Mariah Land

A new movie and album. An on-off relationship with Luis Miguel. A trip to Venezuela to search for her family's roots. Mariah Carey's a busy woman.

Latina (US) August 2001. Text by Suzan Colón.

"You mean there's a Hello Kitty toaster?" Mariah Carey exclaims incredulously. She has a major thing for the little white cat with a bow on her ear. She has the pink Kitty boom box, her electronic organizer covered in tiny Kitty stickers, and she now quickly grabs her cell phone to tell her friends — who are out shopping — that they have a new mission: get to the Sanrio store before it closes. "It imprints Kitty's face on the toast." she says. "Find it."

Before you start thinking Carey's mind is somewhere up where her incredibly versatile voice can go, remember that this is the woman who just negotiated herself a reported $80-million paycheck with her new record company. She also came up with the concept of her new movie, Glitter, which she stars in and did the soundtrack of the same name for. In it, Carey plays a girl whose drive to make it as a singer is rivaled only by the emptiness she feels from being abandoned by her mother.

In reality, Carey doesn't have mother issues, though she does have an interesting background. Her parents — Patricia, who is Irish, and Alfred,who is Venezuelan and African American — divorced when Carey was 3; her older siblings left soon afterward. Carey moved from Long Island to New York City when she was 17, bringing with her the dream of becoming a successful singer, a lot of moxie, and not much else. She worked as a hairdresser, a waitress, and a backup singer, the last job leading her to Tommy Mottola, head of Sony Music Entertainment. He became her mentor and husband; both partnership dissolved after a few years.

But that was a long time ago. Today, she's trapped in a room in Manhattan's Soho Grand Hotel doing interviews, looking every inch a star with her new honey-colored hair, a white tank top, a necklace that spells out "Glitter," worn jeans, and high-heeled sandals. Tonight, however, Carey may turn into a regular woman snacking on toast with a kitty imprint in it.

Mariah Carey: You'll have to excuse my "Noo Yawk" accent. I'm doing a movie called Wisegirls, and my character talks like, "Whadaya doin', whada you people tawkin' about?" I'm like, How am I going to get back into Mariah land? But I go in and out of characters all the time. My grandmother, Addy, [in a Southern drawl] she used to talk like this, an' if I get around certain folk, ah'll be talking like this for days on end. [Back to normal] The problem is that once you go into this character, it's very hard to get out.

Latina: So you're finding out what actors have had a problem with all along, which is where does the character end, and where do I begin?
MC: Well, especially with this new role, I feel it came to me for a reason. This character is very empowered and very capable of just saying, "No, absolutely not. This is how we're doing it." Whereas I feel the need to overexplain and to make everybody else feel OK and to say, "I'm not trying to be mean, it's just that blah, blah, blah...." It's the trait of those of us from families in which you have to do things like that, be the peacemaker.

L: Speaking of your family, your background really reflects what America looks like; I mean, if you and Tiger Woods had a baby, you'd have to name it "Census." Do you feel like you belong more to one group than another?
MC: I identify with all the things I am, and I feel like that should be OK. But I look at myself as a human being. I say, can we just deal with the person who lives inside the body, who has to go do all these interviews right now and be on TV and be, like, the happiest person in the world? Whooo!

I feel that the emotion is really there.

L: Switch places with me and review Glitter, the album. Which track is your favorite?
MC: Well, I love the first single, "Loverboy." But I also love "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" because it's very driving. It's hard, because this is my favorite album since Butterfly, which I loved because all the songs were really personal. This is a different way of expressing myself because I'm writing as the character or writing about the scene.

L: That was some cool negotiating, getting a multimillion-dollar contract.
MC: Thank you. You don't get all in one lump sum, believe me. Unless you've been doing this for 25 years, you don't understand the inner workings of the music business. But for the last three and a half years, I've had to take over for myself within a huge corporate structure, because there was no one at the tippy-top who really cared. It's like clicking into this whole other business deal and they're looking at you like, "This is a young woman who we think was controlled," which I was. But then I'm asking, "Who's your distributor in Taiwan? Because I know that's a major market for me."

L: Can we talk a little about you and Luis Miguel?
MC: Do we have to? It's just that he doesn't talk about stuff, so I don't want to feel exploitive and be talking about it. I feel that it's too much for me to be constantly yippity-yappity about him. The thing is, career-wise, no matter who you're with, I think the best idea is to always say as little as possible, but it's not very hard to do that.

I just think that's it's weird, because therre's always speculation: Are they together? Are they getting married? Is he cheating on her? All this stuff. I'm a free spirit who was stifled for a long time, and that's not good. And the public-eye relationship thing can be a stifling thing, because people make things up and it's hurtful to others. So it's really hard to comment on that when you might be having a bad day with someone or a bad week or a bad mouth.

