THE MARIAH NETWORK

La Diva Loca

As the most successful female recording artist ever and Major Superstar, Mariah Carey is all billowing hair, high heels and big, bouyant bosoms. But, as she tells Sylvia Patterson, showbusiness is just a façade and, despite her reputation as one of the industry's stroppiest — and loopiest — madams, she's just a fun-loving girl at heart.

When the superstars release a new album — and you are a journo and need to hear it before it's released — it won't be sent to your home. Oh no. Because that way "leakage" lies. Instead, you'll be sent to an "album playback", across the galaxy, to some secret bunker manned by 16 FBI storm troopers and a giant celebrity goblin dressed as Elvis. Alright, you're sent to a posh hotel in London, but the palaver, still, is almighty.

With Mariah Carey, the undisputed Titan of all Tardiness, even her album playback is late. Almost two hours late. Which makes the round-trip to hear "selected highlights" of her new album, The Emancipation Of Mimi, a championship-leading six hours. Still, the hotel really is posh. The Baglioni in Kensington is Mariah's home for one week, an Italian boutique affair where a plate of pea soup comes with three waiters, a bakery of bread and two enormous wafers in the shape of bonny angel-fish.

Upstairs in a suite, the album is played by a record label executive at comfortable volume. "Is the volume," she enquires, "comfortable?" Towards the end a European film crew bowls in with considerable commotion and films the en-suite stereo, obliterating the nuance of what we're told is the "uplifting, gospel" closing track. Downstairs in the foyer a gigantic America man in a sliver of vest practises pilates in the middle of the open doorway. This doesn't happen, you can be sure, with Rachel Stevens.

Two days later: Mariah has arrived. You know this because the tabloid "news"papers have told you, unable to contain their glee that the woman who sings like a shepherd's whistle and behaves like Imelda Marcos is resident in London Town. Every day the tales clang out. Mariah demands, upon 2am arrival, a red carpet festooned with two foot tall white candles. Mariah requires 50 suitcases, a lorry to transport them and 15 "people" to aid her seven-day trip. Mariah insists her entourage declare "Good morning Miss Carey, you look beautiful today" at least once a day.

By interview day, you're spooked; she's some bonkers amalgamation of Imelda Marcos, Maria Callas and Caligula. Mariah is "doing radio" so we're meeting in a west end hotel, the Radisson Edwardian Hampshire Hotel, from 15.40 to 16.20 pm. To get this far, you've dealt with three PRs. Here comes a fourth, as you're walking into the Hampshire at 15.25. We're frightfully sorry, but radio has "over-run", can we possibly re-schedule? Back at the Baglioni? At 8.30 tonight? "Mariah," says PR No. 4, "thinks you'll both be more comfortable there." And so Mariah Carey is five hours late.

8pm, Baglioni Hotel. This time, you don't get through the front door (past 50 squealing fans) without a double interrogation, from both doorman and concierge, as if George W Bush is within and your shoes have started to fizz. At 8.45 we're summoned. Up the elevator, down the corridor (strewn with "people"), through the suite door, through an inner suite door, to a large rectangular bombsite strewn with clothes, empty water bottles, TV cables and plates where the superstar is framed, for the benefit of MTV, by one enormous vase of full-bloom, blood-red roses and three colossal, airbrushed billboards of her campaign's golden art-work — all billowing hair, heels and buoyant Bond Girl bosoms. And there she is, grinning away, the most successful female recording artiste in history (160 million albums sold, third only to Elvis and those pesky Beatles), lying pole-axe horizontal on a six-foot oatmeal sofa. She's the world's most theatrical hair-swisher, wearing some silvery, Roman, halterneck toga exposing approximately seven feet of bare thigh.

