THE MARIAH NETWORK

Through The Fire

After a triumphant decade as one of the most consistent and popular recording artists in history, Mariah Carey suffered a highly publicized emotional and physical breakdown in the summer of 2001. Now, with the release of her new album, Charmbracelet, and an enlightened sense of self-preservation, she's come back to reclaim her place in the pop pantheon. Lola Ogunnaike travels to Japan with Carey to bear witness to a diva renewed.

Imagine waking up in a different country every day, living life inside private jets and five-star hotels. Imagine nearly having your clothes ripped off by a crazed Brazilian mob. Imagine crying out for help and no one caring. Imagine having a voice that moves people to tears. Imagine being the best-selling female recording artist in history. Imagine being Mariah Carey.

Now, imagine sitting in a rambling suite at the Four Seasons Hotel near Tokyo, nestled far away from the pulsating, neon lights of Shibuya (Japan's equivalent to Times Square). With the exception of the Clark Sisters CD playing in the background, her temporary abode is tranquil. Nothing like the noisy spectacle that was Narita Airport two hours ago when Carey arrived, bringing the promise of rainbows, butterflies, and sunshine. "Mariah, please hug me, please kiss me," fans begged in tattered English as the 32-year-old superstar signed autographs. Overzealous cameramen scurried about as security guards in starched, royal blue suits tried and failed to reestablish order. Carey and company were nearly trampled trying to exit the terminal. Many looked petrified; Carey smiled the entire time.

If you thought a little thing like Mariah's very public personal and career upheaval in 2001 was going to slow her down forever, your were sadly mistaken. For the past two months, she's been on an exhaustive promo tour, skipping from continent to continent in support of her latest album, Charmbracelet. She's lucky if she gets six hours sleep, which is still double what she was averaging a year ago this time.

"Her work ethic is insane," says Island Def Jam CEO Lyor Cohen, who was instrumental in bringing Carey into the Universal fold, singing her to a reported $7 to $8 million per album deal last year that allowed her to create her own label, MonarC. "She's psychotically professional and a real perfectionist."

Charmbracelet, the first fruit of that partnership, showcases Carey's wonderful range, from her signature, made-for-high-school-talent-show ballads to club-banging collabos with hip hop's hottest (including Cam'Ron, Jay-Z, Jermaine Dupri, and producer du jour Just Blaze), with a remake of Def Leppard's "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" thrown in for good measure. Her voice, a five-octave howitzer, is front and center, and she's done away with the purring and moaning that plagued her last CD.

If Carey's first two videos are any indication, she has also scrapped the barely there getups, though she remains willfully unashamed of her former sex kitten-meets-streetwalker image. "It's me playing dress up," says Carey, a self-professed prude who has lately grown fond of telling anyone who'll listen that she can count on the fingers of one hand the number of men she's been with. "I'm not promiscuous," she insists.

Carey's appeal always lay in her ability to tap into the hormonally imbalanced 13-year-old in all of us. Songs like "The One," "Yours," and "Boy (I need you)" — which rides that delightful Rose Royce sample used in Cam'Ron's "Oh Boy" — are perfect slumber-party fare. And in spite of the ridiculously juvenile title, Charmbracelet actually presents some of the most accomplished and mature work of Carey's 12-year recording career. While other world-renowned divas — delivering phrases like "crack is wack" before millions — may still be caught in a torrential downpour, Carey has indeed made it through the storm. "Yes, I've been bruised/ Grew up confused/ Been destitute/ I've seen life from many sides," she sings on the take-'em-to-church gospel number "My Saving Grace." On "I Only Wanted," which opens with heavy raindrops and a mournful guitar, she asks, "Couldn't love ever be something tangible and real?"

