Madame Butterfly

With the breakdown of her marriage last year and the recent departure of her manager, Mariah Carey is free and single once again — and in control of her career. Her latest album, Butterfly, featuring contributions from Sean 'Puffy' Combs, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Mase, and the Trackmasters, is the first proof of this new sense of freedom. Diana Evans talked to her about life on the loose.

Pride (UK) February 1998. Text by Diana Evans.

The Queen of Nineties Pop lets a limp arm fall over the side of her £880-a-night king-size. She's tired, and her exhaustion, if somewhat overstated, isn't unfounded. Over 80 million record sales in only seven of her 27 years means a hell of a lot of work. "I haven't stopped," she sighs, her voice soaked in stardom. "I've put out more records than people who have been around twice as long as I have. Basically, since right after high school, I've been making records year after year after year." Not that she's ungrateful to be where ex-hubby and Sony mogul, Tommy Mottola, and ex-manager, Randy Hoffman, have taken her. Still, the tone of resentment in her voice suggests she could have done with a little more time off.

For someone so overworked, Mariah Carey looks as fresh as the dawn. Scantily clothed in a belly-airing vest and a pair of teeny boxer shorts, she is both alert and open. "You can lie down if you want, I mean it's fine, be comfortable," she assures. Unless she hits the sack dolled up every night, it is clear from her heavy black eye make-up and honey lip-gloss that, however homely her chosen interview set-up may seem, she's still working. Just a couple of nights before, she'd finished an 18-hours-a-day New York schedule: completing Butterfly, her fifth album, running her own label, Crave Records, and co-directing three of the four videos from the album. The last of these was 'Breakdown,' featuring Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. "See this glitter on my nails?" she holds out her hands, "I had eye make-up like that all over my eyes and two sets of lashes. It was like a showgirl theme, so I had all these snazzy lil' outfits and make-up on, but getting on a Concorde in daylight with gold make-up on isn't really the look that you wanna be sporting."

Snaazy lil' outfits are about all Mariah's been sporting lately. The video for 'Honey' (the first single off the album which went straight in at No. 1 in the US and reached No. 3 over here), depicts her imprisoned in a San Juan mansion. She's wearing a slinky black number and a pair of pin-sharp Gucci stilettos which somehow she manages to run and even swim in. Whe she's escaped her fiendish abductors by jumping out of the window into a conveniently-positioned swimming pool, we witness an underwear striptease leaving nothing but a skin-coloured bikini and the clinging Guccis. Bass kicks in. Her attire then changes from bikini to cleavage-humping wet-suit to boob-tube to bra and back to bikini.

And so it goes on. The videos 'Butterfly' and 'The Roof' are no less lacking in graphic sensuality, and as she enjoys a sexy-ogle in the ladies loo in the 'The Roof,' it becomes all too clear that Mariah's image has taken on a whole new emphasis. No more the sweet baby-doll who trilled us to tears with her gloomy yet beautiful ballads, such as 'I Don't Wanna Cry' (1991) and 'Hero' (1993). The urban chick with the hot booty and feisty attitude has finally been let out of her cage.

It's a common assumption that she's been exercising in preparation for this new show of flesh. "Y'know, it's funny," say Mariah, somewhat flattered, "the reason they say that is because I never really showed my body in videos before. It's basically me making the decisions about my own imaging — as opposed to being shadowed by the overly protective clutch that record companies tend to have when they can get away with it. Especially with someone who's impressionable and who's a commodity." For an artist to obviously clued-up, it might seem disappointing to see her prancing around bimbo-style, apparently obsessed with love, lust and her own undeniable beauty. "I don't think my image will ever be about being overtly sexual in a perverse way," she retorts, "that's not who I am. But I'm also not Mary Poppins. A lot of people who meet me are like, 'Wow, you seem so different in person!' like they expect me to be 5ft 2in and really little Miss Prim-and-proper."

We are interrupted by Mariah's personal assistant who places a cup of honey and lemon on the bedside table. Every so often the diva lets out a delicate cough. She has one of the most gifted voices ever heard and it's a gift not to be mistreated. Cigarettes are a thing of the past. "I kept losing my voice. One time I was really afraid it wasn't gonna come back. And I prayed and I said if I get my voice back I'll never ever smoke again. Got it back, never smoked again."

This level of determination is at the root of her achievements, not just the fierce agenda set by Mottola and Hoffman. For Mariah, music is sustenance for the soul. "I'm an emotional person and music is like the emotional thread that I'm bound together by," she says, characteristically meticulous with her wording. After a short marriage of four years, she quit the marital home in May last year. The divorce is still pending. This is the man for whose promises she turned down a deal with Warner Brothers when she was a broken-home kid walking around with nothing but a demo and a dream. He kept his promises and Mariah has not forgotten.

