When Mariah Carey was a little girl, she desperately wanted her life to be different, so each night she knelt beside the bed and prayed for God to make her famous. Her prayers were answered and the face of the world's most successful female singer and songwriter is everywhere, from magazine covers to videos, albums, T-shirts and TV shows. There are times, though, that Mariah hasn't been comfortable with that face. In fact, she's been pretty much uncomfortable with everything about herself.
Hers wasn't an easy childhood. Her mother was white and her father part black, part Hispanic. They divorced when she was three, and Mariah says she 'felt like a freak.' She missed her father dreadfully, never quite believing he loved her. She thought fame might change that.
Mariah lived with her mother, an Irish opera singer, and they moved 13 times to homes that were always poorer and more bohemian than anyone else's. The family stuck out like a sore thumb in their predominantly white neighborhood on Long Island, New York. Crosses were burnt on the lawn and the family dog was poisoned. Mariah's older sister Alison became a mother at 15, a drug addict and then a prostitute; she is HIV-positive.
Mariah started singing at four and used to hide under the kitchen table, scribbling down songs when everything became too much. "People are still confused by my mixed-race background," she says. "They look at me all the time and ask, 'What are you?' I still don't know. When I was with my mother, who was white, people thought I must have a Hispanic father they didn't realise he was black. When he picked me up they'd look at me as if I had three heads. I felt like a freak. I've just watched a tape of me at 11 setting a poem to music. At times I look happy, but then I look into the eyes of this little girl and can see she was very sad. I can remember that little girl praying, hoping, wishing for stardom. I thought it was going to solve the dysfunction in my life. It doesn't, but I didn't know that neither do the people who watch you on television. They see you in this fairytale and think everything is perfect that you're living a happy-ever-after life."
Mariah's early career was the stuff of fairytales. Plucked from obscurity as an 18-year-old by Sony music chief Tommy Mottola, whom she later married, she has sold more than 150 million albums and singles, with an astonishing 84 gold, platinum and multiplatinum certificates. In the U.S. she is the only artist since the 1920s to have had a number one hit year after year for a decade and she has two Grammy Awards. Her latest single is released this month and next week she arrives in Britain as part of her world tour.
The fairytale, though, wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Mariah's marriage was desperately unhappy. She divorced and has since had two relationships, but neither of them has lasted. Two years ago, she suffered an 'emotional and physical breakdown' and walked away from a £70 million, five-album contract with Virgin Records. Mariah is only 33. She doesn't have a boyfriend and says she can count her true friends on the fingers of one hand. One of them has told her she's 'the most tortured optimist' she knows. She is currently on her first tour since her breakdown.
We meet at a restaurant in the Trump Taj Mahal hotel in Atlantic City. Mariah is wearing the tiniest of tiny pink and silver sequin dresses. It's 2am and she's drinking a glass of wine. She has just finished a concert and says she is 'feeling depleted.' She's actually exhausted having spent an hour-and-a-half on stage brilliantly belting out his after hit.
She has an astonishing voice that spans five octaves and sings with a huge passion and gutsy defiance. Off-stage, she seems smaller, defensive; vulnerable even. She picks at a plate of antipasto, but there was a time she forgot to eat; in fact, she stopped taking care of herself altogether and ended up in a heap on her mother's kitchen floor. This is the first time she has spoken about her breakdown.
She's been working herself hard after signing with Virgin where bosses demanded their £70 million of flesh. Her affair with Latin American singer Luis Miguel was ending. She felt unloved, lonely and lost. Indeed, just before being admitted to hospital she left a poignant message on her website, "What I'd like is just a little break, or at least one night of sleep without someone popping up about a video or something." She says now, "You think this is a long day. I'd be on a day like this and then it would be, 'Okay, you've got to do the Australian interview now.' I'd be on the phone until five or six int the morning, and I'd be so wired from working I wouldn't be able to sleep. Then, I'd have to get up and do a photoshoot at 8am. I did that consistently for two months and I broke down physically. It's been written that Luis broke my heart and caused the breakdown. It's just not the truth. He did not break my heart. I wish I could say that was the reason it happened. I broke my own heart by treating myself less humanely and working myself into the ground.
The day it happened they were trying to get me to so a video. I couldn't because I hadn't slept in five days and looked horrible. I tried to explain but nobody was listening. I got in my cr and started driving. I was going anywhere I could to get away from my management, the label, from people who wouldn't stop pushing me. I decided to go my mother's house to rest and relax, but it didn't happen. I hadn't been eating and my blood sugar level was low. I got there and I passed out on the kitchen floor.
"My mother dialed the emergency services. She didn't understand that you don't do that with a famous person because it creates a scandal. I was in hospital for about a week-and-a-half. I only saw my mother and my brother. I didn't want to see people because I wasn't looking my best. It wasn't a matter of me losing my mind. Anybody would have cracked under that pressure. The pain we go through, I think it happens for a reason. I don't want to sound cliched, but I'm going to have to . I believe that whatever doesn't break you makes you stronger."
She was 18 when she was introduced to Tommy Mottola, the president of CBS Records (later Sony) at a party. Employed as a waitress and a session singer, she's gone along with her friend Brenda Starr who thrust Mariah's demo tape at Mottola. He took the tape and left, played it in his limousine and was so stunned he went straight back to the party, but Mariah had gone. That was a Friday. By Monday he'd tracked her down and signed her to an eight-album deal.
Mariah, who was a virgin, became his lover too. In 1993, having left his wife and children, Mottola married her and the couple moved into a mansion in New York. Mottola was powerful, possessive, controlling, and that home soon became a prison of sorts to Mariah. He dictated the clothes she wore, her hairstyle, where she went and with whom.