"She's a real thinker as far as the way she approaches the lyrics and the music," says 7 Aurelius, who produced "Subtle Invitation," one of the album's several standout tracks. Despite her writing and production acumen, though, Carey is still considered a lightweight by some, as cheesy as Velveeta. She blames it on the "diva" tag she's had for so long. "When that word is tossed around, people assume you don't really write your own songs and just stand there and sing in a pretty gown," she says. But silly album titles that sound like bad stripper names (Rainbow, Daydream, Glitter) haven't helped, nor has Carey's obsession with the sorts of things most ladies outgrew with their training bras (lunch boxes, stuffed animals, the color pink). Still, people, listen to the words. This is serious business here. "It's like breathing for me," says Carey. "If you're not strumming a guitar or playing a piano like Alicia Keys, people assume you're not involved. I don't think they realize how much time I put in in the studio. It's my second home." And as far as song input is concerned, "I'm really opinionated about stuff from beginning to end. Not controlling," she wants to make clear, "but it's my self-expression."

Carey and her self-expression spent all of the '90s at the top of the Billboard charts, racking up enough hits to put her in third place all-time, behind the Beatles and Elvis, for the most No. 1 records. At 23, she married one of the most powerful men in the industry, Sony Music Entertainment chief Tommy Mottola, in a half-million-dollar affair modeled on Princess Diana's nuptials, right down to the tiara. Carey's eventual split with Mottola in 1997 only made her seem hotter. The two-time Grammy winner signed an $80 million deal with Virgin and became a fixture of gossip columns, which breathlessly tracked her romances with Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter and Latin pop star Luis Miguel, and her partying at Manhattan hot spots. She was playing and working full tilt, and losing her grounding. In interviews, she spoke about her years-long bout with insomnia as if it were a common cold she couldn't shake. "I had always worked three times as hard as everyone," she says. "But during that period, I was working 10 times as hard, and it was ridiculous."

Imagine watching your life slip through your hands. Imagine running on a treadmill that won't shut off. Imagine dinner at 3 a.m. and breakfast at two in the afternoon. Imagine going, going, going, going until you drop.

Which is exactly what happened in July 2001, when Carey's body decided enough was enough. There were signs, of course. At a record store signing in Garden City, N.Y., her publicist, Cindi Berger, snatched a microphone from her, to interrupt a public rant. ("She does that all the time," Carey now says of Berger. "She's grabbed the mike from Sharon Stone. I don't know why no one has fired her yet," she adds jokingly.)

Meanwhile, "Loverboy," the first single from Carey's soundtrack album Glitter, was languishing on the charts — a first for an artist who'd grown used to seeing her songs soar. Matters came to a head on July 25 at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in Manhattan, where Carey allegedly dissolved into a dish-flinging tantrum and got her hands cut up. She was rushed to her mother's home in Westchester County. "Nobody was hearing me say, I can't do this," Carey says. "I'm not going to do another video today, and I'm not going to do one tomorrow. I'm exhausted I cannot go on another day like this. Somehow, they didn't hear me."

What was going through her mind? "I was like, Have I really gotten myself to this point?" Carey says. When my mother panicked and called 911, I was passed out on the kitchen floor." Calling an ambulance for your celebrity daughter might not have been the smartest PR move, but Mariah, who checked into Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Conn., to be treated for exhaustion, is glad her mother, Patricia, intervened. Mariah, who was running on less than two hours of sleep a night the week of her collapse, says, "No one was looking out for the human being that existed inside the machine that pays everybody."

The tabloids went wild with news of her breakdown. "i had never experienced fame in that invasive form, says Carey, who was caught in several unflattering photos, and there was even some speculation that she'd tried to kill herself. On that score, Carey's denial is adamant: "The last thing I would want is for some 13-year-old kid who emulates everything I do to have a difficult day and try to kill themselves." She offers her wrists for inspection. "Feel them. Look at them," she urges. There are no scars. Mariah Carey may be many things, but she's apparently no quitter.

And according to critics, she isn't much of an actress either. Glitter, a film loosely based on Mariah's rags-to-riches climb, was lambasted after its September 2001 release. "This is the worst performance by a pop star in a dramatic role since Madonna suited up for Shanghai Surprise," wrote one critic. "It's astonishingly bad."

I had an idea that was gritty, edgy, and it got so watered down and homogenized," says Carey. "The whole thing lost its spunk. Do I think it was the worst thing in history? No." With the poor showing of her soundtrack album (released on 9/11, of all days), it appeared that Carey's dual career had become an industry disaster zone. Virgin and Carey soon severed ties, though she walked away with a reported $28 parting gift.

