"My hair's a total mess today," explains Mariah Carey with a laugh, as she pulls her knit cap over her head and settles into a restaurant booth. On a month-long hiatus from her first tour, Mariah seems casual and confident despite her bad hair day.
And why not? She's got a lot to feel good about: her Grammy nomination for Dreamlover; the success of her number one album, Music Box (Columbia), and its two hit singles; her first year of wedded bliss; and a "dream life" that seems a long way away from a time when things weren't quite so enviable.
The youngest child of an interracial couple (her mother, a former opera singer, is white, and her father, an engineer, is African-American), Mariah has been singing operatic arias since she was four years old. "But my parents split when I was three, and my mom moved us around so much that I never had a chance to develop my voice until I was a teenager."
Growing up in a small town on Long Island, New York, Mariah always thought of herself as the local outcast. "We were the ones with the oldest car and the smallest house on the block," she says. "My mom was real permissive, so none of the parents really wanted their kids to play with me. I was considered a bad influence."
And it didn't help that while her high school classmates were out doing normal things after school homework, sports, cheerleading Mariah was heading for New York City, where she'd hang out with her mother's musician friends, often until 3:00AM, working on her singing and writing lyrics. In fact, by the time she graduated from high school, Mariah had already written her first album, including songs like Vision of Love, Someday, and Love Takes Time.
Mariah was lucky; she only had to "rough it" for a year after graduation. With money borrowed from her older brother a personal trainer who had clients in the recording industry she cut a demo tape that fell into the right hands... and the rest reads something like a pop fairy tale.
But right now, she doesn't want to talk about happily ever after. "When it snows or rains, forget it," she says, pointing to the cap that conceals her famous curls. But at a lean five foot nine, with delicate, model-like features, Mariah Carey doesn't look as if she's ever had beauty troubles.
"Are you kidding?" she continues, in her husky Long Island accent. "I always thought I was ugly. My best friend was this perfect-looking blond, and I had all this frizzy hair and these bushy eyebrows. I remember being in seventh grade and really wanting to impress this guy, so I tried highlighting my hair, but it came out orange all over! Then I tried shaving my eyebrows to thin them out, and I put on all this blue eyeliner. Scary!
"A few years ago, I guess I got into a good life a little too much. I became sort of... more voluptuous than I wanted to be," she says, gesturing toward her now pencil-slim body, wrapped in tight, racing-striped black. "Now I run on the treadmill and do sit-ups, but I find that if I work out too much, I have no energy left for singing and let me tell you, that's workout by itself!"
Singing onstage is also something of a workout for her nerves. "During my first performance, I was so scared I could hardly breathe," she admits. "But then I tried focusing in on one face in the audience, and I started really getting into the lyrics. Like Hero it's all about me when I was younger and struggling to make it on my own."
Which brings us back to the fairy tale. It goes something like this: Girl moves into tiny city tenement apartment, working at various odd jobs, until she happens to get a lucky audition. This gig leads to a stellar recording deal and surprise her knight in shining armor, or in this case Tommy Mottola, president of Sony Music Entertainment (which owns Columbia Records). The two marry in a wedding fit for a princess (this one was literally adapted from the British royal wedding) and live happily ever after with horses and a dog in a sprawling ranch house in upstate New York. The end.
Well, not quite. Mariah may be married to a music mogul, but she's still a working girl, and her career is going better than ever.
And although she says she still has a way to go in terms of learning to play instruments, producing, and performing, she concedes her crowning moment came when she played to a sold-out house at New York's Paramount Theater last year.
"I used to work as a coat-check girl at this sports bar right across the street from there," she says. "And the whole time I worked there, I kept on telling myself, You're going to make it, you're going to get out of this place. And when I got up onstage and I realized where I was, I knew my dreams had come true. I couldn't have planned it any better if I had tried.