A Girl Called Mariah

How did a backing vocalist from Long Island turn herself into the biggest-selling female singer in the world? Dimitri Ehrlich talks to Mariah Carey.

The Sunday Telegraph Magazine (UK) October 11, 1999. Text by Dimitri Ehrlich.

Mariah Carey is bone tired. At least that's what the best-selling female recording artist of the Nineties tells me. By way of apology, the 29-year-old — best known for her operatic, octave-scrambling glossy ballads — explains that she has averaged only two hours' sleep a night while promoting her new album Rainbow, and that as a result she has fallen prey to something distinctly un-diva-ish: the common cold.

Seated cross-legged on a couch in the lower Manhattan editing suite where she is completing a video for her single, 'Heartbreaker', Carey's brown eyes do indeed look watery, but there are few other signs of illness or exhaustion — bar the fact that she answers questions in a husky voice, occasionally interrupting herself to sip white wine or blow her nose. Her hair is neatly tied back and held in place with a butterfly pin. She is squeezed into a pair of tight-fitting jeans, with the waistband cut away so that it swoops low; her muscular torso is draped with a scrap of olive green tank top that leaves her midriff exposed.

At 5ft 9in, she is far from the petite-looking object of desire who fluttered through her early videos, sitting prettily on a swing or exuding a squeaky clean, all-American image that translated just as well in the malls of Seattle, Sheffield or Singapore. If anything, she seems leonine. Not that Mariah Carey is menacing — far from it. But she is focused to a degree that verges on the abnormal.

A self-described workaholic insomniac, she micro-manages her career with relentless intensity, a neurosis that has paid off handsomely. When she refers to herself as having made it 'big', she makes a little quotation mark gesture with her fingers — a gesture that is, in her case, decidedly gratuitous: since her career began eight years ago, Carey has sold 100 million albums, and has become worth an estimated $200 million. Cynics, of course, might claim that she had a head-start on her rivals — a short-lived marriage to the man who runs her record company, Tommy Mottola — but Carey knows what has propelled her: 'I've been very insecure. I think that's what drives me.'

That insecurity stems from Carey's upbringing, and from the issue of her racial identity — and it is a certified issue. Although her precise ethnicity has been the subject of considerable debate, Carey looks, to all intents and purposes, Caucasian — indeed, she has been accused of being a white singer trying to 'get over' as black. She is, in fact, of mixed race; her father, who was raised in Harlem, is of African-American and Venezuelan descent; her Irish Catholic mother was raised in a convent in the white, middle-American environs of Springfield, Illinois. The couple met when Carey's mother came to New York at 16 to study opera, and divorced when Mariah was three.

Carey's mixed-race heritage has been an ongoing source of drama. Her mother was disowned by her family for marrying Mariah's father, something that has, inevitably, marked Mariah: 'The fact that my mother's family disowned me made me feel like, what does this make me? If this is so bad that my mother got disowned? It was weird and hard. My brother was getting beat up every day and kids were calling my sister a nigger. They had to deal with crosses being burned on their lawn.' The family's dogs were poisoned, and fed ground glass. Their car was blown up.

One of Carey's first memories is of being in kindergarten and drawing a picture of her family. 'I drew my father and coloured him in in brown. And I remember the teacher coming over and giggling, and asking me why I made my father look like that. They made me feel like something was really weird and wrong. Race has been a strange issue for me to deal with because I am so ambiguous-looking that a lot of times people will say racist things in front of me. I've been in the rare position of seeing racist attitudes expressed from both sides.'

Carey moved 11 times before graduating from high school, and grew up in various parts of Long Island, New York. 'Some were more ghetto than others,' she says. 'One of my mother's boyfriends, who was a black Vietnam vet, was the gardener on a big estate in a very affluent neighbourhood. We lived in the gardener's house and I went to the local school, but I didn't have nice clothes, and he would drop me off for school in this big red truck while all the other kids were pulling up in Mercedes.' The impulse for Carey to try to fit in was strong: 'I was kind of the class clown and always telling jokes. I was also a really fast runner.'

