Mariah's Second Act

After driving herself to the edge, Mariah Carey is back with a new album and a new, self-protective resolve.

Allure magazine by Michael Thompson

Allure (US) January 2003. Text by Christian Wright. Photography by Michael Thompson

People have the wrong impression of Mariah Carey. At a late dinner of fancy Chinese lobster and shrimp, before leaving New York on a private jet bound for Amsterdam, she fiddles at the waist of her dress: a full-length, black strappy number embroidered with butterflies. "You see this nice dress?" she says. "It's my airplane dress. because it doesn't wrinkle. I walk around in this when I want to be comfortable. You could be like, 'Oh, she waltzed in in an evening gown..." But this isn't what people wear to fly? I mean, what do people wear?"

How would she know? This is a person who doesn't fly commercial, who has a whole room in her house just for her shoes, who can't even take a sip of wine at dinner tonight without a stranger sticking a cell phone in her face, squealing, "Talk to my friend in L.A.! He's your biggest fan!" (She graciously obliges.) She is under endless scrutiny, the object of endless speculation — on even the most intimate subjects. Like her breasts. Admittedly, her ta-tas are rarely concealed under a turtleneck. Tonight, they're braless and perfectly obvious in her nice airplane dress. And since we're drinking and getting along like a couple of old girlfriends, I have to ask her: "Are they real?"

"Yes," she says evenly, squeezing them together with her arms to demonstrate. "See?" Then she pinches the little pouch of skin right where the arm meets the pit, arguing that this is proof of bosom authenticity. I believe her... I want to believe her. I can't really reach across the table to check.

When people question the low-cut dresses, the midriff-baring tops, and the provocative poses, the 32-year-old star is quick to explain. "I've been posing since I was six," she says, laughing. "My father saved all these pictures of me in a bikini, thinking I was a centerfold. It's all about the hoopla and the dress-up. As little girls, what do we play with? We don't play with a schoolmarm doll. We play with Barbie."

She beckons to the waiter with her French-manicured hand and asks him to clear away a lobster carcass. "It's strange because I got into a relationship with someone much older [she was 18 when she met her future husband, Sony Music President Tommy Mottola, then 38]. A lot of girls I knew were sexually active, but I wasn't. I was apprehensive, due to what I'd seen, like teenage pregnancy. I may have walked around in some tight-ass clothing, but that's where it ended. [In my work] I've never done anything lewd. There a certain amount of girlishness and humor, because that's the spirit I'm bringing to it. I don't take myself very seriously. To me, it's all fun and games."

Of course, there is a darker side. She often talks about what she calls "the outsider feeling," a feeling that stems from growing up as a mixed-race child. In her song, "Outside," she sings, "It's hard to explain/ inherently it's just always been strange/ neither here nor there/ always somewhat out of place everywhere." But in 1990, when her first record, Mariah Carey, sold a bazillion copies and won her the best new artist Grammy, her skin color was irrelevant. The single "Vision of Love" didn't bring up racial identity when it played on the radio every other second. It didn't come with a sticker that said "produced by an Irish-American mother and black-Venezuelan father." It was pure, post-adolescent, romantic emotion expressed simply by an exceptional voice. When it hit number one on the R&B and pop charts and stayed there, it foretold the story of the biggest-selling artist of the '90s and cemented Carey's image: Not black, not white, she was of the celebrity race. And ironically, all the attendant privileges, brouhaha, and ever-present bodyguards have only made her further removed. She's the ultimate outsider.

After 12 years of stardom, ten multi-platinum albums, and 15 number-one songs, the line between the real and the fake gets irrevocably blurred. In the public consciousness, Carey isn't a person with low blood sugar and really sensitive skin, or a studio hound who records until three in the morning to perfect the songs that she writes herself. She's a cartoon character: the Kewpie-doll face, the enormous head of hair, the 15-carat baubles, the klieg lights, and the entourage big enough to populate a small country. In the public consciousness, her story reads like a bad screenplay. And then it actually became a bad screenplay: Glitter. The superstar had a "complete physical and emotional breakdown," according to a statement from her publicist. The movie bombed, the soundtrack was released on September 11 to dismissive reviews, and her record company dumped her. It doesn't get much worse.

Now, 18 months after this infamous stumble, Mariah Carey is back on her feet and all business — or, rather, all show business, as she arrives two and a half hours late for dinner. In a swirl of nonsense, someone from her office calls the restaurant owner asking him to dim the lights before Carey walks in because her eyes are bothering her. Her manager is already there doing advance damage control, explaining that Carey's taping with BET went along, that she then had an interview with USA Today, that a VH1 film crew has been trailing her all day.

