There is a dream that is so intense it hurts. It is painful in the teenage years, and for some people it never passes. It crosses all boundaries of country and skin colour. This fantasy is fame through music, with a variation that is fame through film. Let us go to New York, where someone has stolen out of nowhere and is living it.
Mariah Carey has just become the highest-paid woman in music. The singer of sentimental ballads that are perfect for a solitary, drunken night at home has pulled off so many No 1 hits that she is closing in on Elvis Presley. As of next month, when she marks her freedom from career-long male control with the release of her first project for Virgin, she will earn £20m an album under a £60m-plus contract that is bigger than those of Janet Jackson (£52m), Michael Jackson (£40m) or anyone you care to name.
Carey is a contradiction. She is one of the best soul singers the world has seen, with a voice of such virtuosity that her range rivals a piano's. (Pianos span 7.33 octaves and she covers five if you are not amazed then try it, doubling the pitch of your singing voice five times.) She is so versatile that she writes and co-produces everything she does. Yet, if her vocal cords are extraordinary, what they sing has, until now, been oddly forgettable. Her family background, which she says she cannot discuss for legal reasons, was destined to create an artist, drug addict or prostitute or, as we shall see, all three. Yet she has so little to say to other musicians that Madonna once observed that, given the options of being dead or Mariah Carey, she'd rather be dead.
So, to New York; or, if not New York, where Carey is alleged to live, then to Canada, where she is making a film, or Marbella, where she has been shooting a music video, or Minneapolis, where she is working on her album. This 31-year-old is never still. For someone with a fortune estimated at £130m, her work ethic is alarming. An insomniac since childhood, she needs two people from her management company on every trip, so that they can work in shifts.
When you meet her, two things hit you. The first is this exhausting schedule; the second is that there's something to sell. This time it is her first feature film, Glitter, which opens in Britain this autumn, plus the soundtrack from the film, out in August, and Loverboy, a single from the soundtrack, out next week.
This is a woman who has achieved the dream on a heroic scale. She has sold more than 150m albums and singles, with a barely believable 84 gold, platinum and multi-platinum certificates. In the United States, she is the only artist since the 1920s to have had a No 1 hit year after year for a decade, and her 15 No 1s beat any female artist, or, indeed, any artist of any description except for the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
In Britain, her success is more muted, with two No 1s Without You in 1994 and last year's Against All Odds yet rumours of her presence can still draw a crowd of 10,000. It is a surprise, therefore, to take the lift to the penthouse of a fashionable New York hotel, ease past a very big man in the corridor when you find him, you've found her and discover quite how much you, as a reader of this newspaper, matter to her. Mariah Carey is intimidated. Endearingly, one of the most fabulous voices the human species has produced is shaking with nerves.
First, the fairy tale. The reason Carey symbolises the dream is the way she came to fame. She grew up in Long Island, a mixed-race girl whose home was always the poorest and most bohemian in the neighbourhood. Her father, who is part black, part Latin, left when she was two. Her older sister, Alison, became a drug addict and for four years a prostitute; she is HIV-positive. Mariah lived with her mother, a white opera singer of Irish extraction, and at times with two gay married men, Ernest and Mort, her mother's best friends. "Not married with a certificate," she explains when she has steadied her nerves. "But they lived together as a married couple, and they had this really beautiful home." She remembers their dog, Sparkle, and the presents they gave her at Christmas, or on other days when Mariah and her mother took refuge. They were, she says, her one constant in a childhood and adolescence in which she moved 13 times.
Her mixed race confused her: she looks white enough for people to feel relaxed being racist in front of her, but her darker brother and sister were beaten up, crosses were burnt on the lawn, the family dog was poisoned. By her teens, Mariah was angry. She remembers bumping girls she did not like unambiguously desirable girls such as cheerleaders into the lockers. She knew that her route out would not be pregnancy, marriage or the comfort of drugs; instead, she saw, with a fear-driven focus that has yet to release its grip, that the arts can be a passport to approval. She showed talent at two, singing Rigoletto in Italian. By the age of eight she was ambitious, reading books about Marilyn Monroe. Mariah acted the class clown to gain acceptance, while her desire to sing and her wish not to be broke grew too strong for any distraction.
And so we move to the day that her life changed, when the 18-year-old, still a virgin, by now also a waitress and session singer, learns that her friend Brenda Starr, also a singer, has been invited to a party. Important record people are going to be there. Generously, Brenda not only allows Mariah to come, but lends her some party clothes. Their feet are different sizes, however, so Mariah has dirty black trainers sticking out underneath. Coming up the stairs with her demo tape, she sees Tommy Mottola, president of CBS Records (later Sony).
