Little Miss Strange

Stardom pushed Mariah Carey to the edge of sanity, but she's better now. Why? The überdiva feels more like her dog...

Q (UK) May 2005. Text by Michael Odell.

Suite 129 of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills is accessed by stairs. Plush, curved and gilt-banistered, but nevertheless there they are: ascending notches of marble requiring one foot placed in front of another. Mariah Carey scotches Diva Myth No 1 by climbing them to her $4000-a-night suite all by herself. In knee-length Louis Vuitton boots and a grey miniskirt playing fast and loose with crotch modesty, she looks stunning. "I do go up stairs," she says inside. "But you can put that I was carried in if you want."

The suite's windows are blacked out for her stay. Insomnia remains a problem. But there are home comforts too: Jack, her Jack Russell, unexpectedly mangy and wayward for a diva pet, is racing around, cock-a-hoop at the luxury. The dog hasn't been removed from his leash and as he runs off I stand on the end, pinging him back into a lamp stand. A proper diva might have a journalist killed for this but Carey takes it in good heart. Carey sends the dog away and lies full-length on the sofa, as if undergoing therapy or recovering from flu.

And recovery is what this is all about. Mariah Carey is one of the biggest female artists of all time, with 150 million albums and singles sold. But since parting with Sony boss — and ex-husband — Tommy Mottola she struggled to find her place in the world. In 2001, overwork and an ongoing feud with her ex triggered a breakdown and she was admitted to a Connecticut hospital. The same year, the disastrous film and soundtrack Glitter led to the termination of her contract with Virgin.

She signed to Def Jam, but 2002's comeback album Charmbracelet sold badly, suggesting her time had passed. Now, new Island-Def Jam boss Antonio "LA" Reid is steering what must be her final roll of the dice.

Like Whitney before her, Carey enters a post-diva era making overtures towards "the street." On new album The Emancipation of Mimi, production royals like Kanye West and Jermaine Dupri have closed down the wide open spaces previously reserved for Carey's five-octave clifftop yelps. Instead, street lingo, bling scenarios, sex and faith hold sway. Occasionally, the sound of Carey trilling at bat-squeak frequencies has been added to a salve to old fans.

Today, there are tedious management warnings to keep the interview "positive" and "forward-looking." But in person, Carey seems prepared to talk. Her leg fidgets and she fingers a diamond pendant spelling "Mimi" when you get to "breakdown" or "Tommy" or "Glitter," but there's no attempt to stall or evade...

Who's Mimi?
My nephews and my brother call me Mimi. It started at Disneyland once when they were taking me on a ride. I have a lot of weird aliases I use for hotel rooms, like Martha Washington.

How come she's emancipated?
It's letting the other side of me out. Even growing up I never thought of myself as Mariah Carey. No one was called Mariah and I hated it. I wanted to be Sue or Heather or MC or Mimi. And then I put my first record out and I used both names for the first time. Only my mother called me Mariah. And now it's kind of a brand name and it carries a lot of baggage.

Give me an example of baggage...
Well, I heard today that I was writing the new songs on Marilyn Monroe's piano. I do own her old piano but I only bought it because I'm a fan. I felt really bad when they were auctioning her stuff cos she had no family and it felt really exploitative, so I said I'll buy it and give it to a museum eventually. The public and fans should be able to see it. But the rumour is I'm "channelling" Marilyn.

There are some very "street" lyrics on the album. "Them chickens is ash/I'm all lotion." What does that mean?
Chickens are girls. If you don't moisturise, your skin goes all dry, like ash. This girl is telling a guy in a club, "I'm hot. My skin is soft! I'm the one!" But please make it clear this is not me talking. It's a character in the song. I got to call Jermaine [Dupri] about this. He'll think it's hilarious... [Carey retrieves a Blackberry from her bag and calls Jermaine Dupri but he is on voicemail.]

You seemed so prim and proper as the big ballad diva. You seem a lot less uptight now.
For so long, I'd sit there like I was being interviewed by [US TV news programme] 20/20. Now I want to have fun cos that's my personality. When I started out I was trained to "just sit there and give a one-line answer and move on. Don't trust anyone." So I was taught to be uptight. As a new artist you are told: "Don't be seen carrying a bag from the store. Don't play with your hair as you answer." I was told to be marketable and non-threatening. But I rebelled against that and certain people were like, "Why is she showing so much skin?"

Certain people. Like Tommy Mottola?

You've said you feel like a 12-year-old. Why?
As a child I was a grown-up. At six years old I was taking care of stuff and seeing stuff that no kid should have to see. And so — and this is a very trite statement — I still just want to have fun. Like I just went away with friends and we watched cartoon movies for three days in a row.

That sounds a bit "Jacksons"...
What do you mean?

Tough childhood. Superstardom. Stuck in childhood.
Hmmm... LA Reid is worried that I still believe in Santa Claus and I'm whimsical. I can be professional but really I'm much more like my dog. He's a kid and so am I.

When he stuck his snout in my crotch you said Jack is eternally a puppy, but sometimes he gets moody and attacks people. Are you talking about you?
No. He just gets frightened in crowds of people. He gets slightly delusional. He's obsessed with water so he'll jump in a bathtub. I may believe in Santa but I'm not delusional.

You got yourself into a mess emotionally in 2001. You sound reasonably together today. Did you go into therapy?
I went into therapy. I still am but not every day. People tend to think it was about being in a bi-racial family and that certainly was an issue. But there were more specific events at home that I had to deal with.

Can you say what?
I know I sound evasive, but this is about my family and being specific means other getting hurt. I don't need that headache.

