There's Something About Mariah

On a wild night in Morocco, pop's misunderstood diva talks about her sexy new image, the enemies out to ruin her, and the burden of being Mariah Carey in the bedroom.

Mirabella Magazine by Sante d'Orazio

Mirabella (US) May 1999. Text by James Patrick Herman. Photography by Sante d'Orazio.

Mariah Carey is dead.

She collapsed, at the young age of twenty-nine, suddenly, unexpectedly, right in front of me — her eyelids fluttered, a gasp escaped her lips, her knees buckled, and wham, down she went. Even posthumously, she remains drop-dead gorgeous: Her motionless body, clothed (just barely) in a midnight-blue silk robe, is sprawled across a shaggy white carpet that appears to have been made from a sheepdog. Her renowned hair fans out and delicately frames her face. I rise to my feet and applaud.

Okay, so Mariah was only playing dead, but it was quite the convincing impromptu performance (at the sound of my clapping, she leaps up and laughs off my praise). Although considering that it's nearly one A.M. in Marrakech, and that Carey awoke this morning at eight for a photo shoot that lasted seven hours, that she still hasn't eaten dinner, and also that she's just completed a two-week European promotional tour for her new greatest-hits collection, appropriately titled #1's, it's surprising the cause of her collapse isn't sheer exhaustion. But, in fact, Mariah was reenacting a scene from her movie debut in The Bachelor this fall, in which she plays a temperamental opera singer who is unsuccessfully controlled by Chris O'Donnell. On the surface, this career move might seem as inspired as Whitney Houston's first acting endeavor, The Bodyguard, in which she played, basically, herself. Mariah, who in person, and even on very little sleep, comes across as far more intelligent, articulate, and funny than her reputation leads one to believe, saw in this role an opportunity to a) parody her überdiv image; b) attain some on-set experience before she begins production this summer on All That Glitters, her star vehicle about a struggling singer in early-'80s New Your City; and c) work in close proximity to O'Donnell, whom she's had a crush on since she was a struggling singer in early-'80s New York City.

"It's over the top," Mariah says of the sassy soprano role she portrays in The Bachelor. "I'm singing La Traviata, which is a highly dramatic opera — and my character dies at the end of the scene. The director said, 'Okay, you need a stunt double for that [fall], right?' And I said, 'Nah, I can do that,' not realizing that I was going to have to do thirty more takes. My hips, my knees were killing me. A medic had to bring me ice, and I was like, 'Never again.'"

Not that Mariah is complaining; she isn't a complainer. Actually, she's more of an apologizer — repeatedly saying she's sorry that she's so tired, sorry that she doesn't have more time to talk — which proved to be endearingly disappointing, since I had always imagined her as the type who, unprovoked, throws hissy fits and small blunt objects. She's grateful to have been given a shot a movie career, as she has been studying with acting coach Sheila Gray for the past two years. "The problem with smaller roles is that a lot of directors, well, they're afraid it might seem overwhelming for the viewer who knows me as ---"

"Ma-ri-ah!" I say. By which I mean that even non-fans know her as The International-Superstar-Producer-Songwriter-Singer-with-the-Seven-Octave-Range and the Top-Selling Female Artist in History.

"Yeah," she says, quietly. Then she lays all five-feet nine of her down on a white antique couch, props her bare feet on a pillow, wiggles her silver-painted toes, and stares up at the ceiling. We're talking in one of the dozens of ornate rooms in a Moroccan villa that, I'm told, belongs to an Austrian prince, who apparently increases his income by renting it to vacationing superstars. As it turns out, the current tenant is not Mariah but rather her obviously smitten "friend," Latin singing sensation Luis Miguel, who is sitting underneath a UFO-sized crystal chandelier in the dining room attempting to throw a lavish dinner party, despite the fact that his guest of honor is submitting to an interview. "The problem that superstars who want to make movies have is transcending your image," she says. "And my problem is that until two years ago, I wasn't allowed to transcend my image, even as a singer. But I don't want to dwell on my old relationship — everybody's already beaten it into the ground."

Some clarification, in case you are unaware of the beating: The man on whom Mariah does not want to dwell is Tommy Mottola. Aside from being her husband of five years (they divorced in 1998), Mottola, forty-eight, remains her boss, as he is the chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, and Carey, whom he signed to an eight-album deal in 1990, still owes two more to Sony subsidiary Columbia Records. At the age of nineteen, Mariah was too poor and naive to think twice about signing a contract that would require her to produce eight records, though the fact that she churned them out at the astounding rate of nearly one per year suggests that she either prefers living in recording studios to apartments or else she is simply very eager to fulfill her contractual obligation. Mariah doesn't say which is the case, though she does, eventually, agree to discuss her marriage — which reportedly rivaled a lockup at Rikers.