This is presumably the reason behind her reluctance to talk about the break-up. "It's really hard to get specific," she explains, fidgeting beneath the bed-clothes, "because I don't enjoy hurting people's feelings and I do care about Tommy a lot. I didn't ever understand marriage, because my parents got divorced when I was so young and I didn't have an example of a perfect family. Also, I was always so focused on my career that I never thought about getting married, never really believed in it."

Butterfly is intensely symbolic of her own life. It is, she admits, her most personal album to date. It's also her most adventurous. The lyrics, though still tediously steeped in weepy melodramatics and gushy sentiments, are delivered with a newly-discovered muscle. And — something which has provoked a number of snide comments — production credits and guest vocals are given to the most prominent artists in the world of hip hop. Sean 'Puffy' Combs, Stevie J, Jermaine Dupri, Walter Afanasieff, The Ummah, Mase, the Trackmasters, as well as Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, have all contributed. All of a sudden, the accusations go, Mariah Carey is cashing in on a rising black style to which she does not belong.

Mariah is defensive. She takes an exasperated sigh and retaliates: "Personally, this album was about doing whatever the hell I wanted. Even back to my first demos there was always an urban influence. There were songs that should've been on a record but that didn't get on because everybody else felt they were too progressive or too urban for where they wanted to take me. I won't just go and make a record and think that suddenly I've like morphed into Lil' KIm or Foxy Brown. I know who I am, but I also know who I listen to on a daily basis and I don't think that it's bad to integrate that into what I do."

Her previous LP, Daydream, saw her collaborating with the Wu Tang Clan's Ol' Dirty Bastard on the single 'Fantasy,' but that aroused no criticisms at all. It's only since Puffy smashed all the barriers that kept rap from commercial acclaim and demanded esteem as a self-made top dog, that the talk became nasty. Rumours (which, she confirms, are all "bullshit") were even spread about Mariah having affairs with Puffy and Q-Tip. "Two years ago," she continues, "Puffy was just a really hot street producer, y'know, and now he's done something that's pretty monumental. Even though people will have a lot of opinions about the samples, he's still exposing a culture and the music to all people all around the world. And maybe in doing that it will open some people's eyes."

Much of the criticism aimed at Carey has been bitterly sarcastic. She's even been coined the 'White Whitney.' For someone whose father is of Venezuelan and African-American descent (her mother is Irish), such comments prove just a little irritating. "Journalists say to me, 'All the black artists you've collaborated with on this album, how do you know them, why do you only work with black artists?' People will say stuff like that to me, and I'll have to say, 'Well, first of all my father is black, my mother is white, and therefore it's not such a big deal — and it's not like you should even be asking me this question!'" One American journalist went so far as to complain, "I hate it when people have a spit of black in them and they try to act like they're from the ghetto." Still angered by the audacity, Mariah almost splutters, "If you wanna critique my music or my clothes or my hair, that's fine, but don't try to tell me what my heritage is or how much black I have in me!"

Ambiguous in the flesh, Mariah's attitude towards her mixed-race heritage is equally undecided. Has it been a curse or a blessing? Experiences of being mixed-race are not intrinsically turbulent — they are only made so by the outside world, often causing loneliness and isolation. As the song goes, 'But in your heart/Uncertainty forever lies/And you'll always be/Somewhere on the/Outside.' Mariah's first song to address mixed-race experiences, 'Outside' is perhaps the most eloquent and sincere ballad on Butterfly. The subject is one she's thirsty to dissect. Sitting up now, calves tucked beneath her, she blurts, "What I wanna know is if somebody's Chinese, Spanish or Irish, what are they? Are they Chinese, are they Spanish or Irish? How come none of those things overrides everything else? How come that person is allowed to say I'm Chinese, Spanish and Irish, but if you're black, Spanish and Irish, it becomes an issue. The categorising of the one-drop theory, to me that was a way of holding us down. The point is you are what you are."

Despite the truth of this ideal, it seems that Mariah has yet to fully embody it. Her childhood, fraught as it was with racism, poverty and family grievances, still feeds her insomnia. "I feel like I'm getting back in touch with myself. Since childhood I've had this mechanism of turning things off when they were unpleasant, and that's how I got through everything. A lot of times when I was very unhappy I wouldn't even allow myself to feel that, 'cause I felt guilty, like, 'Look what you have! How can you be unhappy?"

Now that the material struggle is over, what shines for Mariah more than her nails is the hope that one day the world will watch her express all aspects of herself — her without repression, us without condemnation. And why not? 'Time's up!' the PA reminds us again. Mariah lifts her tired body, stretches over the bed and says a hope-filled goodbye to another critic.