Privacy or the lack thereof being what it is for Mariah Carey, we are conducting an interview in the backseat of her car.
As you might imagine, this is not just any automobile. This is a $400,000 Maybach Touring Sedan long and sleek, with deeply tinted windows mirrored on the outside. Passersby who gawk see only themselves. When you live in a fishbowl, it's nice to be able to turn the tables now and then.
Aspiring pop divas, take note: It's lonely at the top, but not lonely enough.
It's a quarter after 12 on a cold night in New York City, and Carey one of the best-selling recording artists of all time is about to go into a studio to put the finishing touches on her latest album, E=MC2. We're the only ones in the car, both Carey's chauffeur and her boyfriend, record producer Mark Sudack, having obligingly vanished.
"Not to give a woe-is-me moment," the 38-year-old singer/songwriter says, "but it's not as easy as everybody thinks to have this kind of life. Even sitting here talking to you, I feel like there should be a bit of intimacy, and when there is always somebody else around, it's tough."
There's a brief silence. It's so cozy and quiet that I feel an overwhelming temptation to pop the big question.
"Are you a diva?" I ask.
Carey rolls her eyes. "They throw that word around like it's a friggin' Frisbee!" she says.
Then, fortunately, she smiles.
"I grew up hearing it, because my mother is an opera singer," Carey tells me. "The actual definition is 'a talented female singer.' Definition two is 'a difficult woman who is successful,' I believe. So I take it as a compliment."
Mariah Carey is a complicated mixture, at once powerful and vulnerable, grown-up and girlish. "I'm eternally 12," she says. But nothing about her aside from the jeweled butterfly ring she wears on each hand looks 12. She's tall and voluptuous, a fact that her outfit (a tight blouse with a deep-scooped neckline, tight black pants and platform heels) does not disguise. She speaks with an unvarnished Long Island accent, shows her emotions easily and seems touchingly and oddly eager to please. "My self-esteem has never been topping the charts," she admits.
At the same time, Carey is a woman of parts: a dedicated philanthropist (The Fresh Air Fund and the Make-A-Wish Foundation are two of her favorite causes), an actress and, of course, a monumentally successful and wealthy recording artist. From the time of her discovery as an 18-year-old with a phenomenal eight-octave singing range, she has sold more than 160 million records worldwide and charted 17 No. 1 singles tied with Elvis Presley and three fewer than the Beatles. She could catch or surpass both with this album. Carey's success is built on the strength of that amazing voice and on the sweet sexiness of her songs, which also contain hints of a difficult personal past.
As a biracial child growing up poor (her father, an Afro-Venezuelan aeronautical engineer, and her mother, an Irish-Catholic, Juilliard-trained opera singer, divorced when Mariah was 3), she felt "like an outcast." After Sony Music Entertainment head Tommy Mottola discovered her, signed her with Columbia Records and then married her, she spent the '90s turning out one platinum album after another and feeling like a prisoner in an overprotective marriage.
"That part of my life always remains with me, because it was so intense," Carey admits. "But part of that is my fault, for allowing that relationship to kind of linger or, dare I say, fester for so long. I grew up with such dysfunction that I assumed I didn't have a right to a happy personal life."
Carey divorced Mottola, left Columbia Records, signed the biggest record deal in history ($80 million) with Virgin and then, in 2001, suffered a physical and emotional breakdown. "My life was in such a shambles because I had allowed it to become a shambles," she says. Virgin dumped her, but then Carey signed with Island/Def Jam Records. In 2005, she made one of the most remarkable comebacks in recording history with her multiplatinum album The Emancipation of Mimi.
"You know what?" she says. "I guess I am a diva in many ways!" She laughs. "When it comes to certain things, yes, I can be difficult and a little bit rigid about what I want. Am I demanding? I don't think I'm demanding enough. I think if I were more demanding, I would have felt that I had some sort of power, as opposed to feeling like a pawn, which is something I had to grow out of.
"You've got to go through some stuff," she continues. "Somehow people have to know there's something that's not perfect about you. I had to learn to grow up a little bit. I feel like I connect to people through song because it's filling a void in me. I need to make music. If I didn't have this, I don't know where I would be."
"How do you know that the people around you would still be there if you weren't so successful?" I ask.
She sighs. "It's extra-difficult," she says. "You don't know who is here for the glamour, for the gossip factor. You really just want to know that somebody loves you for you. That's a difficult thing when, you know..." She hesitates. "Sometimes you just do really feel like an ATM machine with a wig on it."
Carey looks at me for a moment, then breaks into a raucous laugh.
"Forgive me," I say, "but you seem happy."
"I am," Carey says. "I'm really happy."
"Can you say more about your boyfriend?" I ask, referring to the pleasant young man who I now see is waiting patiently on the sidewalk.
She laughs again. "Well, I've been on this mission to refuse to discuss it as long as I can," she says.
The final song on her new album, "Bye-Bye," is a sweetly sad farewell to important people in all our lives in Carey's case, the father from whom she was estranged for much of her childhood, the stern man who never encouraged her singing. Yet before Alfred Carey died in 2003, Mariah reconciled with him.
"He was a very strict man, and I think it was such a long shot in his mind that anybody could actually become a success in this business," she says. "He explained that to me before he passed away. We discussed a lot of stuff. Anything and everything I needed to say to him, and vice versa. So I am very grateful for that time that I had.
"I never knew that he kept a scrapbook of my stuff," Carey tells me. "I never knew all the things that he saved cards from when I was a little girl. And he did say to me before he passed away, 'You were always...'" She has to stop for a second.
"Dramatic moment," she says, regaining her composure. "He said, 'You were always a star in my eyes.' Which was very meaningful, because to a lot of people you're really not worth anything unless you're raking in the dough and having No. 1 hits."
Mariah Carey is clearly all that and a lot more.