In the video for Mariah Carey's new single, "Honey," the pop star plays a secret agent who has been kidnapped and is being held in a sprawling mansion in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Our beleaguered heroine is tied to a chair, clad in a skimpy black dress and four-inch stiletto heels.
Carey escapes, and is next spotted emerging from a swimming pool, this time wearing a skin-colored bikini that leaves even less to the imagination than her previous outfit. In the final reel, we see her cavorting with a hunk on a deserted beach. The screen reads: "Mission accomplished."
While riding to the midtown Manhattan recording studio the Hit Factory, where she'll put the finishing touches on her upcoming "Butterfly" album, the singer can't help but grin as she imagines how her fans will react to these provocative scenarios.
"I don't really think the video is overtly sexual," she insists, stretching out her long legs as if to touch the opposite end of the limousine with her toes. "But for me I mean, people used to think I was the '90s version of Mary Poppins!"
To be sure, Carey has never gone to great lengths to camouflage her voluptuous figure or her exotic good looks, for which she can thank a blond, Irish American mom and a black Venezuelan dad.
But the singer's overall image since soaring to fame seven years ago has been one of a bubbly, G-rated crooner of fluffy, G-rated pop-soul songs more glamorous than Mary Poppins, perhaps, but just as wholesome and nonthreatening.
At 27, though, Carey seems to be tiring of that role. In the tradition of Janet Jackson's 1993 album "janet.," on which pop music's other all-American sweetheart declared herself a strong-willed, sexually mature woman, Carey's new album due in stores Sept. 16 mixes candid romantic ballads with hormonally charged dance numbers, sending a clear message that the ingenue with the multi-octave range has grown up.
"I feel really close to this album," Carey says. "I've come into my own as an artist, and at this point I feel free enough to express what I'm really feeling, without using a smoke screen. This may sound strange, but I listen to the album every night before I go to sleep it calms me. Not because it's boring, but because I feel good about it because there are so many things that are real on it. It's definitely an evolution for me."
Carey certainly appears to be in good spirits as she saunters into the Hit Factory complex. After warmly greeting her mom, the singer enters a studio and excitedly pops a just-mastered tape of songs from "Butterfly" into a cassette deck.
She seems downright giddy as she introduces the first few songs, twirling her long hair and affecting a playful English accent that could have been lifted straight out of a Monty Python flick.
But as she settles onto a sofa to listen to "Outside," a ballad that describes how being multiracial made her feel insecure and alienated as a child, Carey suddenly grows pensive. The lyrics in many of these songs, she says, draw on "everything I've been through in my life," from pre-adolescent angst to obsessive love.
For the album's more upbeat tracks, Carey collaborated with some of the biggest writers and producers in hip-hop much as she did on 1995's 7-million seller "Daydream," her last and most critically well-received album. They include Sean "Puffy" Combs, the Track Masters and Missy Misdemeanor Elliott. Members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony lend their unique rhythmic vocal style to one track.
But, one senses, Carey is also relishing a new sense of autonomy in her personal life brought about, ironically, by her separation from Sony Music Entertainment President and CEO Tommy Mottola, the man who signed Carey to Columbia in 1989 and married her four years later.
It was widely assumed particularly among those who were critical of Carey's music that Mottola played a Svengali-like role in Carey's career, from dictating her artistic choices to assembling her career advisors.
When Carey hired a new manager, attorney and independent publicist in July, many industry insiders saw the changes as an attempt to distance herself as much as possible from her estranged husband.
But Carey insists that her personal split from Mottola, announced in June, was an amicable one, and that it was not the sole basis for her decision to cut her professional ties to such Mottola pals as manager Randy Hoffman and entertainment lawyer Allen Grubman.
"I love Tommy, and he will always be a part of my family," Carey stresses, seemingly at ease with the topic. "There's absolutely no bitterness between us. The best thing I could hope for would be to have a great friendship with him, because he is someone I respect and admire and look up to in many ways. But right now, it's my time to grow as an independent woman.
"People have to realize that I've been in this situation where I've been working with some really powerful people since I was a teenager. And everything they did for me was great. I still love Randy. He took care of me in ways that went above and beyond what a manager has to do, and that won't be forgotten. And everyone knows what a respected attorney Allen is.
