Is Mariah Misunderstood?

Image over substance. Mariah Carey reveals why that's not the way it is.

Modern Woman (CA) December 1997 / January 1998. Text by Leslee Mason.

I've always wanted to interview a celebrity with star attitude. So when Sony Music Canada approached me about interviewing the disdainful diva herself, Mariah Carey, I jumped at the chance.

Diva Day — or D. Day — as I call it, begins with a trip to a rented house, high up in the Hollywood Hills, where Mariah Carey is holding court. My first peek at her comes during an Australian TV interview. Mariah, clothed in a shiny gold tube top and miniskirt, is draped languidly on a chaise longue, resembling a modern-day Cleopatra. It's the same pose for television interview after interview. She tells her subjects she's just relaxing. Hah! Diva, diva, diva, I whisper with glee. OK, so despite the pose, she seems perfectly pleasant, but how many stars misbehave when they're promoting themselves — especially on camera?

After the final TV interview, Mariah disappears into a bedroom-slash-makeshift dressing room, where our interview — her only one with a Canadian magazine — will take place. Minutes later, one of her people escorts me in, and promptly disappears. Mariah's curled up on a twin bed with a white towel covering her like a blanket, munching quietly on a chocolate chip cookie. She looks tired underneath the perfectly made-up-for-television facade. She smiles pleasantly, takes a quick peek at herself in the mirror behind me, and motions me to sit down.

Seemingly overnight, Mariah Carey went from a poor, unknown backup singer to a multi-platinum phenomenon, racking up four number-one singles and two Grammys for her debut album alone. Seven years and seven successful albums later, Mariah Carey is the biggest-selling female artist of the 1990s. But, she insists, she's no Cinderella.

"Everybody was going to college and I was just in Manhattan, singing and writing — I was dirt poor. No, that period of time didn't last long, but considering my childhood, it felt like it was all one seamless thing."

Mariah grew up in Long Island, New York, with her mother, Patricia, brother Morgan and sister Alison. The family lived a gypsy-like existence, moving often around the Long Island and New York area. According to Mariah, it was a crazy existence. "People used to say 'if this kid makes it, it'll be a miracle.' I saw a lot of screwed up things happen," she explains. "And my perception of myself and my self-image were a bit damaged."

Mariah says her low self-esteem resulted from a combination of things, starting with her parents' divorce when she was three. "My mom is all Irish and her family basically disowned her for marrying my father, who was black Venezuelan," she explains. Her racial ambiguity didn't help with the feeling that she didn't fit in. "It's not like I had a unit there that said, 'look it's OK to be a mixture of things, and we love each other and everything's great'."

Despite the unstable lifestyle, Mariah says her mother, a singer herself, was always a constant. "She was very inspirational. She made me feel special and reinforced my belief in myself and in my talent.

"Everything I went through made me a stronger person," she says. She takes a tiny bite of the cookie she's been working on. "But I always felt different, like what I had wasn't as good as the next person."

Being poor didn't help. "It's alright if you have no money and no one else in your neighborhood does either, but when you live in a middle-class, or upper-middle-class neighborhood, and you live in a shack — it just puts you in a weird position."

She credits both her passion for music and sense of humor for helping her pull through the tougher times. "I'll sit there for hours with my friends and do freaky characters and tawk like dis (speaking New Yorkese)," she grins happily. Coffee tawk, I say, doing my best Mike Myers imitation. "Yeah," Mariah confirms, "coffee tawk all night loong!"

It wasn't until the middle of high school that Mariah says she became more confident. "Before that I was a wreck," she insists. "I only had, like, three shirts and four pairs of pants, so I had to alternate my wardrobe accordingly." And she had yet to grow into her soft-featured beauty. "When I was little I had blonde hair, and at 12 it got a lot darker so I used Sun In — remember that stuff?" she asks. Remember it? I used it! "My hair came out orange! It looked hideous. I had dark roots, orange hair and no eyebrows — I shaved them off because I didn't know about plucking." And, adds Mariah, "I wore electric blue eyeliner!" That starts off our one-upmanship of '80s beauty horror stories. She wins. "I didn't realize that I looked like a freaking moron." Well you had no eyebrows, I remind her. "Yeah, the no eyebrows look wasn't working for me," she smiles.

