The Mariah Carey Story

One day she was walking the streets with only a pair of leaky shoes to her name, the next she was an international multi-million dollar singing star. Emma Cochrane went to New York to meet the legend that is Mariah Carey...

Smash Hits (UK) June 19, 1996. Text by Emma Cochrane.

It's twenty minutes into my interview with Mariah Carey and things are not looking good. I thought it was going so well. But now Mariah is sighing heavily. "I'm going to have to stop you there," she says, with a worried expression. What did I say? All I asked her is where she likes to hang out with her friends, and now she's waving her hands at me and reaching for her bag. My heart is beating and, to put it frankly, I'm panicking. This is Mariah's only UK interview and it looks like I've just cocked it up.

"I'm sorry," she scowls.

I grit my teeth, thinking of the 'You're fired' notice that will probably land on my desk when I return.

"But I've had something in my eye for like the past hour," she continues. "Do you mind if we stop and try to get it out? I can talk while I do it."

Phew! What a lovely person Mariah Carey is. As she reaches into her bag for a compact, we try to discover the source of her pain — a fiendish "bending eyelash" — and she continues to chat as if I was her best friend.

For a moment I forget that I'm sitting next to a woman who has sold over 75 million albums. Someone who is reckoned by industry observers to be capable of earning over $200 million.

A lady whose jaw-dropping seven-octave vocal range is going to literally blow her fans' socks off when she plays at her first-ever UK date here at Wembley Arena on June 23.

"Did you know that some of my friends call me Emma or Emmy?" she chirps, interrupting my thoughts. "It's been 'M', you see."

Wow! I have the same name as Mariah! That's so cool. I'm beginning to like her more and more because she keeps surprising me with things I didn't know and never would have guessed about her before today. But then, Mariah Carey is a very remarkable person.

She was born on March 27, 1970, the third and youngest child of Afro-American Alfred Roy and Irish-American Patricia Carey. It wasn't an easy marriage, partly because people made an issue of the fact that the couple were of different races, and Mariah's parents had split up by the time she was three.

"My mother's family basically disowned her when she married my father," Mariah explains. "So later, I was like: well, where does that leave me? Am I bad person, you know? It's not that common still to be a multi-racial person, but I'm happy to be the combination of things that I am."

Mariah and her brother Morgan stayed with their mother while their sister, Alison, went to live with their father. They moved around a lot, always staying in Manhattan... but not necessarily in the best neighbourhoods. Mariah's mother worked as a professional opera singer and vocal coach. And it was she who first noticed Mariah's remarkable talents.

"She was singing Rigoletto (a posh opera) when I was three with the New York City Opera," Mariah recalls, "and she kept singing this part over and over and over. And she messed up, and I corrected her in Italian, so she tells me." Mariah smiles almost in disbelief at this memory.

"But I mostly remember singing whatever was on the radio — taking my portable radio and singing under the covers when I was little..."

It was her mother's support that encouraged Mariah to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. "She was a great mother in terms of allowing me to develop my own personality. A lot of my friends' parents were very oppressive, and so my friends ended up getting pregnant and stuff. I think because my mother always said to me: 'If you really believe, you can do it' that I didn't give in.

"My teachers didn't give me the same reassurance, they were like: 'This is a far-fetched dream. Forget it. Study your algebra!'"

Mariah quit school as early as possible and went to New York to follow her dream when she was 17. A friend of her brother's took her in.

Mariah grins. "I lived in a loft that was, like, the size of this couch (she indicates the three-seater leather couch we are sitting on) above the kitchen. You had to climb up on the counter to get into it. That friend was like a big sister to me."

"A lot of people have done some pretty good things for me," Mariah gratefully admits. In fact, it was Mariah's friends who helped keep her going as she tried to get her big break. It was a long slog of grotty part-time jobs waitressing, sweeping up hair and singing backing vocals as she tried to get heard. For almost a whole year, she wore the same black outfit and leaky pair of shoes. She could hardly afford to eat.

"Three months before I got my record deal, I was having a bagel a day and one Snapple ice tea drink. My friend and I would go to the deli and beg this guy to give us Snapples. He was our friend," she says.

But perhaps Mariah's best friend at that time was Brenda K. Starr, a singer in her own right, who took Mariah under her wing and campaigned to get people to hear her. "A lot of people wouldn't have done that." She pauses.

"No," she corrects herself, "most people wouldn't have. She was the one who brought me to that party..."

