Mariah Makes It Happen

The pop diva looks back on two tumultuous years and forward to the release of her new album, #1's.

Self Magazine by Sante d'Orazio

Self (US) December 2008. Text by Judith Newman. Photography by Sante d'Orazio.

Mariah Carey is sitting cross-legged on the bed in Bungalow 5a of The Beverly Hills Hotel — once the love nest of Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand, and the site of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's violent, vodka-fuelled arguments. But right now Carey, who crooned in her 1992 hit Emotions about "the way you make me lose control," is oblivious to the room's lustful history. "Watch this," she advises, while very gently scratching down her forearm with an unvarnished fingernail. In less than a minute, the invisible line, extending from her wrist to her elbow, has turned into an angry red welt.

"It's call dermographia," she says with satisfaction. "Any little mark on my skin becomes red and raised." The condition is stress-related, she explains. "Today It's pretty good. It was really bad a couple of years ago." That would be the time her marriage to Sony Music Entertainment president and CEO Tommy Mottola began to unravel.

Emotion written on skin. You could hardly dream up a more appropriate condition for a singer whose ballads, full of passion and pain, have sent tingles down millions of spines. Indeed, despite the wild success of her last album Butterfly, and the anticipation surrounding the release of her latest, #1's, a collection of her first 13 number-one hits, the last two years of Carey's life would have given hives to far less sensitive souls. There was her divorce from Mottola, a man who apparently loved too much; her hasty rebound into the arms of drool-worthy Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, prompting accusations of earlier infidelity; the endless tabloid speculation about relationships with men ranging from Donald Trump to Leonardo DiCaprio to Sean "Puffy" Combs; the collapse of Crave, her own private label at Sony; the $1.5 million lawsuit filed by a limo driver who alleged she had reneged on $40,000 in unpaid bills; which is still pending — and endless reports of prima donna behaviour, including the insistence on being photographed on her right, or "good" side.

"A friend once told me yesterday that the definition of being a diva is 'goddess/prima donna'," she says with a grin. "So I guess being called a diva could be an extreme compliment or a 'dis'."

To her hard-core fans (and they're a devoted group — to which dozens of swooning Internet sites attest), the details of her childhood are familiar. She grew up the multiracial 'daughter of an Irish-American mother and an African-American/Venezuelan father. Her parents' marriage, fraught with noisy conflict, was over by the time she was three. Her mother, an opera singer, struggled to support Mariah and her older brother and sister by juggling different jobs, including managing a pet store and working as a vocal coach.

Another well-known chapter of the Carey saga is the early recognition of her vocal promise, as nurtured by her mother and promoted with steely determination by Carey herself. At 18, while working as a back-up singer, she attended an industry party where she handed her tape to powerful executive named Tommy Mottola. Mottola climbed into his limo, played the tape and drove back to find her. Carey signed with Columbia Records in 1989, and Nineties became a blur of platinum albums, provocative music videos and awards. While sophisticates may view her music as so much operatic bubblegum, no one — not even Carey's own musical heroes, including Aretha Franklin, Diano Ross, Karen Clark, Vanella Bell Armstrong and Chaka Khan — has topped her sales, which currently exceed 80 million units.

Precisely when Carey became involved with the already-married Mottola, 20 years her senior, is a matter of some speculation; whatever the timing, they wed in June 1993, and had separated by May 1997 (A Sony spokesman now categorizes the ex-couple as having "a close professional working relationship.") It is clear that he remains much on her mind, as she regularly, and delicately, refers to "my previous situation" or "my past life." The context is usually "Well, in my previous situation, I couldn't..." or "In my past life, I was not allowed..."

It doesn't take a $200-an-hour shrink to conclude that for a child who grew up without a father around, there might be something comforting and secure about a controlling husband. Carey hints t the similarities between them; her stories of separating from Mottola are oddly interwoven with memories of her father, who now lives in Washington, DC, and with whom she has only limited contact. She says she'd like her father to be a bigger part of her life.

