For Mariah, A Life That Glitters

Though the best-selling female artist of the '90s looks quite settled, curled up in bed in the Manhattan hotel suite where she has been living while her recently purchased downtown loft undergoes renovations, she is gearing up for a busy night. In an hour, she will meet with a choreographer working on her upcoming Fox TV special, which airs Dec. 14. After that, Carey will head over to a recording studio to remix Thank God I Found You, the second single from album Rainbow, which hits stores today.

"I did this album in three months," says Carey, picking at a salad that has been brought to her on a dinner tray. "For me, that's quick. And most of that time, I was working on the first single." That single, Heartbreaker, was released in September and became Carey's 14th No. 1 pop hit. Like many of her more recent hits, Heartbreaker finds the 29-year-old singer/songwriter/producer incorporating hip-hop and contemporary R&B textures and collaborating with stars from those genres.

Rapper Jay-Z appears on the original version; Missy Elliott and Da Brat contribute to a remix that's also on the album. Snoop Dogg, Usher, Joe and 98 Degrees appear elsewhere on Rainbow. But Carey feels that the highlight of her Rainbow sessions was getting the opportunity to team up with a couple of relatively old-school pop-soul savants: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

"I'm a huge fan of those guys," Carey says. "Working with them is the best musical step I've taken yet." Jam and Lewis are best known for their groove-based work with such artists as Janet Jackson and the SOS Band. But in co-writing and co-producing songs with Carey, they focused on ballads, encouraging the diva to show off her celebrated vocal chops. "I could go in any direction they wanted, and they took me to another level," Carey says.

She was so pleased by her rapport with Jam and Lewis that she has recruited them as co-executive producers for the soundtrack of a film she's developing, called All That Glitters. The movie, in which Carey will star as an aspiring singer, was scheduled to begin shooting last year, and Heartbreaker was intended for the soundtrack. When shooting was pushed back, Carey used her unexpected downtime to make Rainbow. Production on Glitters now is expected to begin early next year, with plans for a Christmas 2000 release.

"The film is set in the club scene of the early '80s," Carey says. "My character is in a girl group. She's discovered by this DJ, and they have a relationship. But the film is more about her getting in touch with herself and her mother — because she gets taken away from her mom at an early age."

Like Carey, who has a black Venezuelan father and an Irish-American mother, the character is multiracial. "But in her case, her mother's black, and her father's white. And they were never married, and the father doesn't acknowledge her. So she feels very lonely until she gets with this DJ. He's like the king of the club, but then she outgrows him."

Some might be tempted to compare the DJ to Carey's ex-husband, Sony Music chairman/CEO Thomas Mottola. Mottola brought Carey to Columbia Records 10 years ago and is widely assumed to have exercised a Svengali-like control over her career until they separated in 1997. But Carey insists that her character's relationship with the DJ is "very different" from her own relationship with Mottola — a subject she approaches with obvious discretion.

"I don't want to come across as dwelling on the past or as exploiting that whole 'pity me' thing," she says. "My life has always been a struggle. At first, it was to overcome how I felt about being multiracial and not having money and all kinds of craziness. After my career started, some of my insecurities were played upon. It was, like, 'Don't be yourself in an interview — be guarded.' 'Don't get recognized in public.' That was isolating. But I allowed myself to be in that situation. I allowed myself to be unhappy longer than I should have been."

Since her split from Mottola, reporters have zealously tracked Carey's social activities and speculated on her love life. Many also have made note of her sartorial progress as a single woman. Though she was groomed as a wholesome pop ingenue, the singer has taken to playing up her sultry good looks with skimpy, form-hugging outfits — such as the sleek little numbers she models in the album art for Rainbow and the cheeky videos for the Heartbreaker single and remix.

"OK, it is a little like 'Here's my body!' " Carey says. "But I think when I do something, it's taken as twice as risqué as when, like, Madonna or Janet Jackson does something even more out there. People still want me to be the girl next door." Carey adds that her exhibitionism is rooted in lingering feelings of self-doubt. "I didn't think I was pretty when I was younger," she says. "So I would walk around with a tight little ensemble on, because that's what my image of pretty was. But I was never promiscuous... I'm not promiscuous now."

At the moment, Carey has a steady beau in Latin singing star Luis Miguel. "We met in Aspen last year," Carey says. "We were both renting houses, and the real estate agents lied to us. They told him I wanted to meet him, and they told me he wanted to throw a party for me. I guess they wanted to fix us up. We've been in 26 cities together. It's really interesting for me to be in a place where there are thousands of girls running up to him, speaking in Spanish, and I'm not the focus of attention — I can just enjoy it. And he's come to America and Europe and Korea with me and had the same experience. So it's not a competition. It's nice to be with someone who's secure with who they are."

Some of the relationships that Carey has formed in recent years have been more problematic. "I went through a period trusting a lot of people — men and women," she says. "But at the end of the day, some people may be around you because you're ordering Cristal for the table or because you can always guarantee a booth at a club."

Then there are Carey's critics. Early on, many cast the singer as, in her words, "this pop-pablum diva." Despite her massive popularity, detractors continue to dismiss her work as drab and predictable. "I think she very effectively repositioned herself by embracing her fondness for hip-hop," says Alan Light, editor in chief of Spin. "It's starting to feel like a formula, though: 'I've got to have enough of the hip-hop tracks to keep the kids, and then I've got to have the big ballads.' But you can't consistently turn out hits the way she does because of marketing. There's something in her that people genuinely respond to. She's in that diva stratosphere, but she's more human-scale and approachable. Whitney (Houston) was the princess. With Mariah, there's more of a sense of vulnerability."

Carey acknowledges that fame and success haven't inured her to the slings and arrows of others. She may be able to fork over $662,500 for Marilyn Monroe's white baby-grand piano (in a Christie's auction last week), but she's still sensitive to criticism — including her own. "But I'm an optimist," she says. "It'd be pretty easy for me to write songs about how miserable I am for the rest of my life. I'd rather do songs that make me happy sometimes. And I'd rather be happy."