Ah, that party. The one on which Mariah Carey's Cinderella story of legend hangs. For it was at that party that Mariah's dream came true. A prince in the form of Sony Records head honcho Tommy Mottola snatched her tape out of her hands. Thinking that nothing would come of it, Mariah left the party and, with Brenda in tow, headed for home. Meanwhile, Tommy got in his car, put the cassette into the tape deck and listened.

Two songs later, he was back at the party searching for the girl on the tape with the incredible voice. This was the girl he had been looking for. The girl with the golden voice who was going to make Sony Records' — and his own — fortune swell.

But she was nowhere to be found. The tape had no label — how would he find his princess?

The next day he was on the phone at the office, desperately trying to trace her. He tracked down Brenda, and then finally Mariah. Two days later, Mariah turned up at Sony Records with her mother and signed the contract that would make her a star.

"I was just freaked out when I first met him," Mariah explains. It was all a bit overwhelming. Mariah's debut album, Mariah Carey, shifted by the bucketload, hitting the top spot in the charts worldwide.

Then, gradually, Mariah found herself falling in love with the man who had helped make her a star.

"It took a while," Mariah smiles, fidgeting with her stunning rings as she talks. Two diamond bands and an engagement ring set with a diamond the size of a small rock are slid repeatedly up and down her fingers as she recalls the beginning of their relationship.

"I didn't talk about it until we were going to do. He was pretty much my first serious boyfriend — I mean, anyone else was in my high school days."

What they were going to do about it was get married. On June 5, 1993 Mariah became Mrs. Tommy Mottola at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York. They had a bried honeymoon in Hawaii and then headed back to the States.

Mariah had work to do. With her first tour ahead of her and her next album due for release, she had everything to prove.

Already the critics were making snide comments about her talent, suggesting that perhaps it was only Tommy's money that had bought her success. Mariah was ready for them coming out of the corner with her gloves on.

The all-American girl with the golden good looks was prepared to prove that there was a hard-headed businesswoman with a burning talent behind that sweet exterior...

"Are you sure you don't want a fig roll?"

Mariah is pacing her office at Sony Records in New York in flat black pumps. She is wearing tight gold trousers and a striped vest top. "My friend is having a party later," she explains, looking every inch the glamour puss.

Stretching her legs, Mariah draws herself up to her full 5' 9" height and suddenly seems surprisingly tall and very slim. She is determined that I should try one of these biscuits and returns with two in her hand so that I can munch along with her as we talk. We've already chatted about her astounding singing success, but I want to know more about what it's really like being Mariah Carey. For instance, what's it like being married to the President of SonyRecords, Tommy Mottola?

"It only makes a difference because people focus on it," snaps Mariah, who has spent much of the past five years defending herself from claims that it was only Tommy pulling strings that got her noticed.

"No person has that much power," she retaliates. "You could maybe pull out one gold record from a lot of promotion, but you can't make something do that every time. I don't care if you're the king of the world. It doesn't happen that way."

Ouch! Obviously a sore point. But I was thinking more of what you're like at home. Do you run around doing wifey things for him, like ironing his shirt and cooking?

Mariah shrieks in horror.

"Oh no, please! That's not for me! No deal! I mean, when I was growing up, it was my nightmare that I would end up having to do that with some guy. Fortunately, we have people to help us with that kind of stuff."

Apparently Tommy is not averse to putting on an apron and making like Delia Smith in the kitchen. "He's an incredible cook!" enthuses Mariah. "He's the best chef I've ever encountered and (affecting a serious gourmet voice) I've been all over the world."

She falls about laughing, but in case I'm in any doubt about the extent of his talents, Mariah goes off on one again. "He should actually bottle his spaghetti sauce and sell I it, because it's so good!"

By the time Mariah had sealed her success with her second album, Music Box, it became clear, even to the tonsil-wobbling songstress herself, that she was making a considerable amount of money. "When I first started out, it was like all these people, like managers, wanted to take me to dinner. I only realised later that half the time I was paying!" She grins for a moment. "No offence to my manager, because he does pay for dinner from time to time," she continues, "but you soon figure that every time anything gets done — be it a messenger or a car or whatever — it comes out of your own pocket. Originally, I never knew that."

Mariah soon set things in order, however. Now every expense must be signed off by her. "I'm going to look like this penny-pinching miser," she grins, before adding, by way of an explanation, "I grew up moving from place to place, always feeling like somebody was going to pull the rug out from under me. Now I just want to make sure that my rug is straight."

