The Lady Is A Vamp

Her amazing, octaves-spanning voice propelled Mariah Carey almost immediately to the top of the charts. But it takes more than vocal pyrotechnics to keep her there. The princess of pop talks to Vicki Woods about what's behind the fairy-tale facade.

Vogue Magazine by Steven Meisel

Vogue (US) December 1994. Text by Vicki Woods. Photography by Steven Meisel.

Mariah Carey and I climbed into her limo outside the Sony headquarters in Manhattan. Just as the driver began to ease away from the curb, two Sony women executives raced down the steps and banged frantically on the car's tinted glass, bleating. The driver halted. Mariah sighed and looked at the women over her huge Chanel sunglasses. By now they were pulling at the limo doors, trying to get in. She slid the window down. "Mariah, what are you doing? What do you mean, you're just going to ride around? Mariah, where are you going?"

"Vicki wants to ride around," replied Mrs. Tommy Mottola, the wife of the president of Sony Music Entertainment, scowling horribly. "So I'm taking her out in the limo." I said nothing. The two women looked at each other. Neither particularly wanted to ride around aimlessly in the limo with us, but both of them knew that somebody had to keep an eye on (a) the chief executive's wife and (b) their platinum seller. The decision was made with a nod; one woman flew back up the steps into the Sony building on wings of relief; the other scrambled into the front seat with the driver, and we slid off. Hmm. I mentioned I didn't like being overheard while I was interviewing someone. Mariah snapped, "You won't be!" and hit a privacy button that zapped out the driver and the Sony executive.

In addition to her huge Chanel sunglasses and a diamond as big as the Ritz, Mariah was wearing a white angora cropped sweater, jeans, a black plastic cropped jacket, and boots with five-inch heels. It was a very pop-starry mixture; part tacky sexpot, part Long Island mall girl, pall all-out superstar (the sweater was Versace, the jacket Corinne Cobson, the boots Chanel). "People who work with me like to keep me the same little curly-haired girl I was four years ago," she said. "It's really hard for me, because you can't push too far past your audience. You know their image of you. And I am the type of person that would love to do different things. But I have like eleven-year-old girls who are my fans that look up to me, and I don't want to go crazy: It's kind of irresponsible."

When you interview a female pop star with (a) a God-given voice, (b) two Grammy awards, five consecutive number-one singles, and sales of 55 million albums and singles worldwide, (c) a diamond as big as the Ritz, and (d) a house the size of LaGuardia Airport under construction in the suburbs, and all before she's 25, you'd expect her clippings file to be wreathed in pink ribbons and decorated with hearts and flowers. But no. It's all snipe, snipe, snipe about Mariah Carey.

Nobody snipes about her voice. It's a wonderful voice, a voice that glissades across five octaves: a white pop singer's black soul voice. The range and coloratura are from her Irish-American opera-singer mother, the soul from her black Venezuelan father. The voice is all Mariah's, not studio-produced as a lot of critics initially maintained but which she finally disproved with her Unplugged album and her belated first tour last year. No, what critics snipe about are the songs, which are almost always her own composition: simple little ditties with greeting-card lyrics about "dream lovers" and "visions of love" and "needing a friend."

Of course, the great virtue of writing your own songs — especially if you can't read music — is that you're the only one who knows what they should sound like. Mariah likes to sing her own songs and produce them, too. Because "in the studio, I'm in control. Most people — especially women — have to go through years of working with men who tell them what to do and write all the songs and produce everything and the women just sit back and sing. I never wanted to do taht. Even before I got my record deal I had a lot of songs — you know, my tapes that I was producing."

Hmm. Here we segue neatly into snipe number two: production values, attacked by everyone from The New York Times to Rolling Stone. Mariah likes to sing with an enormous amount of decoration and color. No word or phrase is left to hand naked in the empty air. Everything is harmonized, backed with chorals, reverberated, spun through echo chambers, over-dubbed with 20-odd tracks. Even live onstage, she likes to dance her way through a vocal gymnastic routine. It's pretty enough, but after a couple of songs it's like too many iced cookies. Too many notes! Too many notes! as the kind said in Amadeus. And then there are those who snipe that it can't be possible for someone who doesn't read music or play the piano to write or produce hit songs. This is a situation Mariah is addressing. "I'm taking piano lessons now, and I'm learning to write music out. I have a piano teacher and everything. And sometimes I do her hair in exchange for lessons, because I can do hair, too. I did 500 hours of beauty school. I knew I wanted to be a singer, but I figured I would like to have something to fall back on, you know?"