"It's my reclining moment!" comes the high-camp shriek, "It's a moment, darling, a feeling..." (cackles head off). PR No. 1 floats into view with a bottle: "Glass of wine anyone?" Mariah: "I'll have one if you are..." (two large glasses are poured). We contemplate her outfit. "Uh! I need my stylist..." trills Mariah, reaching down to hawk 5" strappy heels off, knees set to "gynaecological". So now we can see her backside.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she hoots, "but we're all girls in the room darling! (fiddles with shoe) Are they McQueen? Yes! And I'm gonna take 'em off, now we're at that moment (flings shoes on floor). And the dress is... (bawls) June! Darling, we need you! (whispers) June is such fun, she's leaving and it's gonna be really bleak when she goes... (presses back of hand to forehead) Darling! We need info about the decadence!"

June, bowling in with glass of wine: "The dress is Sass & Biiiiide, darling!" Another woman bowls in. "Lamma?" beseeches Mariah, "would you mind bringing me my favourite snack? Would you like an olive, Sylvia? That's all I'm allowed to eat. I'm on the olive diet. Truthfully, if I wanna have a glass of wine that's too many calories for me to have actual meals as well, so I just have morsels while I'm doing my daily stuff. And it's easier because a sandwich is all over your face and the make-up artist has a fit, so bring me little olives and morsels and I'll be happy."

Lamma reappears and places at her side one bowl of olives and one bowl of almonds. "Thank you Lamma, this is perfect," beams Mariah and eyes the olives a-fresh. "The pips are gonna be so disgusting when I'm talking... do you like almonds? (cackles a-new) And this is making too much drama already!"

Mariah Carey, 35, the planet's most preposterous pop star, is not how you might imagine; pumped full of dreary pomp, a flint-eyed maniac manipulator or some fragile Bambi requiring 54 assistants for the business of lifting an eye-lash. She's a nutter of a different hue; loony-tune cartoon camp, a guffawing, flamboyant, New York personality who radiates several more dimensions of warmth than her lifetime's legacy of comedy stunt yodelling could ever have you believe. Even if she seems, right now, like some demented Roman Empress (but, rather half an hour of this, believe me, than three days in the company of the hologram known as Beyoncé.) If she's Coco-Chanel The Clown, she doesn't run this media circus. She has no idea she is five hours late.

"Tell me that again?" blinks Mariah, unaware she is late at all, "I'm so sorry, but you do know I don't do the schedule? You do know that, right?!" All that stuff about Mariah deciding we'd be "more comfortable" here? Clearly, it's PR baloney.

She's led, as all the Superstars do, an extreme life, one Mariah herself calls "a friggin' mini-series". Brought up in Long Island, New York by her aeronautical army-worker dad (black) and opera-singing mum (white), mum's family disowned her (and her kids) the moment she married a black man. They divorced when Mariah was three. The family lived in "a shack", moved 13 times, her older brother Morgan, by nine years, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and her older sister Alison, by ten years, had a baby aged 15, became a drug-skewed prostitute and contracted HIV. Mariah, by age six, was "self-parenting", became a teenage "outcast and freak" who found confidence only in The Voice which she always felt would save her; from poverty, chaos and obliterated self-esteem.

"I never got to deal with all those childhood issues," she says today, "and went straight into one of the most abusive relationships in the history of the world." At 18 she met her mentor at a party (while carrying a self-made demo-tape), Tommy Mottola, Chairman of Sony Music Entertainment, 20 years her senior. After four years of dating they married — "in the beginning he was wonderful, an anchor" — the ceremony inspired by Charles and Diana's (27-foot satin train with matching pumps, etc). Mariah, at last, had found "stability".

They lived an unapologetic life of extravagance, designing and living in a 12-bedroom mansion with a recording studio, ballroom, firing range, two swimming pools and a helicopter pad. Mariah, an instantaneous million-selling phenomenon (on Sony Records) insisted she pay "for half of everything in that relationship, I never wanted to feel like my mom, who'd have to move at the drop of a hat because she didn't own her own stuff". One record label executive was horrified. "She told me," says Mariah, "'Honey, he's making stock off of you'. And every year I'd make a record." He was paranoid, controlling, omnipotent.

