Curled up on a couch in a New York City recording studio sipping a soy-milk shake and wearing jeans and a blue long-sleeved hooded top (unzipped to reveal just the right amount of cleavage), Mariah Carey appears cool, calm and composed. Occasionally stopping midsentence to gently chide her rambunctious Jack Russell terrier, Jack, she's gregarious and chatty, hardly the overbooked and over-extended diva of last year, when a series of bizarre episodes including her pseudo-striptease on MTV's Total Request Live and odd musings on her Web site preceded what has been described as an emotional breakdown. For Carey, 32, the most painful part of the past 17 months is what she says are false reports that she had attempted to commit suicide prior to her hospitalization for exhaustion on July 25, 2001, amid a swirl of broken dishes and glasses at the Westchester County, New York, house owned by her mother, Patricia. So impassioned is Carey about correcting the suicide misconception that she offers her unblemished wrists for a reporter's inspection.
"The last thing I wanted," says Carey, in an earnest manner, "was some 13-year-old kid who emulates everything I do to have a problem and think that was the answer." As for what really happened that day, she says she simply collapsed. "My mother had never seen me like that," says Carey. "I have always been the rock in my family. I've always been the caretaker of everybody since I was a little girl that's the role I took on. And it freaked her out so much that she called 911. That was her way of solving the problem of her daughter literally collapsing on the floor."
Now, after more than a year out of the limelight, it seems the fiercely talented two-time Grammy winner has managed to find her own solutions on her way to happiness. "We're in a new phase of me taking care of myself, which entails making boundaries for the people who work with me," says the recovering workaholic, who insists that poor nutrition and 22-hour workdays were to blame for her crisis. "I need at least five, six house of sleep every night. I have to have little breaks during the day." Another part of her recovery? The creative energy she poured into her just-released CD, Charmbracelet. Recorded in NYC, the Bahamas and Capri, the new album a mix of midtempo hip-hop-tinged R&B and her trademark slow jams finds the five octave Carey exploring her sultry lower register and sounding more relaxed than ever. Carey says that at least one song, her new single, "Through The Rain," deals directly with her ordeal: "That was one of the reasons I wrote it. It was not just to inspire me but to inspire other people to get through their problems and their difficult times."
For their part, friends definitely have noticed the new Carey. These days, the unattached superstar whose exes include former husband Sony Music Entertainment chairman and CEO Tommy Mottola, New York Yankee Derek Jeter and Mexican balladeer Luis Miguel (their breakup after two years coincided with the beginning of her ordeal) lives in a reportedly $9 million penthouse in downtown New York City and spends her downtime relaxing with friends (Patti LaBelle and rappers Jay-Z and Da Brat are among her famous pals). Says "Jimmy Jam Harris, a longtime friends who coproduced "Through The Rain" with Carey, "She's learned to pace herself [in the studio]. She probably learned that life will go on even if you know off for a few hours and get some sleep." Her nephew Shawn McDonalds, 25, a New York lawyer (Carey's old sister, Alison, is his mother), concurs, saying, "She's definitely sleeping more when I've been around. And on a more macro level, she's just taking time out to enjoy the process." American Idol host Randy Jackson, a pal since early in her career, says she falls back on her sense of humor: "She’s is absolutely hilarious. She's cracking jokes all the time. She's always having a good time."
As for her much-discussed figure, the five-foot-nine star, who used to eat junk food on the run like so many busy superstars, says she's taking better care of her physical not just mental well-being. A nutritionist recently put her hypoglycemic Carey (she has low blood sugar) on a higher protein diet. To stay fit, she says, "I started my own little workout tangent [she has a home gym]. I'm at a weight now where I feel good about myself," she says. "I'm never going to be a waif. I'm not ever going to be Twiggy."
Her self-acceptance is a far cry from where she was in the summer of 2001. Fresh off signing an $80 million mega-deal with Virgin Records, she watched as her critically savaged film, Glitter which she now dismisses as "watered down" and "homogenized" tanked. Meanwhile, its soundtrack (released, incidentally, on September 11, 2001) was a commercial disappointment. By January, she had been dropped by Virgin, and her reputation as a hit-making machine she has sold more than 150 million albums worldwide and has had a record 15 No. 1 singles was in serious need of repair. It didn't help when gossip reports came out that she and costar Mira Sorvino came to blows on the set of Wisegirls, which recently premiered on Cinemax and earn Carey good reviews. "Oh, yeah, I hit her on the head with a salt-shaker," Carey says, rolling her eyes. "Like, don't we think there would have been a picture of that? Come on. I learned a lot from working with her, and there was no fistfight, trust me." But things went from bad to worse on July 4 of this year when her dad, Alfred, 72, a retired aeronautical engineer who left the family when Carey was 3 years old, died of cancer.
