A Doberman named Princess was sitting regally in the lobby of a Manhattan skyscraper, tethered to her mistress by a chrome choke chain. The sleek young woman was decked out in bohemian black, profiling Ray Charles shades and studded with mall-sized diamonds in her jewelry. I asked if I could pet her dog. Coolly she glanced at her canine, then eyed me for a long second and with a slight smile said, "Sure. Just don't get too close to her face." Here was a woman who liked protection. Still, I hadn't exactly expected "Dreamlover" diva Mariah Carey to bring a Doberman to an interview.
It was all the more disconcerting because her image is alternately that of a come-hither video vixen, a Tinkerbell with Aretha pipes, or the girl next door. But in the lobby Carey acted more like the songbird in the federal witness-protection program.
What gives? The deeper explanation for Carey's behavior probably involves the complex psyche of a survivor from a broken home, and a childhood during which she and her mother at times did not have a place of their own to live. The more obvious explanation is that Carey is young (23), driven, world-famous, and risk-adverse. Carey is also a valuable corporate asset of the multinational Sony Music Entertainment, the company of which her husband, Tommy Mottola, is now president and COO.
And what a golden-throated goose! Since her self-titled debut album of 1990, she has sold more than 22 million records worldwide and is, according to Billboard, "the only artist in the history of the Hot 100 to have her first nine singles make the Top 5." In fact, Carey has sold more records that Nirvana and Pearl Jam combined. With the global success of her latest album, Music Box double platinum and barely out of the blocks her first concert tour in gear, and an NBC special on Thanksgiving (Thursday, Nov. 25, 10 P.M./ET), Carey's talent is clearly ascending to a new plateau.
When I finally sat down to talk with Carey, she was perfectly genial even girlishly charming. As we talked, she sipped Coke Classic (agency alert!), downed vitamins, and ate a bagel with cream cheese. About the only thing she showed no appetite for was the kind of gritty self-revelation that made Madonna a Hall of Fame interview specimen.
She is superstitious, too. On a chain around her neck hand her amulets: a gold cross for faith, which she bought for herself; a chunky diamond heart, from Mottola; and a crucial "lucky ring" she's worn since the 10th grade. "Every time I perform, I have to have it on. If I can't wear it around my neck, I'll put if around my waist or hide it in other places."
On the surface, the fairy tale of how Mariah Carey went from coat-check girl to international pop superstar virtually overnight looks like a "Pygmalion" for the '90s. In fact, Carey admits she'd be interested if director Martin Scorsese showed up with a $80-million budget and an offer to star her on a remake of "My Fair Lady." "I love the story." she says, "because it's about somebody who starts out as one thing and grows into something else. I'm hardly Eliza Doolittle, but I can relate."
Indeed. Last June in a splashy bash modeled on Prince Charles' and Lady Di's royal altar-cation, with an estimate price tag of $500,000 Carey tied the knot with Mottola, 43, her discoverer, mentor, and boss. However, the fact that the ceremony followed in the wake of a messy end to Mottola's 20-year marriage didn't calm the storms of gossip.
In our interview she brushed back any nosy questions about her marriage with a chilly smile or a reassuring stroke of the nearby Doberman. Finally she said, "Look, I never expected to ever get married. My parents were divorced, and none of the people I knew who were married seemed happy." What happened? "I guess I just grew up about marriage, and I feel a very special bond with Tommy. He is very, very good to me."
Her career ambitions, however, have not undergone such a radical transformation, and any insinuations that she slid into home on a lucky bounce irritate her. "To others it may seem like it happened very fast," she says, "but to me it seems like it took forever, since this is all I ever wanted to do from the time I was 4! When other little kids were singing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' I was singing the Rolling Stones' 'Satisfaction.'"
It's not such a bad anthem for a singer who is defiantly headstrong and still, it seems, ungratified. "I have always had a problem with authority," she says. "I remember one time at dinner when I was little and I started singing a little song. My father, who was very strict about manners, said, 'There is no singing at the table.' I kept singing and he said again, 'Mariah, no singing at the table!' Right then I marched over to a coffee table nearby and stood on top of it singing as loud as I could, looking right at him."
Carey admits that her rebellion grew out of a feeling of not belonging when she was growing up. The youngest of three, she was born to a black father and a white mother. Her parents divorced when she was only 3, and she was raised by her mother, a mezzo-soprano who sang with the New York City Opera. "My mother gave me confidence and taught me how to sing. But I had an unconventional childhood. There were a lot of hard times. I'd lived in 13 different places by the time I was 10."
Today Carey enjoys the full flush of superstar amenities: chauffeur, New York apartment, designer clothes, house staff, country place, the whole bit. Yet she says what she is about is not the stuff, but the music. "I was born to sing," she says,"and I would put up with anything to keep doing this for a living."
Perhaps that is why the moments without melody seem like just such down time to her. Waiting. Maybe the silence is a little scary. A few weeks after my interview with Carey, I went to watch her rehearse for the tour. What a transformation! Suddenly I saw her well-guarded personality burst forth as she gracefully led her own vocal parade, squirming with delight. No shields, no Doberman. She was safely wrapped in the arms of music.
Still, I make it a point not to get too close to her face.