Diva Pitch

Mariah Carey's life, like one of her multi-octave vocals, has been a journey of extreme highs and lows — from taunted child to pop prima donna to fallen star. Now she's mounting a spirited fightback from her humbling public breakdown — and she's just as demanding as ever.

Telegraph Magazine by Patric Shaw

Telegraph Magazine (UK) April 2, 2005. Text by Richard Benson. Photography by Patric Shaw.

She sits bolt upright in the corner of a large hotel room that is lit, on her orders, by dozens of candles arranged around her and the interviewer's chair. When she stands up to say hi — she does not offer to shake hands — the first thing you notice about her is her size; Mariah Carey stands almost 6ft tall in her high-heeled black boots, with broadish hips and a full bosom that, jiggling somewhat under her tight white vest, appears to be unconfined by any sort of support. Wrestling your eyes from the bosom, the next thing you notice is the huge volume of her curly, millionairess-coloured hair, and then the trillions of diamonds on her earlobes, neck wrists and fingers — particularly on the third finger of her right hand which bears a ring decorated with a lifesize diamond butterfly.

'Hi,' she says, with the deep and abraded voice of a Noo Yoik diva. 'Would you like a drink? I've got, like, a drinks banquet here...' She waves the butterfly hand at the table besides her, on which stand three bottles — Diet Pepsi, Diet Lemon Tea Snapple and Evian — each with a perfectly crooked plastic straw. Only the Pepsi has been drunk from. 'So you can join me.' She gives a small-talky, drinks-offering chuckle that sounds a pirate gargling with shale, and asks the PR to get me a glass of water.

'Are you recording with your iPod?' (She pronounces it 'i-paaard'.) 'I got an iPod, but I came to it all late because I'm not very, you know, technical. That little recording mike is cool. I have to get one of those for somebody.

Oh, I say as we sit down. Who are you listening to at the moment?

'ME!' she says, and does the pirate laugh again. She means that she has been in the studio finishing her album, The Emancipation of Mimi, working even more of her notoriously long, perfectionist hours than usual. She always writes and co-produces her songs, but seems to have put an extraordinary amount of work and effort into the new ones; they feature a star-studded cast of collaborators such as Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, and are all in the modern, hip-hop-influenced style, with strong beats and electronic riffs that sound like mobile phone ballads among them, but there are plenty of lyrics about 'feeling hot,' 'DJs spinning the cut' and, indeed, 'a pimp penthouse with a sick hot-tub.' 'Certain people wanted me to put strings on the end of tracks, do different arrangements,' she says, very affably. 'But I was like, no, it's fine. That's what we don't do in 2005.'

What Mariah Carey is trying to do in 2005 is Come Back. Her last album, 2002's Charmbracelet, might have sold three million copies, but her yodelling, power-balladeering mid-90s pomp used to shift 10 times that. In recent years her profile has been damaged by the awful album and film package Glitter, a very public breakdown, and then her 'release' from Virgin records which, with an $80 million contract, had initially agreed to pay her more than any artist had been paid in the history of pop. The Emancipation of Mimi — Mimi is her childhood nickname — is meant to get her back to the innocently enthusiastic mind-state she had as a child, growing up poor, happy and with freak vocal cords in Long Island, the New York version of Essex. It is also, I ask, since we seem to be chatting away comfortably, meant to get her back to those old sales levels? Her smile drops, although she looks more as if she is trying to understand the question than trying to contact crossness.

I just meant that in the 1990s your albums sold much more than that, so, um...

'Right. And, I mean, Charmbracelet was like three million. Which some people never reach in their lives.' Now she gives a sort of fake, Alexis-Colby-type laugh, and it is as if the room somehow grows darker.

Sorry, I say. I didn't mean...

'No, I understand what you mean. You're saying, do I feel it needs to be 30 million like Music Box? (Music Box was her 1993 global smash, the one with Dreamlover and Hero. I have not mentioned it.) 'But I look at that as a fluke. In America the Daydream album was bigger record. That had the One Sweet Day single which broke the record for the longest stay at number one of all time. I think that did OK in Europe, but in America, it's like the biggest song of all time. But I can't look at that album as a template because,' — she gives a huge outward sigh — 'I wasn't trying to relive the splendour of whatever that moment was. I mean, records don't really sell that many any more. How many did Usher's album sell last year? Was that in the 30 millions? I don't know but anyway, if records do sell like that, it's like, one in a billion. It's got to do with the way downloading music has happened. Things are different.'

Right. And do you feel happy about that?

'Yeah, that's the main thing. I'm not saying I have low expectations for this record, but you know, if I could live back in the mansion where I lived, with my ex-husband, the most beautiful house in the world, or one of 'em, or live in a studio apartment with my dog, I would take...' She checks herself for a moment, and although she seems to be implying that she would rather live in the studio apartment if it meant being happy, she does not actually say so. 'It's about what is real to you, what's right for you.' she continues. 'Not that I'm saying I want to go from having the hugest thing to having the very smallest thing. I'm just more interested in having something I'm really happy with and proud of than I am in trying to relive a moment.'