How Mariah compensated for her ugly duckling feelings, she says, was by acting tough. "I'd take it out on the cheerleaders — I'd slam them into lockers. Now imagine the girl who sings "Hero" — that was me! But I never really did anything bad — I was a fake bad." Mariah says she didn't do drugs and wasn't promiscuous, in part, because of a fear of getting pregnant like her sister, who, at 15 years old, gave birth to a son.

By the late '80s, Mariah had mastered if not the art of fitting in, then at least the appearance of it. "I was a total tacky queen." It was hard to be hot in the eighties, I reply sympathetically. She nods animatedly, "I had frosted hair, zinc pink lipstick, and I used to go to the tanning salon with one of my best friends. I went overboard trying to act like I was the hottest thing under the sun, but it all stemmed from insecurity."

I realize why I've disliked Mariah Carey up to this point. Her five octave trills, skimpy gear, and primping and prancing for the camera have always come off as showy and insincere. Insecure people almost always overcompensate.

Now I'm having a great time tripping down memory lane with a woman I thought was a Diva with a capital D. "A diva can be a kind of cool, fun thing to be," says Mariah, seeming to consider the possibilities, "but it also has a connotation of being difficult." A bitch, I clarify. "Exactly," she says, nodding her head, "and that couldn't be more opposite of who I am."

She may not be a diva, but she's definitely in control. "I'm under enormous pressure because the creative stuff — nobody can do that for me. I don't trust anybody to do it the way I want." She's not complainng. That's the way Mariah likes it.

She resents the suggestion that someone (read her soon-to-be-ex-hubby and Sony Music Entertainment President Tommy Mottola) invented her. "I've been doing the music from the get go. Songs I wrote in high school are on the first album," she insists, almost defensively. "Warner Music wanted to give me a deal prior to me meeting Tommy."

Mariah met then-married Tommy at a record label party in 1988. She had recently graduated from high school, and after a short stint waitressing, had landed a job as a backup singer for Brenda K. Starr. It was Starr who introduced the two. "I almost didn't go to the party," Mariah says. But she did and the rest is history.

The couple married in 1993 in a fairytale wedding ceremony. And for a while, the Mottolas appeared to live happily together, despite the 20-odd-year age difference.

But in early 1997, soon after Mariah announced the startup of Crave, her own record company, news of their separation broke. The tabloids ran wild with stories of infidelity, a bored Svengali and an out-of-control diva. Whatever the reason, the impact of their breakup is apparent both on Mariah and in her music.

Is being on good terms with him important? The question seems to throw her. "Of course, it's important on a business level, but it's more important to me on a personal level." She stares down into her plate of cookies for a second and when she glances up, her eyes are watery. "This is a person who's been a part of my life for a quarter of my life, she says looking away, her voice straining. "You're making me sad. "I'm sorry," Mariah says, blinking quickly to fight off the tears. "If I make you sad, you're going to make me sad, and we're going to be bawling over chocolate chip cookies." We both smile and the mood lightens. "It's important to not cut something off," she continues hesitantly, "and be bitter and angry about things that may or may not have happened." To Mariah, it's another part of life's evolution. "I love Tommy — I care about him," she stresses. "And I know he cares about me. This is a crazy time, because we can't control what the press writes."

But Mariah's skin is now thicker and what people think and say about her doesn't have the impact it once did. "For a long time, I was so blocked that I went through meetings and interviews very uptight and guarded because I thought people were out to get me. In a lot of ways, a lot of people were."

OK, so I feel some guilt for my harsh prejudgment. Usually, it's the image of something or someone that we like. But the Mariah Carey I've met far surpasses her own image. As I pick up to leave, I feel like I'm saying good-bye to a friend. When she tells me that she's happy, I don't quite believe her, but I find myself really wanting to.