Louise, Mariah Carey's Personal Assistant of four Long Service Medal-earning years, is turning down the bed for her boss in her two-room, £880-a-night suite at London's elegant Lanesborough Hotel. We would be in Carey's own four-room suite (£3,500-per-night) but the cleaners are in, and the cleaners are meticulous. "There's four of them, one in each room," says Louise.
Carey, battling with a cold, waits patiently. "I've got to protect The Voice," she says, gesturing towards her throat. Ready, the most successful female singer of the '90s unstraps her Gucci stilettos and slides into bed.
"It's alright," she tells Q. "come on the bed. I won't think you're getting fresh."
Louise pats down the sheets. Carey and Q are alone. We admire the vicious black footwear.
"They're alright. I wore them in the video for Honey," she reveals. "I went up in the helicopter in them, I dove in them, I swam in them, I did it all."
"I was a trouper."
Mariah Carey has trouped for 27 years now. And that trouping has paid extremely well. She has now sold over 80 million albums since her self-titled debut, bearing the Grammy-winning Vision Of Love, made her a heavily promoted but nonetheless instant star in 1990. Since then, in a career masterminded by the three-way axis of Carey, her husband (and Sony boss), Tommy Mottola, and manager (Mottola's old parter), Randy Hoffman, she has sold more albums than any other woman in the world. Barrows of cash, it seems safe to presume, are now hers.
"No. Eighty million albums doesn't mean eighty million dollars," Carey squirms.
So how much does it mean, exactly?
"None of your beeswax," she sweetly smiles. Lashings of greenbacks notwithstanding, Carey's life is in turmoil. The mogul-spots-unknown-makes-her-biggest-star-on-planet-then-weds-her fairy tale is over. Carey moved out to Mottola's upstate New York mansion in May. The couple are now officially separated. The title track of her new album, Butterfly, hints that there have been painful times, with Carey cooped up in the big house on the hill. "Blindly I imagined I could keep you under glass/Now I understand to hold you/I must open up my hands/And watch you rise," goes the song. Is this how she secretly wished Mottola would let her be? She hums and haws.
In June, Care took yet another step towards a new independence, leaving Hoffman's management company. She wryly insists it was "a mutual agreement." Mariah Carey, millionairess, diva, professional girl next door, is now only interested in a one-way axis. The woman who not only survived a themed Christmas album but could appear on its sleeve in tacky Santa get-up and still sell over 10 million wants total control.
Conveniently, she concedes that her former self made music "can be considered schmaltzy, MOR," but she will defend the likes of Hero and I Don't Wanna Cry, if you ask. "They mean a lot to some people," she says, but in such a way that informs you she is not one of them.
The easiest way to understand what Mariah Carey means by taking control is to look at what's happened to her music: a naughty urban R&B retooling abetted by genuine hardnut rap names. Gone are the duets with Luther Vandross and Boyz II Men and in have come Wu-Tang Clan's Ol' Dirty Bastard, A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
"It's not like I completely went crazy and wanted to be Lil' Kim," she grins. "I've always wanted to to the kind of music I'm doing now, but I'm not abandoning my other audience."
However much Carey may have embraced hip-hop, Butterfly remains her album. "It's coming from me so I have to dictate the direction or it won't be me any more. That's why I can collaborate with people and not lose the essence of who I am," she explains, obsessively wiping and re-wiping her hands with wet refresher towels.
Scuffing the "White Whitney" label that many have slapped on her, Butterfly boasts less of the grandstanding eight-octave dramatics that have punctuated her other work, and the rich mid-range of her voice lends itself well to the clipped R&B that now rules America. Ask her about it and she will take the compliment but deny the intent.
"It wasn't deliberate," she insists. "Q-Tip came up with the loop from Body Rock for Honey. I just wrote the melody to go with it."
Carey's new collaborators are having one very negative impact on her life, however: she can't find a flat. "It's very hard in New York. They have these co-op boards and for some reason they think I'm a wild, crazy party girl," she says, unwrapping another Wet One. Luxury housing associations aren't known for their liberal sensibilities.
"Yeah. Well, there was all this press about me hanging out with . . . rappers," she spits out the word in the way a tabloid editor might. "It was ridiculous. If you read the gossip columns, every time I frigging bump into someone in the hallway they're the new love of my life."
Right now Mariah Carey wants to go to sleep. "My voice is bothering me," she says, taking a sip from her second cup of honey and lemon. She arrived from New York last night and is already in the midst of a ferocious promotional schedule. There are radio interviewers to be entertained, a trip to London's Kiss FM to be executed, a meet-and-greet party tonight with European bigwigs to be enjoyed and, voice willing, a performance on Top Of The Pops in three days time. "They make you do seven rehearsals in that smoky room and it kills my voice," she complains, not unreasonably.
And after that? Carey doesn't know. All she knows is that even before she'd finished the album she was hustled into shooting three videos. Clearly, not everything is under her control: "I don't know what the (under her breath) fuck that was about."
But don't get Mariah Carey wrong. She's a trouper, after all. She'll get through it. She always has: the poverty-stricken childhood, the racist attacks brought on by her Venezuelan father and Irish mother's mixed-race marriage, the constant moving house, the "highly dysfunctional people" around her family who were "on drugs or doing other stuff that's even worse," and then the breakthrough, the success and the marriage. And now this. It's another life change. Taking control but also letting people know who she really is.
"The thing that pisses me off is when people try to make out it's this princess thing with this girl who walked into fame and never had to struggle," she muses. "People have no clue about my personal struggles and what I continue to go through."
Close-up, Mariah Carey has that heavily made-up, big-features look of the classic prom queen. She has the demeanour too. She can do tough, she can do oy, she can do funny. She's sharp and she's smart. What time does she get up in the morning?
All right, what time of the day?
"Around twelve-thirty, one."
"Hey baby you gotta have some perks in this job. (Laughing) I'm still down-to-earth, aren't I."
But you need to be a star, too.
"Of course, I'm a star," she pouts. "When you're not here I'm just gonna go completely off it and order everyone around."