This is what it's like talking to Mariah Carey. Most of the time she is chatty in a disarming, almost gauche way, asking you about your gadgets, telling you her ears keep popping from a flight yesterday, recounting girly stories about how she learnt to do her hair when she did beauty lessons at school. Then you ask about something sensitive and blam! It's as if you just wrongly accused her of trying to get off with your husband. She often corrects facts and edits herself mid-sentence: when I point our how Jennifer Lopez has diversified her brand and ask Carey if she wishes she had begun doing the same thing 10 or so years ago (she and Lopez are sworn enemies) she says, ‘Well, I mean, technically she and I are the same age, so it's not like I would have to be 10 years younger to do what she is doing now! But I always thought that it was tacky, to be honest with you. I thought it took away from the artistry. And everyone was like, the brand is your voice. The brand is you. You don't need to be walking on the runway, you don't need to be... whatever. Although nowadays I do feel that when you see people doing it within hip-hop culture, it makes more sense.'

According to her long-time friend Jermaine Dupri, a musician and producer, she makes life hard for herself by paying attention to what is said about her in the press. To put it simply, 'She doesn't like people not to like her.' She says the inaccuracy of the reporting of her breakdown was such that she stopped taking notice of journalists, but will still claim a sense of insecurity rooted in her childhood.

She was born 35 years ago in Long Island. Her father, Alfred, half-Venezuelan, half-African-American, was aeronautical engineer; her mother, Pat, an Irish-American whose family disowned her for marrying a black man, was an opera singer and voice coach. Her brother and sister, Morgan and Allison, were 10 and nine years older. The family was not poor — Alfred drove a Porsche — but it was abused for being bi-racial. The dogs were poisoned, the cars torched, and Mariah grew up being shunned by black neighbours, and called a nigger by whites.

'I don't like to talk about it much because I don't want to seem like, oh woe is me, poor little bi-racial girl. I have it easier than a lot of people who are my friends who have to deal with that constantly, you know what I mean? How can I put this so it comes off right? I mean, I have cousins who grew up in the South Bronx who didn't grow to be some famous person or whatever I am, so I feel if I complain about my experience, if I talk about it, it's TMI. Too Much Information.'

Although she gets a lot of letters from bi-racial children around the world, this aspect of her life is probably not fully grasped by mainstream white audiences — not least because she was told to downplay it in the early part of her career.

Alfred and Pat divorced in 1973. Allison went to live with their father, and Mariah, Morgan and their mother struggled in bohemian poverty, Pat singing opera, and in jazz and folk clubs. Mariah spending much of her time being looked after by a gay couple who were her mother's best friends.

One day when she was three years old, Mariah was watching her mother in the kitchen as she practised for a role as Maddalena in Verdi's Rigoletto, singing along with a tape in the kitchen. When Pat missed a cue, Mariah interjected, singing the part word-perfect, in perfect pitch. Years later, an expensive private doctor in Manhattan would examine her and find that she had extraordinary vocal cords that allow her to stretch to seven octaves, but from that moment on her voice became 'my special secret, my thing that I knew was going to take me further than where I was.' She stropped through high school with big hair and a Marilyn Monroe obsession, barging cheerleader types into lockers out of spite. Boyfriends came and went, but she refused to have sex with any of them; one of her best laughs was winning the prom king and queen competition with her gay best friend.

She moved to Manhattan when she was 18, wrote songs, got a job as a backing singer, and in 1988 met Tommy Mottola, then head of Sony Music, at a party. Mottola was a 38-year-old, egotistical, hard-nosed music executive who modelled himself on mafia godfathers, and had a knack for spotting divas. He played Carey's demo tape on his limousine stereo on the way home and, legend has it, was so impressed that he turned round and went back to look for her. He spent two years and millions of dollars grooming her, and was rewarded when her first album in 1990 sold eight million and had four number-one singles.

In 1993 he had divorced his wife of 20 years, married Carey at a starry Manhattan ceremony, and set up home with her at a $10 million colonial farmhouse in upstate New York. Reporters from all over the world were invited there to watch as Mariah rode golden palomino horses or played them videos of the wedding ceremony, listening as she explained how her life really was like a fairy story.

