A Real Life Fantasy

Singer Mariah Carey didn't climb to the top. She soared.

Mariah Carey pulls her luxury convertible into a space by the front door of La Scala, an Italian restaurant that's just a quick drive from the Westchester County estate she shares with her husband, Tommy Mottola, head of the $2.5 billion Sony Music Entertainment empire. A good-size portion of those billions has come from Carey, whose 65 million units in worldwide sales make her the best-selling female artist of the '90s.

As it turns out, just about anywhere in this bucolic countryside is a quick drive for the 25-year-old Carey. Then again, things always seem to move quickly for her: Carey's 1990 debut album sold 12 million copies and earned her a Best New Artist Grammy. Her last album, "Music Box," sold 24 million copies. And her new album, "Daydream," opened atop the charts and remained there throughout October (it's currently No. 2 behind the new Smashing Pumpkins album).

Meanwhile, "Daydream's" kickoff single, "Fantasy," became the first single by a female artist — and only the second overall — to enter Billboard's Hot 100 at No. 1; it's been there for six weeks, while also topping the R&B and dance charts.

"I'm happy people like the single," says Carey. "I still like it and I've heard it more than anybody in the world!"

The road to No. 1 is clearly familiar, though "Fantasy" represents the quickest trip to the top for Carey, who has accumulated nine chart-toppers since her very first single, "Vision of Love." Has it all become routine?

"No waaay!" laughs Carey, who is serious and self-assured beyond her years but is also clearly enjoying herself. "The only odd thing is that now there's nowhere for Fantasy' to go but down. The anticipation is over before it really begins."

It wasn't that way six years ago, Carey says.

"With Vision of Love,' I was just happy to have a song on the radio. At that point, I didn't even know what constituted gold or platinum in terms of sales."

She's learned. No Cinderella Story

With her powerful octave-surfing vocals and penchant for the occasional stratospheric high note, Carey is clearly blessed as a singer. In person, she's also far better-looking than her photos and videos suggest — tall (she's 5 feet 9), slim and buff. Child of an interracial marriage, Carey has lustrous caramel-color skin, long, wavy, auburn hair and piercing ebony eyes.

Though she projects a genial toughness, Carey is clearly sensitive about certain topics, one of them being that she's the product of savvy Sony marketing and spousal connections, part of a Cinderella story featuring Mottola as Prince Charming and an unmarked demo cassette subbing for the glass slipper.

Certainly the Carey-Mottola nuptials in 1993 had a fairy-tale quality, from Carey's 27-foot train to a guest list that included label mates Bruce Springsteen, Michael Bolton, Billy Joel and Barbra Streisand. And while their home may not be a castle, it's cozy enough, with nine bedrooms, seven fireplaces, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a recording studio. It's unlikely Carey will have to move around as often as she did growing up on Long Island, where she, her mom and an older brother and sister lived on lean budgets and underwent a dozen changes of address.

"People look at what seems to be my amazingly quick success story,' " Carey says. "But they didn't see me prior to that, so it's understandable they wouldn't have any understanding of what it took for me to get there and what my life was about.

"I don't go overboard to make it known I had a difficult life before this," she says. "I'm happy to be where I am, and I'm so fortunate to be where I am. What I went through made me capable of handling all the stress that this life brings about."

Carey's not playing the "rich, rich pitiful me" card, but she doesn't have to reach too far back to the days when she was "living in a studio apartment with my two cats and still hand-to-mouth."

What you get with Mariah Carey is a sense of focused toughness built on the gift of her voice. Part of it comes from her childhood: According to the singer, the stress of an interracial marriage put exceptional strains on her parents, who divorced in 1972 when Mariah was 3. She stayed with her mother, Patricia, Irish and from Indiana, a former singer with the New York City Opera who made her living as a vocal coach. After the divorce, Mariah seldom saw her father, Alfred Roy Carey, a black aeronautical engineer from Venezuela who lives in Washington (they now have a cordial but distant relationship).