So my motto is, in general, Luis is a beautiful person with a great heart, and he deserves all the love that everybody gives him. We're two separate individuals. No matter what happened or happens, I will always look at him as the amazing, talented, beautiful person that he is.

I've been doing my own thing, my work. There's no room for me, so there's no room for anybody else right now. And the way I work, overseeing every little thing, is not normal. That itself is a weird adjustment for any man to take. And then you're on TV in hot shorts that are a little risque, to say the least, but you're also kind of Mary Poppins in your prudishness. It's like dichotomy.

L: Yeah, you dress sexily, but don't give the impression of being much of a nasty girl.
MC: When I do these things now, it's like playing dress-up. I have a joke with a friend of mine that we're both eternally in first grade. And I am in this weird way, because I've seen and lived through a lot of intense things because of people in my life or in my family who were really messed up, and seeing that made me go the other way.

You won't see me doing designer drugs, ever. I've seen it; I don't want it. Just like I was very productive of myself in terms of not being promiscuous because of what I saw early on; I didn't want to have a baby at 15.

So how that ties in the interracial thing, mixed, multiracial, whatever the hell you want to call it, is that I don't have an issue with it, because I see myself every day, and I know who I am and whom I relate to on a human level.

It's almost as if people didn't understand how to understand that I was the daughter of a black man who happened to be part Venezuelan and a lily-white woman from the Midwest, [who went to] a convent school, an opera diva, an artsy lady. But it's interesting, because I've met people who are almost the same mix as myself, yet they might not have the same issues as I have for their own reasons.

I used to feel that I had to find that person who was the exact mix as I was so we could go have our little mixed children, and none of us would have identity crises or feel like outsiders because we'd have our own little group and wouldn't that be great. But if that person doesn't understand you emotionally, it's pointless. We discussed the Nuñez thing, right?

L: No, what's the Nuñez thing?
MC: That's my grandfather's real last name, so my name would've been María Nuñez. But when he came to this country from Venezuela, he changed his name to gain cultural immunity. My father laughed at this because Irish people were just as discriminated against as Spanish speakers at that point in time.

So I recently went to Venezuela, because my father's now trying to trace his roots. My father and grandfather didn't really speak to each other for the bulk of my father's life because his parents got divorced. But my father found out the name of the town in Venezuela where my great-grandmother came from. See, all this was a new layer of understanding for me because we didn't know anything before. I thought I was part Cuban for a while, because my father didn't deal with that side.

L: When did you find that out?
MC: I guess when I first met my grandfather, when I was 7. He was a very nice man. I had a picture that my father had given me of my grandfather when he was young, and I went to Venezuela and tried to find information, just really for my father more than anything else, even though I'm not close with my father. I feel it's a way to have a relationship that's healthy and nice.

So I went on TV asking for information, and suddenly a lot of people started coming out and saying, "I'm her grandfather." But he passed away about four years ago, so that was a whole weird thing. But I think we found some people who are related.

L: Do you speak Spanish?
MC: You know, I really wanted to learn Spanish and become fluent, but I don't have time. And that sounds horrible, but I barely have time to be by myself right now. But I should learn.

L: Can you at least curse in Spanish?
MC: Yeah, a little bit. I'm happy just to curse in English or give somebody a freakin' roundhouse kick.

L: So tell us about Glitter.
MC: Glitter was a great experience for me. This character, Billie, is not autobiographical at all. She feels abandoned by her mother, and that's what drives her to do everything. Having that as what drives her is different from what I have. But in every action that I took as Billie, I had to go toward it with that kind of feeling.

L: So did the movie turn out the way you wanted?
MC: When I first came up with this two years ago, I didn't know if it was going to happen or what, and I think it happened the way it's supposed to happen. I'm a believer in that type of thing. I had to be open-minded and try to listen to the director, Vondie Curtis-Hall, who had different ideas.

I still take it so seriously, but I don't expect people to believe it, nor do I really care, as long as I know.

I'm proud of not having been with that many people in my life. Why do I need to do that? I'd rather sit and talk to somebody for hours or go swimming or go to Disney World than have a random night of something that's not going to make me any more of a whole person.

L: I guess people fill their needs in different ways.
MC: I have different things that need to be filled, like my being a workaholic. My fans are like an extended family to me, leading back to what we were talking about before about belonging to a group. That's what they've become. I just want to be accepted as myself, and what my fans have done is accept me for me. And if they like the song and they feel the emotion of the music, they get this sense of who I am. I really feel like they've filled this thing that I always have, this empty space.