Against All Odds

Heartbreak, family tragedy, insomnia... meet Mariah Carey, the singer who's overcome it all to be pop's most successful woman.

Cosmopolitan Magazine by Carlo dalla Chiesa

Cosmopolitan (UK) September 2001. Text by Bill Burrows. Photography by Carlo dalla Chiesa.

Click, click, click. Mariah Carey is click click clicking her long, trampy false fingernails, talking in a loud, broad New York accent and standing like a waitress who had just been under-tipped. Mariah has her hair scraped back and is wearing a white vest and a very short denim skirt.

Surely this can't be the woman with the most lucrative recording contract in history (a rumoured $25 million per album) and more number ones in the US than anyone apart from Elvis and The Beatles? Surely this can't be the woman who won't accept any brand of mineral water other than Evian and demands a bottle of Cristal champagne, two bottles of white wine, a six-pack of Snapple iced tea, 12 bottles of apple juice and er... a box of bendy straws backstage at every gig. But it is.

She is, it transpires, still in character. "I only just got back from Nova Scotia," she explains. "I've been up there working on a film called Wisegirls and it takes a while for me to get back to how I usually am." And, as if to prove a point, she clicks her nails again and drops back into the brusque nasal delivery of the New York street for a couple of seconds before sitting down in her luxurious hotel suite and crossing her elegant legs.

She looks at her hands. "I'm sorry about my nails," she apologises sweetly. "It's just that my character is very violent... and there's this one scene where I get blood under my nails — that was the last scene before I came here."

At 31, Carey is a bona fide diva (according to the dictionary definition of a 'highly distinguished female singer' and/or a 'prima donna'). And, as such, she has a reputation for the kind of tantrum-throwing, queue-jumping, 'pain-in-the-ass' behaviour that seems typical of all contemporary, major-league, female singing stars. Not least, of course, her main rival at the platinum record-collecting diva top table, Jennifer Lopez — a woman who recently turned up at Top of the Pops with an entourage of 60, including three chefs.

Mariah has an entourage of just four today. Very casual. In fact, she's just as 'normal' as I had been led to believe by actor Max Beesley, who has just played her love interest in her cinematic debut Glitter (more of which later). "She's just the best," he told me. "I'd heard all that stuff [about her being difficult] but I never had a moment's trouble — she's a great actress and at no point started stamping her feet or complainng." And< as if to prove just how down-to-earth she is, he adds, "Ask her about macaroni-cheese — she eats nothing else."

And so I do, and she bursts out laughing. "I just had some [macaroni-cheese] before I arrived here," she giggles. "It's bizarre but, like, when I'm exhausted all I can eat is bread, cheese or macaroni-cheese... what else did he say about me?" I tell her and she smiles.

"I heard that 'difficult' stuff, too," she says. "But do you know what? I know most people in this industry and, compared to them, I don't think I'm difficult. I just work myself — and the people who are with me, really hard." It's true. Mariah should be out enjoying herself today — it's Memorial Day in the US (a bank holiday) — but she's being interviewed by me and then she's going to the studio to record music for Wisegirls, before spending what's left of her day off at a screening of Glitter.

But that's the other thing you always hear about Mariah Carey — that she is the hardest-working woman in music. "I don't know how to stop," she explains, "but the way I think of it is, you get success and then, because you come from a place where it is not standard to have money, you don't ever let up." And she pulls her legs up onto the sofa and takes a sip of mineral water (Evian, naturally).


A lot has been made of Mariah Carey being of mixed race. She is the daughter of a half-Venezuelan, half-African/American father and a second-generation Irish mother and, although her parents split up when she was three, her family had already suffered at the hands of racist bigots — subtle little displays of hatred such as burning crosses, having their dogs poisoned and their cars destroyed... And this was in New York, not the deep south. "Everywhere has its own undercurrent of racism," she says.

The family never stayed in one place for long. "I moved 13 times as a kid. When you move around you have to make it back into the groove and sometimes you never make it, depending on where you live or whatever. Having said that, I wouldn't say I was bullied at school, in fact I was more of a bully... but it was out of insecurities that I became like that, and then I made friends with everybody."

Moving around so often did not lend itself to long-lasting friendships but she recently went back to Long Island, where she was born, and visited her junior high school for a TV programme called Homecoming. "It was like Missy [Elliott] on the remix of Heartbreaker — 'Guess who's back in the motherfuckin...?'." and, suddenly reverting to demure, her voice trails off. "I had my own little reunion and it was cool. There was a guy there who used to go to school with me and he's now the janitor there and he's like, 'do you remember Chuck?' and he was on my table at the prom and so we had this whole discussion about how I didn't get to be the prom queen." She says this so fast, as if it still rankles, that there's no room for enquiry. "Well we didn't even have prom queen at our school — my friend and I just invented it so we could er... have a project." And she grins.

