A Diva Takes A Dive

She strips on MTV! Has nervous breakdown! For Mariah Carey, it's what becomes a legend most.

Time (US) August 13, 2001. Text by Richard Corliss.

Diva means goddess. All right, the word is as goofily overblown for a female vocal star as "artist" is for any punk with a record contract. But as a job description, "diva" carries certain burdens. One must not only sing one's heart out; one must expose it to the harshest elements. What becomes a legend most? Suffering. A childhood of deprivation; liaisons with powerful, possibly dangerous men; career triumph soured by personal despair. A life of melodrama makes the diva more human, thus more godlike, to her fans. A catchy moniker helps: Callas... Garland... Lady Day... Whitney. The singer in the news last week was no exception, seemingly groomed by her parents for divadom. For a start, they called the kid Mariah.

Lately a hurricane of troubling publicity has swirled around Mariah Carey — the top-selling female singer of the '90s, with more than 140 million albums and singles sold. Barely a month before the release of her first starring movie, Glitter, and an accompanying CD, Carey, 31, was admitted on July 25 to a Westchester County, N.Y., hospital suffering from what her publicist, Cindi Berger, calls "an emotional and physical breakdown." The tabloids said Carey entered the hospital with her hands bandaged, as if she had attempted suicide — an account denied by the ambulance driver who took her there.

The official version is that in her penthouse suite at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in Manhattan, Carey became severely agitated and tossed crockery about; that she stepped on the shards and cut her bare feet; that she asked to be taken to the suburban home of her mother Patricia; that once there she spiraled into a nervous breakdown; that her mother dialed 911 and got Mariah to the hospital, where she was treated for exhaustion. She is now resting in a Connecticut psychiatric facility. "She is improving daily," Berger says. "It's one day at a time."

This sad, murky episode is the latest act in Carey's diva drama. Act I may have been her 1998 divorce from Tommy Mottola, boss of Sony Music and the man who helped make Carey a star. (She later signed a deal with Virgin that brings her $23.5 million an album.) The split was bitter, and Carey came to suspect that Mottola was trying to defame her — to make Mariah a pariah. Earlier this summer she hired Jack Palladino, a San Francisco-based private eye who worked for Bill Clinton in the Bimbogate scandals and Jeffrey Wigand in the Insider tobacco case. "My client had a belief there is a negative campaign against her," Palladino told Time, "and the suspicion that Tommy Mottola was behind it... Her beliefs were well founded... My client is not going to be a victim. She is determined that this is going to end." Mottola and Sony have denied the charge.

Act II was a montage of eccentric actions. She broke up with her beau of three years, Latino popster Luis Miguel. She had a catfight (though not, as reported, a fistfight) with Mira Sorvino on the set of her next film, Wise Girls. She looked frazzled and spent on a BET interview show. She stripped down to a sports bra on MTV's Total Request Live. At a mall appearance in Westbury, N.Y., Carey rambled about "positivity" until Berger grabbed the microphone from her; the mike went back and forth, and, Berger says, "I won." This led to an intense chat between star and flack. "She was upset," Berger explains. "I did not want her to air her frustrations publicly on camera. Never on camera."

In her post-Mottola career, Carey does most of the creative work herself, including the lyric writing and producing. A reluctance to delegate and a crushing travel schedule put more pressure on her. For several years, a Sony executive notes, Carey has had problems sleeping. A close friend was "not surprised at all" by the breakdown. "She works ridiculously hard." Since she became a star at the age of 19 in 1990, she has made nine albums, in contrast to three by Whitney Houston.

Her colleagues don't see her as a raging prima donna. Says the Sony exec: "Except for the usual diva crap — wanting to look nice, needing champagne and bottled water wherever she goes — she's actually kind of cool. She's a girl from Long Island, you know. She works hard." As for her lopsided fame, "She gets the joke."

Maintaining fame is a full-time job, and Carey is not a teenager anymore. In 1990 the Britneys and Christinas were in elementary school. If she was looking anxiously for any signs of mid-career slippage, she found it in the weak air play of Loverboy, the first single off her Glitter album. The star's friend said Carey was "extremely concerned" that the song languished in the mid-60s of Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Finally Loverboy ascended to No. 2, beneath today's hotties a trois, Destiny's Child. Carey could get trampled by the children's crusade.

On the Glitter album, amid all the techno-pop, the coloratura vamps and intricate layers of vocals, a few songs stand out as cries from a pensive soul. In Twister, a tribute to her stylist Tonjua Twist, a suicide, Carey paints what could also be a self-portrait: "She was kind of fragile/ And she had a lot to grapple with/ But basically she kept it all inside.../ Dear God, it's all so tragic/ And I'll never have the chance to feel the closure/ That I ultimately need." Carey then soars into a passage that might be a request or a requiem: "Lord, I pray she's found some peace/ And her soul's somewhere at ease."

Her fans hope Carey, who's had a lot to grapple with, will find her soul's ease as she recuperates. As for students of divadom, they know any catastrophe is also a career move. Mariah can find maturity in crisis and soar to the next stage of her musical destiny. After all, a true diva is divine.