Patricia Carey discovered her daughter's gift when she was rehearsing the role of Maddalena from Verdi's "Rigoletto" and missed a cue, only to have Mariah pick it up at the right spot and sing it — in Italian. Mariah was not yet 4.

"I mimicked everything that I heard," Carey recalls, and that could mean opera, television commercials and show themes, as well as the pop music spilling from the family radio. "I always loved music and they had to tear me away from the radio to make me go to sleep. It was something that always made me happy."

Patricia Carey, says her daughter, may well have given up her own dreams to raise her three children. "I always looked at her in her time and thought she could have gone really far, but she gave it up. I think that motivated me even more. She gave me that sense that when it's time, you have to go for it."

But at Long Island's Harborfields High, who'd have known? Mariah Carey didn't sing in the school choir or participate in talent shows. She'd sung in junior high but at the next level, "I thought I was too cool to be in chorus," she laughs. "Almost nobody knew that I sang. I knew my whole life what I wanted to do, but I didn't even tell my friends."

They might have guessed, though, since Carey was reportedly indifferent to schoolwork (she insists she doesn't remember her grade-point average) and had few nonmusical interests. Her yearbook photo notes Carey's penchant for Corvettes and "guidos" (Italian boys), and her habit of sleeping late. This last was explainable since, by age 15, Carey was commuting to Manhattan to pursue a musical apprenticeship.

"I felt like I was doing music on a level that was a lot different than a high school thing," she says. "I was working with professional musicians and studios and I took it very seriously. I didn't want to mix school with that, I didn't want to be in a production of Annie Get Your Gun.' I wanted to make songs that could go on the radio."

If Carey's friends were out of the loop, her mother was quietly encouraging her to pursue her dream. "She took it seriously like I did," says Carey. "More than anything, she helped give me the belief in myself to even attempt to do this." The Right Hands

After graduating in 1987, Carey moved to New York and worked as a waitress, coat check girl and part-time backup singer for dance club diva Brenda K. Starr. It was Starr who, one night in 1988, took Carey to a party hosted by Columbia Records. And that's where Carey proffered her demo tape to Jerry Greenberg, who headed the WTG custom label (no longer in existence). Instead, another hand made an interception.

"It was such a quick thing," Carey recalls. "Jerry's hand went out and Tommy's came in from the side and just grabbed it." Leaving the party, Mottola popped the demo into his car stereo and, bowled over, rushed back to the party only to find Carey gone. And, in Cinderella tradition, her name wasn't on the cassette (Starr's was). Eventually Mottola, who had just signed on as president of CBS Records, tracked Carey down by phone.

"He left the message on my machine. This is Tommy Mottola, CBS Records, call me back. . . . 'Bye,' " Carey recalls. "Well, after you wait so long to hear a call like that, it was shockingly abrupt."

Carey's debut was not, however, quite so abrupt. Columbia spent two years nurturing her talent in the recording studio. The video for her "Vision of Love" was rumored to have cost half a million dollars, a substantial amount for a proven hit maker and virtually unheard of for a brand-new act. Sony was clearly looking for a Whitney Houston-style diva, and got a songwriter in the bargain.

Carey likes to point out that three of the four songs on her demo ended up on her debut, but admits to frustration at the label's bringing in producers like Narada Michael Walden (who had hits with Whitney Houston and Taylor Dayne).

"It took away some of my identity," Carey says. "When I go back and listen to the demo, in some ways it's better than the album ended up being. Just in terms of the simplicity, it seemed to be more real and innocent and once we got big-name producers involved, it took on another quality. It did very well for me, so I'm not saying anything bad about it."

Mottola served as executive producer on "Mariah Carey" and gradually he and Carey began the courtship that led to Mottola's 1990 separation from his wife of 20 years (they divorced in 1991). Two years later he and Carey were married, and Mariah got her "guido."