From make-believe prom queen to queen of pop and a fairytale ending. The reason Carey symbolises the All-American dream is probably down to the way she came to fame. She's suffered her fair share of setbacks, and a dysfunctional family background — which she says she cannot discuss for legal reasons — was destined to create an artist, heroin addict or prostitute — or indeed all three. Her older sister, Alison, used to be a drug addict and a prostitute. She is now HIV-positive.

Mariah, on the other hand, was already an accomplished singer at an early age (her mother Patricia was an opera singer and a voice coach), Mariah spent years after high school, in true Hollywood tradition, employed as a coat checker, a beauty salon assistant and, naturally, a waitress. She reckons she was fired from about 20 restaurants. "It was horrible," she says. "All the other waitresses would hate me because I couldn't work the till.

"I could write you a song right here and now but I can barely add two and two, which is kind of bizarre because my father's an aeronautical engineer. I couldn't deal with that aspect but... the nails start clicking, a hand goes on a hip and the accent comes back, as she drops into her waitress character from Wisegirls, 'but you know, it's a mob joint so you gotta be on your toes, you can't be slacking — know what I mean?'." The laugh that follows is absolutely sinful. "I gotta get these nails off," she shudders.


Does Mariah Carey have bad hair days? "Look at me now," she says. "I have chopsticks sticking out of the back of my head. I usually come all glammed up but I've just come from home. I've just bought a new apartment [in New York] and it is my space finally. Even though I owned that big mansion which burned to the ground," she says, referring to her former marital home, but not expanding upon the cause of the fire, "it wasn't my own because I didn't feel at ease there."

Of that period of her life — when Mariah was married to Tommy Mottola, 20 years her senior and, as Head of Sony Music Entertainment, one of the most influential men in the record business — she says, "It's surreal... it brings up weird feelings. If I sit here and pick it apart I think the relationship was on its way to ending before the wedding, which I thought would somehow save me... but it didn't." Would she marry him if she had her time over again? "No." And she means it. She has recently said of the split, "sometimes the person you think is your biggest protector is actually your biggest enemy, because they're stifling the real you."

However, despite his controlling nature, Mottola was, in many ways, the making of Mariah Carey. From the time she managed to give him her demo tape at a record label party in Manhattan in 1988 (he was so impressed after hearing the tape on his car stereo that he went back to the party to find her. Unfortunately she had already left but, subsequently, he managed to track her down) until the wedding in 1993, everything seemed to be fine.

They had a huge $10 million mansion (the 'fricking house up yonder') built on a secluded suburban estate in Bedford, New York, complete with an indoor pool, ballroom and recording studio but, as she has said before, "I wasn't in control. I felt as though I was being watched, everything I did was looked at and over-analysed. I wanted out." She also started hanging out with a much older set of people. When I ask her if that was difficult, she just nods and looks sad. It was not an amicable separation. Rumour has it Mottola has since dated Jennifer Lopez and she now refers to the relationship as, 'the old thing that we won't discuss'...

She has called her post-divorce period a second childhood and certainly seems as though she is making the most of it. "I went out to a bikini bar with MTV the other week, because David LaChapelle [photographer to the stars] though it would make a good picture. We went to this place called Schnuckies in the middle of the desert outside LA. When we arrived... it was full of exotic dancers — I didn't realise. I can still be a little naive. They didn't know I was coming and when I walked in there's a girl dancing to my song on the stage. She sees me and starts crying and then goes off to get a picture of her kid. It turns out that the kid's five, and she's like, 'This is Mariah,' and she's crying and when someone cries I cry, so we're both crying and I'm going, 'no filming'! Then a guy on the other side of the bar says, 'I just had a baby and her name is Mariah, too' and I'm like 'Yeah, right'. In Schnuckies there are two people who've named their kids after me! And he goes, 'I've got a tattoo.' And he lifts up his shirt and he has 'Mariah' written on his chest."

Just when I think she's about to stop and well-up, she carries on. "I tried to give the girl my new song, Loverboy, to sing and get her some time on MTV because she wanted to be a singer but the bar didn't have the equipment. In the end, she did a little dance to Heartbreaker, really respectful wearing a little top. But I'm not goping to go and put some notes in a girl's G-string so I got my security to give her some money."