Mottola, who was at the same time grooming Celine Dion, told Carey to wear loose gowns and to play down her ethnicity because with such a powerful voice a woman has to work to be unthreatening enough for the public to love her. It has to be said that it succeeded. She had at least one number-one record in every year than any other female artist in history, and the only artist to have spent more weeks on the American Hot 100 chart is Elvis Presley. Critics say that for someone with so many sales she has few truly memorable songs, but she does not make the sort of music that critics like. Her public are the people who have put All I Want For Christmas Is You into the charts every December since its release, and the thousands of teenage girls who sing Hero in their Pop Idol auditions. That modern, showboating, multi-octave yodelling vocal style they all use was, with the influence of Minnie Riperton, invented Carey. And — much-overlooked fashion fact — since it was she who first cut the waist off a pair of jeans, it is Carey who is more or less responsible for making the exposure of the midriff a fashion statement.

By the time she was 25 she had earned $200 million. The only problems were her sister and Tommy Mottola. Allison had gone off the rails as a teenager, been through spells of drugs abuse and prostitution and ended up HIV positive with two sons; Allison and her mother now share joint custody of one child. There have been bad relations between the two sisters; at one point Allison threatened to 'expose' unspecified skeletons in Mariah's now ample closets in some sort of retaliation, but she was not taken seriously. Carey says she cannot discuss this for legal reasons.

She left Mottola in 1997, claiming that he had been too controlling, and that the house had been a gilded cage. He seems humiliated and grudgeful, and began grooming new divas, Destiny's Child and Jennifer Lopez, with whom he is rumoured to have had an affair (she denies this). Carey promptly began going out with the baseball player Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, hanging out with hip-hop stars, wearing anything but flowing gowns, and making edgier records that sold less well. The situation between her and Mottola developed into what she describes as 'the war.'

She was still contracted to Sony, and was releasing albums with lyrics that did not reflect very well on her ex-husband; one video had a clear reference to Baby Doll, the Tennessee Williams play about a young woman bored by her relationship with a possessive older man. At the same time, stories began appearing in the press about her outrageous behaviour; she was feuding with Janet Jackson; she was demanding puppies backstage; she would not walk on carpet. Many of the diva rumours appear to originate from this period of her life, and it is hard to know exactly how to judge them. According to Sony employees she had become a bit of a nightmare by then; it was reported that she once asked for 47 Concorde tickets for one trip, and even a favourable piece in Rolling Stone revealed that she was so reliant on her limo that she did not know her own exact address in Manhattan Upper East Side. While her standard photoshoot requirements do not include puppies to fondle or pink toilet tissue, they do include some striking stipulations, including sunflowers and bendy straws; there are many celebrities who might well request fish as part of the catering, but few who would specify seabass.

Carey claims that there were other measures taken against her in the next few years, measures that she cannot go into for more legal reasons, but that she describes as 'sabotaging. To say it like that sounds like,,, in print that won't sound like the way I mean it, because sabotage is an intense word, but I mean kind of, like, little things that just shouldn't happen to an artist that has made a company over a billion dollars.' Presumably looking for an exit from Sony, she hired a private detective to look into the 'sabotage.' All sides are cagey about what happened next, but what is known is that a sample of music she had licensed from another artist — turned up on a Jennifer Lopez album, and shortly afterwards Carey was released from the contract.

So, right at the end of the 1990s, things seemed to be looking decidedly up; she began a new relationship with the Mexican singer Luis Miguel, and took a holiday for the first time in 10 years, in Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Tropics. She had decent contact with her father, whom she had seen only infrequently since he moved from Long Island to Washington, DC when she was still a little girl, and performed with Pavarotti to raise money for Kosovo. Amid some fanfare, she signed the Virgin contract.

However, she says that 'the war' continued after this point, and she seems to have taken on a vast amount of work somehow to prove herself against it. She began the Glitter film and album, and against the advice of her friends added a new film project, an art-house movie called Wise Girls. She starred in an episode of Ally McBeal. She thinks now that people should not have let her work so hard, but her judgement was skewed.

In the summer of 2001, Virgin prepared to release Loverboy, the first single from the Glitter album that was supposed to cement Carey as the dominant global female artist. It announced that it would cut the price to 49 cents, obviously believing that the number-one status was vital. Suddenly, Columbia records — part of the Sony empire, Carey's old label — rescheduled a new Destiny's Child release, Bootylicious, and discounted it to 49 cents. Destiny's Child were hot at the time, and Bootylicious kept Loverboy off number one. Columbia denied any malpractice; Silvio Pietroluongo, the Hot 100 chart manager, said he thought the move 'while not an uncommon practice by labels, was curious.'

Carey's relationship with Luis Miguel had already ended by the time the single was released and she began the promotional work for the films and album in the summer of 2001; there were rumours of infidelity on his part, and there are lyrics on the new album that could well be a reference to that. And as — as she tells it — the work and the sabotage began to overwhelm her, her behaviour became erratic and eccentric. When she appeared on MTV's Total Request Live, she ripped off her T-shirt like a stripper and then handed out lollipops to the audience wearing only a very snug tanktop. A few days later she was speaking at a record store when she began rambling and her publicist pulled the microphone from her hand and told the crew to stop filming. A few days after that she left messages on her own website complaining of fatigue and being unable to trust anyone.

