A "No Moleste" sign is hanging from the doorknob of the suite on one of the highest floors of the New York Palace Hotel, where Mariah Carey has taken up residence. Should I knock? Although it is 5 o'clock in the afternoon, the Dusky Diva was up late the night before celebrating the birthday of L.A. Reid, CEO of Island Def Jam Music. Ignoring the sign, I decide to take a chance. I know Carey is fond of rappers, but I rap the only way an effete white boy knows how to rap with my knuckles.
A barefoot maid answers the door and escorts me to a private elevator, which takes us to the floor above. Braless and barefoot, Carey swans into the room in a floral chiffon halter dress. Her makeup is impeccable, and her blonde streaked hair is perfectly straight. She extends her freshly manicured hand, and as I bow to kiss it, I try unsuccessfully not to stare directly at her ample décolletage.
Carey offers me a soda, pours one for herself, and invites me to sit close by her on the sofa. The 35-year-old star tucks her bare feet beneath the flowing chiffon and confesses that she hardly slept after Reid's birthday party. He is responsible for The Emancipation of Mimi, the first album in her $20 million deal with Island Def Jam. This particular week, the CD has again reached the number-one spot in the country, along with the single "We Belong Together." It is her sixteenth number-one song, making her the top-selling female vocalist in the history of the music business: Only the Beatles and Elvis Presley have had more number-one hits. "Mariah and I laugh when people call this her comeback, says Randy Jackson, one of the American Idol judges, who has produced tracks on all of Carey's ten studio albums. "Her comeback from where? She's never really been away. Not since Nat King Cole has there been a tone quite like hers that sweet, buttery sound. And, dawg, Nat King Cole didn't have her seven-octave range."
Jackson and Carey can laugh all they want at the term "comeback," but how else is one to describe the current state of her life and career after the public debacle of her movie Glitter, which was released on September 11, 2001, and the emotional meltdown that landed her in a couple of hospitals? When I bring this up, her husky giggle lingers way down in one of those lower octaves of hers, and she fidgets with her giant heart-shaped diamond earrings. A diamond butterfly ring its size somewhere between a monarch and Mothra flickers on her finger. "Those can't be real," I say, pointing at the earrings.
"Yes, they are," she says. "I gave these to myself." Given her estimated fortune of $300 million, and the fact that she's had few serious romantic relationships, this makes sense.
"Is that real also?" I ask, eyeballing the butterfly on her finger. "Yes. Yes it is, " she says. "And how about those?" I ask, pointing toward her cleavage.
Carey erupts into laughter. "All my jewels are here to be admired," she says. Her breathy voice cuts through the laughter. In fact, Carey's voice and childlike demeanor owe a bit to Marilyn Monroe, whom the singer idolizes. "I have Marilyn Monroe's piano," she says. "It's a white baby grand. It's chipped and stuff. I tried to have it tuned, but it's from 1937, and it's not about tuning it. It's about having it. It's in storage because of all the water damage in my apartment. I've rented a house in L.A. until further notice. And while I'm in New York, I'm living here at the Palace," she notes, with an edge in her voice that proves she's in on the joke about the up-and-down fairy-tale quality of her life.
While some people may believe in her "Once Upon a Time" life, Carey's true friends know otherwise. "After the party last night, I drove around Harlem with [rapper] Cam'ron in his Lamborghini, and we talked about life and love and different things. The people I bond with are people who have been through some stuff and gotten through some difficulties as opposed to a white-picket-fence person," she says. My friends have all been through some type of intensity, some type of adversity, some type of obstacle that they've had to overcome. And most of the guys I know who are in hip-hop have dealt with that. Someone asked if it bothered me that people think I had this fairy-tale existence when in reality my childhood, to put it mildly, was difficult," she says. Growing up on Long Island, the family's cars were torched and family pets were poisoned because her mother was white and her father was black. Her parents divorced when she was three years old. Her mother had dreams of being an opera star but never made a consistent living, and they moved 13 times before she graduated from high school. She skipped school so often that her friends started calling her "Mirage" Carey. "But I am a totally free spirit today because I grew up around a mother who is so artsy," she says now. "I also had to be a little adult very early in my life. When something happened, it always fell to me to make the phone call for help. I don't like to get too specific about some of this stuff because my family can get a little touchy. Let's just say there's a lot of dichotomy in my life, and I've learned to accept that that's what makes me who I am. That's what connects me to a lot of my audience. So many biracial kids tell me how much my songs mean to them, because they didn't feel like they fit in, but now they have something to aspire to. That's the way I felt as a kid that feeling of not fitting in."
Did the light-skinned Carey ever want to be darker? "I just wanted to be one thing or the other. I'd be at my cousin's in the South Bronx, and the kids outside would be, "That ain't yo' cuzzin. She's white." And in the meantime, I really didn't look white to white people," she says. "If I would go places with my father, there would always be someone with a sneer or an expression of disgust."
