Free At Last

Mariah Carey — the voice. The Marriage. The multiracial drama. The so-called breakdown. The return.

Essence Magazine by Ruven Afanador

Essence (US) April 2005. Text by Joan Morgan. Photography by Ruven Afanador.

This "mulatto" is hardly tragic. There is no haunting semblance to the 1959 movie classic Imitation of Life. And Sarah Jane — the movie's beautiful, self-hating protagonist who abandoned her dark-skinned Black mother and chose to pass for White — does not live here. The woman who does live here in this expansive penthouse in Manhattan's Tribeca is Mariah Carey. She has jokingly described herself as a bit of a "mutt" (the offspring of an Irish-American mom and a half-African-American, half-Venezuelan dad). But she's not tragic. Not tragic at all.

In some ways Mariah Carey, 35, is everything you would expect a pop diva to be who has sold 150,000,000 albums — comes third behind Elvis Presley and the Beatles — for most weeks spent on the Billboard Hot Singles chart and who emerged from her decade-and-a-half career as the best-selling female artist of the 1990's. Her apartment, which spans three floors, comes with a whirlpool bath big enough for four and a freaky chamber whose tiled walls squirt mist. Carey lies there on a big white bed when she needs to humidify her vocal chords. Odd for you or me, but completely appropriate for a woman whose voice does supernatural things like traverse comfortably from pop's smoothed-out terrain into the grittier domains of R&B, hip-hop and soul — all in a five-octave range.

But in far more compelling ways Mariah Carey is not what you would expect: She's a natural mimic, effortlessly assuming the accent of whomever she's with. The sex-kitten persona you see in her videos get turned off with the camera: A self-described "prude," she enjoys Rocky Horror-esque devotion. And contrary to the reports about her "nervous breakdown-suicide attempt" in the summer of 2001, she is not crazy. Not now, not then. However, she does suffer from nightmares, recurring ones about her days as Mrs. Tommy Mottola, a time when she could not be free as her true self.

Race Matters

So this isn't a twenty-first-century version of Imitation of Life. Still, race and racial identity have been central themes throughout Carey's career — arguably more so than for any other artist of her generation. It took folks forever to figure out where Carey fit in ethnically despite the fact that she never denied her mixed heritage. In an ideal world it shouldn't matter. But as we all know, America's stance on race matters is far from ideal. The critics can be cruel. Black cultural writer Nelson George once wrote that Carey was "being marketed as the White Whitney Houston." And in 1998, the ubiquitously mean Sandra Bernhard had this to say about Carey in her one-woman show I'm Still Here... Damn It!: "Now she's trying to backtrack on our asses, settin' real niggerish up there at the Royalton Hotel suite, with Puff Daddy and all the greasy chain-wearing Black men. 'Oooh, Daddy... I got a little bit of Black in me, too. I didn't tell you that?'"

Carey's nephew, 27-year-old attorney Shawn McDonald, has watched Carey struggle with folks' questioning her allegiance. The two are like brother and sister. He concedes that both have contended with the raised eyebrows. "Early on people didn't know what to make of her," McDonald remembers. "Some still don't understand she's multiracial."

Others' responses would often take Carey by surprise. After all, it was impossible to know when her "of color" status was going to make someone flip. "My struggles began when I was 5," she recalls. Two moments crystallized this for Carey: The first was when two White teacher's assistants laughed at her for trying to draw her father with a brown crayon. The second was Carey's taking her 6-year-old best friend to her father's house and her friend's bursting into tears at the sight of a Black man hugging his now obviously not-White daughter.

Other Blacks could also be less than sympathetic. Adds McDonald: "Some think we're not Black enough." Even her frequent collaborator, uberproducer and music mogul Jermaine Dupri, confesses he had no idea what to do with Carey when she first walked into his studio, handed him a Wu-Tang Clan CD, and told him she wanted to sample it. "I thought, This White girl is crazy," laughs Dupri. "I didn't know she was mixed. But after hanging out with her I realized she listens to hip-hop all day long."