One night in July 2001 her mother called an ambulance to the large home that Carey had bought for her in the 1990s, asking that her daughter be taken to hospital. Her publicist confirmed reports that Carey had cuts on her body, but said they were caused by broken crockery. There have been persistent rumours of a suicide attempt, which Carey vehemently denies on the grounds that she is 'too spiritual' a person. Whatever, she waves her arms around enough for anyone to see there are no marks on her wrists.

She has treated for an emotional and physical breakdown in a private hospital for two weeks and, although she did begin therapy, which helped her, she went back to work straight away. However, both the film and album Glitter, based on the life of a young female singer who overcomes adversity, were badly received. It didn't help that the album — the soundtrack to the film — was released on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks on New York, it was her Mottola-era ballad Hero that was one of the most requested on radio.

When I ask her about the breakdown, I make the mistake of saying it was 'widely reported'; she tenses up a bit and the room darkens again. 'It was inaccurately reported,' she says, in a tone of voice that brings to mind the stroppy 16-year-old who shoved cheerleaders into lockers. 'It wasn't a real breakdown. You know, I could have an emotional breakdown right now! I could start crying and then get up and walk out the door and be fine. Anybody's entitled to that! The things I went through that were emotionally damaging led to a point of me being tired and exhausted and just having to go into a hospital and be actually, you know, physically replenished.'

But how does going on Total Request Live and giving lollipops out to the audience fit into that? I mean some people said you were wheeling a toy ice-cream cart around backstage.

'Yeah, but...' For a moment I wonder if she is going to yank me out of my chair and shove me into the drinks banquet, but then a half-smile plays on her lips. 'Like, who gives a shit? It's only TRL, it's not like it was 20/20, or Larry King! It was for the MTV crowd, all fun and games!

And what about Luis? Some people said it was all because of splitting up with him. This time there is open scornful laughter, hands flung up in mock annoyance. 'Oh, GOD! That was totally blown out of proportion, too. The press made out like, "Aw, he broke her heart and she had this breakdown," but I was like, huh? That relationship was over before any of that stuff happened. But it makes the public more comfortable if they can have the idea of the poor broken-hearted girl having a breakdown.'

She says, in a sing-song voice, that whether or not she is in a relationship is 'her secret,' which I suppose means 'yes, not telling.' Mind you, she does mention her Jack Russell a lot. She can still count the men she has slept with on the diamond-encrusted finger of one hand she 'doesn't know' if she has ever actually been in love (she once said she doesn't trust men because she never knows what their agenda is). She seems a lot like a workaholic man in his thirties, children and marriage being a conditional possibility rather than what all the work is for; she says she would get married if she had children, and she would have children if she met the right man to be a father, but as she is clearly the sort of girl who works very hard to get what she wants, it sounds as if she really might not be all that bothered.

Her relationships tend to go into the music; there was a whole album about her split from Mottola, and her more recent soured friendship with Eminem ended up being documented in a song called Clown ('You shoulda never intimated we were lovers when you know very well we never touched each other'). This, her perfectionism, and her concern with her image in the press make her seem preoccupied by the surfaces of her life, and in some ways it is as if the taunts she had to endure as a child have left their mark; the world engaged with her at a surface level and she is fighting back likewise. A shrink would probably say that the insecurity and the insatiable demands more and more is a way of testing how much people really like you. If I'm really important, they'll get me seabass and sunflowers.

Carey looks important at the moment. Her new single is her biggest for five years, she is working on a Broadway musical based on her several film projects in negotiation. If there is time, she would like to do a book for bi-racial children. According to Antonio 'LA' Reid, her new label boss at Island Def Jam, there is no shortage of credible Noughties musicians queuing up to work with her. 'Her appeal continues to spread across all demographics, which is certainly to up-and-coming-music-makers,' he says. 'She is a true timeless music icon who is respected by all music-makers who enjoy collaborating with greatness.'

But this is all surface again — is it enough for her? Not really, she says. Since 'all that breakdown crap' she has stopped caring so much about what the press says about her, and she is becoming happier. 'I just have to get back,' she explains, talking a sip of Pepsi as our conversation draws to an end, 'to being that four-year-old girl, the poor little bi-racial kid in my bed at night, praying: take me to the next level, let me get our of the situation I am in right now, and believing it is going to happen. I kind of have to go back there in order to get to where I am at right now, if that makes sense.'

Sort of, I say.

'Good,' she replies. 'I hope we didn't dwell on that breakdown crap for too long because it just doesn't matter. In retrospect it was more like a breakthrough.' And then she does the pirate laugh again, and the diamonds sparkle around her in the candlelight.