boredom, patience and attention outside the room are signs of an entourage, a gathering of what Truman Capote called 'social protection' when he wrote about Marlon Brando holding court in a Japanese hotel in 1956. The entourage helps give the impression that even though nothing exciting is going on, this particular hotel corridor by the toilets is the most happening place on the planet.
A door opens, and there flash in an ornate Parisian room the size of a basketball court smiling out of her skin like her day's just beginning is Mariah Carey. She looks like she'd be tall even without her earth-defying heels. She does not look like she's just been through hours of repetitive interviews. She seems indifferent to any idea that the schedule is running five hours late, or even that there is a schedule. The only thing that gives away the fact she's been talking all night about such things as her spaced-out TV appearances, the strange, bewildered messages she left on her website in 2001, the death of her strict Venezuelan father in 2003, her Grammy awards, her Long Island accent, on marrying again, on lack of sleep and hardly ever eating, working with Jermaine Dupri and Will.i.am on her skilful, sparkling genre-blending new album, her new video directed by Brett Ratner, her mysterious breasts, her time in rehab, is the rich huskiness of her voice.
She seems pleased to see me. This might be because I am officially the last interview of the day. It might be because it's her job to seem pleased. It might be her way of apologising for keeping me waiting, or she can sense, with the extra-sensory perception of the private jet set famous, that I consider the five-hour wait to be a vital part of the international superstar thing and I'm pleased to see her. Under the circumstances, I would have considered punctuality disappointing, and was quite happy to let time and to an extent space dissolve while I waited so that by the time I get to meet Mariah Carey I'm disorientated enough to feel I have entered the correct metaphysical zone. A grim-looking nutritional shake with bendy straw is handed to a hungry Mariah, who sighs a little pretend-sadly 'Lovely, lovely, lovely ... I so totally want to eat French fries ...' in a way that instantly communicates:
1. I am very plain and simple in my taste, although I am not averse to luxury.
2. I really want to have some fun, and I'm a fun girl, but I guess I'm working.
3. I am not really going to eat French fries in front of someone I don't know.
4. It tastes really foul but what can you do?
5. I'm in control of fame, it is not in control of me.
6. I will answer your questions with a particular kind of honesty that gives nothing away about anything other than the fact I know how to conduct an interview whatever the angle. I will seem eager to please not because I necessarily am but because it makes for a better story. I don't want any trouble. I'm not bitter. I'm happy. I just want to be nice. Don't be nasty. I believe things will in their own way turn out for the best.
Within minutes of us meeting, despite or perhaps because of the third person in the room, Mariah is remembering when she would be less relaxed in such an interview. 'We're having a conversation, whereas back in the day, if this was happening, my answers would just be one word or one sentence. That's what I was told to do. People around me didn't want to think that I had my own thoughts. Whatever. I'm not going to delve into that and give a "woe is me" moment. It's done, who cares, whatever, but at least I'm sitting here with you being myself and even if I never see you again you are seeing me at this moment as me and I don't really know how to be more down to earth as I feel now ... I mean, I've met a lot of famous people and a lot of them have disappointed me because I'm a huge fan and maybe they're in a bad mood on the day but they don't look you in the eye ...' She looks me in the eye. 'And there's no one there.'
She wants me to know that with her, when you look here in the eye, there's someone there. I do notice this within seconds of being with her and also that she's harder, in a pleasant, straightforward way, and more sophisticated, brighter and aware than the tabloids and the celebrity bloggers would want you to believe. 'I'm still the same person I was prior to quote unquote fame and people maybe expect me to be twisted by the fame situation and are actually disappointed if they find out I'm not. They prefer it that I have been.' She looks at me, and smiles a steel and silk smile that is all of the following:
6. People have said so much about me at this point that who really cares.
7. 'Jay Z "gets me". He knows that there is a person with a good heart and a sense of humour and a talent who can look good in a picture every now and then ... and it's OK to be all those things!'
