Hail Mariah

The pop diva tackles the Grammys, and lace-up hip-huggers.

W Magazine by Michael Thompson

W (US) June 1996. Text by Daniel Peres. Photography by Michael Thompson.

"Can I get a full-length mirror, please?"

The request is called out innocently from behind a woven bamboo screen — the type that might have appeared in the dressing room of a Forties movie star — where Mariah Carey is trying on Armani gowns for the Grammys. The horizontal makeup mirror above the desk, it seems, isn't doing the trick.

The order makes its way down the hierarchy of cell-phone-wielding handlers — repeated urgently by each — and moments later, a six-foot-by-three-foot wood-framed mirror is navigated through the wide halls of New York's Sony Music Studios, passt several dormant television cameras, through the throng of cigarette-smoking French teens who won a trip to meet the pop star and beyond the two sharkskin-suited security guards. Finally, it's rolled into the spacious ground-floor rehearsal space that has been transformed into Carey's makeshift dressing lounge.

Moments later, she glides into view wearing a gray layered organza skirt with a bead-encrusted bodice and is met with a chorus of "bravos," "beautifuls" and "stunnings" from the small crowd, which includes her manager, publicist, personal assistant and a hair and makeup stylist. Even the elderly seamstress pops a few pins into her mouth to free her hands for applause.

Carey studies her reflection. "I like this one a lot," she says, "but it makes me look too heavy. That's not a good thing."

The fitting is being shoe-horned in between several television interviews, a French radio show (hence the lobby full of Instamatic-crazed teens) and an editing session for an upcoming MTV promo.

Carey is leaving the following day for Los Angeles to rehearse for the Grammys. Aside from having been nominated six times in recognition of her sixth and latest album, Daydream, Carey is opening the show with a performance of "One Sweet Day," her duet with Boyz II Men, which holds the record for most weeks at the top of the Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart. (Daydream debuted on top of Billboard's pop and R&B charts, the first album by a female artist — and the only one since Michael Jackson's HiStory — to do so.)

"When I wear something on stage, I have to be super careful of the details," she says. "I can't wear anything that's extremely tight fitting in the middle section, because I need so much abdominal control to hit the high notes. I can't risk anything. It's a special song that means a lot to a lot of people. And let's just say there'll be a few people watching."

The performance went off without a hitch, but that was her last triumph that evening. She didn't win, even once. Each time the camera searched for another winner in her categories — more often than not the edgier Alanis Morrisette or Joan Osborne — it passed over Carey, seated in the front row.

"What can you do?" she would say later, a month or so after the Grammys. "Let me put it this way. I will never be disappointed again. After sitting through that whole show and not winning once, I can handle anything. But — and I know everyone always says this — I wasn't expecting to win."

The press had a different take, reporting that the 26-year-old was acting like a spoil-sport and whining to her husband, Sony Music head Tommy Mottola.

"They said that I was sitting in a corner at the Sony party sulking with Tommy," she gripes. "That couldn't have been farther from the truth. I actually had a great time there and was one of the last to leave. I practically closed the joint."

But Carey has grown accustomed to criticism and sour grapes. Being married to the boss for three years has brought its fair share of character assassination. She's referred to as the "Queen of Sony," be some of the company's employees.

"That's life," says Carey. "There's a lot of jealousy inolved when someone achieves success quickly."

And snobbery, too, directed toward her lower-middle-class, Long-Island-girl roots: She was raised by her mother, an ex-opera singer, after she divorced Carey's Venezuelan father when Mariah was still a baby. By the time she was 19, she recorded her first album — produced by Mottola, then president of CBS Records — which sold over 12 million copies and garnered her two Grammys. She has since churned out almost an album a year, and is certainly one of the most successful female pop stars.

Now, she and Mottola live in an expansive estate in Bedford, New York, complete with recording studio. And Carey is a real night owl, often up until the wee hours of the morning working on her music and planning her videos, which she directs herself.

"There are a lot of people with power and money behind them who don't go anywhere. No matter what people say, Tommy can't make millions of people go out and but the albums. Nobody can. You can't fake success like that."

Even Madonna has taken a few swings at Carey. In the January issue of Spin Magazine, when publisher Bob Guccione asked Madonna a leading question — if she wouldn't just be happier singing "silly little pop songs" like Mariah Carey — Madonna replied, "I'd kill myself."

"I used to get so wrapped up in it and upset by it," says Carey. "I guess my skin has thickened. The truth is that people read it one day and wrap fish in it the next."

Carey is extremely reluctant to say anything about Madonna.

"I really don't think of us as competitors in any way, because we're really totally different. My focus has always been on the music. Dressing up and working with designers, that's all fun for me, but I'm always the same person."

Unlike... Madonna, Carey's image, in any case, is designed to please her broad audience. "People who are obsessed with fashion are a very small minority," she says. "I am not going to alienate my whole audience to appeal to that group of people. I think there are some artists out there who have gone overboard with the fashion thing. I think it's really hurt their careers. I don't need to be done up like a Barbie doll. I don't want the fashion to outshine the music."

Then she digs. "I'm not one of those people who feels I need to change my look every five minutes, because I'm over compensating for, uh, other areas."

Having said that, Carey excuses herself to go to the ladies' room. On the way, she stops and glances at her suede hip-huggers, painstakingly laced up both legs.

She reconsiders. "I guess it'll have to wait," she says, sighing. "In my next life, I'm going to sleep nine hours a day and only change clothes twice."