"Do you hate me?" asks Mariah Carey, absorbing me into her well-toned figure with a firm hug. "I'm so sorry I'm late," she says, gazing into my eyes as she pulls away and flutters both hands in the air to illustrate what I can only assume is her rationale. "The nails are still drying!"
It's 12:37 a.m. I'm in the living room of a sprawling suite on a high floor of the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons in Los Angeles, and "Mimi" is, in fact, over two and a half hours late for our Friday night interview. It's classic diva: Make journalist cool heels downstairs in hotel bar while Mimiwhat...? Has her nails done? Yes.
Why don't I mind? Unlike today's breed of talentless manufactured star churning out pop drivel, Mariah has been paying her dues for nearly 20 yearsand the dividends continue to roll in. With the April release of her latest album, E=MC², and its tongue-in-cheek sing-along "Touch My Body," the seven-octave vocal acrobat topped Elvis' record for most No. 1 Billboard chart singles. Now, with 18 No. 1's, it's likely she'll soon bump the record-holding Beatles (who have 20) from their top spot, allwith the exception of just one trackwith songs she's either written or co-written. Her eponymous debut was released in 1990 and went platinum nine times; she's put out 10 more studio albums since and is the third-highest-selling female artist, behind Barbra Streisand and Madonna. She escaped a disastrous marriage to former Sony record exec Tommy Mottola and survived an "emotional breakdown" in 2001. With 2005's The Emancipation of Mimi, the biggest-selling record of that year, she led a comeback coup, nearly erasing our memories of the critically and publicly eviscerated 2001 film and accompanying soundtrack train wreck known as Glitter.
Teaming up with Obama may or may not happen, but Carey has spent much of her career collaborating with an unlikely range of performers, from Ol' Dirty Bastard rapping on the hip-hop remix of "Fantasy" (a song based on a sample from the Tom Tom Club's peppy early-'80s synth hit "Genius of Love") to a duet with Pavarotti on "Hero," a song she admits to me she now finds "schmaltzy." She hopes to soon partner up with Wonder, who wrote of her in Time: "I've met only three people who had a truly wonderful voice and spirit to match: my first wife Syreeta, Minnie Riperton, and Mariah."
"Knowing him and being able to call him a friend is such a massive honor for me," she says. "His songs are probably the first songs I ever sang. We're going to collaborate on something. We keep talking about it, and it's just like, my schedule will be one thing and his will be another. He's a night owl too."
No longer able to ignore the furious barking coming from the bedroom, Carey excuses herself, and moments later, a bounding Jack Russell darts into the room.
"That's J.J. He's responsible for this bite on my hand," she says, pointing out a small mark just below her right thumb. "He has to be the star of the show or he's angry." She jokes how the blogs even made "news" out of the Hello Kitty Band-Aid she used on the small wound.
While considering her microscopically scrutinized public per-sona, M.C. stresses the difference between the image she might conjure in her song lyrics (for example, a few lines from the first track on E=MC², "Migrate": "If you're inked up thuggin' that swag I like/ Face body and Lamborghini outside/ Obviously boy you qualify/ Otherwise migrate, bye") versus what she's said she's been looking for in a relationship. "I think you'd find that I mentioned spirituality, I mentioned sense of humor, and I mentioned someone I felt I could have a family with, and that we'd be on the same page. It wasn't like, 'They gotta have this, that...' I'll write that in a song, but it may not necessarily be true."
Nick is someone, like her, who's "motivated by faith," she says. "We really do share a similar spiritual outlook on life.... Even though people have their own fears about 'Was I in a relationship before this, was I not in a relationship before this,' to me, I wasn't in a real relationship; it was more of a friendship and a working situation."
She talks about Nick wistfully ("He's a great guy...."), but also warns me she's cautious not to speak for him, fearing that anything she says will be misinterpreted by the ravenous media gossip machine. "It's difficult, especially when legitimate press is saying, 'They're having a $4 million wedding.' Why? Whatdid we set a budget?" She waxes sarcastic over the swirling rumors of a more formal and more costly future New York nuptial: "It's gonna be $4 million! It's going to be really cool! We're going to give away gold as people leave! We're going to sprinkle them with gold! It's going to be very Coming to America! What do they think? Our whole point [in having the unannounced beach wedding] was to do the opposite!"
She claps her hands and commands the boisterous J.J., who is currently running amok, to sit. He immediately snaps to attention and obeys. I'm impressed. Her striking authority over the dog leads me to inquire what kind of mother she thinks she might be, should she and Nick decide to have children. She stresses that it's important to her that, despite her and Nick's fame, her future kids live in "reality."
