I am expecting the worst. I've read about Mariah Carey for years. Ever since she released her first album in 1990 she's been labeled a diva, a title she loathes but seems to have done one or two things to earn. Her diva-like behavior has been reported on extensively she's been accused of always being late, of throwing tantrums, of being a social climber who has completely forgotten her humble roots and of making outlandish demands of her employees and hosts. Her life story is a setup for all the presumptions of divadom. Here's the Reader's Digest condensed version. Young biracial girl moves to Manhattan, does a variety of menial jobs while dreaming of being a singer. One night she meets a man who volunteers to listen to her demo tape in his limo. After hearing it, he tells the girl he can make her a star. He's Tommy Mottola, head of Sony Music. Despite their 20-year age difference, the mogul and his prodigy fall in love and marry. She becomes a star and turns out more number-one hits than any solo female performer ever. They move into an enormous upstate New York mansion. Rumors abound that he's a Svengali with a temper who keeps his star-wife isolated from her friends and family. Eventually they divorce, prompting speculation she will fade away without the mighty mastermind. But fans keep buying her records. Virgin Records makes her the highest-paid performer in history by agreeing to pay her more then $20 million per album.
I'm meeting Carey on the 21st floor of The Pierre hotel in New York City to talk to her about her new movie, Glitter. She has long wanted to branch out into acting. Several years ago she signed on to Double-O-Soul, a James Bond spoof with comedian Chris Tucker, but the project fizzled. In 1999 she appeared on-screen for mere minutes as an opera singer opposite Chris O'Donnell in The Bachelor. Critics didn't take to the pop diva trying to play a real diva and they slammed her even though she was actually one of the few points of an otherwise dreary, unsuccessful movie. Now Carey is taking center stage in a thinly veiled version of her life story poor girl hits big city in hopes of making hit records, which she does after she falls for a Svengali. She has spent more than three years trying to get Glitter, for which she wrote the treatment, off the ground. She's being paid little to star in it, but, with a minimal budget of $20 million, if the film is even a modest hit, it could mean a big payday she's a coproducer and there's a soundtrack with new songs on it.
When I arrive at the upper reaches of The Pierre, Carey is ensconced in a two-bedroom suite with a view that makes Manhattan look like a child's dream city, complete with tiny people scurrying on the pavement and pretend cars. Carey's people explain that I might have to wait for a while because she's finishing up a photo shoot, but it's only a few minutes before Carey comes rushing out of the bedroom to apologize and ask if I'd like anything to eat or drink. She's in full makeup and wearing a dress that barely covers her remarkable body. She personally brings me the Diet Coke I've asked for and invites me to watch the shoot. "If you need anything else," she says in her incredibly raspy voice, "just call me."
For the next hour, the photographer and his assistants, the hair and makeup people, the stylist and a dozen others push and prod her. Through it all, Carey is like a cheerleader, urging them all to have a good time. When the last shot of the day is taken just after 10 p.m., she claps. "You all did a fantastic job," she says in her thick Long Island accent. "You should be very happy." As everyone walks out the door, I set up my tape recorder in the living room, which is as big as my yard, and wait for Carey, who's changing clothes in the other room. A minute later, she sweeps in, wearing orange sweatpants, a white tank top, a gigantic diamond bracelet, and a smile. "Do you mind if we do this in the other room?" she asks, grabbing all my stuff and heading off.
The room Carey brings me to is a small (I mean small) space off the bathroom. There are two chairs crammed in with a Lilliputian-sized table. A huge humidifier is humming. "I apologize," she says. "Those other rooms are just too big. My vocal cords are weird and I need a lot of humidity. I have a different set of cords than most people, and my doctor says that he always gives talks about them because they're so unusual."
"Do you find appropriately miniature rooms wherever you go?" I ask.
Carey responds earnestly, "I rented this house out in Aspen last Christmas for my family. I love the snow and I thought it would be so great. I was recording some of the music for Glitter, and I had a big truck outside the house that was like a studio. I had this gorgeous bedroom, but I could feel my vocal cords getting tight. So I moved, like six humidifiers into the closet and dragged my mattress in there and slept there for a week." Forget that the closet was big enough for all the humidifiers and the mattress wouldn't a bona fide diva make the owners of any house she rented install a humidifying system that could deal with those delicate cords? But enough about the vocal cords.
"Tell me about that diamond bracelet you're wearing," I say.
