We are entering Mariah Carey territory. There's no sign at the New York recording studio proclaiming as much, but there are certain indications various flunkies scurrying around, a colossal security guard at the door, a general air of trepidation - that we're approaching the rarefied domain of the diva. I'm about to be admitted across the threshold, when a voice shouts, 'One minute!' and I'm unceremoniously bundled out again. Finally, the door is opened a crack, and I squeeze through to be confronted by.... well, received wisdom would lead you to expect a crazed banshee barking impossible demands at armies of cowed assistants, amid endless humidifiers, teddy bears and multiple brands of mineral water that have been pre-screened for toxins by a personal taster. After all, Mariah is alleged to have left pretenders such as Whitney and Jennifer Lopez at the starting gates of the diva Derby. She's got it all: the fairy-tale-rags-to-richest legend; the five-octave range; total record sales in the deca-digits. Her New York apartment has a show room, a lingerie room and, as the centrepiece, Marilyn Monroe's piano, bought at auction.
And then, last year, she acquired the last, essential piece of the diva armoury: an aura of tragedy. Her movie debut, Glitter, an insipid star-is-born retread, was released on 11 September and, unsurprisingly, sank without trace; the accompanying album sold poorly and she was ditched by Virgin Records, who'd signed her for a record £52 million, with a payoff of around £18 million; and she seemed to spiral down into depression, leaving rambling messages on her website about how she couldn't trust anyone and was going off to 'find the rainbow,' culminating in a reported suicide attempt and hospitalisation after being dumped by her then-boyfriend, Latino crooner Luis Miguel.
So the first surprise, when I finally walk into the room, is that Mariah isn't gibbering or swinging from the light fittings: 'Great to meet you,' she says brightly, offering a firm handshake. The second surprise is that she looks radiant, younger than her 32 years, and much prettier than she appears on screen: her features seems softer, her skin more burnished. She's also taller than I expected, above and beyond the precipitous heels she's sporting. They're teamed with a green halterneck top and a tiny denim miniskirt, 'I'm an eternal 12-year-old,' she says by way of introduction, in a smoky drawl (though she's never smoked). throwing her blond ringlets over her shoulder and glancing down at her outfit. 'An endlessly optimistic, fun-seeking child.'
This might sound like desperate spin, given the events of the past 12 months, but Mariah means it. Her latest tracks (part of a new deal with Island/Def Jam to release music on her own label, MonarC) are full of relentless positivity. The new single, Through The Rain, sets the tone, with its entreaties to keep pressing on steadfastly and stand tall in the face of adversity. 'Sure, it picks up on some of the stuff I went through recently,' acknowledges Mariah. 'The new songs are a lot more personal than anything I've done before. But music has always been like my diary. I've spent my whole life coming through the rain. I've had a tough life. I saw more stuff before I was ten than most people see in their whole lives.'
In fact, the story of Mariah's early life is less scattered showers, more biblical deluge. Another new song, Saving Grace, goes, 'I've been bruised, grew up confused, been destitute, I've seen life from many sides, been stigmatised, been black and white, felt inferior inside,' and that just about sums it up. Her mother, an opera singer in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, is Irish (via the Midwest), and her father was half-black, half-Venezuelan (her colouring, she says, is known as 'high-yellow'). She was named after the song They Call The Wind Mariah from the musical Paint Your Wagon, and grew up on Long Island, where mixed-race families weren't exactly welcomed; their pets were poisoned, her father's car was blown up, and her brother was attacked. Her parents divorced when she was three, her brother ran wild, and her sister Alison, a prostitute and drug addict, wrote a book claiming Mariah's initial success was funded from her street-walking earnings. The pair fell out as a result.
'I've always been the caretaker of my family, though I'm the youngest,' she says wearily. 'It's nothing against my mom. She's a brilliant woman, but she had a lot to deal with.' When things became fraught at home, Mariah would hide under tables, make up songs, and, 'sing myself better. I sang before I could talk. Music saved me from everything. It was a whole other world I could inhabit.' Her father dies of cancer earlier this year; he and Mariah hadn't seen a lot of each other while she was growing up, but were reconciled before his death. 'He saved all my letters from summer camp and my school report cards,' she says, getting tearful at the memory. 'The great thing was, he never tried to capitalise on me or my celebrity, which is rare in my family, believe me. Like, my stepfather passed away recently, but I'm not sure when because I had nothing to do with him. Anyway, I was a typical stepdaughter, but years later he sued me for breaking up his marriage with my mother when I was, like, 17.' She sees my flabbergasted look. 'I know! It's crazy! I don't think about it too much.' Is she reconciled with her sister? 'We're working on it,' she sighs. 'Families are a long, long road.'
As a child, Mariah dreamed of being as famous as Michael Jackson. 'You want acceptance and love to fill a void inside,' she shrugs. 'That's what drives most famous people.' She fled to New York, worked as 'the world's worst waitress' in the evenings, recorded songs all night, and slept all day. A demo tape found its way to Tommy Mottola, the head of Sony Music, who promptly signed her, and even more promptly married her she was 22, he was 42.