A couple of days later, Mariah and supporting company are in London. The entourage seems to change size and personnel by the hour, depending on what business needs to be done and how far from midnight it is. Engineered attention-seeking promotional stunts have been carried off with the necessary tabloid-rousing aplomb. Various early morning radio interviews have been cancelled. The simple excuse I am given is that Mariah and entourage were up late drinking champagne in celebration of her 18th US No 1 which takes her past Elvis, and two behind the Beatles' all-time record. The cancellations cause tabloid outrage in those convinced that this confirms Carey is obnoxious, fragile, narcissistically deranged and addicted to attention even if it is negative.
Early afternoon, I line up among management, record company, Coca Cola-with-bendy-straw-fetchers, nail technicians, hair, make-up, dancers, musicians, in a corridor curtained off from the studio where the raucous, gaudy Paul O'Grady is recording one of his Channel 4 teatime shows. A live audience is having hysterics at a mundane conversation between John Barrowman and O'Grady. Mariah, looking nervous and jumpy in the studio but just dreamily disconnected on screen, performs her super light, electro-lithe YouTube inspired new single 'Touch My Body'. Sat politely chatting with O'Grady and Barrowman, she wears a moist white smile whipped up into an incandescent emptiness that says:
1. I'm no threat to anyone. Honest.
2. I'm not the girl you think I am.
3. I haven't a clue what they're talking about.
4. I can fulfil my duties as mildly damaged middle of the road diva even as my mind wanders.
5. I'm alone. I'm trapped. The media is so powerful, its grasp so insistent and seductive. The image is the message.
In Paris, I've been given 45 minutes, but I don't take that for granted, and assume from the start that the next question I ask is going to be the last question I'm allowed. For my first question, which might be it, I decide not to ask anything about her white opera-singing Irish-American mother Patricia, about the time Mariah thought Marilyn Monroe was speaking to her through her piano, how most of the female contestants on pop talent shows try to emulate her voice, her love for Ol' Dirty Bastard, her relationship with Eminem, what she spends her money on, the lovely song on her new album about her father, the brave one about Mottola, the bright one or two or three about love and/or sex and/or about playing at being Mariah singing about love and/or sex if anyone needs to know any of this, there is plenty of information instantly available on the internet.
We're sat in front of a large blow-up of the cover for her new album E = MC2, which uses the idea of a sultry, provocative Mariah draped in nothing but a feather boa. Selling yourself so blatantly as a sex object surely distracts from you being taken in any way seriously as an entertainer, or the kind of expressive, inventive soul singer you want to be seen as, and plays into the slimy hands of those who like to reduce you to a cartoon, a figure of fun, a dumb female money-making puppet.
'To be honest, I just like to have fun with my covers. It's like playing dress up. I call myself eternally 12, because I am, and if I was 12 that would be the photo I would like to have of me. I have pictures of me at eight on a piano wearing a boa. But at nine I was reading Norman Mailer on Marilyn Monroe ... The funny thing is ... and you're probably going to be, "Yeah, right," but honestly, this is how I would dress whatever I did, if I was a waitress or whatever. I dress this way not because I'm a promiscuous person ... and on the album cover I'm just selling the idea that I like the boa and it's festive and it's got freaking pink lettering because I like pink and I've turned Einstein's Theory of Relativity into my album title. It's not that deep, it's not that tacky. It is what it is. I've taken so long to be able to have fun with this, so I am now.'
But does the 12-year-old dressing up, and rumours of tantrums, emotional meltdowns, and babyish demands, help explain to people that you are an award-winning songwriter in control of her image, music and career?
'Here's the thing. Calling yourself eternally 12 and wearing a boa is one part of who I am. Then there's the writing of certain songs that I do feel could enhance people spiritually and there is real talk, real words from me about people in my life that I am trying to say something positive to. This is something that is very personal and very real to me. So clearly, I am somewhat of a conundrum and I know that there is a dichotomy between a lot of what I do and the visual presentation. If I had a guitar in my hands all the time and my hair was really wild, there might be more credibility, but half of those people are acting up anyway. The minute they get the chance they lose the guitar, they throw on a bra top and a pair of low-waisted jeans, get a blow out and put on make-up. The thing with women performers is unless you see them behind a piano for the first eight videos that they do then you are not going to think of them as a songwriter if they look remotely pleasing.