Some of the confusion stems from the way Carey was marketed. In the coded racial parlance of urban-music culture, pop reads "White" and hip=hop reads "Black." Carey was a carefully crafted pop persona — so much so that her earliest attempts to incorporate hip-hop into her repertoire were met with resistance from her label. A racially ambiguous-looking Black girl with drop-the-mike pipes was the next best thing to blue-eyed soul — why screw that up by making music and videos with visibly Black rap artists?

"We're talking about 1994 and 1995," says McDonald, "when hip-hop was just becoming part of mainstream America. The label would have liked her to sing ballads all the time. But that's not who she was."

Carey's friend rap artist Da Brat echoes the sentiment. "Hip-hop is in her bones, in her soul," she says. "That child is Black. That girl is ghetto. I know she has always wanted rap in her music. Once she started having more say, she made it happen."

The Marriage From Hell

Adding even more complexity to this racial and musical quagmire was Tommy Mottola, the man who discovered Mariah Carey — the CEO whose company, Sony Records, would make hundreds of millions in profit from her fame, and the husband she would eventually leave to salvage her spirit and her sanity.

There's a way a woman talks about a past relationship too formative to go unmentioned. She almost always begins with an involuntary breath that occurs at the mention of his name, then there's a straightening of the back and shoulders — the body's attempt to steel the heart against dwelling in this place too long. To speak of him too often would leave Mariah shackled to a past that she's intent on facing and leaving. She does, however, want to be free to explain who she is and what challenges brought her to where she is now.

She says: Her relationship with Tommy Mottola is at the center of "one of the greatest misconceptions" about her. "People think I've had this fairy-tale life," she offers quietly, "that I met this rich prince who gave me a life in the lap of luxury, put me in a mansion, made me a star. It wasn't that way. In fact, it almost killed me."

Like all Cinderella stories, this one begins with a troubled childhood. Carey's parents divorced when she was 3, and Carey's mother was often underemployed. Money was scarce, stability scarcer. "We moved around 13 times," Carey explains. "We lived with 'boyfriends' or whomever. Sometimes it was a 'You guys have to move tomorrow' type of thing. Maybe we didn’t pay our rent." Sighing, Carey says, "My entire childhood and adolescence were in some ways really great and in others a total mess. By the time I was 6, I was my family's caretaker."

In the midst of those uncertainties, she was sure about two things: that she could sing and that stardom was imminent.

Enter Tommy Mottola

She and Mottola met at an industry party in 1988, where Carey was an 18-year-old waitress. When she wasn't clearing tables, she was furiously writing songs on the side and singing backup for 1980's dance music sensation Brenda K. Starr. According to legend, at the party Mottola, then a Sony entertainment exec, got his hands on her demo. Like a good record man, he went back to the party to find the girl, but Cinderella was gone. After a weeklong search, Mottola found her and brokered a deal with Columbia Records. The product of this union was a self-titled debut album that yielded a string of hit singles — "Vision of Love," "Love Takes Time," "I Don't Wanna Cry," "Someday" — and two Grammys.

Sing Sing

Despite the fact that Mottola was married and some 20 years her senior, rumors that his passion for Carey extended beyond her music permeated the industry and the tabloids. The sequence of events: Mottola became CEO of Sony Entertainment (parent company of Columbia), divorced his wife of 20 years, and married Mariah Carey in an ultra-expensive fantasy wedding replete with a $25,000 bridal gown, a 27-foot train and a boys choir. Together the power couple built a $10 million mansion in the same neighborhood as fashion impresario Ralph Lauren in Tony Bedford, New York.

There's a reason fairy tales usually end with the wedding. "It was an emotionally abusive relationship," Carey says simply, though she admits that it was "good in the beginning." She adds, "Tommy represented something I'd never had, stability. There was mutual respect and his passion for me and my music."

In the midst of this bliss, though, it was clear Carey had trust issues. From day one she insisted on splitting the bills with Mottola, from mansion renovations to gas and electric. "I never wanted to be in a situation where someone could tell me to get out of my own house," she says. "Maybe it was because I didn't want people to say I was being taken care of. Of course, they said it anyway."