Carey had problems with other family members as well. A few years ago, her older sister, Alison, allegedly tried to sell a less-than-flattering book about her life with Mariah. The star is, however, still close to her mother, Patricia, and her older brother, Morgan, who is a trainer and kickboxer in Los Angeles. Her father, Alfred, recently died of cancer. "It was horrible what he went through," Carey says. "I was so glad I got to spend time with him before he died and talk through our stuff. I never knew how many things he had saved from my childhood things I had made for him when I was three sentimental pictures and things he gave back to me." She stops for a second and gathers her dress around her bare legs in a more ladylike fashion. "When he was in the hospital he wanted my sister and I to reunite. We were often there at the same time so... ahhh... we reconnected at that point. Some things are just better left at a distance."
Carey is patient and calm while talking about her painful issues with Alison. When I asked about her sister's claim that she became a prostitute to pay for Mariah's demo tape, Mariah sighs deeply before answering. "Whatever anybody does, they do for their own reasons. And I'm not commenting on her by saying that. I'm just bein' real. But my brother paid for my first demo tape. Five thousand dollars. That was a lot of money for us back then. Please, lamb, let's change the subject."
"OK. Tommy Mottola."
"Oh, God!" she says, rolling her eyes and letting loose with her laugh. "From bad to worse."
That demo tape famously found its way into the hands of Mottola, the future head of Sony Entertainment. Mottola and Carey started a professional relationship, then a personal one (despite a 20-year age difference) that culminated in a huge New York City wedding in 1993 after the record mogul divorced his longtime wife. The wedding was a star-studded, over-the-top event Carey wore a $25,000 dress with a 27-foot train but the problems started as soon as the honeymoon. "It was awful," she says. "It was a horrid honeymoon. I ended up crying on the beach by myself... Tommy was the first person I was ever with sexually, though I wasn't a virgin on our wedding night. I didn't know he was married when I met him, either." The two were together for eight years and married for four before she gained the courage to seek a divorce. But there had to have been some good times during those years, right? "There were happy moments, like when one of my videos would come on," she deadpans. Any regrets that she and Tommy didn't have kids? "No! No! No! It wasn't the right thing for me to have kids with him. I'm eternally 12. I'm not ready to have kids."
Carey pauses. "There was already an element of the parental in my relationship with Tommy. But more than the parental, there was the stability he offered me, which represented something I never really had in life. He offered me a home not that Sing Sing mansion," she says, using her nickname for the $10 million fortress the couple built in Bedford, New York, where she felt like a prisoner who had to do just that sing and sing in order to pay her share. "Tommy was someone who totally believed in me. I needed that. But the authoritarian aspect of the Regime," as she calls Mottola and his lieutenants at Sony Music, "was already in place when I married into it all. It was next to impossible to extract myself from that." Carey's voice turns jittery, making it sound as if she had been kidnapped rather than married. "I longed for someone to come kidnap me back then. I used to fantasize about that. A lot. I'd have my pocketbook with me at all times in case I had to make an escape it's a big accomplishment that I don't feel the need to have it anymore. I used to think maybe there could be a kidnapper who could rescue me, and he wouldn't be that mean."
A kidnapper did not arrive, but once she was separated from Mottola, Carey was rescued, in a sense, by New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, a kind of knight-in-shining-pinstripes. "Derek was a very nice transitional figure in my life, definitely necessary in pushing me to extract myself from the other relationship because... well, let's put it this way: If you don't know there's something else out there, then you're content to deal with what you have." I ask it it's true that, since the Declaration of Independence states that we are "endowed by God," Jeter was more endowed than others, Carey whoops with delight. "Oh, my goodness!" she squeals, and then collects herself. "No comment, dahhhling," she purrs. "Put it just like that. And make sure 'dahhhling' is spelled d-a-h-h-h-l-i-n-g."
Carey is able to joke about her past, enjoy her present, and have hope for her future (she's even planning a Broadway musical based on her best-selling Christmas album). She prefers to call her breakdown a few years ago a "breakthrough." At one point, she was in danger of being grouped with Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston as superstars whose careers twisted into cautionary tales. When I compare her with them and their own downfalls, she goes silent for a few moments. "To go through what I went through so publicly was the first time I felt famous," she finally says. "I never felt it before I felt the downside of fame. Yeah, that time was difficult for me. Everybody knows it now. But I got through it." Carey says it is an amazing moment in her life to have the number-one album and the number-one single at the same time. "It's crazy. Good crazy," she is quick to point out. "You know sometimes you're with a really famous person and you go, 'Where are they?'" She stops and waves her hand in front of my face to illustrate her point. "It's as if their fame has come to define them. The difference with me, I hope, is that I never let that 'Mariah Carey' thing overtake me, and I never think of myself as that other person. It's an interesting phenomenon. I really want to write a book someday, especially now that I understand some shit," she says. Once more, Carey checks out that butterfly on her finger she bought for herself. The ring may catch the light, but it is the hard-earned sparkle in her eyes these days that leaves the lasting impression.