She was even escorted to the loo. Indeed, although her first album sold more than five million copies and included four number one singles, Mariah says she did not begin to guess at the fame she'd achieved until a year or so later when somebody stopped to ask for her autograph she wasn't usually allowed out.
"I don't think I'll ever truly feel as if I've made it," she says. "People who experience fame from an early age tend to feel it in a different way to me. When I first became famous, I didn't feel that I was because I was sheltered in that relationship with someone much older and very controlling.
"I didn't go to clubs and have people acting towards me the way they do when they know you're famous. Someone asked me for me autograph when I was 20. It was a feeling of validation. In the beginning Tommy was a sort of father figure who represented stability to me. But he became too overwhelming, too overbearing, too stifling. It was enough to kill anybody's spirit.
"For a long while I was trapped. I was with his record company. My manager and my lawyer were his best friends. I was a kid. They were powerful men. I didn't have a father who was managing me. I didn't have a mother who was taking care of me. I was a teenager alone in New York and scraping a living together when we met.
"I did think I was in love for a while. We were together so long before we got married. I thought if we did he would lighten up on me and wouldn't be so controlling. Tommy was my first lover and there have only been two since. I didn't have casual sex and I've never had a one-night stand. It's to do with self-respect. I never want people to say, 'Oh, I had her for one night. Ha ha.' I've only had a few relationships because I have to be with the right person.
"I've seen a number of people in the past week and ask, 'Can I ever see myself being with this person for a long time?' If the answer is no if I'm not feeling head over heels, yippee why bother? I don't want to get into something and feel rejected. I don't want to feel I gave myself to someone in every way and then found myself all alone."
Mariah's marriage to Mottola ended in 1998. It was particularly difficult separation. "Tommy would say the most abusive, inappropriate, terrible things. It became so ugly. If I hadn't left I don't think I'd have survived. It was a choice of staying and completely losing myself or leaving. I was at the brink." A confidentiality agreement prevents Mariah from talking in detail about exactly what brought matters to a head, but she does say, "There was an event that happened in front of too many people that was humiliating. It fired me up enough to say, 'I can't do this anymore.' I went to stay with a friend in Manhattan and didn't go back to the house. That in itself was a huge thing. Somehow I got the courage. If you put an animal against a wall for long enough, they're either going to cower and die or they're going to break out. I broke out."
Mariah was 18 when she met Mottola and 26 when she split from him. The fallout inevitably affected her working relationship with Sony. Eventually she left, possibly with the help of rival Jennifer Lopez. A snippet of music licensed to Mariah appeared on a Lopez album released by Sony. The two have reportedly been at logger-heads since. "Some weird stuff went on with a song when I was leaving Sony. That's what started the whole thing," says Mariah. "I wish Jennifer all the best. It's not worth my time to waste energy on her. I wish I could have stayed with Sony, but it was too incestuous. It was sad."
It was also nasty and vicious. There were stories made up claiming was promiscuous; that she behaved like a diva; was difficult, demanding, losing it. She signed with Virgin four months before her breakdown. It was a snap decision and one she regrets. "I went with the wrong company and I have to take the blame for it. It was a decision driven by money because I've always been afraid that the rug could be pulled our from under me. I never felt like a person with money because of how I grew up. It was the wrong move for me. They'd never had an artiste like me a singing diva."
Mariah was admitted to hospital suffering an emotional and physical breakdown four weeks after finding herself stuck on a punishing promotional treadmill to publicise her album Glitter and the film of the same name, in which she starred. The album was released on September 11, 2001. The timing was appalling and the album sold just two million. Her relationship with Virgin soured.
"I was not fired. I was not let go," she says. "It was a mutual agreement. They wanted to start changing things within my contract because they were not happy with the performance of the Glitter songs. They thought, 'Maybe she's lost it. Maybe she's not going to be able to make records anymore. Let's change the deal.' I wasn't going for it." Indeed, since hitting rock bottom two years ago, Mariah has demonstrated a steely determination to get back on top.
She's been driven, she says, since she was a baby. When she was in her first year at school, a friend told her, "When you sing it's as if there's music behind you." Mariah stored up these precious words of praise and remains visibly touched when she's complimented about her voice.
She lost herself in music last year when her father died from cancer. She says, "I'd just started to build a close relationship with my father when he found out he was ill. He was an aeronautical engineer, very practical and didn't understand my wish to be a star. When I became a success, we never quite had that conversation. 'Wow, I didn't think you could do this. It's great.' I was always trying to prove myself to him. I didn't really need to do that, but I didn't find out until the end of his life.
"In the end he couldn't really speak. I found out from his friends that he used to tell them how proud of me he was. My father only had a couple of CDs. When he was dying I found out one of them was mine. I didn't think he'd heard any of my songs. For someone I didn't know was proud of me it was an amazing discovery. He saved everything I'd ever given him, right down to cards I'd made him when I was three. One of the last things he said to me was that he was proud of me."
Mariah says she finally beginning to feel comfortable in her skin. "People can be lonely in the middle of a crowd and sometimes I am guilty of that. When everybody's pawing you and saying come and meet this person, come and meet that person. You feel it isn't about the real you and that can be very lonely. People have their own agendas.
"Some people want to be close to you and lie and say they've slept with you and you think they were a good friend. Others want to be around you to be a financial drain. There was a lot of weird stuff going on between labels. I was just one young woman going up against corporations and then having people saying, 'Forget her. She's not the person she was.'
"I'm not. I've been through the wringer, but I'm now at a place of strength and power. I'd prayed for so much and it got bigger than me. I had to get back to being the person I used to be. Now I'm finally back in touch with that little girl who was able to pray and hope."