Following the bluster, Carey is genuinely apologetic and seems a little embarrassed by the commotion that surrounds her. And you have to wonder, didn't anyone learn anything from the star's meltdown over a year ago? Is she all right?

"I'm fine," she says, in her deep, raspy voice. "Do I seem OK to you? Here's the thing: I've been fine. What I needed was about two weeks of rest. Most people have weekends off. Then they have a little summer vacation, then all the holidays. I was a person who worked, in the last year alone, two months of 21-hour days. The whole mess from last year was due to my exhaustion and never eating and never sleeping. You get caught up in the whole spiral. You neglect yourself.

Carey had even neglected herself artistically. When she escaped from the gilded cage, or "Sing Sing," as she calls the house she shared with Mottola, she finally had the creative freedom she craved. And she ran toward hip-hop. No one doubts her affection for the form she grew up with. But somewhere amid the Neptunes remixes, the Jay-Z collaborations, and the extended raps, she had almost become a guest artist on her own records. The hardest-working woman in music was losing control.

Carey sighs a big sigh and takes a sip of Cabernet. "I was like a parent who was overcompensating," she says. "I had gone from one situation which was very confining [her five-year marriage to Mottola ended in 1998], and I was trapped in my business life as well. And then I was let out of my contract with Sony in the middle of recording [the soundtrack for Glitter], and I was shooting Wisegirls [with Mira Sorvino]. So I thought, I've been doing my own business for this long, how hard can it be to go somewhere else?"

She's interrupted by a two-way pager going off in her Louis Vuitton bag. "I'm sorry," she says. "It's my friend's pager and I don't know how to turn it off." She ignores it and flips her hair (which looks natural in the way hair does after a day at the seaside; her fans prefer it curly, and this is her concession to them). She's focused again. "So I said, I know how to do this. I can work 24 hours; I've done it before. And in addition, I've always been the caretaker of my family, and the caretaker sometimes ends up neglecting herself. OK, so fast-forward, I was just exhausted, and nobody had ever heard me say no before. So when I started saying it — 'No, I'm tired' — click. They were shocked. Nobody was allowing me to draw that line, because they weren't used to it. This type of world I'm in, that I created, has no boundaries. I'm not blaming anyone, because I allowed it."

Things are better now. She insists on eating properly. And she's more concerned about her health (going so far as to sleep on a bed in a special steam room in her TriBeCa triplex sometimes because it's good for her voice). When I asj her about her moment of collapse, she suddenly sits up really straight. The shrink she sees regularly told her she didn't have a nervous breakdown. "I was hospitalized for freakin' exhausting myself," she says. And under no circumstance would she even consider suicide (never mind attempt it, as the press speculated at the time). "My time to go is when God takes me." And besides, at the hospital in Connecticut where she rested, she ended up leading the required group-therapy sessions, caretaker that she is. "I don't have a problem with therapy," she says. "And I didn't go in the rehab part. If someone told me, 'You can never have another glass of wine,' I'd go, 'OK.'" So what explains the compulsive work schedule? "Looking for acceptance or stability," she says. "Fear of having the rug pulled out from under you. Look, I didn't want to wind up back living on a mattress on the floor."

When Glitter didn't sell immediately, Virgin records — the label she joined after she left Sony — bought out her contract after less than a year. Several new labels were courting her when she picked up and went to Capri to start working on Charmbracelet, which she calls "an intense turning point, like Butterfly." The result is an emotional album with some guest rappers and heavyweight producers, but the ballads are back — and there, Carey plants her feet and sings.

She's signed with Island Def Jam now, where hip-hop impresario Lyor Cohen is banking on this record to be a huge success. The first single, "Through The Rain," is already in heavy rotation, so it's not as if he had to salvage a race out of the wreckage. The truth is that the Glitter soundtrack actually sold well — about two million copies — and anyone is still laughing at the film should see the dark comedy Wisegirls, which debuted on Cinemax last November. She steals scene after scene as a brassy waitress who handles mobsters like they were schoolyard bullies. She's funny and girly and completely unself-conscious. Another turning point.

After Cohen and Carey worked out her deal (an estimated $21 million for three albums), he relayed the details to the Financial Times of London: "I said to [Mariah], 'What's your competitive advantage? A great voice, of course. And what else? You write every one of your songs — you're a great writer. So why did you stray from your competitive advantage?... It's like driving a Ferrari in first. You won't see the Ferrari will do until you get into sixth gear." That sound you hear? It's Carey shifting into third.