Roof-raising power ballads and multi-million-selling albums flowed through the first half of the 90s, but Mariah now says she felt 'stifled' by the demands placed on her. 'I was really young and married to a much older person,' she says carefully (she's astonishingly frank, but has warned me that 'there may be certain things I can't answer, from a legal point of view'). 'He was in charge. I mean, I've always written all tthe songs, but it was, "Get in the studio, make an album a year," and I went along with it. I'd grown up poor, with no sense of stability, and I felt like the rug could be pulled out from under me at any time. I'd always loved hip-hop, and wanted to do more urban-sounding stuff, but I was encouraged to keep coming up with the ballads and pop. I didn't question it.'
It was rumoured that Mottola also vetted male backing singers and dancers, ensuring they weren't too attractive, and kept Mariah in a kind of purdah, vetting her outfits too; whatever the truth, they were divorced in 1998. The transformation was notable: the music became (comparatively) grittier, the duets with boy-band and hip-hop hunks came thick and fast, and the hemlines retreated to the upper thigh. Friends, however, claim the seeds of her breakdown were planted in this period: she was working flat out, Mottola was still her boss, and rumours of her promiscuity and erratic behaviour began to surface. 'I'd created my own company, I was managing myself, and I took on too much,' says Mariah simply. 'There was no one there saying, "OK, Mariah's got to sleep now, she's got to eat dinner." I was like a corporation, doing the interviews, approving ads, mixing the music. And I'd say yes to everything because I hate letting people down. My fans and the people around me are like my family. And around the time of Glitter, everything was in disarray.' She shakes her head. 'I was exhausted. I wasn't thinking straight.'
Up to now, Mariah has been talking cogently and with humour about her trials and tribulations, so I decide to put certain rumors to her directly. First, that suicide attempt...
'Absolutely untrue,' she shoots back. 'That would be so not me. See any evidence there?' she demands, holding out her wrists for inspection. 'Yeah, I hit bottom in terms of not taking care of myself, but...listen, I'm not religious, but I've got far too much faith to ever contemplate suicide. I'd ratther quit the business altogether than let it get to me that much.'
OK then, how about the affair with Eminem? (They were supposed to be dating this year, but he's said to have dumped her four days after her father's death.)
'No affair,' she says flatly. 'We never had a sexual relationship. I know him, but I haven't seen him for about a year.' She kneels on the sofa, adjusting her position and looms over me; for a second I wonder, not without apprehension, if the world's best-selling female recording artist is going to topple on to my lap. She certainly has a childlike unselfconciousness about her body. So, I say, collecting myself, are you seeing anyone at the moment?
'No,' she says simply. 'I can count on less than one hand the amount of God, I've hated this word since I was a kid lovers I've had, and I'm proud of that. People say, "Why does she dress like that," she says, smoothing down her skirt, 'but I've got pictures of me posing in a bikini on the beach when I was six. It's all dressing up, fun and games. My friends say that I'm in high heels no matter what I wear.' What about marriage and kids? 'I wouldn't do it with someone who wasn't there for the long haul,' she says flatly. 'And sometimes I think I have enough family members already.'
Finally, and most importantly just how much of a diva is she? I glance around the room. Not a teddy bear or Diptyque scented candle in sight. She smiles. 'Someone wrote that I demanded that all the lightbulbs in the Beverly Hills Hotel should be replaced with pink ones. Look, I grew up in a friggin' shack, so I like a bit of comfort.' So what does she insist on? 'Tea, honey, steam, humidifiers. But I don't send back private planes because they're not pink.' She sees my crestfallen look. 'Sorry to disappoint you.'
Mariah Carey can demand legitimately all the humidifiers she wants; after all, she's nearly as famous as Michael Jackson. But like the latter, she's found that fame has brought her a new set of problems, as well as exacerbating existing ones. 'It's like a huge magnifying glass placed over you.' she says. 'But do you know what? I asked for that.' She sighs. 'Somewhere along the line I lost the ability to get things in perspective.' She's trying to rectify that now: she talks of her retreat on Capri, a little studio on a mountain top; about her belated discovery of a work/life balance; and about her new material, which displays a lyrical and musical intimacy and maturity. But for all that, she's still that eternal 12-year-old girl. 'You know what I think my major error is?' she says, as I get up to leave. 'I'm too giving to people. I'm like Santa Claus. I can't help myself. People look on it as weakness, that I could get taken advantage of.' She looks stricken. 'But I always loved getting presents, so why shouldn't I give what I can to others?'
She gives a little wave as I squeeze back through the door. 'That was really, really nice,' she says, with a kind of sweet, helpless look. And this is the final, and biggest surprise. Of all the things I expected to feel when I met Mariah Carey, protective wasn't one of them.