So what about the movies? "My new motto," she says breezily, "is: 'hey, I sing and write the songs and occasionally act in the movies.'" Her first outing is, as mentioned previously, in the semi-autobiographical Glitter, with Max Beesley. Glitter is the perfect project for me," she says, correctly, of the story of a talented young singer trying to make it big, "Fame was my favourite movie for ages. That Irene Cara scene when she has to take off her shirt [for some topless photographs] scarred me forever," she says, before pausing and then laughing again like a naughty schoolgirl, "Obviously it didn't scar me that badly... but that kind of thing hasn't been done in a while."

Her pager goes off. She looks at who it is, smiles and then turns it off. I reckon it's her new squeeze, Mexican heartthrob Luis Miguel. She just smiles. The Mexican crooner wooed her in the skiing resort of Aspen. He is said to have ordered several bottles of $1000 wine and bought her a diamond and platinum necklace. Mariah, if the gossip-mongers are to be believed, sent him a steamy home video. He is the same age as her and at the sharp end of the business. Six months ago he bought her a £1 million speedboat to say well done for her work on Glitter.

"When I'm relaxing I talk to my friends. I page people incessantly, if I'm depressed, I just put on a song that makes me happy. Or sometimes, if I'm sad, I'll just sit in the room with my cat and dog and cry for five minutes and then think... 'hey, c'mon, I could be scrubbing floors for a living.'" Sleep, however, doesn't feature in Mariah's relaxation routine. An insomniac since childhood, the multi-millionaire spends the middle of the night thinking abouy "all those loose ends, the things I have to do." She says she suffers from "flashes of nerves" and generally survives on just three hours sleep a night."

I reach for a glass of water. "I'd get that for you," she offers, "but it's my skirt, sorry." She's right. Her skirt's so short, it would be impossible for her to pass me the bottle without losing an appreciable chunk of her dignity.

"Have you ever thought of calling yourself Ma Ca?" I ask, by way of a naughty reference to the re-branding of the artist formerly known as Jennifer Lopez to J.Lo. Mariah splutters and then smiles in the way women do when the last thing they want to do is smile. "Not really, people call me 'MC' and always have done," she states.

I allude to the rivalry between the two divas: "As a singer?" she asks, genuinely amazed I could have posed the question. "Like... singing?" she shrugs, too clever to commit to tape but raising her eyes to the sky and going into Wisegirls waitress mode. "Hmm, mmm... love to everyone."

But perhaps not J.Lo, who is reported to have said, "I'm sexier than Mariah... she's been sitting on her throne for so long, all that success has made her plump." Yeah right. If there's a spare ounce of fat on this woman then God only knows where she's hiding it. Pushed on the matter of Ms Lopez, Mariah yields, "Certain people might do things to hurt you, but they are just helping you in the end." This is followed by a look nobody would want to be on the receiving end of. There is no need to click the fingernails here. The point is made.

Life according to Mariah Carey...

What is your philosophy on life?
"I'm the queen of 'let's all have a good time forever.' Life should be fun. I might have 20 zillion things to do, but I'm going to try and laugh as much as I can in-between."

What's the last item you bought?
"An army jacket for my brother."

When was the last time you shouted at the TV?
"I really don't watch it, but last night my mum was in the studio watching some trash show and I was shouting at her, 'what are you watching that for?'."

Are you careful about your diet?
"I don't eat and I barely sleep so lately everyone has been saying I look really thin. I was on a protein shake diet for , like, a minute but I think I over-dosed on them."

What's your favourite season?
"I don't even acknowledge the seasons until it's Christmas, and then, I have to be in the snow. I have to go to Aspen, or wherever — there just has to be snow."

Do you ever get really drunk and lose control?
"I don't know that I lose control completely but, yeah, I hang out and have fun. And if I'm with friends who are going to take care of me and do whatever... I'd probably fall asleep."

Which other divas do you rate?
"I love Aretha Franklin, she is a classic... she's just amazing to me. She's also really funny and cool and we share the same star sign. She said to me, 'I like your sense of humour — typical Aries,' and I was like, 'how does she even know I'm Aries?'. I spent time [during the filming of the first VH1 Diva Show] in her trailer because there was an issue with the air-conditioning. You know, divas don't like to sing when there's air-conditioning on — it's not good for the throat — and so we were both in her trailer. She has really helped me in a lot of ways and I feel very privileged to be even able to say that I know her. The same goes for Diana Ross."

Would you ever consider having plastic surgery?
"I'm hoping (by the time I need it) they'll have something else. Maybe a pill — who the hell knows. They're coming up with everything else!"

What is your most personal song to date?
"The real fans know which are the ones, but there are songs like Petals from the album Rainbow." ['And I missed a lot of life, but I'll recover, though I know you really like to see me suffer. Still I wish that you and I'd forgive each other, cause I miss you, Valentine, and really loved you.']