"You can get caught up in Hollywood-land or celebrity-land, and that's maybe not the best thing for kids, 'cause they didn't ask for it. Speaking for myself, I don't know that I always felt safe and secure [as a child] and that's nobody's fault; we're not mudslinging or trying to slay anybodybut truly I really feel like it's very important to be responsible and to think, Well, maybe if I do this it's not the best thing for my child. You have to take a backseat a little bit, and as someone in the public eye, you're not used to doing that." How does she view Nick as a potential father? "I couldn't imagine anybody that I've ever met being a better dad," she says.
It's now after 2:30 a.m., and as the superstar who keeps the hours of a vampire chats about having kids, her happiness is self-evident. "It's definitely the best place I've ever been in my life. If you really look at my life, I've never had a personal life, or if I did, it was just wearing a mask and it was not existing, you know?" she says. "I put my career ahead of my personal life because I think I didn't know that I was deserving of both, because that was just how I always felt about myself. That was just my own insecurity and land in which I live." Like the butterflies with which she adorns herself and her albums, she's undergone a dazzling metamorphosis since being trapped in the cocoon that was her marriage to Mottolaa period she not so subtly references in "Side Effects," one of the darker songs on E=MC². When I ask her about the track, with its obvious lyrical references to the Mottola days, and how that period compares to now, she responds, "There's one line I laugh at: 'After a while I would just lie/ You was dead wrong/ Said you was right.' You know how that happens?" she asks. "You're like, 'Okay, you're right,' but you don't even say it that way? You're like, 'Okayyyyy you're riiiiiggghhht....' That's just bleak. That's not festive at all. And I'm pretty much a very festive chick."
And for me, at this late hour on a Friday night, it's no small compensation that at 38, her youthful face radiates an irresistible blend of beauty and charmed innocence. Poured into perfectly fitting Louis Vuitton jeans "The new Lou-ees," she declares, in her self-mocking, outer-borough accent) topped with "an old sweatshirt from 1991" over a black Wolford bodysuit, she ensconces herself on one side of a love seat, legs extended. Her black patent Azzedine Aläa heels elegantly crossed one ankle over the other, she conjures a hip, fully clothed, modern-day version of Titian's Venus of Urbino.
Most of all, Venus Mimi seems happy"festive," as she says. Why shouldn't she be? With another hit record under her belt and two new movies Tennessee, which has already garnered her decent reviews on the festival circuit, and a cameo in the Adam Sandler vehicle You Don't Mess With the Zohan, and having just been named one of Time's 100 most influential people in the worldcomplete with gushing tribute penned by her hero, Stevie WonderMariah has plenty of reasons to celebrate. Oh, and there's that recent little surprise marriage on the island of Eleuthera to 27-year-old actor-rapper Nick Cannon, who's slumbering in the next room, I'm told. The new Mister is certainly a sound sleeper ("Nothing can wake him up," Carey says), considering the loud barking that occasionally erupts from behind the bedroom door.
Though I've been warned of M.C.'s nocturnal reputation, I foolishly begin our conversation by asking the night owl if she's tired.
"Do I look good?" she responds in a silky voice.
"You look fabulous," I answer, assuring her I wasn't insinuating she looked anything less than perfect. I'm not lyingshe looks spectacular. She tells me about her French trainer, Patricia, whose favorite word during workouts is, naturally, encore. "She's about the size of my armhat's her body," she says, wrapping her hand around her left bicep. "But it's all muscle. It's not like she's emaciated. She's happy with me. She lets me eat meals now."
Sipping Gatorade Ice (is that dinner? Breakfast?) from a wineglass, Mariah reveals pages of her life as pure storybook. Her first marriage, to Mottola, at age 23, might be observed as a Rapunzel tale of princess trapped in a tower (or, more precisely, an enormous $10 million mansion in Bedford, Connecticut). "When I was in an unhappy place in my life," Carey says of her past, "I always wanted to be kidnapped. I just wanted a way out, but I didn't have one." Ten years after her split with Mottola, handsome young prince Nick Cannon has come to the rescue. "He sort of kidnapped me and took me on a helicopter ride. Then he re-proposed." Cannon's first proposal had taken place on Carey's roof in Manhattan a couple of evenings prior and involved the hiding of a 17-carat diamond ring inside a candy ring pop. "They've been calling me Cinderella since I first started out, so, of course, being Cinderella..." she says, laughing. "Most people would think, Okay, please! This doesn't happen in real life."
The newlyweds met in 2005 at the Teen Choice Awards, where Cannon (then most famous for the film Drumline and The Nick Cannon Show on Nickelodeon) presented her an award. Only recently, however, did they officially get romantically involved. "We really kept the whole relationship aspect of it quiet," Carey says. "Therefore, we didn't really 'date,' you know what I mean? Because that would have been not quiet or private. I think we didn't want to give people a chance to be like, 'What are you doing? What are you talking about? This is so quick...are you sure?'" The couple clandestinely both got their first tattoos before tying the knothers is a butterfly on the small of her back with "Mrs. Cannon" written down the center; his, a shoulder-spanning rendering of her nameto signify their love.