"Tommy was looking at me," she has said, in what seems like a coded slur (remember, he was more than twice her age). "Now, mind you, I'm an 18-year-old wearing an Avirex jacket, a short little skirt and sneakers. It was very kid. It was probably pretty, like, Lolita-ish." Mottola takes her tape and leaves. He plays it in his limousine and is so stunned he goes straight back to the party, but she has gone. Within days, he tracks her down and signs her in an eight-album deal.
Mottola wanted $1m spent on her promotional budget, and $500,000 on her first video. Staff knew they would be fired if her records did not debut at No 1, and if radio stations failed to play them in the week of release they were blacklisted. The push angered another of Sony's artists, George Michael, who thought he was being ignored, prompting his legal action to release himself from the label. Meanwhile, the investment worked. The first album, Mariah Carey, included four No 1 singles and sold more than 5m copies.
At a glance, her new film tells this story. Set in the New York club scene of the 1980s, Glitter shows a mixed-race girl called Billie (Mariah Carey) surviving a turbulent childhood to be discovered by a bad-boy DJ (Max Beesley) who becomes her partner, producer and lover, and sets her on the road to fame. The idea has seen many changes since Carey put it forward four years ago, however. "My life story would be entirely different, quite controversial. Probably someone would make sure it never came out." She means Mottola, but does not say his name. Mariah-watchers know the code: "powers that be" is Mottola, "people in corporate positions" is Mottola, and "situations", as in "living within situations that were oppressive", means marrying Mottola.
Carey and Mottola wed in 1993, after Tommy had left his wife and children, and Mariah had studied tapes of the marriage of Charles and Diana. They built themselves an unappealing fairy-tale mansion in upstate New York. It had 12 bedrooms, a recording studio, a ballroom, a firing range, a helicopter pad and two swimming pools. Marriage gave her stability, with a dependable male figure, for the first time. But it was also an extraordinary decision for a musician in her early 20s to make, repressing her as a person and crippling her as an artist. If you want to know why her virtuoso ballads are forgettable, look at her marriage. Three years after her divorce, Carey is still trying to break free. She is a corporate woman, a house-trained artist, tutored not to give offence.
This is a New Yorker who so wanted to be sexy that at the age of six she would sign pictures of herself in a bikini. Suddenly she is in protective custody in a mansion, with companions twice her age, who are mostly male and in the music industry, all more interested in dinner at a good restaurant than a night in town. Her husband is vetting the people she can work with, and sees to it that she is demure and diva-like on her rare public appearances, for which she must wear a long gown. As a marketing move this is shrewd: dressing plainly does not threaten the audience. But Carey begins to suffocate. "Once, this guy was at my house, and he's a wealthy older man, a billionaire," she says. "I guess he used to enjoy watching me get drunk. So I'm sitting there, bored, and he's giving me tequila shots. I suddenly felt really sick. And he's laughing at me, like, 'Look! She's drunk!' So I'm walking up the stairs, trying to maintain my composure, but I was a mess, throwing up... I decided to take a bath, but my psychotic housekeeper was like, "No! You've got to go to bed!' But I really wanted a bath, so I'm running around naked in this room, trying to rebel against my housekeeper. Finally, I pretended I was going to go to sleep, and she left..."
She is insecure about her looks, and such anxieties, together with the old racial confusion, deepened in corporate care. "I was told, 'Don't show this side of your face, don't show your forehead, you look too ethnic, your hair needs to be curly, you need to da da da.' When you're a young kid, with these corporate money you know, these people, it's not hard to go, 'Okay.' "Coming off stage on a high, she would be whisked into a car, where the vibe was "all dark and critical, not celebratory". She loved her husband, though; she says (again without breathing his name) that "somebody [ie, Mottola] is, like, completely on the same page as you, and loving those things in you that you want everyone else to see. It's a feeling that's hard to match. Plus, if you haven't had a consistent father figure..." But this could not last. "Sometimes who you think is your biggest protector is actually your biggest enemy, because they're stifling the real you."
Naturally, the control affected the music. If an album was judged too urban, she would write a ballad for balance. But she grew resentful, which shows in the direction she took on her divorce. The gowns came off, a bikini went on, ballads gave way to hip-hop. Carey took acting lessons, which corporate beings had discouraged. Now she was criticised as a white singer trying to be black, but this is doubly unfair: not only is she mixed race, she had always loved rap, but was forced to restrain herself.
Sources at Sony say that by the end she was a nightmare, growing an entourage so large that on her last visit to Britain she allegedly asked for 47 Concorde tickets. But then, someone seems to be trying to damage her. At one stage a preposterous quote was attributed to the singer-songwriter and reported worldwide. "When I watch TV and see all those poor starving kids all over the world," she is supposed to have said, "I can't help but cry. I mean, I'd love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff." The real Mariah is thoughtful and self-aware, if young for 31. Asked intrusive questions, she is generous: she does not try to defend herself but gives a candid reply.