Snipe number three concerns her real-life Cinderella story, and here I give up. Has nineties America forgotten how to enjoy an American tale? A simple, heartwarming, rags-to-riches story? Let's run that fairy tale again, children. Mariah's childhood, on Long Island, is very poor because her parents are divorced, but she loves to sing and sneaks the portable radio under the bed covers. "I started working with musicians — you know, from even, like, sixth grade. My mother's friends were jazz musicians. They would be jamming, and I would sing 'My Funny Valentine' and 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love."' At eighteen, Mariah is living in Manhattan with two other girls. She waits on tables by day and makes demo tapes by night and is a backup singer for Brenda K. Starr. It's a hard life, and Mariah struggles like any young artist. Sometimes she has only a dollar in her pocket.

But it was to be the world's shortest artistic struggle. By the age of 20, Cinderella had gone to the ball (a ritzy music party), met the president of CBS Records and pressed a demo tape into his hand, and gone home. Picked up his message on her answering machine ("I'm Tommy Mottola. Call me"), called him, and under his benevolent gaze, made the platinum-selling album Mariah Carey.

By the age of 23, she married him. (Mr. Mottola quietly divorced his wife of 20 years and the mothers of his two children.) Mariah's was a fairy-tale wedding, inspired, she admits, by the video of Lady Diana Spencer's to the Prince of Wales. And from then on, life was rosy for Tommy (he became president of the whole Sony music operation) and for Mariah.

She clocked my British accent. In fact, she mimicked my British accent as well, as you'd expect from a child who at the age of barely three corrected her opera-singer mother's phrasing as she practiced Maddalena's aria from Rigoletto. In Italian. She's a sociable little thing, Mariah is. She took me to E.A.T., on Madison Avenue, because she thought I'd like it. There, she pressed the different kinds of bread on me, different dishes: Have the peppers! Try a potato skin! Want one with cheese on it? Every time my mouth was full, she swooped in to keep the conversation going. "Did you know that the Coca-Cola is different in Britain than it is here? The syrup is different. I have to bring my own when I go there, cause I don't like the way it tastes. And cranberry juice," she added, seriously. "You guys don't have any cranberry juice over there. They don't know what that is. They look at me like I'm crazy."

She brought out photographs of her new house. At the time of our interview it was supposed to be a secret project, but pictures of the half-finished mansion kept appearing in the papers worldwide, accompanied by more snipes: "Everyone is complaining — the trucks just keep going up and down — one of Mariah's miffed neighbors." She passed them over. "I'm not supposed to show you these. We've built it from scratch. I found a picture in a magazine that I liked, and we showed it to the architect, and we just built it from there. It's supposed to look like a 200-year-old, like, manor house. But it's brand new. So it was hard to make everything look old. We got the brick from Florida. Took four months to find it. It's made to look old. You can't use actual antique brick because it's too porous." The house is a melange, with domes, rotundas, campaniles, clock towers, porticoes, colonnades, summerhouses, balconies, gables, and Tudor-type chimneys. "Doesn't it look old?" she said, delightedly. "It looks huge," I said.

"We've been doing it for two years. He's going to kill me for showing you these," she said, riffling through the deck of photos. "So don't show me!" I said nervously. Mariah tilted her head to one side and came up with a solution: "I'll say I left them out by accident, and you picked them up and looked at them."

Mariah loved dressing up for Vogue, even though she wasn't 100 percent wild about the clothes. "You know everything is this new length now? It's, like — fine," she said. "But I like short. Short is my favorite." However, she greatly enjoyed the makeup. "It was intense. It was, like — so severe. It was, like, deep red lips and black cherry nail polish. I felt like a vampire with the nail polish on. People are going to be very surprised that it's me in the pictures." The New York Post photographed her leaving Steven Meisel's studio, flashing her dark nails. But there is the tyranny of those eleven-year-old fans, of those platinum expectations. The next day her lip gloss and nails were back to beige.

"When I did my show at Madison Square Garden, all my costume changes were worked out, but I had one additional change for the last show, because it was Christmastime, and I was going to sing 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.' I had a red dress, a sort of Jessica Rabbit dress. And I had five people backstage, and they couldn't zip it up in the back. The band was vamping the intro. Four times. The crowd was yelling. And I'm behind a tiny little curtain with five people going, 'Come on, we'll get it, we'll do it — it's OK, we can leave it.' And I'm going, 'No we cannot leave it. I am not going onstage in front of 15,000 people in a strapless dress with nothing underneath.' And i'm going, 'You guys better get that up! Right now! Do it, you guys!' And though it's totally not my personality, I became, like, the world's biggest bitch. Meanwhile snow was falling and the band is vamping and the crowd is screaming, and finally they say, 'You better go right now, Mariah.' So I said, 'I hate all of you,' and I run out. I'm out there singing, waving my arms and everything, in this sexy, low-cut dress and I made it through. I laugh about it now. But I wouldn't be laughing so hard if my dress had fallen down."