The last time she talked about it in any depth was on 20/20 with Barbara Walters. Directly following their interview, the New York Post ran a story claiming that the recording industry was shocked and disgusted by Mariah's alleged candor; in fact, she was annoyingly tactful. "Journalists have told me that there's a person out there who's trying to do a smear job on me," Mariah explains. "The fact of the matter is that I've kept my mouth shut about a lot of stuff. What I said on Barbara Walters is nothing — I was very diplomatic. And if I were to speak about a lot of other things that I could have spoken about, it would have been an entirely different story."

From this point on, when discussing the correlation between her marriage and her career, it appears that Mariah is cleverly substituting phrases like "the powers that be" for Tommy Mottola. "This is what pisses me off about the whole public-perception thing: It takes five years to create an image and, probably, five years to change, even slightly. First of all, it was instituted by the powers that be: the young girl with the curly hair at the microphone, belting out a love song. My image was supposed to be a non-image. That's why I was in a field wearing a flannel shirt with cutoffs and sneakers — girls could relate to that. And yes, that was a part of my life, but ever since I've been twelve years old, it was just in me to want to be someone who could change their look and be glamorous."

"And sexy," I add, gesturing to her idea of a robe.

"Yes, sexy," she agrees. "Not lewd, but sexy. But that was discouraged. Because people in corporate positions felt it's much more mass-appeal to be nonthreatening visually if your voice is overpowering in terms of strength. It's just like any corporation — if a soft-drink formula works, let's not change it, you know what I mean?"

It's the perfect metaphor to describe her work: pop. Despite her natural wonder of a voice, Mariah's perky dance tracks and sentimental ballads have been dismissed by some critics as the musical equivalent of Diet Pepsi — too damn sweet, with a bad aftertaste. That is, until her first post-Tommy Mottola release, 1997's Butterfly: Mariah, who has always written and produced her music — although she is generally thought of as a performer, à la Celine Dion, rather than an artist, à la Lauryn Hill — says this was the first CD over which she had complete creative control. Hence, it was a radical departure from her saccharine oeuvre, as it showcased an informed hip-hop sensibility and an all-around harder modern-R&B edge.

"Until Butterfly, Mariah says, "I couldn't do anything different, so I don't know what my image is now."

I tell Mariah that, to a large degree, the perception of her is a spandex-clad diva who lives in her limo, parties the night away with everyone from Sean "Puffy" Combs to Donald Trump, and says things like "When I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can't help but cry. I mean I'd love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff." That this fictitious quote was reported by respected publications all over the globe, as well as on-line, would tend to support Mariah's theory about a smear campaign. "That fucking ridiculous mess," she says. "Some pathetic soul is trying to make me look like an idiot. It's the price of fame in the age of the Internet. What am I gonna do? Get in a tizzy about it? Whatever."

"That's cool."

When you're a larger-than-life celebrity, people can't resist shooting at such a big target. For instance, poking fun at Mariah seems to be the only thing that ex-gal pals Madonna and Sandra Bernhard still have in common. The former said of VH1's recent Divas Live special — in which Mariah sang with Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, and Gloria Estefan — that she had trouble seeing the performance through Mariah's hairdo. Carey, to her credit, admits, "The hair was threatening to take over the stage. But when I see those remarks being made, it's disappointing. I respect her. No one's going to take away her position as an icon, but when she makes such disparaging comments, I think it only diminishes from that."

Sandra Bernhard, who devoted an entire monologue from her Broadway show I'm Still Here...Damn It! to Mariah's ethnicity, doesn't get off so easy. For Carey, her heritage is a sensitive subject right up there with her marriage. "A lot of my life I've been in search of a way to come to terms with my ethnic background, and that goes beyond just my mother being Irish and my father being half-black and half-Venezuelan. I was sort of a displaced person growing up."

Born in Long Island, the youngest of three kids of an opera-singer mother and an aeronautical-engineer father — they divorced when she was three — Mariah had a childhood defined by alienation, financial instability, and transience (she moved thirteen times). These factors no doubt continue to fuel her workaholic nature and restless drive; it's as if she fears that, no matter how hard and fast she works, she can never fully outrun the past.