"He was so overprotective," she says, "I'd felt if I got married he would realise I wasn't looking to go out and screw a million guys, 'cos that's not who I am. All I wanted was an afternoon lunch with my girlfriends without somebody calling me 55 times and freaking out that I'm not at the house. I thought I was in love and it was romantic. I don't know that I've been in love. That would mean I haven't, right?"

When she wasn't working she was decorating. "I learned a lot about sconces and wall fixtures," she muses, slewing her wine, "That's all I did on my weekends, look at paint samples. It was like 'Hey, let's go to the architects!' (rolls eyes) Yay. At 22. When you're confined, your colours fade. But getting out of that was almost impossible because of my manager being his best friend, his lawyer being my lawyer, everybody being on his payroll and everybody being deathly afraid of him."

They divorced in '98 and a three-year meltdown ensued. Sony, suddenly, lost interest. She signed an $80 million deal with Virgin and, when her records didn't sell, was paid $30m to leave. Then came the disastrous movie Glitter (based on her life, released on September 11), the food-and-sleep deprivation "breakdown" of 2001 where she appeared, a gibbering loon, on MTV and collapsed in her mother's home. "That moment in 2001," she says now, "in my mind it was a breakthrough."

Today, her new album, The Emancipation Of Mimi (her childhood nickname) is the sound of "the free side of who I am". Gone is the torch-song troubadour ("I was over-produced"), her legendary five-octave range barely stirred in a contemporary R&B-hip-hop-pop record made with hip-hop's ubiquitous tarts: Snoop Dogg, Nelly, The Neptunes, Kanye West. She's after Beyonce's tiara, which won't budge.

Still, Mariah had a ball, partying with The Boys in the LA studio "till six am". But no one's interested, particularly, in Mariah's music any more. (Other than the Pop Idol generation, to whom she remains the definition of "singing".) They're interested in the Mythological Diva, in the drama which dances on a permanently unfurled carpet. So it ruins the fun, completely, that The Baglioni issued a statement declaring the carpet/candle scandal was all their own idea.

"You think I knew if there was a candle, a red carpet, a blue carpet or green?" scoffs Mariah, "I was outside talking to my fans, I just got off a plane from Germany and I'm 'OK, where's the bed?' This whole thing is not real. Showbusiness is a façade. And if at this moment the story is I'm a diva who requires red carpets everywhere I go, tra la la. I'm not bitter and I don't hate the press, I understand everyone has a job to do. I do find it funny, 'The Myth', as my mother calls it."

It's mostly, it seems, some unspoken showbiz deal; fan the furore, free publicity for all, journalists mock, the public gawp, papers sell, records fly, everyone ultimately wins. Who needs reasonable superstars anyway? She makes no apology for her entourage, which acts as a human shield. "I put my own team of professionals together," she notes, "because I couldn't trust anybody." On today's evidence, they find her hysterical, more Danny La Rue than a despot.

Her greatest demand in history remains the puppies, that she requires a selection of puppies to fondle, backstage, for the purpose of soothing her soul. Mariah's guffaw, on hearing this, causes her head to jack-knife over the edge of the sofa arm-rest. "It's like 'Puppies!'" she bawls, hair everywhere, "You know what? Let's let that one live. 'Bring me puppies! I require Irish setters, darling, and Scottish terriers!' I think that's because I was in Japan one time and bought some (Shih-Tzu) puppies. Bing and Bong were their names and I brought them home to America and they're adorable but that doesn't mean I'm like (snaps fingers, sideways) 'Get me the puppies!' Like Joan Crawford-style! Oh... whatever. It's all part of the whole thing and if it makes people intrigued..."

