Body Language

Mariah Carey has been pop's queen — the real queen — for nearly 20 years, and she's not giving up the throne. But at M.C.'s lavish Caribbean birthday bash, Shanel Odum witnesses the record-shattering diva in all her glory: Calm, cool, and damn-near naked.

Vibe Magazine by Tony Duran

Vibe (US) June 2008. Text by Shanel Odum. Photography by Tony Duran.

Eagle's Landing, Jumby Bay, Antigua.

2 P.M. The heavens above Antigua are as smooth and playful as a handful of cobalt marbles. But on the island below, a frenzy is brewing. Mariah Carey's $12,500-a-night villa on the 300-acre tropical island is alive — almost antsy — with anticipation. Rob Payne, her stone-faced bodyguard, slips into a cotton tee as he escorts a lipstick-toting assistant into the ballroom-size living room, where a video crew is gingerly unpacking.

"Absolutely no one can go through those doors there," booms Payne, who's built like an All-Pro defensive end. "That's Mariah's bedroom. And smokers better light up in the front yard — she'll have a fit if she smells cigarettes!"

A gang of hairstylists, fashion assistants, photographers, and makeup artists race around the open-air bungalow, each on their own mission to please. Almost everyone else in the all-but-humble abode frantically taps away at a MacBook, BlackBerry, or iPhone.

Then, disaster strikes.
The manicurist is missing.

But there's no it's-my-party-and-I'll-bitch-if-I-want-to tantrum from the illustrious pop icon. The bluster is coming from a couple of men. It's Benny Medina, Mariah's longtime über-manager (the man known for his super-successful, hands-on approach with clients Jennifer Lopez, Usher, and Tyra Banks), and Michael Richardson, her dapper, Cockney-spouting tour manager. They're both outraged by the potential beauty crisis.

"If this slows us up," Medina roars, sporting a pink Polo and matching shorts, "I'm going to get really upset."

While waiting for Carey for more than 90 minutes, the resort's lone manicurist bounced.

"Wehw, wot villa is she in, den?" demands Richardson in a thick British accent. He whips out his cell and makes the necessary heads roll.

It's still early and the estate is already in a state of chaos. The Grammy winner? The diva? The sex symbol? She sleeps through the whole thing.

Somewhere on the same island, a very tan Paul McCartney strolls lazily across the starfish-studded beach. The 65-year-old Beatle has retired from hitmaking, but continues to hold the title — along with the rest of his iconic English pop band — for the most No. 1 singles on Billboard's Hot 100. With 20 chart-toppers, The Beatles hold the only record left for Mariah to shatter. This spring she skated past Elvis Presley with "Touch My Body," her 18th No. 1 single.

But it hasn't been all stardust and rainbows for Mariah. In 2001, what was supposed to be her film breakout, Glitter (20th Century Fox), fizzled. That was followed by a well-publicized 2001 breakdown on the set of MTV's TRL. Who could forget the strip tease? And the ice cream cart?

Then came liberation. Her last album, The Emancipation of Mimi (Island, 2005), sold nearly six million copies. It was that kinetic endeavor that helped Mariah reclaim fans that had dismissed her as a casualty of her own ambition. Continuing in the same triumphant vein, E=MC², aka Emancipation Equals Mariah Carey to the Second Power (Island), her 11th studio album, is a beautifully addictive lesson in dichotomy. Her claims of deliverance and growth have merit, but the butterfly-obsessed star still vacations in Neverland. The Mariah- and Swizz Beatz-produced "O.O.C." — as in "Out Of Control" — proves she hasn't lost touch with her youthful spirit. The song is bursting with instant messenger acronyms. "Side Effects" shows a deeper side of Mimi: Candidly detailing the aftermath of her tumultuous marriage to Sony Music bossman Tommy Mottola, she paints the picture of a woman stung by real heartbreak. Though she's sacrificed her famed vocal acrobatics — dolphins are still the only mammals that can top her five-octave range — for a greater pop presence, her limber tone and midrange belting work better with the album's synth-heavy beats and tickling treble. If anything, Mariah is the ultimate chameleon. She's evolved from sweet, soul-stirring ballads to booming hip hop hooks; from floor-skirting gowns to hot shorts and patent pumps. And most recently, to the Pistol Panties bikini she's rocking — with confidence — today.

5 P.M. The afternoon turns to evening, and a twister descends on Eagle's Landing. The cyclone hits the beach in a blur of blush brushes, hair spritz, and double-sided tape. Even the manicurist has returned, but only to remain on-call. She doesn't paint even one of Mariah's digits. So much drama, so little action. Every few moments, there's a glimpse of the eye of the storm — it's Mariah, emancipated. The 5-foot-9 mirage prances past the overly attentive pack and heads toward a rickety boardwalk, which instantly transforms into her runway. A magenta silk robe whips against those endless, copper legs; black Christian Louboutin heels stab the sand; a wild halo of corkscrew curls flies...