Somewhere along the way, Mottola's love for the woman and her music morphed into a Svengalian desire for total control. "I was in a beautiful house surrounded by beautiful things, but I couldn't be who I really was." A fun-loving free spirit who broke into accents mid-sentence, shared inside jokes with her friends, loved hip-hop, and had a passion for high heels and sexy clothes, she says, was a bit "too much for him to handle." She fought with Mottola about everything from the direction she wanted to go in musically to what clothes she wore and how she styled her hair. (We were unsuccessful in our attempt to reach Mottola for comment."

According to Da Brat, Carey could barely sit and start a conversation before Mottola or his employees dragged her back to work. Things were so bad, Da Brat says, that Carey couldn't go up the block without catching hell. "Mariah just wanted to drive up the street to go to McDonald’s," she says. "Two seconds after we left, Tommy was calling the car phone, telling us to come back. They were tripping out that we were going five minutes away to get a cheeseburger. It was like she was on a goddamn army base." The mansion was secretly dubbed "Sing Sing" by Carey and friends, a prison where she was expected to do nothing but sing and sing. "There were moments when I thought I was going to die in this relationship," Carey confesses. "I figured I'd been given all the things I'd ever prayed for, so why should I expect to be happy in my personal life? I didn't feel worthy of happiness."

Her Great Escape

Eventually, she says, it would be the friendship with Da Brat and other young celebs like Wanya from Boyz II Men "who were successful, happy and free that made me believe in the possibility of a better life."

Perhaps the most pivotal friendship was with New York Yankee superstar Derek Jeter, whom Carey began dating when she separated from Mottola in 1997. With Jeter, who's biracial, Carey believed she'd finally met someone who could understand her struggles. "I used to think that 90 percent of the reason my life was messed up was because I was mixed. It was important for me that he was from a loving interracial family. He was a catalyst for my transition from my life with Tommy. And I'm so grateful for that."

Still, life after Mottola was no picnic. Carey chose to stay on his label, a move she now realized was unwise. "I was literally fighting against a system run by powerful people who had an agenda to see me fail." Eventually Carey moved on from her manager and lawyer — both were Mottola-affiliated. Forced to micromanage her own career, Carey left Sony in 2000 and signed to Virgin Records for a cool $80 million.

Carey's departure from Sony was followed by a blitzkrieg of unfavorable press. Recasting her as the Wild Divorcee, the media had her tearing up New York nightlife and bedding everyone from Jeter to Puffy (not) to Q-Tip (not) to Eminem (pull-ease!).

To make matters worse, Carey's winning streak seemed to grind to a halt with her acting debut, Glitter. The movie received (deservedly) scathing reviews. The sound track, released on September 11, 2001, made very little impact on the charts. At the next year her Island/Def Jam debut, Charmbracelet, fared no better.

The consummate workaholic, Carey responded by going into overdrive — meeting every request her fame demanded. Finally, after five days of a grueling schedule and public appearances where she clearly seemed less than herself (most famously on MTV's TRL, where the media reported she did a striptease, but Carey says it was a planned spoof), Carey finally collapsed at her mother's home in Long Island, New York. She was hospitalized for exhaustion. The press ran nasty stories about her waning sanity. Virgin reportedly gave her $28 million to leave the label.

Her Emancipation

As her girl Da Brat happily attests, Carey is finally free. "She can do whatever she wants, she can date whomever she wants," says Da Brat. "She can say what she wants — she makes her own decisions." Instead of coming into the room with her head down, says Da Bart, "She walks in like, 'What up? Mariah is in the building. What's popping>' She's happy and content and making the music she wants."

There are no sad songs on her last CD, The Emancipation of Mimi, out this month. "I'm not even in that spot right now," she says. "I don't have the need to express anything like that."

It took 15 years and a whole lot of drama for Carey to feel safe enough to release this record into the world. The title honors her childhood nickname. It also alludes to her newfound sense of freedom. When she hears it, she knows that she is safe and surrounded by people she loves. "When I see Mariah now, I see her almost as a new person who's lived a full life," says Jermaine Dupri. And, he says, that's what makes this album different from her earlier ones.

The work is arguably her best to date. Her voice, always technically amazing, has become richer with experience. Impressively diverse, hers is a seamless mélange of Black music — soul, hip-hop, R&B, gospel and yes, a little bit of pop thrown in for good measure. The result: less pop princess and more grown-ass Black woman, one who's damn clear about who she is.