"But as an established artist, it's good for me to meet new people, and to start working with them at the level that I'm at now."
Mottola and Hoffman declined to comment, but Grubman took his pink slip in stride.
"About a month and a half ago, Mariah and I had a very long conversation that was personal as well as business," says the attorney, whose clients include Madonna and Elton John, "and we concluded that under the circumstances it was time for her to change her representation.
"She wanted new people around her... and with the changes she's going through in her personal life, I agreed this was a wise thing... I still consider her a close personal friend,... one of the most brilliant artists I've ever been involved with."
The changes in Carey's professional life have notably not included leaving Sony's Columbia Records, for whom she has generated more than $800 million in sales since 1990. Carey now even has her own label under the Sony umbrella, Crave Records, featuring a roster of fledgling hip-hop acts.
"I'm very happy at Sony," Carey says. "If I were to leave the company now, it would be in effect saying that my relationship with Tommy was the only reason for my being there, and that's not true. There are thousands of people working for [Sony] all around the world who kill for my music, and I'm looking forward to continuing with them."
About the album itself, Columbia Records President Donnie Ienner says, "Mariah has always had two distinctive and authentic sides, especially on her last two albums, 'Daydream' and [1994's] 'Music Box.' She has the hip-hop-tinged music and the big, soaring ballads.
"It may seem like she's leaning more toward the hip-hop side now, but arguably her best ballads are on this record as well as her best hip-hop stuff. She's completely guiding her own ship right now."
Since moving out of the estate that she and Mottola shared in suburban Westchester, N.Y., Carey has been apartment-hunting in Manhattan, where she's currently living in a hotel. Rumors in the tabloid press about her life as a newly single woman in the city, which invariably link her to male artists, have been a source of both great frustration and amusement for her.
"I've never had to deal with this before, because I've never been out there in this way," Carey muses. "All of a sudden, [journalists] are like, 'Whoo! Here she goes! Stop the presses, she's goin' wild!'
"The fact is, I end up collaborating with more men than women in my work, and I form friendships with most of the people that I work with. But that doesn't mean that I'm sleeping with all these guys! I'm not! Would somebody please put that in print?"
Among the friends and colleagues that Carey swears she isn't involved with, despite recent tabloid reports suggesting otherwise, are Combs, rapper Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and Boyz II Men's Wanya Morris, her duet partner on the "Daydream" ballad "One Fine Day."
In fact, Carey claims that she doesn't have a steady beau at the moment. She has a new passion, though: acting. For the past seven months, she has been studying with Sheila Gray, a top drama coach with clients in New York and Hollywood.
Before recording sessions for "Butterfly" got underway, Carey, whose previous acting experience was limited to school and camp plays, met with Gray as often as four or five times a week.
"It's been an incredible release for me," Carey says. "It's been like intense therapy. I would come out of sessions [with Gray] emotionally drained, because I was getting in touch with all this stuff that I'd never really dealt with even things from my childhood."
Carey has a film project in development right now, but says that for legal reasons she can only divulge that it's a period piece and that "it's gonna be a bit of a departure for me."
"I've already recorded one song for the soundtrack. But even if I were never to make a movie, I think the experience of studying acting has made me a fuller person, and helped me in every facet of my life writing songs, making videos, just living. It's been very therapeutic."
"Mariah has really opened up," notes Gray, who helped Carey conceptualize the videos for both "Honey" and the title track from "Butterfly," which will be the follow-up single. "In the past, I think, her image has been more distant, even though she's actually very intelligent and articulate and funny and spontaneous. For the 'Butterfly' video, she was able to give a performance that is really soulful in a way that's going to be exciting for people to see."
"Most of my fans haven't really had a chance to get to know me as a person," Carey says. "I haven't done many interviews, and many people just had this image of me as this person who stands around in a dress or a shirt buttoned up to here, singing mellow ballads or happy little songs. They didn't know about everything I'd been though. I've had a lot of drama in my life, you know?
"But I've grown into myself, and I think I've reached a point now where I feel really good about who and where I am."
The adult pop idol smiles, broadly and confidently, then adds, "Now I feel comfortable in my own skin."