'If you're a solo woman and you want to be taken seriously without playing a guitar or sitting behind a piano you have to dress obscurely or differently and not too sexy. If I tried to change my image to get more credibility, well, even though praise the Lord I have accomplished what no other woman has in the music business, most people don't want to believe that I'm capable of anything other than being the person they think I am.'
The day after the O'Grady show I watch her rehearse in another studio for an appearance presenting The Friday Night Project, C4's crude version of America's Saturday Night Live. A non-neurotic, matter-of-fact, dutiful and mostly shut-off Mariah is treated by ingratiating hosts Justin Lee Collins and Alan Carr as decorative bait, stooge, sidekick, moll, younger sister, hostess, alien, superstar, target, camp icon, and delicate flower. Collins seems determined to nickname their stoical guest Fine Ass Carey.
Game Mariah reads from the autocue a series of weak, squalid jokes and works hard to put up with the slapstick joshing without slipping into the touchy, demanding diva mode everyone in the studio seems on the look out for. The one real glint of potential, frustrated prima donna behaviour is when the production wants to musically represent her with her melodramatic bland soul version of Nilsson's version of Badfinger's 'Without You'. She politely grimaces, hoping without wishing to hurt anyone's feelings that they don't go to heavy with the 'Without You' because :
1. That song did a lot for me but it's not really representative of me as an artist. 'Fantasy' in 1996 was a classic moment in music and I'm saying that in a humble way because people have told me, in terms of the pioneering fusion of hip hop and the song, it was groundbreaking because there was me having huge success in the pop charts and there was Ol' Dirty Bastard, who was in the hottest, grimiest rap group ... It became the norm for R&B stars to combine melodies with rapped verses after me. Other people have pointed out that it was me who established R&B and hip hop as the sound of pop. Right back in 1993 on 'Dreamlover' I was using freaking loops.
2. A lot of my collaborations have not been on the radar of people who only look at the pop charts.
3. It is the vain, virginal-vamp, straining to impress, panic-stricken voice of the early Nineties, Sony Mariah, the one people confuse with Celine Dion, which seemed to contain no knowledge, and no soul, and no life. Her new downbeat, digitally detached voice, for her trickier, wittier 21st-century sound, a Tamla-techno hip hop cabaret, pulses with synthetic subtlety, wired intimacy and computer-generated mystery. It's more artificial but more emotional, less real but more sincere.
4. She didn't write it. She would like them to use something she's written, even if it's 'All I Want For Christmas Is You'.
I tell Mariah that I'm surprised she's doing all the Euro interviews, telling her soapy story again and again. I'm amazed that she's booked in for all the lightweight radio programmes and the trite trashy TV shows surely all this will undermine her picky-perfectionist determination to be seen as something special.
'You mean it's like I'm doing what a new artist should be doing ? You're not wrong, but I want this album to be successful. It's a science these days reaching the people you need to reach, and you have to do what you have to do. I don't want to get into a saga that's been told 20 million times but no one seems to remember it ... I grew up without a lot of money .... We moved around a lot when I was a kid and my father's black and my mother's white and I had a lot of issues as a kid and we moved 12 or 13 times, whatever it is. I don't want to be inaccurate but the point is that I always had this fear that the rug could be pulled out from underneath me at any time ... And so I think that got carried over. I'm a hard worker and that's part of it ... I'm almost afraid of losing what I've got. I'm very ambitious. People say MC, no one works like you.'
Doing the trashy stuff might not be the best way of keeping what you've got.
