The Us Interview

At 23, she's won three Grammys and married a music mogul. Now, Carey's ready to reveal herself.

Us Magazine by Guzman

Us (US) October 1993. Text by Jancee Dunn. Photography by Guzman.

The dance beats are throbbing at New York City's ultrahip Industria Studios — disco, hip-hop and, yes, a few Mariah Carey songs. Carey herself is doing her best to relax between photo shoots in a dress that appears to be cut up to her collarbone. She's fiddling with the hem, trying in vain to cover an acre long stretch of thigh, as a battery of stylists and photographers stands analyzing the shoot in low whispers. Just for an instant, Carey looks a bit weary; she heaves a small sigh, but when a make-up artist materializes brandishing a lip pencil, she smiles gamely.

Carey, 23, is already a seasoned veteran of the fame biz, which, it seems, is exactly what she wants. The youngest child of a white mother (a former soloist with the New York City opera) and a black father (an engineer), she knew by the time she was three that she was destined to become a singer. The day after she graduated from high school in Huntington, Long Island, she headed for New York City to pursue her career, checking coats by day and recording demos by night. But her starving-artist period was short-lived. Success landed on Carey when she met CBS label president and future husband Tommy Mottola, who heard her mighty five-octave-range voice and signed her on the spot. Thus began a career that reaped three Grammys and eight Top 10 hits (including "Vision of Love," "Can't Let Go," MTV Unplugged's "I'll Be There"), all in the course of three years. Her 1990 debut album, Mariah Carey, created a cyclone of publicity that would have made Madonna blush ("We think of Mariah as more of a franchise," said Sony honcho Don Ienner at the time). Carey's follow-up effort, Emotions, cemented her stardom, although critics were less than kind. Now Carey has a third album, Music Box, which will launch her first ever tour. But all of this was momentarily eclipsed by her June wedding to Mottola; it boasted a high-wattage guest list that included everyone from Barbra Streisand to Bruce Springsteen to Robert De Niro.

With Carey's ascent, however, comes the inevitable spate of rumors. Critics have carped that she hasn't paid her dues. Stories flew that she was linked romantically to Mottola before he split from his wife of 20 years. In 1992, Carey was hit by a lawsuit from her stepfather saying that she owed him a percentage of her earnings, which she will not discuss for legal reasons. Through it all, Carey has remained characteristically quiet.

But now, it seems, she is ready to talk. As the photo shoot draws to a close, Carey hustles into her dressing room to peel off her bell-bottoms and shrink-wrapped top. She emerges wearing a white cotton T-shirt, jean cutoffs, Adidas sneakers and a plaid shirt tied at the waist; the only evidence of superstardom is the hunk of ice that glares blindingly on her left hand. As she settles into her seat at a model-infested restaurant, she does something else that belies her stardom: She hits me with a barrage of questions about my career, something I haven't encountered in five years of talking to the famous. "I'm always interested in people that make it at an early age," she says, "How did you do it? Do you like what you do? How long will this piece be? Do you pick all the quotes yourself? Do you use all the questions?"

Carey is a curious mix of an ingenious woman with a ready laugh and a grimly determined professional. "Everybody who meets me says that I am much taller in person," she says, "They think I'm short, for some reason. And people think I'm shy, but I'm not as shy as I used to be." For the record, Carey is five feet nine inches tall. And she is most definitely not shy.

We'll be needing some details on your marriage.
What do you want to know?

Let's get right to it: Is it true that you studied tapes of Princess Di's wedding to get some pointers?
[sputtering] I... I... OK. This is the deal. The ceremony was really traditional, so I wanted to look at examples of a traditional wedding to get some ideas. So I watched it, like, twice. I didn't sit at home with the VCR and the clicker and keep rewinding it. I didn't know anything about traditions because I wasn't one of those girls that grew up thinking about getting married — all I thought about was singing.

Who caught the bouquet?
When I was leaving the reception at, like, 1 o'clock in the morning, there were a bunch of fans that had waited around. So I thought it'd be nice to throw the bouquet to them. Somebody said that I hit a guy in the head, but that's totally not true, because I saw a picture of the girl who caught the bouquet.

Did the paparazzi invade the wedding?
I don't think they invaded it. I mean, it wasn't annoying or anything. It was pretty exciting, actually. But one of our guests had snuck in and sold a bunch of pictures when we hadn't given anybody pictures of the church or the reception. It made me feel really violated.

Did you have an attack of nerves before the ceremony?
The night before the wedding I didn't sleep at all. I hung out with my bridesmaids in a hotel suite, and we stayed up really late and had a really great time. But actually, I wasn't nervous until the moment when I started walking down the aisle. I was worried that I was going to trip, or something.

Did Ozzy Osbourne wear a tux?
I didn't invite these people to talk about what they wore in interviews, you know what I mean?