Mariah Carey, clearly, lives in a protective bubble — as does everyone else who's a multi-fold millionaire and irredeemably, globally famous. She takes two-day silence-observing "vocal breaks" (she'll write notes), has contracts written up for her employees specifying she must have "breaks" on promotional days, five/six hours a night's sleep (the legacy of 2001) plus continuous "morsels" to prevent her keeling over (like Kylie, she's hypoglycemic). Today, she takes herself seriously only when the subject is serious; mostly, she's up for a lark.

"I'm not," she'll say, "a cynical person." Tommy Mottola, no doubt, taught her everything there is to know about business. Most of her team "have been in the business for 20 years". She had few friends in the industry, because the industry is populated by "people who look like they're totally looking at a glazed painting". Most of her friends come from the past, "my real, fun friends who used to help me get waitressing jobs. I like a bit of fun. I do." She lives in Manhattan with her Jack Russell terrier, Jack, "technically a mutt, and I'm a mutt as well". She loves spas, jet-skiing, rollercoasters and her favourite thing, ever, is to take her real friends, and Jack, to a secluded, tropical location, away from the paparazzi.

"That's probably the most diva thing about me," she decides, "I bring my friends, there's water, we hang out and play Taboo." (Explanation follows of the word game Taboo, where today's banned word is "wine".) What would Mariah Carey be were she not Mariah Carey?

"I would be a floor scrubber," she chirps, "because that's one of the things I'm capable of." Even less "Diana Ross" is her invitation — to a dastardly hack — to bounce on her spongy sofa (definitely not Ikea). "I have a wonderful sofa," beams Mariah, "in my downstairs den area and I love to splay out. It's huuuuuge darling! It's teddy-bear beige and it wraps around the room. And the theme of the room is The Mermaid Room, because it's got these beautiful walls — it's gonna sound horribly tacky, but Mario Buatta did it and he's fabulous darling — it's like a blue glazed wall so that represents the ocean and we've got the wool sisal carpeting so it looks like sand. Darling, a lot of people have it! Listen, when you come to New York, you come to my house, we'll hang out in The Mermaid Room and it's a screening room and we'll watch movies and it's almost like a big slumber party... I really mean it!"

Does she ever look around her and think, "My life is an outrage; all this for hitting the high notes?" "For hitting the high notes," she ruminates, " I've never thought of that. Honestly, I always believed this was gonna be my life. I never thought it would get to the point where tabloids make up crazy stuff, but I thought I was gonna sing and have a career and I wanted to be famous but I didn't know what that meant. But I am grateful because you know what? I could be scrubbing floors. And be singing along with the radio, miserable."

The room, suddenly, fills up — with women and wine and high-pitched hollering over who is who's "best girlfriend!" Bye bye, Mariah. Lovely roses by the way. "Tell them there was a diva moment," shrieks the incorrigible lung-smith, "that I threw petals at your feet as you walked away! Otherwise, it just wouldn't be diva enough."

Back on the street, no carpet in sight, there's a single, overwhelming thought: Mariah Carey is the kind of person who makes you want to go out, immediately, drink like a sailor and dance on a glittering pedestal, possibly the one next to hers, till 6am, (even if her music, still, is hopeless).

Two nights later, 11.05pm, outside the Tantra nightclub, West End, Mariah Carey's 35th Birthday Party/Album Launch Shindig. Humungous orange drapes are billowed up the walls by wind machines. There's a selection of queues, one called "the guest list", which is 70 people long. BMW cars line the road pumping the R&B "greats". Scores of hot babes, bare thighs to the skies, are ushered inside the door, via no queue whatsoever. Then, at 11.50pm, a whisper goes up: the guest list appears to be closed. Bewildered, I approach a doorman, ask if it's true, he says yes. "And you didn't think to tell us? Why d'you think we've been standing here for the last hour?" Doorman: "Why don't you ask yourself that question?" As ripostes go, it's a belter.

I like to think Mariah Carey, 6'2" in her strappiest heels, would've punched him clean in the coupon.