She began what she calls her 'quest to become pretty' in high school. 'I didn't know where I was supposed to fit in because my friends were these Catholic girls with blonde hair and blue eyes, and looking the way I looked, it was a confusing thing. I felt like a weird, exotic-looking girl for that place. I used to be very angry and bump girls I didn't like — like cheerleaders — into the lockers. I always pretended I was tough because I was really angry that I wasn't like them.'

'I hung out with the tough, older girls and smoked in the bathroom, because I guess we all felt like outcasts. And I always went out with older guys — the older boyfriends with the car, the guys who got thrown out of school for doing something bad. I always had an obsessed, protective boyfriend who understood that I wasn't gonna sleep with them. I went from one semi-psychotic guy to the next.'

Two things saved her: her searing ambition, and her voice. From her early adolescence, she recorded demos, wrote songs and worked as a session singer — her long apprenticeship as a background vocalist is reflected in her trademark vocal arrangements, lush patterns of intricate harmonies that often seem improvised. 'I didn't have a stage mom pushing me to sing and dance,' she says of her early start in the music business. 'But I was a session singer at 13, working with older people, writing songs, going into the city with my mom, and all this while trying to fit in and be cool in Long Island.' (She didn't put all her eggs in a showbiz basket; just in case she failed to become a multi-millionaire singer, she also trained, briefly, as a beautician while still at school.)

But there was no doubt in Carey's mind: 'I knew music would be my life.' So in 1987, after leaving high school, she moved to Manhattan and entered what she refers to as her 'struggling period'. She lived in various dives, slept on mattresses, survived on one box of pasta a week and worked at menial jobs while struggling in vain to secure a recording contract. 'Anybody who lost touch with me during my struggling period and called me after that, it was sort of suspect, like — why do you want to call me now?' Not that Carey might have given them much of her time; she was so intent on launching her career that she even put her love life on hold for two years. 'I was so focused. People don't understand that kind of drive and focus. Most people do get sidetracked with relationships and stuff.'

The relationship she was about to embark on would be anything but a distraction. In November 1988 she was invited to a party in midtown Manhattan. Tommy Mottola, who had just started in his new job as head of CBS Records, watched Carey as she walked up the stairs. 'Tommy was looking at me. Now mind you, I'm an 18-year-old girl wearing an Avirex jacket and a short little skirt and sneakers. It was very... kid. It was probably pretty, like, Lolita-ish.'

Moments later, the two were introduced, and the career of the woman who would soon eclipse Madonna as the biggest-selling female artist of the decade was set in motion. 'It was like an electric moment of destiny,' says Carey. 'It sounds corny, but it was some weird frozen moment in time.' Mottola took Carey's demo tape and left the party. He listened to it in his limousine, turned around and drove back to the party, but Mariah had already left. Within days, Mottola tracked her down and signed her to an eight-record deal. Her first album, Mariah Carey, went on to sell more than five million copies. She now has 75 platinum and multi-platinum records and has had 13 number one singles in the US. 'I didn't do so bad for him,' she says.

Carey married Mottola on 5 June 1993, in a lavish event inspired by videos she'd seen of Diana, Princess of Wales's wedding ceremony. Twenty years older than Carey, Mottola is said to have been fiercely possessive of her, and Carey is reported to have felt trapped in the $25-million mansion he bought in Bedford, New York, an affluent rural community far removed from the city's nightlife.

Materially, Carey enjoyed a level of Marcos-like opulence — her wardrobe was so extensive she had to devise a kind of library decimal system for filing and retrieving items of clothing — but she was far from happy. In any event, the marriage barely lasted two years, and the couple divorced in 1995. Today, when she talks about her marriage to Mottola — which she often refers to as 'the situation' — she chooses her words carefully, sounding both contrite and resentful. 'It's difficult when you're in a personal situation and then it's over and you're still in a business situation,' she says. 'The thing is, he represents a big part of my life, and if I could have a nice, civil relationship that was even a friendship, I would be happy with that. I don't like losing people. It's difficult for me. It just didn't work out because it became too suffocating.'