Why did you decide to record a new album and plan your wedding at the same time?
It just so happened that I'd been working on the album for over a year, and in December we decided to get married, so it worked out.

We've all heard reports of how you first met Tommy Mottola, but I want to hear it in your own words.
[Sighs heavily] For the nine billionth time, I'll tell this story, but it's OK. I was singing backup for Brenda K. Starr, who was very supportive of me. She brought me to this party to meet a guy name Jerry Greenburg, and Tommy grabbed the tape before Jerry could [laughs]. That was the first time that I'd ever been to anything like that, so I was just freaked out to even be there. Then he left the party in his limo, put the tape on, turned around and came back to find us, but we were gone. So he left a message on my machine that said, "This is Tommy Mottola at CBS Records. Call me." After trying so hard, and getting that message, I couldn't believe it.

What impressions did you have when you first met the man who is now your husband?
[Shifts in her seat] It's not that I don't remember every detail of the entire thing. It's just that... I don't know, what exactly are you asking me?

You must have has some initial impression.
Well our relationship didn't start at that moment, so it was like a different thing. There definitely some kind of chemistry going on that was really intense. I remember it. But I was very scared and shy and young, so I just kind of walked away. Shyly.

Tommy's older than you by nearly 20 years. Do you feel any sort of generation gap with him?
He's a very cool person. We're beyond thinking about age. I mean, occasionally he'll know a song that I've never heard of, or I'll know songs that I'm like, oh, this reminds me of seventh grade, and it was, like, not that long ago.

Are there any plans for a little Mottola?
Not for a very long time. I want to do that the right way. I wouldn't want to be one of those people that gives my child to a nanny to raise. I still feel like a kid myself, and I want to be completely ready and conscious of everything that I'm doing. It'll probably be when I'm in my late 20s or during my early 30s.

So, back to you. I did an informal poll and asked people what their impression of you was, and nobody had a clear idea of what you are like. They would say, "She is beautiful," or "What a voice," but they said nothing about your personality. Why do you think that is?
I don't think I've done anything where I've shown my real personality. Not that I've intentionally tried to hide it, but when I first started out, I was just so worried about being the right way. I was very nervous and uptight. Now I feel a lot more comfortable just being myself, since I've been in the public eye for two and a half or three years. I feel like I don't have to be so guarded about things. It's really hard when you first come out, and I think it was a little scary for me. Now I just say, "This is me," and that's all.

When you're not recording or promoting an album, what's a typical day?
I like to go swimming, and I like driving a lot. Because I live in Manhattan, I don't get a chance to just get in a car and drive. I like being able to spend my time with friends or family, because I don't get to do that much either.

How about an ideal day?
I love amusement parks. Actually, I went to one yesterday with my friends, and I had a really great time. I love riding on roller coasters — they're my favourite thing. So yesterday we hung out there for the whole day. I'd cruise around, play music, act crazy and not have to answer to anyone about anything.

What kind of music do you listen to? What CDs have you heard lately?
I listen to different music at different times. I like gospel music at night — I'm pretty religious in my own way. I think it's good karma when I'm sleeping. I also like a lot of noise when I'm trying to sleep — music or TV — because I'm not a good sleeper. I like rap when I'm in a rowdy mood. I like songs from the '80s, '70s, '60s, old soul music.

Let's talk about the lean years.
The lean year.

The lean year.
I used to waitress, and I coat-checked and stuff like that. I was a really, really bad waitress. I would forget things, and I wasn't really into it, so I wasn't that nice to the customers. You have to be overly nice to get a good tip, and I wasn't like that, so they ended up firing me.

Have you been back to any of these places?
No. I don't want to see any of them. This one place I coat-checked used to play videos, and I would sit back and write the lyrics for my demos, and dream of coming back and watching my video on screen. But I haven't done it yet — the food's not that great [laughs].

What was the worst job you ever had?
I guess it was when I worked in a hair salon for one day, sweeping up hair. The guy there tried to give me a new name, like in the slave days. It was pretty bad.

I have to ask. What was the name?
Echo. Everybody had these little name tags with cute little names on them, like Electricity and Lightning. So as I was sweeping up hair, the owner kept asking me, "What's your name again?" I told him, "It's Mariah." And he said, "Well, now it's Echo." So I said, "Excuse me, I have to go make a phone call," and I never went back.

You've had your share of critics. How do you think the press has treated you?
I'm not going to get angry and say, "I hate critics," because a lot of them have been very good to me.

Do you read your own press?
Only the good stuff. Why would I want to see a bad review? If criticism is constructive, I like to hear it and try to improve. But if it's someone that's not into me, they're never going to be, so why should I torture myself?