"Can we get some towels and a Diet Coke ASAP?" Medina demands for his artist, to no one in particular. The throng of attendants freeze in their tracks, eyes darting nervously from one person to the next, afraid to abandon their assigned duties but more afraid to disobey. After some confused stares, Mariah's longtime personal assistant Melissa Ruderman, races off to fetch the items.

At the end of the petite dock, Mariah breezily tiptoes through a knot of rocket wires as technicians — hired to prep the evening's fireworks display in honor of M.C.'s 38th birthday — pace anxiously. Their hand-wringing and panicked warnings float out to sea, unheeded by the singer. She's too busy hamming it up as if she were on a tightrope, occasionally grabbing at her manager's outstretched arm. Even traipsing across a minefield of pyrotechnics. Mariah is perfectly poised. Delicate. Dainty. Ultra femme. Constantly aware of how she looks, she makes sure a wisp of hair is swept across her forehead. She's rarely caught tilting her head to the right — the right's her best side.

"I'm That Chick" — a swinging future single from E=MC² — drifts above the photographers' encouraging banter, and everyone's feeling it. As the album flows seamlessly from dance track to love song, Mariah sways to the sound of her own voice. She doesn't need for this record to be a smash, but it inevitably will be. She'll stay relevant. She'll stay rich. She's that chick.

As she perches on a sharp formation of rocks, Medina simultaneously tends to her dangling sandal and regulates minutiae.

"Can we get more volume in her hair?"
"Robe, please!"
"Give me more eyes, Mariah..."

For the next setup, she saunters through the water in a bronze Ashley Paige one-piece and a pair of 4-inch heels, grinning like a pageant contestant. Miss Mimi perpetually flirts with an imaginary audience and doesn't stop winking, pouting, and writhing in the waves even for a moment. Even without an ogling entourage. Even when the photographer takes a break to change his flash. She rarely stops hip-popping and sashaying. And she looks damn good doing it.

"I'm getting really nervous about the overhead lighting," she raspily purrs, glancing down at her washboard abs. "My tummy... can I get some lighting from underneath instead, please?"

There are a few final flashes, followed by revelry from the crew. The shoot wraps, and party time is about to begin.

After tying a tiny, white button-up above her belly button, a chrome-colored, American Apparel bikini becomes Mariah's birthday suit. By now, she's a real-life Malibu Barbie, and one very few going-on-40-year-olds who can get away with rocking a belly chain and a gemstone butterfly appliqué on the small of her back. Her record weight loss is undeniable — Mariah is clearly more sculpted than scalpeled. But it's not just her blow-up doll aesthetic; it's her unapologetically larger-than-lush lifestyle — and M.C.'s B-day is no exception.

7:30 P.M. Mariah Carey's 38th birthday banquet is a Sweet 16 dream. Beckoning palms welcome guests to the entrance of the veranda, where a spouting stone fountain sits on Moroccan tile. The scene inside is a strawberry-frosted pubescent fantasy; purple, pink, and white balloons dance in the balmy Caribbean breeze floating through the spacious flat. Fuchsia feather boas drip from the arms of every chair. Kitschy gold crowns, tiaras, and noisemakers adorn each place setting. French doors are slung open to frame a cascading infinite pool that overlooks the Caribbean sea a dive's length away. This is how a superstar does her born day.

In the Mediterranean-style kitchen, a culinary crew decked in freshly pressed coats and stark white chef's caps are prepping pots. The scent of roast chicken waltzes in the wind. And then Mariah's posse begins to appear. Longtime confidante Shawntae "Da Brat" Harris breezes past, swimming in oversized jeans, a red tee, and a bandana over bead-studded braids. Recent acquaintance/music video director ("Bye Bye") Nick Cannon grabs his laptop and goes to the buffet to fix a plate. As her guests fawn, Mariah drifts from friend to friend, beaming and blowing kisses.

Suddenly, the sounds of silverware clinking and Perrier hissing are interrupted by a pop. Louis Roederer Cristal — not calorie-packed hard liquor, mind you — is served by a staff of three. Outstretched flutes salute the birthday girl as her nephew Shawn McDonald, 30, an attorney, delivers an eloquent toast. He salutes her generosity — Mariah paid for his Cornell undergrad and Harvard Law education. According to McDonald, Mariah's real beauty — the side she protects from the paparazzi — can't be photographed. "She's more like a sister to me," he says, as they clutch each other affectionately. The intimate party lets out a chorus of awwws.

As soon as McDonald finishes his speech, the sky erupts in a fiery pink explosion, a dazzling fireworks display. Someone in the small crowd shrieks in surprise — but not Mariah. She's peacefully sipping on a glass of champagne. She seems high on life. It's just another day for the birthday girl. Everything's a production — for her entourage. Like the pink conflagration overhead, Mariah fits and floats above it, unscathed by the pandemonium.