Carey flashes one of those smiles that could melt ice caps. "Luis bought it for me as a present." Luis is Luis Miguel, the Latin superstar singer, whom Mariah met in Aspen a couple of years ago (did he sleep with her in that closet last Christmas?) and has been linked with since.
"All I want to say about Luis is that he's a great guy. He's a very generous and gentle person. We've been in 33 cities together since we met. He understands my life because his is very similar, so we don't have a lot of issues. There are places we go where he's the center of attention and that is so cool with me. Other places I'm more well known, and he's good with that."
Although she says she doesn't know for sure, the bracelet is rumored to be the very one that Julia Roberts wore to the Oscars, and cost close to $1.5 million. It's a knockout.
"I can't get a fix on where you live. L.A., New York?"
"I just got my first apartment in New York City," she says excitedly. "We spent last night in it for the first time. It's so cool a cross between a grown-up place and a fantasy. The first thing I bought was Marilyn Monroe's white piano. I've been a fan of hers since I was a little girl because my mom loved her. Certain people thought it was quite inappropriate that my mom would buy me Marilyn Monroe books. When I was six years old, I'd be singing 'I Wanna Be Loved By You,' waltzing around the house. So now I have her piano. And I have this room off my bedroom that's totally tiled floor, walls, ceiling. And it's full of humidifiers. So if I get hoarse I can go sleep in there. I am so frigging tired of living in hotels, but I never had enough time to get an apartment fixed up."
"I think you must be the wealthiest star I've ever met. I hear your new record deal could earn you $100 million in a couple of years."
"Prince called me up the other night and said, 'You think you got a good deal, right?' And then he starts to say how they sell the record for $18.99 and most artists make less than a dollar on each CD. So he says, 'C'mon, do the math with me.' I said, 'Prince, I failed math before Purple Rain came out.' So he said, 'OK, if you sell 10 million records that's $100 million for them, and if every album, you've ever done has sold eight million, what do you think you made for these people anyway?' I said, well, this is such a great company. And he says, 'That's like the old slave mentality, saying my new master is better than my old master.' Talk about taking the wind out of my sails. But I need to keep my eye on things, because I've been frigging taken advantage of like you wouldn't believe. They could do a whole miniseries of my life and my music, but they'd never run it. My life has been too sick and twisted."
Now I'm leaning forward in my chair. I've heard stories about Carey's family a troubled older brother, a troubled sister with kids who Mariah supports. But Carey says, "I apologize. This is something that it's better for me not to talk about."
It's been speculated that the most sick and twisted things that have happened in Carey's life took place during the time she was married to Tommy Mottola, who has been described as a control freak. Are the two still on good terms even though she's left the music label he oversees, Columbia Records? "I'm just trying to make peace and let him live his life and let me live mine, I hope." She leans over, knocks twice on the table and proceeds to change the subject.
"Shouldn't I tell you about Glitter?" she asks, doing her job and mine, "I wrote the treatment. It's a story I've wanted to tell for a long time. We start with my character, Billie Frank, as a nine-year-old girl. She's at a club watching her mother sing. Billie is light skinned, and her mother is black. And her mother is clearly out of it, high or drunk, we don't really know. At a certain point the mother loses it in the middle of a song, she forgets her lines and she calls Billie to come up and sing. And the little girl saves her mother and the crowd goes crazy, because she's got this huge voice and she shouldn't be in a club anyway at two or three in the morning, Wait, am I giving away too much?"
I laugh. "I don't think so," I say. We've seen this movie before anyway, right?
"So Billie is sent to live at an orphanage because her mother is unstable. Billie grows up confused, becomes a backup singer for a girl who really can't sing, and she's pissed off because she knows she's so much better. She signs a bad deal, then meets a DJ who falls for her and makes her a star. But he has a very dark side..."
"Wait. This is getting good. Tell me more about this part."
Carey giggles. "Can I just say right now that this story is not autobiographical?"
"You can say whatever you want," I tell her, "but people are going to read into it. Because you do come from a biracial family, and you did meet the ultimate DJ, who did make you into a star, and he did have a bad side."
"But my mother is white, and she was never unstable. She's an opera singer. And the DJ that Billie meets isn't like any man I've ever been with."
I say, "Uh-huh."
Carey slaps my hand. "Trust me, Billie has totally different issues than I do. Not that I don't have my own."