Let's clear up a few charges that critics have levelled at you. One is that you haven't paid your dues.
Well, those people have only known me from my debut album up until now, which is three years. Just because you are young doesn't mean that you haven't been through anything. It doesn't bother me, because they weren't there when I only had one pair of shoes, with holes in them, and a dollar for the week. I'm not complaining about it — everything I went through motivated me to get here at an early age. I wanted it so badly that I thought it took a long time. I thought it was going to happen to me when I was 12.

Some critics weren't exactly kind to your follow-up album.
When you first come out, people are less likely to be really hard on you, because they're not jealous of you yet. As soon as you have a big success, a lot of people don't like that. There's nothing I can do about it. All I can do is make music that I believe in.

Why do you think critics pitted you against Whitney Houston?
Because I came out as a young singer, which wasn't the trend at the time — it was more "dancer-slash-singer." It wasn't as much about the vocals. And also because I was singing ballads, and I worked with some of the same producers. But the main difference to me is that I write all my own songs and I produce my own records.

Ever dream of being in the movies? I rented 'The Bodyguard' for the first time the other night and...
[Mariah makes a shrieking sound and covers her face with her hands.]

What? Did I miss something?
Nothing. Nothing. [Repeated coaxing to get her to explain is fruitless.]

So, you were saying.
Because I write all my own songs, it's not as easy for me to just pick up and leave and go do a movie and have songs delivered to me. I have to be there doing it myself, because I choose to do that, because that's thetype of artist that I am. Right now, that's what I'm into.

How do you think you've grown as an artist since your last album?
Just the fact that I'm writing more songs and learning about producing and being able to work with so many great people. And just doing it. The more you do something, the better you get. Hopefully.

When you write songs, do you just do it when the mood strikes? What exactly is the creative process?
Well, sometimes I'm just lying in bed trying to go to sleep, and the melody keeps coming into my head, and I can't get it out. And if it's good, and I want to go and record it, I call up my answering machine and leave the melody there so I won't forget it.

It seems that you're experimenting with lower notes on Music Box.
It's not that I'm experimenting with lower notes, I actually think my natural voice is low. My speaking voice is low, you know what I mean? And I'm really comfortable singing in my lower register. It's just that somehow I end up writing everything in a really high speed.

In the beginning of the song "Dreamlover," your voice does the vocal gymnastics you're known for. Is this kind of a message to people that you go over the top with your voice?
I sing from my heart. Whatever the music makes me feel at the time I go into the studio to sing a song, that's what I'm going to do. Some people like it, some people don't. But it's just a part of my voice, and that's it.

So this is the first time you'll be touring. How does that make you feel?
I'm jittery, but I'm very excited about it. I didn't start out performing in clubs like most people do, so it's very new to me. I didn't want to do that, I wanted to keep it separate. I definitely wasn't ready before, although I'd done it a few times. I was thrust out into the public in front of millions of people, like when I sang at the Grammys in front of every star in the music industry. And that's crazy. Is that how I'm going to learn?

Do you have the dates nailed down?
Not yet. But it'll be in the fall. It'll be a showcase of my songs and my singing. I think I'm only doing, like, 10 shows, because my songs are really hard to sing back to back. And people are going to come out to hear me sing — it's not about covering anything up with some crazy kind of show — so I have to make sure I sound decent.

Do you have to do anything special to take care of your voice?
I have to try to sleep as much as I can, which isn't easy for me.

Why do you have trouble sleeping?
Because everything happened so fast for me that I haven't been able to sit back and mull it all over in my head. So when I'm going to sleep, all these thoughts come flooding into my mind, and they just keep me awake.

How late are we talking?
Four or five. So I stay up and make answering-machine messages. The other thing is, when I was first starting out and doing my demos, my former writing partner (Ben Margulies) had a studio in the back of this small wood shop that we weren't allowed to go in until late at night. So I would waitress until midnight, the go to the studio until 9 or 10 in the morning, then I'd come home and sleep and do the whole thing over again. So I got on that schedule, and it's hard to get off it.

When you got your first cheque from your first album, did you go out and buy something nutty?
I still haven't bought something nutty.

A car?
Nah, I have a car, but it's not a crazy, extravagant car.

You seemed to have been very determined to be a singer since you were practically in diapers. Where do you think this single mindedness came from?
My mom used to sing with the opera when I was little, so it was real for me, it wasn't some crazy dream. I knew you could actually make a living as a singer. And when I would sing, she would encourage me and tell me: "You have a really great voice. If that's what you want to do, you should do it."

So, let's hark back to the cafeteria in high school. Where are you?
[Laughs] Standing on top of them. I had a good time in high school, socially, although I always wanted to graduate so I could get on with my life. I always felt like I was wasting time, because I knew I wanted to be a singer. Not to encourage anyone out there to do the same thing. I was very lucky that this happened to me, because I don't know what I'd be doing now. I'd probably still be in that shop, sweeping up hair and calling myself Echo.