Shibuya has been brought to a standstill. Carey is shooting her video for "The One," a midtempo love song, and thousands have turned out to watch. Policemen are freaking out . Fans are snapping photos with their state-of-the-art cell phones. Others are rushing the singer's limousine. The rain does not deter them, or Mariah for that matter. Dressed in a tight black minidress and sporting a pair of stilettos, she emerges from the car and ventures into the crowd without fear. Again she's unfazed by the chaos. In fact, she seems to revel in it. "I've never seen anything like it," says director Joseph Kahn. Later explaining the obsession with Mariah, Kahn says, "She's Japanese anime come to life, the cute girl in a school uniform fighting a giant robot." With this statuesque frame, eye-popping breasts, and flawless face, something about Carey is indeed cartoon-like. And like Hello Kitty, her smile is an enigma — is it sincere or sinister?

When not waging war on robots, she's taking on tell-all rappers, namely Eminem, who has made Mariah his new target. "Did I go there with him? N-O," Mariah says emphatically. Well, did Slim slide into second? Round third? "Listen to the song," she says. "We never even touched each other." Carey is referring to the revealing "Clown," a no-holds-barred dis record with a sweet melody. "your pain is so deep rooted / What will your life become," she sings. "Sure you hide it, but you're lost and lonesome / Still just frail, shook one." It's a nice psychological roundhouse, on a par with Nas's below-the-belt jab at Jay-Z on "Ether." Carey isn't publicly fingering Eminem as the "frail" one, but she says, "Bozo knows exactly who he is." To blast old flames isn't really her style, though. She rarely utters Mottola's name. "Part of it's a contractual issue," she says of her four-year marriage, "and part of it's trying to let the old stuff die. It's me being hopeful that if I take that attitude, he'll do the same.

"It's been a tough road with that situation," she continues. "Even when it looked dandy to the rest of the world." Does she believe her ex tried to sabotage her career? "I wouldn't want to go on record as saying that. But you can draw your own conclusions," Carey says. Cohen has his own views on the matter. "You wonder why some companies aren't doing so well?" he asks. "It's because they're too focused on negatively impacting a successful Mariah Carey album." Carey's apparent suspicions were confirmed when producer Irv Gotti revealed that the track sampled for J.Lo's album version of "I'm Real" was originally to be used by Carey (Lopez is signed to Sony). "He could've admitted that a year earlier and saved me a lot of grief," Carey states flatly. Was it difficult, then, to watch Jenny from the block bite Mariah's patented hip-pop formula, using choreography (and booty) to distract from a voice that doesn't come close to rivaling hers? "Everybody has their place," Carey offers diplomatically. "I'm trying not to feel competitive and let that take over me, even if I feel like what someone's doing isn't especially noteworthy."

Having endured her own trial by fire, Carey found that he loss of her father, Alfred Roy, to cancer last July put the smaller dramas into a larger perspective. "Celebrity stuff is fluff," she says, "None of it is real at the end of the day." Quite unlike some actresses who seem to like the tragic-mulatto role both on- and offscreen, Carey doesn't want sympathy. "It's been a difficult year, but my life leading up to it wasn't exactly a picnic. I was the one calling 911 when I was 6 years old and stuff was going on in my house," she says, without giving specifics. "I was the one pulling everything together. I saw things that people may never see in their lives. My family is not the Brady Bunch." No, it isn't/ Carey's big sister Alison, who's HIV-positive, reportedly claimed she turned tricks to support Mariah during the early years of her career. Before Roy's final illness, the sisters hadn't seen each other in seven years. "It would've been easy for me to be cynical before I even got in the industry," Carey says.

Through it all, Carey continues to be optimistic, to believe that after rainstorms there will always be rainbows. And like the almighty butterfly she has adopted as her personal metaphor, she understands that life is about metamorphosis, about dealing with trouble and surviving, wings and soul tested but intact. "I always laugh at the end," Carey says. "I always come out laughing and just keep on going." Imagine that.