You get the impression that Mariah is a very determined young woman who has worked hard to realise her ambitions, but there have been sacrifices along the way. As she became successful, she found people she'd once been close to turning against her.

"Some friends turned out not to be real friends," is how she puts it. "It's been really kind of sad. But I've kept a few of my good friends. Like, I had a Memorial Day (a special American Bank Holiday) party the other day with some old and new friends and it was really nice."

Of course, some of those friends are very famous. Singers Bruce Springsteen, Gloria Estefan, Billy Joel and Michael Bolton attended her wedding, along with actors Robert De Niro and William Baldwin. Since then, she has become friends (and worked with) Boyz II Men and Luther Vandross.

"It's good to have people around who know what it's like," she says. "I never want to complain, because I always think it sounds ungrateful, but it is kind of difficult to deal with a lot of people andthings in this business. You know, it's fun to go to award shows and see stars and be glamorous and blah blah blah... but it s not reality. That's more about being with good people.

So instead Mariah hangs out with her true friends, many of them the songwriters and musicians she's worked with on her albums, away from the public eye, going to parties and riding rollercoasters — her favourite is the Tower Of Terror at Disneyland in LA. She also spends a lot of time with her animals at home and her eyes light up with enthusiasm when she talks about them. They all live together happily at her out-of-town estate in Hudson River Valley. It's quite a menagerie, with four dogs (two Dobermans called Princess and Duke and two Yorkies called Jack and Ginger) and three cats (Thomkins, "who my brother dropped off years ago and never got back"; Clarence, "my childhood cat"; and Puffy, "a big, fat, fluffy Himalayan cat").

Mariah clearly has her favourites. "Clarence is my lifelong friend," she says simply. Puffy was a present from Tommy, "which was a shock because he hates cats!"

Luckily, the cats live in a different part of the house to Tommy, though Duke is hard to avoid. "Tommy wants to get rid of him," Mariah explains, "'cause he's kind of out of control. He's huge and hates everyone except me." She grins mischievously.

The two Yorkies are stars in their own right. Jack, who has made appearances in three of Mariah's videos, is famed for his swimming abilities — "He dives like a seal" — while Ginger made a more sedate appearance wandering around in the background of the video she recorded with Boyz II Men, One Sweet Day. "She's nice, but she's untrainable," Mariah sighs regretfully. "She still doesn't know where to go and where not to go, you know?"

One of Mariah's other passions is Camp Mariah, the holiday camp for underprivileged inner city children that she helped create with the Fresh Air Fund. Mariah held a special one-off concert which raised a whopping $750,000 to help set up the fund. The idea was to provide a place where children could play outside the city and, at the same time, learn about future careers.

"A lot of them only have negative influences, like drug dealers on the street," explains Mariah. "They're the only people they can look up to, with their nice cars, so at least when they come to these things, they meet people who give them a different outlook."

Some lucky kids were even taken on day trips to Mariah's recording studios. "I recorded them singing and they talked to the engineer and learned about tracking and stuff."

With her latest album Daydream, and her 19th single, Always Be My Baby, riding high in the charts, it seems like the Cinderella story really has come true for Mariah. But has life really been that rosy?

"Can anything be that good?" questions Mariah. "I mean, really? I'm thankful beyond belief for what I have, but I work harder than most people could understand, and it's a struggle because people have different perceptions of you. I don't come from a Brady Bunch-style family, so there are a lot of serious issues that I have no control over. And now some of those things have become public."

Mariah is talking specifically about her sister Alison. If Mariah is the fairytale Princess, Alison could be seen as the flipside. Recently, the press in America broke the story that Alison had been diagnosed HIV positive and that Mariah was concerned about the welfare of Alison's child.

"People think they have the right to say things, and they do because it's a free country. But instead of sitting there over dinner and saying, 'Oh, not again,' with your family, you deal with it in a huge tabloid extravaganza. People with a pen think they're being cute and sarcastic and getting a scoop, but they don't realise that it's real people and children's lives that are being, affected. But," she adds, "you deal with it and move on."

And there you have the secret to Mariah Carey's success. People will continue to knock her. They will try and peel the paint away from the golden girl exterior, but Mariah will always be ready for them.

"My life is incredible," she concludes, "but it's just like anybody else's."

Well, no, it's not. One thing is true, however — there is more to this lady than meets the eye. Instead of the fluffy-brained singer I'd expected, I met a tough-talking and open individual who will no doubt continue to surprise the world of music for a long time to come. Total respect is due.