Her later records for Sony, the post-Mottola albums that are more intense and less controlled, have not sold as well. In the UK her biggest album was 1993's Music Box, which went seven times platinum, followed by Daydream in 1995, a triple-platinum. By contrast, Butterfly (1997, and deeply personal) was a single-platinum; but as a declaration of independence, it was hardly likely to get the same marketing effort. Then, like George Michael, Carey was released from Sony, possibly with the help of Jennifer Lopez. In January, a snippet of music licensed by Carey mysteriously appeared on a Lopez album released by Sony. Carey exploited this misdemeanour to speed her exit. Both sides say it is untrue that the dispute led to her release, but the fact is, despite owing Sony one more album, she was freed. She signed with Virgin.
Virgin is a corporation, of course, but this time she has not married into it, and the relief expressed on the press release announcing the contract is real. "I am elated about my partnership with Virgin," runs the quote. "I look forward to being a part of their uniquely creative musical environment. Hallelujah!"
The Billie in the film Glitter is not Mariah: where the fictional character is abandoned by her mother, the real star's mother sends her jokes and messages every five minutes on her pager. The film offers insights, even so. "The essence of Billie is seeking fame because of the abandonment," Carey says. "She feels her mother will be able to come back, will see she's succeeded and be proud of her." Substitute father for mother and a parallel is plain to see.
That's now in the past. Carey has made contact with her father, and is pleased that he has never tried to exploit her fame. "He thinks I've had one album," she says with affection. "He doesn't know any of my songs!" But she remains wary of men, and has had sexual relationships with just three people. The first was her husband, her second was the multiracial baseball star Derek Jeter, and her third is her supposed boyfriend of two years, Mexico's Elvis, the singer Luis Miguel. In May they were featured in Hello! magazine, photographed on a yacht he has bought her as a present. Yet, when asked about her romantic life, she says: "Right now, there's no room for anything. I really, really have to be focused on what I'm doing." She adds that she is not saying they have split up.
She is in the middle of a life lesson right now, she says, and is trying not to care what others think. "The conclusion I've come to lately is that no matter what I do, everybody will not unanimously love me." According to her mother, she is more herself than when she was married; she's less insecure, too.
Carey no longer insists that she will sit only on the left side of the limo, forcing you to behold her from her better side. These days, she has younger friends who are new musicians. "And I go, 'Please don't let these people control you.' The artists that come from nothing in terms of the class system or money or whatever, I feel like sometimes we can be manipulated, because we're afraid that we're gonna end up back there." Even with £130m, this is true of her: she has a recurring dream that she is on the subway, with no money to get home.
So, do you still want to be Mariah Carey? Consider this: two years ago, she bought her own home, a Manhattan apartment. It is the first place she has owned by herself. How many days has she spent there in two years? Six. "Relaxing is hard for me," she says. "What relaxes me is having fun and feeling safe. That's not easy, but when I have my dog with me and we go swimming, or I'm with fun people, listening to music, I can relax." When did you last feel safe? "I don't know. I can be talking to someone who will calm me down, then I could fall asleep on the phone because they've taken away that feeling."
Even as a child she suffered from insomnia; she listened to the radio at night, and was always the last child up at sleep-overs, hanging around to talk to the parents. These days, this multimillionaire spends the middle of the night thinking about "all the loose ends, the things I have to do. Sometimes people, because they do not want me to do certain things, will tend to be alarmist, and that is not the best behaviour for me internally. So when I get these flashes of nerves, I'll call a friend or type on my pager or watch a movie or write lyrics or sit in the kitchen with my dog and cat." How long do you sleep for? "If I'm feeling comfortable, I could sleep for 10, 12 hours." And generally? "About three. Last night I got more: about five, six hours, because I got two things accomplished."
What will become of her? "We're no longer in the era of Aretha Franklin when you can sell yourself purely on your voice," says an insider, who asks not to be named. "If you're not pushing the right buttons musically, you're going nowhere. Which is why Janet Jackson, who doesn't have much of a singing voice, has been able to sustain a career about as successful as Mariah's, because she works with the right producers and makes the right noises for the urban R&B market, which is notoriously fickle. It's an open question at this point. Nobody can tell whether Mariah is a star in decline or a global brand name, like Madonna, who will carry on selling records. How many of her songs can you summon up to mind? She's sold all these records, and she's got a great voice, but she hasn't for all that burnt many of her tunes into the collective consciousness. I can't think of a single one."
It is probably too late to know what Carey could have done as an artist. To this ear, her new album sounds like her usual careful sequence of ballad and street music, as if a multiracial, multi-genre singer is trying to keep a multifarious audience content. Maybe she is a star in decline, with £130m as compensation for not fulfilling her promise and for a financial insecurity that will never leave her. But by the end of this contract she is likely to oust Elvis Presley as the most successful No 1 creator of all time. And you can't sniff at that.