"Well, my father is African-American and Venezuelan, and my mother is Irish-American. When they married, my mother's family disowned her. My parents faced incredible discrimination. Someone poisoned their dog, someone torched their house. They split because they couldn't take the pressure. And I never felt like I fit in. I was too white for the black kids, too ethnic for the whites. It shaped who I am. Why am I telling you this?" she says with a laugh.
Carey has talked extensively about her past in previous interviews so you'd think by now she'd know why she goes into it, but all I say is, "I don't know."
"I saw this movie recently, I can't remember what it was, but it showed an interracial love story. And I swear, you could feel people in the audience squirming. I don't think very much has changed in 30 years. I think it's still the one thing that people don't feel comfortable with."
"That, and two women kissing," I tell her.
"What do you mean?" Carey looks absolutely shocked. "I thought men loved to watch two women kiss."
"Men like to watch two women if they think the women are only doing it for the man's benefit. They do not want to think that two women could have a good time by themselves."
Carey thinks this over for a minute. "You're right. Remember the whole frigging mess over Basic Instinct? People didn't care if she was a killer, but they went ballistic when she kissed another woman and seemed to be enjoying herself. It's that kind of ignorance that makes me furious. When I was a little girl I remember hearing the most insensitive things. People would say things about me as if I was deaf or stupid. And believe me, it would cut me to the bone. But please let me stop whining... I hate that woe-is-me crap."
"Have you ever studied acting?"
"Yes," she says. "I have a great acting coach who I really trust. I've been acting my whole life. I did plays when I was young, and it was just a natural part of singing. I love Woody Allen, Mike Myers, Chris Tucker. I would love to do a comedy. I'm embarrassed to say which actors I'd like to work with because I'm afraid that they'll say, 'Ugh, I don't like her at all' and I'll look like an idiot."
"How bad a self-image does the most successful woman in music have?"
"Better than it used to be. When I first started recording, someone told me that I should never be photographed from this one particular side because it made me look ugly. I believed that totally and I would always make sure that the photographer was on the other side of me, and that in my shows I was mostly showing one side. I mean, I was 18 years old and they're telling me this crap. They were successful and older and of course I believed them. And it's only since I started studying acting that I got over it. When we first started shooting Glitter, I was convinced that the director of photography was shooting me on my 'bad' side on purpose. When I talked to him, he thought I was out of my mind. I guess nobody sees this 'bad' side but me. So you know what? I've given it up. People will have to accept me with both my 'good' side and my 'bad' side."
"Glitter takes places in the '80s, which is not your era. What is it about that decade that drew you in?"
"Are you kidding? Can you think of a time where the music was funkier and the clothes were worse? I had Rick James write one of the songs for the movie, and it sounds just like one his hits from that time. And I love those '80s videos they were so cheesy. But it was also a time in music when a DJ could play your record in a club one night and the next day, radio stations got hundreds of calls for that song. It was a magical time in music in some ways, and I wanted to pay homage to that."
"Since you admit that it's not such a stretch for you to play a singer, is Glitter going to be both your first and your last film?"
"No way. I've just signed to do Wisegirls with Mira Sorvino. This is very different from Glitter. Mira and I play waitresses in a restaurant that's owned by mobsters and we get involved with them. I was one of the producers on Glitter, and I did the music, and it was a story that I had thought up. I was involved in every part of it. In this one I'm just a hired hand. I'm going to concentrate on my part, and I'm not going to have to make sure that every little thing is going smoothly."
"I get the feeling that you're a control freak anyway."
"A little," she says. "But I can give that control up if the people around me are doing their jobs well."
"Don't you wish you had a cool name like J. Lo?"
Carey laughs. "Next question."
"Did you feel bad when you made the worst-dressed list after wearing a white dress to the '99 Oscars?"
"They made me wear white they insisted that I wear a white dress. Believe me, not too many people look good in white, and I'm no exception."
I decide not to ask who "they" were.
"I didn't feel too bad," Carey continues. "I tend not to care about that stuff. As long as my records are selling, I can't worry that some photographer snapped me on the way to the deli and that picture gets scrutinized by people whose opinions I don't care about."
"You seem really sweet to me," I tell Carey. "Why do you have such a bad reputation?"
"Jesus, Martha, did you save all the hard questions for the end? Do I have a bad reputation?"
I just nod.
"Well, I don't know. I know exactly who I am I'm a girl from Long Island who grew up with nothing. My mother and I moved 13 times because we had trouble paying the rent. And I don't want to forget that. I treat everyone around me with respect. I do not throw fits when things don't go my way. I'm good to people and I'm a great tipper. What more do you want?"