I have to confess: I had never met a diva before Mariah Carey. I wasn't even sure what one was, so I looked it up. First definition: a woman of outstanding and rare singing talent. Second definition: someone who is difficult to deal with. I'd met plenty of second-definition divas but never an actual one, so, naturally, I had outfit angst. What do you wear to meet a woman who sings in octaves most of us barely know exist? A ball gown? No, too dressy, plus mine has a burn on the sleeve. Jeans? No, too disrespectful. Red lipstick? No, too much. I settled on white pants, an AC/DC concert T-shirt and Chanel lip gloss. Meanwhile, Mariah answered the door herself, low-key, in a ponytail and pink hoodie. So this, I thought, is a diva?
And after spending two hours chatting with her at Tommy Hilfiger's beach house in East Hampton, New York, which Mariah had rented to work on her latest album (still unnamed as of press time), I realized the diva thing is only something we see on TV. In reality, this megastar was once a shy kid who was self-conscious about her multiracial identity, which marked her as different in the cookie-cutter suburbs of Long Island, New York, where she grew up. After what felt like a lifetime of hard knocksher parents divorced when she was three years old and her mother moved the family from one place to another, sometimes barely making ends meetshe had her first best-selling album and her first seven-figure paycheck by 20, and a wedding train longer than Princess Di's at 23. (She married Tommy Mottola, then chairman of her record label's parent company, Sony Music, in 1993.) That may sound like a fairy tale, but Carey's the first to scoff at those who say it wasshe paid her own way to the ball!
Her marriage ended in divorce in 1998. Then, in 2001, Mariah checked herself into a hospital for exhaustion, creating a tabloid frenzy. But two months later she was onstage again, serenading the nation at the 9/11 "America: A Tribute to Heroes" telethon. Now, at 37, she's sold 160 million albums worldwide, earned five Grammys and is tied for number-one hits in the United States with none other than Elvis Presley. Oh, and she launched her own M by Mariah Carey fragrance in September and is preparing for her new album tour. Privately, the star with a set of pipes and a sense of humor (she dubbed her home with ex Mottola "Sing Sing") has created her own paradise in New York's Tribeca neighborhood, where she moved in 2001. It's a triplex penthouse apartment decorated in shades of gold and pink, with framed family snapshots covering practically every surface. At the photo shoot, Mariah gave me a complete home tour and opened up about everything from her obsession with lounge chairs to her dysfunctional childhood and her current love life.
Thank God, I told her, for that childhood. Had she grown up like every other girl on Long Island, she probably wouldn't have had the ambition to make it so big.
Glamour: I watched you on YouTube last night, singing "America the Beautiful" at the NBA finals in 1990one of your earliest TV appearances [at age 20].
MARIAH CAREY: I was a little malnourished, wasn't I?
Glamour: Yes, you looked like you weighed 80 pounds. And most of that was hair.
MC: [Laughs.] Well, I did my own hair then. No one even knew who I was! I was such a little girl.
Glamour: How old were you when you got your first big paycheck?
MC: I was about 20. I went from having $5 to getting a publishing advance of $1 million.
Glamour: Tell me about your so-called Cinderella story.
MC: [Laughs.] When Tommy [Mottola] signed me, I had two other record deals pending. I had already put in the hard work and I had my life planned but nobody likes to talk about that. I guess fairy tales make better stories.
Glamour: Yes, they do. What advice would you give that little girl now? Or someone like Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears who always seems to be messing up?
MC: I wouldn't want to speak to those people specifically, but I would say you need to be very centered, and spiritually know where you're at, all the time. Don't read the tabloids. Don't be obsessed with what people are writing or saying. Live your life for you. My lifestyle has changed since making it. It's not a financial struggle, but I'm still struggling in a lot of ways.
Glamour: In what way?
MC: Early on in my career, because I had achieved material success and realized my dreams, I thought it was OK that I was unhappy in my personal life. It took me a long time to acknowledge that my feelings mattered. Now the struggle is to keep creating music I love. Even if that wasn't my job, it would be something that I would do, either write songs or poetry.
Glamour: You've been writing since you were a kid.
MC: I started writing poetry when I was six. I had this teacher who didn't believe the poems I'd bring in were mine because they were dark and sad. But I wrote about what I experienced in my childhood. I felt really bizarre as a kid. Mostly because I come from an interracial family [Carey's mother is Irish and her father was African American and Venezuelan], and because we didn't have a lot of money and we moved around a lot. Living in the suburbs is a place that's all about fitting in. I remember after one particularly bad incident, one of my mother's friends said in front of me, "If this kid makes it, it will be a miracle." I'll never forget that moment. I think my ambition grew even more from there. So I guess I showed them that miracles are possible.
Glamour: When you were a kid you wanted to be a genie. I laughed when I read that because I wanted to be a genie too. But you actually are a genie.
MC: [Laughs.] And today I have my genie ponytail hair. Wouldn't it be really hot if I could just blink and change my outfit right now? How amazing would that be!
Glamour: [Laughs.] Seriously, in the abstract, a genie is someone who can will something to happen against all odds. You did that, sort of.
MC: Well, it's not just because of magic. I worked hard to make it happen. And I prayed and believed. I have a lot of faith in God.
Glamour: When I read in The New Yorker that you hit one of the highest notes produced by a human voice that's ever been recorded [a G-sharp, three and a half octaves above middle C], I got a chill and it almost made me believe in magic. Your voice does have an otherworldly quality to it.
MC: Honestly, as a kid, and still today, I truly believe God is hearing my prayers. People either laugh or they understand it.
Glamour: The first definition of diva is: a woman of rare and outstanding talent, pertaining to singing. So you're a diva and a genie!
MC: What's the second definition?
Glamour: Someone who's very difficult to deal with.
