So this is where the magic happens: well past midnight, in a cramped dimly lit recording studio in New York City, upstairs from a live nude revue. For the top-selling female recording artist of the decade with 100 million records sold worldwide, you'd expect ice buckets filled with Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne (her favorite) and assistants bearing silver trays laden with truffles whatever her Divaness desires. But no, what Mariah Carey wants is simply to finish laying down the house mix of her new single, "Heartbreaker," jump in the limo and go home hopefully before the sun comes up. "This definitely isn't the most glamourous studio in the world," Carey says, curling up like a cat on a well-worn leather couch. "But I don't like studios where it's all schmoozy. I'd rather just go and do my work."
And there is plenty of work for Carey these days. Besides making her ninth album which she promises will keep both her R&B and hip-hop fans happy there's also a burgeoning movie career to nourish. Following a cameo as an opera singer in this month's romantic comedy "The Bachelor," starring Chris O'Donnell as a man who needs a wife in order to receive a huge inheritance, Carey is currently planning her first big starring role in "All That Glitters", about an up-and-coming singer. And on top of it all, she's renovating a downtown Manhattan loft she recently purchased for a reported $9 million (after being turned down by the co-op board of Barbara Streisand's grand uptown penthouse.)
Still, even as the obligations of pop stardom pile up, the 29-year-old singer dressed down at the studio in a halter top, hip hugger jeans and denim Miu Miu mules, and with her curly locks tossed up in a bun seems at ease and in charge. "I don't think anyone knows as much about what's right for me as I do," she says, a hint of defiance in her low, breathy voice. "I've written 99 percent of everything I've ever sung. I know what my audience wants." A typical Aries, she also knows what she wants: total control. She gives the studio a commanding sweep of her arm, "In this world, I call the shots, and I think I know best."
Since her purportedly amicable split from Sony music chief Tommy Mattola (The couple together since 1990, and married in 1993 separated in 1997 and divorced in 1998), Carey has been calling the shots as never before. With her first post-breakup album, 1997's 4 million seller "Butterfly" (Sony), she shifted toward an edgier hip-hop and R&B sound, stripping away her teen-friendly, dancing-in-a-field-in-a-flannel-shirt image to reveal a sexier, more adult side. "I think Butterfly was a natural evolution for me." She says. Around the same time, the songstress also sold off the suburban New York mansion she shared with Mottola (for a reported $20.5 million) and moved into a bachelorette house on the tony Upper East Side.
Within months, the once-reclusive singer had gossip columnists working overtime on rumored romances with everyone from Puff Daddy (false, she insists) to Leonardo DiCaprio (also false) to New York Yankees star Derek Jeter (true, but now they're just friends) to 29-year-old Latin singer Luis Miguel (true, and ongoing). "People had never seen me out before, and then suddenly I was like, 'Woo hoo! Here I am!'," Carey says gleefully, busting out a little raise-the-roof dance move. "I just wanted to go out and be free."
These days, Carey refers to her 4 year marriage as "my previous situation," distancing herself from the ill-fated relationship even as the media's fascination with it continues. "I feel like when I talk about that stuff, I'm dredging up the past and getting everyone pissed off with me again," she says," I can't go back and change all that. I can just go forward with a positive outlook."
But as carefully as she may choose her words, the singer is forthcoming about how she feels Mottola attempted to control her every move personally and professionally. "I'd had the desire to go into acting for a long time, but my relationship didn't allow me to explore that side of things. It was kind of a big issue," she says. When possible acting projects arose, she claims she wasn't even told about them. Mottola maintains that this was not the case. "From the very beginning, I've been 100% supportive of any and all of Mariah's creative endeavors," he says. "And I continue to be there for her."
In the beginning, when she was an 18-year-old waitress and aspiring singer, Carey says she embraced the idea of putting her career in the hands of Mottola, whom she first met at a 1988 party. Growing up on Long Island, New York the youngest child of a half-Venezuelan, half black engineer and an Irish opera singer who divorced when she was 3 she had dreamed of becoming a pop star since the age of 4, and this record-industry honcho clearly had the power to make those dreams a reality. Marriage, however, was initially the furthest thing from Carey's mind. "I actually had a phobia about that", she says. "I used to think, 'People always get divorced. Why get married?'" Nevertheless, despite their 20-year age difference, Carey and the then married Mottola's professional relationship blossomed into a romance that culminated into a lavish wedding, which was inspired by videos they saw of the nuptuals of Charles and Diana.
Today, post-divorce, she's in search of a balance between stability and freedom. "I still need to go out and have fun," she says. "I need to hang out with my girlfriends, blast music in a car and go to a club if I want. Right now, I feel good. I'm in a relationship where I feel supported, and I don't feel too stifled." Miguel, known as the Elvis of Mexico, met Carey last December in Aspen, Colorado. For months, the couple denied they were, well, a couple. But after being caught making out in various hot spots around Mexico and Paris, the Alcapulco-based singer and Carey now confirm they are romantically involved.
Carey's newfound independence has led her to branch out into acting, and she has thrown herself into intensive training. "When I first went to my acting coach two and a half years ago, I was so tense and unable to communicate my frustration with the things going on," she recalls. "That first day, I was lying on the floor doing this relaxation exercise and I just started crying. I was a wreck and left there completely debilitated. It was like therapy, but even more intense. My only experience with therapy had been couples therapy, but that was kind of useless for me, exploring any of the issues surrounding my childhood and becoming a public figure at a young age." She undercuts the seriousness with a coy smile, then adds, "I should probably be in therapy at least two hours a day."
Of course, she knows there are some who will snicker at the very notion of Mariah Carey, thespian. "People are like, 'Oh, now you're going to act isn't that original?'," she says. On the other hand, Carey expresses some annoyance at actors who parlay their fame into successful music careers. "How do I say this?," she begins evenly. "Producers can do a lot in the same studio; it's all about videos and catchy hooks. If you have the right people behind you, it's fairly easy to have one or two hit records. I mean, Milli Vanilli had massive hits."
It's nearly one in the morning, but for Carey, the long night is just beginning. When her cell phone goes off inside her handbag, she answers with an impatient, "Yeah?," adding curtly, "Look, I don't know what to tell you. If I don't finish this tonight, I'm not going to make the release date." She hangs up and offers a wearily apologetic smile. "I'm not usually that irritated with people," she purrs.
So the question remains: If it looks like a diva, has a multi-octave vocal range like a diva, and sometimes gets a bit peevish like a diva, is it a diva? "Hey, I know I can be diva-ish sometimes," Carey admits, "But I have to be in control. The nature of my life, the nature of what I do, is divadom, it really is. But, you know, the way people are using the word these days, anybody who has one record is suddenly a diva." She lets out a good humored, husky laugh. "I mean, give me a break. You have to earn that title."