"Losing my father this year gave me a whole new perspective on life," says Carey, who had recently become closer to her father. (She wrote the album track "Sunflowers for Alfred Roy" for him.) "You have to seize the moment and express yourself as a human being."
Her father's death was the culmination of a difficult year that had begun the previous July when Carey raised eyebrows while making a surprise appearance on MTV's Total Request Live. Arriving on the set pushing an ice-cream cart, she proceeded to doff her shirt in front of host Carson Daly. "It was a joke," Carey says. "I wasn't sitting on Dateline making jokes and doing striptease and it wasn't even a striptease. I certainly was never nude. I had on a T-shirt down to my knees, two pairs of shorts and two tops. I don't think anybody would have made a big deal out of it had I not collapsed the next week."
Days after her TRL appearance and just hours after posting strange ramblings on her Web site ("I don't know what's going on with life") Carey was hospitalized after collapsing at her mother's house. But a two-week-long stay in a Connecticut hospital didn't do her much good. "I went because I realized maybe I'll get some sleep, maybe these people around me will say, "She's a human being, she does need sleep, she does need to be taken care of," Carey says. "But I didn't get any sleep there." Why not? "Because there were paparazzi and people inventing stories, making it seem as if I was trying to kill myself or I was on drugs or I was going crazy. Nobody thought of me as somebody human enough to have worked myself into the ground and become exhausted and have reached my limit."
Dr. Jane Greer, a New York psychotherapist (who did not treat Carey), says, "She had all of her engines burning. because [making] the movie was something new, she had more invested in it. [She was] taking on a new creative challenge at the same time as launching an album. The practical pressure brought her to her knees."
Carey says she began to mend only after leaving the hospital and sprinting off to several places, including Puerto Rico, with two friends. "First I went to my mother's house, and that didn't work because people were hiding in the bushes with cameras. The next day, front page: MARIAH, THE FIRST PHOTO, and it's me in some stupid pajamas drinking a protein drink. I'm trying to do what I'm always saying I needed to do, sleep and eat healthy, and there they are with the cameras making me look even more ridiculous standing there in these pajamas outside."
But Carey remains philosophical about the media's Mariah-bashing throughout her ordeal. "I feel like people were waiting to see something so they could go, 'Oh, let's take her down,'" she says. Everyone has to be the fall guy at some point in their life." Fellow stars were more sympathetic. She says she received get-well wishes from Elton John, Stevie Nicks, Olivia Newton-John, Whitney Houston and George Michael, who sent flowers and a note saying, "Don't let the bastards get you down!"
Of course, not every A-lister has been so kind. In last July's Rolling Stone, Eminem claimed he and Carey had has a fling, then he dissed her. "I just don't like her as person," he said. Carey, who some reports say wrote Charmbracelet's "Clown" track about the rapper (its opening line: "I should have left it at 'How ya doing'/I should have left it at 'I like your music, too'"), bristles at the mention of Slim Shady's name. "I never had anything remotely physically intimate with him," she says. "I've been with less than five men in my life. I can count on one hand half of one hand. So I may be friends with people, and I may talk to somebody every day over the phone. I may even hang out with them a couple of times, but that does not a relationship make. So just for the record, nothing physical occurred."
Although Carey says her role as an aspiring singer in Glitter is not 100 percent based on her life, she and her character share a similar drive. "I've always imposed this work ethic on myself because of the way I grew up because I didn't feel like I had a sense of belonging because I was [racially] mixed," says the Long Island, New York, native, whose mother, a former opera singer, is Irish, and whose father was half black and half Venezuelan (in addition to Alison, she has an older brother, Morgan). "And I moved around with my mother, like, 13 times. I didn't have a sense of stability. So I said to myself as a child, 'When I grow up, I'm going to be successful. I'm going to work as hard as I can so I never end up in this place again.'"
Carey's Cinderella-like ascent began in 1988 when she slipped a demo tape to Mottola at a party. Impressed, he called her the next day, and two years later, she released her debut album, Mariah Carey, which sold 5 million copies. Hits such as "Hero" and "Fantasy" followed, and in 1993 she wed her boss; they moved into a $10 million mansion in rural Bedford, New York. But even at her peak, Carey was struggling inside. "My personal life was not great in terms of the relationship that I was in," she says, alluding to Mottola, now 52. "I was settling for something that wasn't healthy. My career was great, and I was living vicariously through the girl in the videos, but everything else was difficult." Although she extricated herself from her marriage in 1998 friends blamed Mottola's controlling ways and from her ex's record label nearly two years later, old wounds haven't healed. "I would like to be on good terms," she says of Sony, obviously referring to its CEO as well.
But Carey, preparing to release a second Charmbracelet single, "The One," isn't one to let negativity bring her down now. After all, she has managed to go from the bottom to the top to the bottom and back up again. "I feel good where I'm at right now on many levels physically, emotionally, spiritually, musically and just in my heart," she says. "And I realize that life is too short not celebrate every day."