Glamour: I would also call you a modern feminist, in that you challenge the universal definition of femininity.
MC: Meaning we can't all be size 0?
Glamour: That, and you're a businesswoman who's not afraid to be sexy. I think there's a serious woman under all that hair and those outfit changes.
MC: I am serious. But I also have a self-deprecating sense of humor.
Glamour: Yes, and it got you in trouble on MTV some years ago.
MC: That was blown so out of proportion. It was a skit where I pretended to strip but I was wearing three layers of clothes underneath this oversize T-shirt. It was meant to be funny! And now I realize I can't do that on TV.
Glamour: Only boys get to do really stupid things on TV in the name of comedy.
MC: After that happened, and after the endless speculation about "Mariah's breakdown" I decided I was going to do whatever I needed to do to get myself to a place where I'm happy internally. I can't worry about what the world is saying about me.
Glamour: I heard that your closet is about 3,000 square feet, which is bigger than my apartment. I just need to know how many times have you walked into that closet, looked around and said, "Dammit, I have nothing to wear?"
MC: [Laughs.] Every time I go in there. If I get photographed in something, I can't wear it again.
Glamour: So how much of the closet consists of wearable clothes?
MC: Probably like one shelf.
Glamour: OK, let's say you wake up in the morning and think, I want to wear that cute Chloe dress. Do you know where it is?
MC: [Laughs.] No, I don't. I'm always like, where are the bras? I have an entire separate lingerie closet.
Glamour: You should do a lingerie line.
MC: I would love to. When it comes to lingerie, I know what I'm doing.
Glamour: What about just everyday, what do you wear?
MC: Like seeing you today? I put on jeans because I figured we'd be inside, but whenever I'm outside I want to be in the hot tub. I am a water person. I would jump in the hot tub in the middle of our interview if it weren't so freakin' cold out! [Laughs.] But usually when I'm just hanging around, I wear boxers and a tank.
Glamour: So you like lounge-y things. I noticed you have chaise lounges in every room of your apartment. There's even one in the kitchen!
MC: [Laughs.] If I'm "on" I have to sit up straight. The whole day you're concerned about every little movement, so it's very much a lounging moment when I'm home! I have a lounge chair in my bathroom.
Glamour: [Laughs.] I saw that. That's where I'd be all the time. Lounging in the bathroom.
MC: I sleep there sometimes. If we have a late night, I'll run the bath and then never get in it.
Glamour: Also, why all the huge flat-screen TVs? What are you watching?
MC: I love that show Brotherhood. I was obsessed with The Sopranos; I also like Curb Your Enthusiasm and old shows, like Good Times, shows that remind me of when I was growing up.
Glamour: There's a screen in front of your hot tub.
MC: I know! But I watch stuff I'm working on. Instead of sitting in a boring regular room, I'd rather be on the roof in the hot tub writing my notes.
Glamour: Answer quickly: How many bathrooms in your apartment?
MC: [Laughs.] I don't know! Do you want me to really try and think about it?
Glamour: [Laughs.] No, no. There are so many I figured you wouldn't know. There's also a Marilyn Monroe bathroom. Do you identify with her?
MC: When I was little, I watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on TV. She's in the pink outfit, and I was like, "Wow!" and was transfixed. She was a great comedian; a lot of people don't realize that the dumb blond thing was an act. Marilyn had difficult hair as well. [Laughs.]
Glamour: She maintained a childlike quality even as a woman. So do you.
MC: It's something that I can't help. That's why I'm always saying I'm eternally 12.
Glamour: I'm curious about that. Since your own childhood was a mess, what was Mariah like at 12?
MC: Mariah at 12 was a wreck. I accidentally dyed my hair orange. I shaved my eyebrows. Wore blue eyeliner. Disgusting!
Glamour: So you went through the whole ugly stage like all of us.
MC: I guess so. I think back now and I was just trying to be glamorous.
Glamour: You seem like you're in a really good place in your life--do the songs on your new album reflect that?
MC: What's clear on this album is that nobody is holding me back from writing. It's real-life experiences, and there's a lot of humor in it.
Glamour: On your last album you were "emancipated." Was that also autobiographical?
MC: Kind of. But I have an album called Butterfly that is much more autobiographical. There is a song called "Close My Eyes," which I wrote over a period of four years, and it says a lot about my childhood.
Glamour: You express love brilliantly in your songs. Have you ever been in love?
MC: I think I've certainly romanticized relationships to believe it's love. A lot of people tell me they used one of my songs on their wedding day, so I must know something about it! [Laughs.] But I don't know if it's for me.
MC: I'm scared of being too vulnerable. That I know for certain. Someone has to understand my struggle and my journey; to know who I am in my soul, not who I am on TV and after a long day.
Glamour: Do you believe there is such a thing as sustainable love?
MC: With a human being I don't know, but definitely with a pet. [Laughs.] I don't think I've ever experienced a relationship of the caliber I write about in my love songs. There are songs I've written about certain people that it's obvious I felt, "Wow, this is the real thing, this person definitely has to be for me." And it didn't turn out that way. The Butterfly album is full of them.
Glamour: Are you seeing someone special now?
MC: I don't go out much. I'm also not promiscuous. If I went out with everyone the press said I did, I'd never have time to write or sing.
Glamour: Do you like dating?
MC: I don't even know what dating is.
Glamour: I've heard it's when you go to dinner with a guy, he pays, and then there's pressure at the end to kiss him.
MC: [Laughs.] Right. Oh, I never really had that sort of date.
Glamour: Do you think you will ever get married again?
MC: I would if I felt the other person loved the real me, or if I wanted to have children.
Glamour: It's easy to lose yourself in someone, sometimes.
MC: I wouldn't mind losing myself a little with someone, but not right now. My life is too consuming.