"So I'm not exactly like my mom, I'm not exactly like my father," Mariah continues. "And [recently] I placed so much importance on it that it took over almost everything else in my life. I got into a relationship [with New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who comes from a similar racial background] because I was fixated on it. I realized what I needed to do was address my own background, and that meant just learning about my parents. I think I had always blocked out the fact that if it was an important thing to me as a defense mechanism. That's the way I've dealt with a lot of the issues of my life that felt unsafe."

Not anymore: "Sandra Bernhard," Mariah begins, "used words that very African American I know — and definitely I, personally, find inappropriate. If my skin were two shades darker, she wouldn't have done it. I think she perceives me as white, which a common perception. And yeah, I'm a freaking mutt, I'm a triracial freak, but she implied I was a white person trying to be black. And it's offensive to me, because I've been a victim of racism on both sides. So Sandra Bernhard calling me a 'phony white bitch' and saying that I was 'acting niggerish' is acceptable because she figures, 'Who's gonna stick up for her?'"

Yet another formidable rival — on the horizon, and on Mariah's home turf of Sony — is Jennifer Lopez; music industry insiders are referring to her debut album as "Latin-Mariah-can." Mariah is aware that Sony is releasing Lopez's album; what's not clear is if she knows that Tommy Mottola is rumored to be romantically involved with his latest project. "She's a dancer, isn't she?" Mariah asks. I say that Lopez is the actress who starred in the movie Selena. "She lip-synched Selena's vocals, you know," Mariah says. "I don't think that as a singer, we're in the same category as artists."

When her manager, Louise McNally, enters, holding open the door and flooding of the room with rhythmic Moroccan music, Mariah sits up and slips on her black Prada sandals. All the while she's been reclining on the couch while I've been perched on a chair beside her scribbling down notes, which has made our conversation more akin to a therapy session than an interview. "Have you ever seen a shrink?" I ask. "Mmmhmm," she says, but it was more 'relationship management' and how to survive in that. This is goingto sound bizarre, but working with Sheila has helped me so much in terms of feeling at ease with being myself. Yes, it's a glamorous prospect to be in movies, but for me, acting is about releasing emotions that I've kept locked inside for so long."

In other words, for Mariah, acting has been therapeutic. And she admits that her issues — sexual inexperience and intimidation, for instance — are substantial enough to warrant some form of treatment. "I have a self-protective streak," she says, "which has been good for me in one way but is also very inhibiting. I was in this [mind-set] where I was like, If I'm going to be with someone, then I'll be with them forever. And that's not reality. I'd only have been with one person in my life, and it's weird because [following the divorce] I was being linked to all these men. And I was feeling totally insecure about embarking on any new relationships, because I felt maybe I wasn't good enough. I felt that I didn't have enough experience. And I still have that sort of thing. I get close to people, I'm friends with people, I'll stay with people, but I'm very guarded in terms of whom I let into my...personal space."

Mariah takes a long, slow sip of red wine. "It all stems from deep-rooted stuff that I saw growing up [including, reportedly, her older sister's teenage pregnancy and failed marriage, as well as her subsequent involvement with drugs and prostitution], and I don't talk about it because it's not my place. So it's definitely this self-protective thing that I have. I'm not out, like, rip-roaring, wild, living it up" — she claps her hands — "with a million guys, because that's not me. And it's not safe. I guess I'm sort of a contradiction in terms, because I do feel it's okay to be sexy and free, but there's a difference between sexy and...promiscuous. I kind of wish I could be more than way, and I'm trying to learn how to be more comfortable with things, but it's been a strange situation for me. Last year, when I went from the initial transition period of a committed relationship to 'Here I am, out in the world,' I never had a date. Now I've gone on dates, but really not very many. I don't know what the hell a date is."

And with that, Mariah rises, realizing it's about time she resumes what would be considered, by anyone's standards, the date-of-a-lifetime: The party Luis Miguel has put together resembles a Moroccan carnival of sorts, belly dancers, fire-eaters, and a family of acrobats. "I never thought I'd be in Africa! I never thought I'd ride a camel!" Mariah gushes, but her excitement instantly fades into insecurity about — what else? — her image. "Please don't let people think that I ride camels every day." Stepping out onto the porch and surveying the utter surrealness of it all — exotic animals, acrobatic children, everyone dressed in freaky outfits — Mariah astutely surmises, "This is all too Michael Jackson."