What did you learn from therapy?
When a certain family member has been abusive or has treated you in certain way, sometimes you re-enact it in later life. You find a surrogate person who is the exact same way. Especially being a celebrity, people want you to need them. They want you to rely on them. I'm not saying I've never hurt people or done anything wrong. You can't be a victim and "poor me," you have to learn why you choose the people you do.

What do you remember about the breakdown?
It's been so tiring to go back to that. It's like I fell over and stubbed my toe playing in the sand box when I was six, and people are saying, "What was that like?" No offense, but it just wasn't that big a deal. It was totally over-dramatised. I'm a human being. If someone was having a tough week in the real world, no one would bat an eyelid. In my world you get 10 people getting hyper going, "Oh my god, she stubbed her toe! Medic!"

So you didn't try to take your own life?

There's always a lot of male influence in your life. In his book I Don't Mean To Be Rude, Simon Cowell says your problem is being surrounded by yes-men...
Simon said that? [Mock hurt] Simon, how could you? Hmmm, definitely not now. Maybe once. There are definitely still people who want to have the big opinion, so they can say, "I was the one who influenced Mariah to do this or that." Maybe there are a few yes people, but I don't need that. I'd rather be on my own. I'd rather watch TV.

Your dad dies just as you were getting to know him in 2002...
Yes. The way he died was awful. He was misdiagnosed. They thought he had gall stones and that he'd get better soon. And then they realised it was a very rare form of cancer and he died very quickly. That was very tough. Only at the end did I discover he'd kept all my clippings and had my CDs. I had these moments with him that gave me a good sense of him and his side of the family. He had these scrapbooks that his mother had kept, with pictures of her and then my dad as a kid and then me. Now I have them and I have a room in my house with all those pictures in them. I've got my mum's side in there too so it's like, "This wall plus this wall equals me." More importantly, talking to him, I realised that stuff that happened when I was young wasn't my fault.

Do you regret not having kids with Tommy so your dad could have met them?
I got married really young and it wasn't an option then. Tommy already had kids and we related to each other like brother and sister, which was kind of different. I don't feel the need now because I'm still very involved in my career.

How normal are you? What day does your garbage man come?
I have no idea. Sorry.

Can you work a DVD player?
At my apartment it's programmed. I'm not good with it. I'm better with the satellite...

If I took your cellphone and credit cards away and threw you out of a cab in Derby, how would you manage?
Where's Derby?

It's a town in the Midlands. OK, let's say Hoboken, New Jersey. I'll give you some cash for a night out but you're on your own. How would you do?
I think I'll do alright.

Well come on then. You're on the main street. Where are you going to go?
Cool. I can do this. I go to the bar and I buy myself a drink and wait for someone to talk to me.

What would you order?
A white wine, probably.

Would you enjoy it or be thinking, "I'm Mariah Carey and I'm only here because that prick from Q dumped me here and stole my phone"?
You've really gone into this, haven't you? I'm not a diva. I like talking to people. I'm a pretty regular person.

So you've never demanded your dressing room be re-painted or ginger-haired waiter be killed?
Where do you get this stuff from?

The last one was a joke.
OK, good. I'd almost believe that of the British press. But no, I get almost as much a kick out of those stories as you do. As you know I walk up stairs. I don't order puppies for my dressing room.

So you like being regular. Let's go to a bar now.
No. I'm having a no-drinks day today anyway. I'm on a diet. I have to lose 3lb.

That's very specific. Why 3lb?
Ha! It's a line from the movie Mean Girls. It's so funny. This anorexic girl wanders throughout the movie going, "I really wanna lose 3lbs." But no I have to diet because I'm doing a video and you have to be at your thinnest, otherwise the world is like, "Oooh she gained weight!"

Who says that? People. People who write articles, for example.

Well you're buying into it, aren't you? There's not an ounce of fat on you. Let's have some wine...

OK. You're writing a children's book on the side, I hear...
I started writing one before certain other people started writing children's books [Madonna published The English Roses in 2003]. It was sort of a handbook for little kids in bi-racial families. There are so many situations when you have awkward moments like, "What colour crayon do I use to draw myself?" The character was called Little Mariah, but I think we'll change that.

You've made some mistakes but you've survived a tough early life. Your older sister Allison really struggled. Drugs. Prostitution. Contracting HIV. Do you feel, "That could have been me"?
She's nine years older, so her upbringing was at a time when things were worse. My parents were still married which was the cause of more problems. But I was just too scared to do anything that would take me off my path. "I will have a music career. I will succeed. I will survive this poverty." That's how I thought back then. I didn't want men to become such a focal point that they could get in the way of my career. Same with drugs. Anything I did I was too scared to take it further. And that's why people think I'm eternally 12 — it's because I am very prudish, believe it or not.

How is your sister?
We haven't spoken in a while. And it's tough to talk about now... for legal reasons. So... I wish her the best and I hope she's OK. But I can't control her life. I can't control my life so I can't control anyone else's.

Mariah Carey says she's been as honest as she can be and you believe her. She says she doesn't recognise the huffy diva nightmare of tabloid lore but accepts that 40 suitcases is a lot to take on her stay in L.A.

Outside her suite, three of Carey's entourage are facing a security situation. The evicted Jack is throwing a canine "Do you know who I am?" tantrum, bucking and twisting in a burly man's arms. It turns out this is not a yes man but a grizzled Londoner pleading, "I can't hold this bleeding dog wiv one 'and."

This is Michael, Mariah Carey's tour manager. He's Hackney in East London. As he contains Jack, he says they have a good laugh at some of the crap that gets written about Carey.

"Don't believe what you read," he says through an armful of dog. "She's good as gold, mate."