Whatever Mottola's control over her life, Carey finds it sexist" when people assume "because I was married to someone much older, who was involved in my career, that I was a kept woman." In fact, she always kept her finances separate from his. "I felt that splitting the house, the bills, everything, would make me more in charge of my life. As it turns out, I was —ahem — a little off in that assessment." Still, she is bothered that "people thought I was this little girl who was taken care of...the canary in a cage." While acknowledging "in a way, that's true," she hastens to point out: "The cage was half paid for by me!"

It may be a response to the overly "settled" quality of her life with Mottola that these days Carey owns nothing herself — not a car, not a house — and has enlisted a team of financial managers. But it's difficult, she says, to find trustworthy advisers. "It always ends in disappointment," she observes, "and that's a sad thing." (Among the lawsuits brought by people she thought she could trust was one brought by her ex-stepfather for reneging on an alleged agreement to license a line of "Mariah dolls." The suit was eventually dismissed.)

The troubles of the past few years have helped her learn how to deal with loss — sometimes simply by recognizing the absurdity of a situation. "Even when I'm in a moment of intense despair, I'll think of some joke and I'll just laugh," she explains. "I'll say, 'I don't have the right to be this upset'." Carey believes that humour helped her to maintain a sense of reality while trying to live up to Mottola's image of what she should be. "I wasn't even allowed to be myself," she adds.

Clearly, the ability merely to be herself, and to trust, are hard-won struggles — which may explain her close relationship today with her mother. In the middle of the interview, Carey reaches for the phone to call her mother, Pat, to check the accuracy of some of her childhood memories. "I'm so proud of her — she's lost 38 pounds," says Mariah as she dials. "I got her this swimming pool, and — hi, Mom!"

The very moment she hears her mother's voice, Carey visibly relaxes. Even at the most difficult times in her own life, Carey says, her mother "was always been there for me. But it wasn't a traditional relationship. Sometimes she was the mom, and sometimes I was. We traded off." These days, Carey takes enormous pleasure in being able to provide her mother with things the family could not afford when she was growing up. Carey bought her mother not only a pool, but also a house in upstate New York. "She had always rented houses, and never had one of her own. I understand the importance of having something that's all yours," says the daughter quietly.

Carey is racking her brain, trying to remember a weird dream she had the other night. "Wait, wait, it'll come to me if we talk about something else," she says. So we do.

Carey is always pleased to mention her favorite causes, most of which involve children. This fall, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani named her celebrity spokesperson for the city's Children's Adoptive Services department. Since 1994, she's played a similar role for The Fresh Air Fund, which dubbed a facility in upstate New York "Camp Mariah" to acknowledge her efforts on its behalf.

A less pleasant topic of discussion is the relentless speculation about her post-Mottola love life. "Lies! I'm not seeing Leo DiCaprio, and I'm not seeing, and never have been seeing, Q-Tip [the rapper from A Tribe Called Quest], and there was never anything with Puffy [Sean Combs, the rapper and her sometime-producer)." So all this wild party-girl stuff was the fevered imagination of gossip columnists? All of it?

"It's hard for me," says Carey. "I'm not very experienced for where I am in life. I had boyfriends in school that were not serious things. Then a marriage, at such a young age. Then, one other." Jeter? She nods. "I've never even been out on a date — like, where you meet a stranger, he says, 'Hi, would you like to go out to dinner?' and you say, 'Sure.' Never. And when you get to this level [of celebrity], it's so hard to even be with anybody without hearing rumors. You hear rumors about them, they hear rumors about you." At the time of our interview, Carey says she is dating no one in particular.

Suddenly, she remembers her dream. "I was at a spa in Sonoma County, getting a massage, because sometimes that helps my insomnia and I fell asleep." At this point, Carey, being massaged, starts to dream about being massaged. "In my dream, I told the masseuse that I had to go to the bathroom, and I'd be right back. She asked me, 'Do you want me to leave the light on for you?' And I said, 'No. You can leave the lights off. Because being in the dark equalizes us all.' What does that mean? I'm not sure."

I'm not sure either, but if I had to guess, I'd say that sometimes, no matter how much you love being a diva, it's nice to be able to turn the spotlight off and be yourself. Normalcy has its perks, too: friends you can trust; guys who will love you for yourself; family members who don't sue you.

As I was leaving, I noticed something funny: The whole time we'd been talking, she'd kept the lights dimmed.