While rumors have flourished that the marriage might just be cleverly timed to help promote the new album, such a publicity stunt seems unlikely. It may be difficult for some to buy M.C.'s deceiving combination of glam diva meets naive sweetheart, but her consistently cute image is part of the reason for her continued success. According to the press, her worst offense during her 2001 "breakdown" was handing out Popsicles to teens on MTV's Total Request Live while wearing a skimpy outfita far cry from Whitney Houston's notorious battles with Bobby Brown and drug rehab. Unlike the tough chameleon Madonna, with whom she is often contrasted, Mariah has remained a vulnerable performer, more Marilyn Monroe than Mae West. (Incidentally, Carey paid over $600,000 to own Marilyn's white piano.) Further, despite her sales records, Carey rarely gets credit for being a cultural force; yet listen to many of the contestants on American Idolseason three winner Fantasia Barrino comes to mindand you'll undoubtedly hear attempts at Carey's signature melismatic (the art of moving a single syllable over multiple notes) vocal pyrotechnics accompanied by her note-trailing hand gestures.
"You see a lot of singers come on wanting to sing her songs, wanting to sing like her," says American Idol's Randy Jackson, who has worked with Mariah since the beginning of her career. "She's one of the best singers in the world, but she's also one of the best songwriters in the world. There hasn't been one like her since her. The great singing voice starts with a great tone; that's what you love about Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Stevie, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone, Ellait's about the tone. Mariah's got that amazing buttery tone and then all of the vocal ability. That's what makes it so ungodly deadly. It's instantly recognizable on the radio as a brandand to be able to write like that? Dude! C'mon! A lot of people you find todayI won't mention nameshey have the vocal ability, but the tone is not beautiful. That's what we call the Holy Grail, I guess. She's got it allall in her throat, dawg!"
Producer Jermaine Dupri, with whom Carey cowrote major hits, including "We Belong Together," and who helped out on several E=MC² cuts, says, "She's a person who knows exactly her style of music and knows what her fans are into, and she's probably one of the most talented singers out there."
"Talent always wins," agrees L.A. Reid, the chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group and co-executive producer of the new album. "And Mariah Carey has an abundance of talent; she's extremely gifted. She's eternally youthful, and because she's a true fan of music and a student of music and she's a spongeshe's always soaking up music around hershe refuses to grow old or get outdated. For an artist who's been in the business for almost 20 years, she's still one of the youngest. Her music has such young appeal. Her fans include 11-year-old kids from Long Island, for example. It's remarkable that she has this magic that's a combination of eternal youth and amazing talent."
Talent and fame often come with a price, but for someone who has been a tabloid target for so long, Carey displays an admirable ability to not take herself too seriouslyas witnessed in the video for her record-breaking single "Touch My Body," in which a tech support dork from "Compu Nerd" (played by 30 Rocks hilariously geeky Jack McBrayer) comes to her mansion to fix her computer and lives out his fantasy with Mariah, complete with slo-mo pillow fights and late-night walks with her pet unicorn. "Much of this album is just jokes," she says, "whether they're inside jokes or pretty overt; but some people don't want to actually acknowledge that I might tell a joke while singing a song or make it the actual hook."
Humor, along with music, has always been an outlet for Carey. Her parents divorced when she was three. She and her older brother and sister lived with her mothera struggling Irish-American opera singeron Long Island, moving 13 times before Mariah graduated from high school. For most of her life until shortly before his death from cancer in 2002, Carey had a fraught relationship with her fatheran African-American aeronautical engineer whose father was part Venezuelan.
Because of her mixed racial heritage, Mariah lacked, as she says, the "support system" that being visibly one race or another can offer; because she is so light-skinned, people are still often not conscious of her racial heritage. "It's such a visual society in which we live that people forget, 'Oh, yeah, her father's black,'" Carey says. "So, many things will be said in front of me that wouldn't be said in front of another friend whose complexion might be slightly darker."
This was also seen by record labels as something to exploit in promoting her music. "A friend pointed out that I was marketed by a huge massive conglomerate that did like the ambiguity of my voice lending itself to [making air quotes] 'soul' music," she says. "They liked the fact that the look sort of was, and is, ambiguous." This racial haziness allowed Carey to appeal to both pop and hip-hop audiencesa crossover that continues to make her songs, notable for their genre hybridization, massive hits on diverse radio stations and in the clubs as well.
She says that her racial ambiguity is something that naturally attracts her to Barack Obama as a presidential candidate. "I can relate a lot to so many of the stories he tells. Clearly I am not the political analyst of the ages, but this is something that hits me on a deeper level than anything I've ever experienced growing up," she says. Will she be singing Obama's theme song or making any campaign appearances? "I would be honored if he wanted me to be involved in any way. Right now I'm kind of watching from the sidelines."