Mariah The Misunderstood

You think you know all there is to know about Mariah Carey? Got it all figured out, have you? Have the denials, the distress and the permanent drama MC'ed you all out? Think again, people. Amina J Taylor gets her backstage VIP pass for a day trip to Careyland.

Pride (UK) March 2003. Text by Amina J Taylor.

The rain is making a mess of the west London streets, but I could not care less. Life sure looks good in the backseat of a Mercedes in the convoy taking Mariah Carey from the swanky Claridges Hotel in central London to the taping of another TV programme. The previously scheduled interview was interrupted by those pesky TV execs who insisted on earlier call times. Not that it's bothered Ms. Carey much — whether scheduled or off the cuff, the show must go on and with a smile too.

It's not easy to be constantly talked about (usually never the whole story), have your whole life analyzed and criticized in its most minute details and still have to publicly bounce back like a big grinning beach ball. That is what life is behind the curtains of Careyland at present. Surrounded by bite-sized snacks, plenty of fluids (as part of her new, healthier regime) and wearing the cutest Manolo Blahniks, Mariah fidgets with the neckline of her cardigan and gets ready for another round of questioning on her apparent breakdown last year, Eminem rumours and career slide.

As she braces for the usual questions, she seems almost disappointed when she is informed that Pride readers are not interested in all of that stuff. Flick through any glossy and you will have the so-called breakdown fully documented, denied and evaluated. Is Mariah Carey the poster child for stressed-out pop idols? Not likely, but her workrate has always elicited raised eyebrows, even from industry vets who had been around the block a few times.

The pressures of fame are not things the lady herself whines about, but two years ago, when I met her in New York for an earlier interview, Mariah was looking after most of her business affairs herself, doing promotion for an album and a film at the same time and taking a break from filming to get down from Staten Island to do more promotions. "It was way too many things at once, but everything in life is a learning experience. I have been imposing this work ethic on myself since I was a little kid because of the way I grew up, because of the way I felt about being an outsider, because of the way I felt about my multiracial heritage and not really feeling as if I fit in any one specific place."

Some of these same insecurities caused Mariah to up the ante even more. "I was like I'd work twice as hard as everybody else. Guess what? They're gonna hit me with this. Oh, now my personal life is being messed up in my professional life...I'll work three times as hard. So now this isn't working and my only way to deal with it is to work four times as hard. I can do it. My thing is, I keep pressing and pressing on. On a spiritual level this is fine, but when physically you are working without rest and without looking after yourself on a nutritional level and just not caring for the human being inside you, the results can be devastating."

The roller-coater ride for Mariah has been going full tilt for many of her 33 years. Broken relationships, both personal and professional, have left their scars and though she is not a great proponent of washing her dirty La Perla in public, she will say this much: life has been good and when you let in the good, the bad sneaks right through.

Things are good. Musically Mariah Carey has found a new home at the super-edgy Island/Def Jam, where she has based her own imprint, Monarch Music, through which she will develop new artists as well as continue with her own material. The doubters who have expressed surprise at some of Mariah's more recent collaborations (Just Blaze, Seven, Cam'ron, Jay-Z) might have conveniently forgotten some of her earlier stuff with Ol' Dirty Bastard, P. Diddy and Bone Thugs and Harmony.

The fickle nature of the industry and self-imposed states of amnesia do not worry one of the most successful artists of a generation. Her talent has seen her through the dark days and today is no different. Even in a very formulaic industry, there is still a thirst for the kind of music Mariah advocates. "I feel that, because of technology, certain artists are disposable and yes — it is producer's world in a lot of ways. ProTools might as well be on the cover of most people's albums today. They might as well not have their picture and show the computer and put the person's name next to it 'cos you really don't have to be able to sing anymore. Why bother?"

Why bother indeed? When we next catch up, we are backstage at Shepperton Studios, where Mariah takes a moment to adjust the waistband of her ultra-light jeans and jingle the charm bracelet on her waist, a tribute to her African-American/Venezuelan father who passed away at the height of Mariah's drama last year.

Mariah Carey's relationship with her family has been one defined more by upheaval than by convention. The marriage of her parents caused Mariah's mother to be disowned by her Irish-American family and later came an upheaval with her older sister that has yet to be completely resolved. The reconnection to parts of her father's side of her family has helped to ease some of the pain she experienced at his loss and get a greater sense of proportion. One particular link has been Mariah's relationship with second cousin Lavinia, or cousin Vinnie, as she is known in Carey's circle. The former corrections officer told Mariah of the moment where she asked their grandmother what the mustard seed on her charm bracelet meant. "It is a symbol of faith. My nanna showed her the inscription that read Matthew 17. If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can say to this mountain 'Move' and it shall move and nothing shall be impossible for you. It is something that is a tribute to my father and just keeps his spirit alive and the essence of where he came from."

Her father's side of the family is steeped in its Pentecostal church history and African-American sensibilities and has left a lasting influence on Mariah and her music. This does not lessen the bond with her mother's side but, as she explains, childhood is difficult regardless of your genetic make-up. After what could be described as a testing childhood, Mariah has not had enough distance from her past to appreciate what sacrifices were made on her behalf. "My mother's whole thing was being encouraging and supportive of me as a singer. She was a singer herself, so it made the dream attainable. It didn't seem like something that was just a pipe dream. With a lot of kids, if you don't have the role models, it's harder. And whereas sometimes parents have you focusing on just one part of your development, my mother encouraged my other talents too. She named me Mariah because she thought that was good stage name and that it would suit a star."

With jobs scarce and the environment testing, Mariah found herself moving with her family (and alone after a while) to go where there was work and increased stability. "Growing up with my mother allowed me to be my own person a lot, because I was left alone a lot of the time when she had to work. It was a lot like sisters, instead of a mother-daughter relationship in many ways. She's an interesting person." Not the most glowing endorsement of one's parent but maybe not all the demons have been slain. But who among us is without baggage?

As far as her own family is concerned, a pregnant Mariah is still a long way away. "It's not about when I feel like having a baby, it's about when I feel like I've found the right man. Truthfully, I don't have time to do this whole thing by myself and why would I want to? Especially since I grew up in a family that was dysfunctional and divorced by the time I was three. The way to go about it is that stuff comes second. You find the person you want to be with for the rest of your life first, someone who would make a very good father, and you think about that stuff after."

Not that contenders for the Mariah babydaddy role have not come crawling out of the woodwork. Who could have missed the reports linking her with a certain bleached-haired MC? The truth, she says, is far less exciting or salacious. In her chilled out state, Mariah laughs at the suggestion that there is a man out there worried about the lyrics to the song "Clown" on the new album. "I don't think anybody who they're trying to say the song is about would want to claim that song for themselves. In reality I have met soo many clowns, how could you select one? In the song there is this person or group of people, as there are many who have tried to make their claims. The thing is, there was nothing, but they're making something out of it because of their own need to put this facade out there to the world 'cos, as the song says.

'Your pain is so deep-rooted/What will your life become?/Sure you hide it/But you're lost and lonesome/Still just a frail shook one/Who's gonna love you?'

That's the thing when you put up this big front, it's like The Wizard of Oz, when you open up the curtains, there stands this little pipsqueak."

Ouch. MC is back on track. On her new-found success she says it's "not so much a sense of validation, but of inner calm. I'll be alright no matter what happens. I used to be the girl who felt that the rug could be pulled out from under me at anytime. That girl is still there, but she no longer consumes me."