That suffocation may have prompted the very public process of redefining herself that Carey began with the release of her album Honey in 1998. (She refers to 'Butterfly,' one of the album's hits, as her 'emancipation proclamation'.) Suddenly, the conservative outfits were gone, and there was Mariah, splashing around in a bikini in a music video. Commentators saw her new, sexier public image as a rebellion against the years of marriage to Mottola.

None the less, Carey sees the wisdom in her ex-husband's insistence on launching her career with a conservative image. 'Of course, wearing a long gown and being diva-ish is reassuring to audiences, and dressing plain is non-threatening; it lets your voice speak for itself and that worked. It was just that, four albums later, I felt like, oookay, can I do something different? I think it was a function of me having been kind of sequestered. I felt like a kid in the classroom where the teacher steps out for a minute and you can get up and stand on your desk if you want.'

In any event, Carey says that the new sexy look is really nothing new. 'I always wanted to be a sexy girl when I was little. I mean, I have pictures of myself as a six-year-old kid, posing in a bikini on the beach, and I actually signed the picture. I don't know who the hell I thought I was. As a teenage girl, I walked around in short skirts and miniskirts and then suddenly everybody wanted me to be this demure thing. That's why, when people freak out about this image change, I'm like, no, not if you knew the girl I was before I married Tommy Mottola...'

Indeed, since her divorce, Carey has been stepping out, socially and musically. Her music has become progressively more street-orientated, while her public image has gone from prissy to sizzling — as she's steadily made the shift from conservative pop diva to hip-hop honey, she has often been spotted at nightclubs in the company of Puff Daddy, Q-Tip and other rappers.

Certainly Rainbow, her sixth album, is Carey's most decisively hip-hop effort to date, with unassailable street credibility conferred by the contributions of such hardcore rappers as Snoop Dog, Master P and Jay-Z. It's a clear turning away from full-blown ballads, and Carey sounds as though she's still trying to convince herself when she says, 'I don't think this alienates anyone who wants to hear me sing a ballad. There are still a lot of ballads on the album.' Perhaps Carey is right to be worried: she has a fine line to straddle. Her music can't get too tough without alienating the millions of fans who have come to cherish her as a Barbie doll diva with a seven-octave range. 'Sometimes it's difficult breaking out of the mould of good-girl balladeer,' she goes on. 'People who buy this album for the ballad single might get totally flipped out and take it out of their CD player and break it in two.' Still, Rainbow isn't a complete transition into hip-hop. There are still plenty of slow songs and opportunities for histrionic emoting. And if Carey has in the past often eschewed subtlety for operatic pyrotechnics, Rainbow includes some of her most mature, toned-down performances. 'Ex-Girlfriend,' for example, has a simple, insistent beat that percolates nicely beneath Carey's understated singing.

Carey, too, is surprisingly understated. Divas and rock stars are only too often the demanding, bratty prima donnas their stereotypes would suggest; Carey seems more like a chatty girlfriend at a sleepover party, unguarded and in no particular rush to end our conversation. (When the interview ran well over the allotted hour, a press aide began hovering impatiently nearby, but Carey waved him away.) And if the fans feel a little confused by some of the changes Mariah has been going through, so too is Carey: 'So many people have different versions of who they think I am that it's hard for me to say. As a person who grew up not having money and not feeling confident, and having this huge insecurity about being mixed [race], feeling that I wasn't pretty, and that I wasn't good enough in a lot of ways, what has sustained me has been staying in touch with my roots as a person. I think it's given me my success.'

As has her Herculean work ethic. When I got up to leave, Carey gave me a peck on the cheek, and handed me over to one of the more visible symbols of her success, a 6ft 8in bodyguard who led me off to the lift. But as I went, Carey turned back, tired and cold-ridden, into the editing suite, ready to spend another long, workaholic Saturday night in the pursuit of perfection.