'It's what you have to do now, find ways to stay in the public eye without giving away your real life. Honestly, every time you walk out of the door it's a YouTube moment, it's a blog moment, a whatever website moment. When you appear in public it instantly travels the world ... The self-promoting situation in the world now has reached the next level it's people's relationships, it's porn videos and I have to find whatever ways to compete with that ... I'm doing promotional shows but the other people use their lives as promotional vehicles. I don't want to say anything negative about anyone else but other people just have their relationships in order to promote their careers and enhance who they are and be talked about in the tabloids. I do what I can to make sure whatever is said about me in the tabloids, it still connects to the music.'
As I watch the Friday Night rehearsal surrounded by crew and entourage, Mariah sits next to me, removing herself for a moment from the role she's been playing. I'm surprised she even recognises me. Perhaps someone has whispered in her ear about the presence of a journalist.
She's wearing shoes of such elevated flamboyance it makes you proud to be a biped. She stretches out her legs on the seat in front of her, sucks on the bendy straw in her non-diet Coca Cola, and asks me how's the story coming. She asks this because :
1. She really wants to know.
2. She knows it will look good in the story that she sits next to me and asks how the story's going.
3. She's probably heard I wanted to ask her some more questions and she's given me the opportunity, even though this time I've probably only got a minute.
I tell her that I'm at that point in the story where I asked her what she makes of Leona Lewis at No.1 in America, representing all the blank Cowell-driven Mariah Carey wannabes that there's ever been.
Mariah keeps a perfectly straight face. 'Honestly there has been so many "this is the new her" ... and I'm like, "OK, show me the new her. Can she come and work for me and be my double?" And I'm not talking about this particular girl, because I only heard her once and I didn't really see a true similarity, particularly in the style of music. It is what it is and they have compared me to so many people who are not really singers and they're certainly not writers. If I was to focus on this and really dwell on that, it would really bring me down and so I just try to pray for, like, OK, lose the spirit of jealousy, it's not a good one envy is a really powerful thing. Not good. I don't have anything to be concerned about because there is no new me. I am me until the day I die. Whenever that is, that is when it is.'
Are you worried about getting old and being replaced by younger, fresher candidates ?
'I'm eternally 12 and I'm going to stay 12 for ever by saying it for ever! I may change how I dress or how I change my hair or whatever but the point is that you look at people who I look up to and who can still stand on a stage and command your attention, be it Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross. You look at them and you think, "You can grow up without losing your place," and I'm hardly putting myself on the same level, it's just that we're all Aries ...'
You seem happy with how old you are considering you're always saying you're a 12-year-old.
'It's because I'm not getting old. Because if you think and act old and look old then you're old but if you don't then you ain't .... OK!!!!!'
You can almost see the exclamation marks pour out of her mouth, confirming that my time is up and that she can rejoin her entourage, if not travel back to her life.
Mariah sits next to me before she has to return to the Friday Night Project rehearsal. By now she has replaced Leona Lewis at No.1 in America. For a moment we're both quiet, not sure of our roles outside the 45 minutes in Paris. I have no idea who she really is, just a fair idea of who she is when she plays at being the sweet, kind, slightly anxious and insubstantial, sexy singing Mariah her fans and those who make money from her like her to be. I tell her she's honest and revealing in interviews and songs, but really, that's still just a mask. She gives nothing away about who she actually is. She answers as a self-conscious 38-year-old mind and media manipulator who skilfully runs her own successful business in the friendly disguise of a professionally immature pop star.
'Well, if you want to come out with me and my friends on a festive night then you can see who I am on a night like that .... Look, for the media, if I was to be in this interview with all my friends around me laughing it up and joking it with our private jokes, just like if you were spying on anyone at home with their best friend and family on their private lives, they'd be like, "Who's that? Why are they acting like a totally different person." Why? It's because I'm with people who love me and who don't judge me ... The media are always judging me, that's their job, so I have to hide behind whatever and have fun as much as I can, and make my music. That's my job.'
She gets up and returns to "the fun". She waves goodbye to me with her 12-year-old wave, walks down the steps without throwing a tantrum, and gives me a final look that says:
1. Here's the thing, whether you like it or not, I'm quite good at my job.