Mariah Carey

Fashion Rocks by Steven Meisel

Fashion Rocks (US) Fall 2008. Text by Michael Joseph Gross. Photography by Steven Meisel.

Over the years, many have dismissed Mariah Carey as nothing more than a freakish vocal acrobat. Her melismatic runs commonly hit a dozen or more tones in a single syllable, and her range pierces the whistle register; few but dolphins can sing higher. Some sneered at her weakness for hot pants and halters in the 1990s; others called Carey a lightweight because of her kitschy passion for butterflies and Hello Kitty. (She has described herself as being "eternally twelve" innumerable times). Yet in fact, Mariah Carey is Long Island's answer to Dolly Parton, a woman whose bodacious body and over-the-top style have distracted many people from her rare and substantial talent.

By the time you read this, Carey's newest single will probably have inched her one notch closer to overtaking the Beatles' world record for the most number-one songs. (They had 20; this spring, she knocked Elvis Presley out of second place with "Touch My Body," her eighteenth.) At the age of 38, Mariah Carey is the best-selling female recording artist in history. She has written and produced more number one songs than any other female composer or producer, and was the first mainstream artist to blend pop with R&B and hip-hop.

Carey's multiethnic background is often cited as a source of her eclectic sound and style. (She was raised by her mother, an opera singer of Irish heritage, and barely knew her father, an aeronautical engineer who was part African-American and Venezuelan). Less noted, but equally important, is her ambiguous class identification. As with most bling-besotted female singers, Carey's aspiration to G4 style seems an effort to make up for her bridge-and-tunnel background. Unlike some other strivers', though, her reaching seems optimistic, not angry. Carey's appeal, again like Parton's, owes much to her mirthful candor about the longing that drives her. "From the time I was little, I had such a huge desire, and such an enormous ambition, driven mainly by the fact that I didn't have the money to get the latest outfits, or even really enough food," she says. When describing her new love — after a courtship that lasted exactly one month, Carey was married in April to the 27-year-old actor and rapper Nick Cannon — she roots her remarks within a childhood memory: "When I was a kid there was an ice storm in the suburbs," she says. "We went to Manhattan to stay with a friend of my mom's. There was nobody on the road. It was this moment that could have been scary for a kid, but she made it festive. That's what Nick is like: He takes the hard part of a situation and makes it celebratory."

These days, Carey has much to celebrate. In addition to the success of her new album, E=MC2, which debuted at number one, she won praise at the Tribeca Film Festival for her performance as a waitress in the independent movie Tennessee. Next, she'll play a social worker in a film adaptation of Sapphire's verse novel PUSH, then make a feature-length HBO musical adaptation of Merry Christmas, her 1994 holiday album — which is, by the way, the best-selling Christmas album... of all time.