"Yeah, I guess so." Carey winces when reminded of her high school notation. "I was trying to be cool," Carey admits. "I don't think I should even comment on that right know. I'll get myself in trouble." She's smiling.

So imagine this scenario: Sunday morning breakfast, the rustle of Billboard pages, a glance across the table and silly grins as Mottola and Carey raise their hands, extend their index fingers and break into the chant — "We're No.1! We're No. 1!"

"No way," she says, with a laugh.

"We definitely kid each other about the business side of things, but we try as much as possible not to deal with each other on those issues," Carey adds. "It wouldn't be good. And there are certain things he can't be involved in."

Like contract negotiations?


"But Tommy's a very musical person, and very creative for a record company guy," Carey says. In fact, Mottola had a brief, undistinguished recording career (anyone remember "Love Trap" by TD Valentine?) and managed such acts as Hall & Oates and Carly Simon. At a London club, Carey actually got Mottola to sing in public, with her and her backing singers behind him.

"It was pretty funny," she says mischievously, "and we documented it on film." Don't expect to see or hear it anytime soon.

That won't be the case with Carey herself. She'll be doing her second television concert special (Nov. 29 on Fox) and is gearing up for what will be only her second tour after a six-concert swing in 1993. Despite her confident front, Carey doesn't like people in the recording studio when she sings and tries to keep the vocals to herself until she feels they're ready to be heard. "I don't put myself out there for anyone until it's ready," Carey says.

Which may explain why she's not a road warrior. During her apprenticeship, Carey never did clubs because she was so focused on getting a record deal. In truth, given today's video-driven market, the performance factor may be less crucial, particularly in the pop field, but Carey was caught unprepared for her first tour.

"I never really thought about it until it was upon me," she admits, "which is why it was so shocking. I thought of hitting the notes right and sounding right, rather than having to entertain everybody."

After a critically panned concert debut, "I learned to relax and be myself, have fun and sing to the fans and not make such a big deal about it inside myself," Carey explains, and strong reviews for her follow-up concerts suggested she had solved the problem. "It's still very frightening to be backstage and hear those people screaming for you. It's a very strange state of being, but I'm looking forward to it."

She'll do some overseas dates and start a U.S. tour early next year. Even if there are many dates, however, they will be far between, since Carey is obsessed with "having to take care of my voice. I don't want to say I'll do concerts once a week because everybody's going to kill me — my manager's trying to get me to do at least two a week — but I need a good five days in between, to just not even speak." At least Carey won't have to push those stratospheric swoops and melismatic flights that graced her early albums. "Certain producers wanted to hear me do that; it was something people had taken notice of," she says, acknowledging that on her second album, "Emotions," she "got carried away."

Since "Music Box," Carey has been exploring her lower range, pursuing a more emotionally nuanced style, reaching into herself rather than above herself. "I still enjoy singing up there, it's something special," she admits, adding that on "Daydream" the few sonic flights are used as "texture. It's not in your face. And since there are some fans who buy my albums just to hear that, I can't just abandon it altogether, but I'm in my mid-range on a lot of the album."

For now, though, "Fantasy" shows no sign of wear in any of its versions, including the hip-hop remix by one of today's hottest producers, Sean "Puffy" Combs, featuring guest rapping by Ol' Dirty Bastard of Wu-Tang Clan. It's not what you'd expect from Carey, but she describes herself as "a hip-hop fanatic. I grew up listening to rap, listening to the evolution from old school to now."

Carey also proves playful on the slow rhythmic jam, "Melt Away," written with Kenny "Babyface" Edmunds. Though Babyface only sings a couple of lines, several critics have mistakenly identified the cut as a duet. "People think that when I sing the low part, it's him," Carey notes.

Like Carey's previous albums, "Daydream" is likely to have a long shelf life and massive sales (even last year's Christmas album reached 8 million in worldwide sales). Certainly the singles are lining up, patiently waiting for chart space and air time.