The Gospel According To Mariah

Before the global adulation and the New York penthouse, she was just another struggling artist moonlighting as a waitress living on pasta and cheese. Sally Morgan uncovers the story of a little girl with a big dream.

Ms London (UK) September 26, 2005. Text by Sally Morgan.

Mariah Carey's well-founded confidence in her own ability and sheer d'termination have shaped her into a global musical phenomenon. Self-consciously crafted, and artfully polished, there is nothing casually incidental about the shimmer of this star. Ever since she first picked up a pen and warbled a chorus as a child, Mariah knew that somehow her destiny lay in music. She remembers, "I started writing poetry when I was 6 years old and I was always making up little melodies in my head. I guess the first real song I wrote was when I was 13."

She is now the recognised number one top selling female artist of all time. Whatever you think of her style, and she's not without her critics, Mariah Carey's music has touched millions of lives. Undeniably talented with an incredible seven octave vocal range, it's not just the fans she's impressed. Her list of awards illustrates the height of the industry's regard for her: two Grammies, eight American Music awards, Billboard's 'Artist of the Decade' and 'World's Best Selling Female Artist of the Millennium'. After a slump over recent years with disappointing album sales and a disastrous sashay into film with the slated 'Glitter,' she is back on form and ready to storm into the charts and belt out our radios once again.

Rather small in stature, and with an angelic face, it is surprisingly a tremendous strength of character that is Mariah's most obvious feature. Shy and retiring she is not. "With my current album I've had my 16th number one single "We Belong Together" which topped the Billboard 100 charts for 14 weeks," she smiles. "I've also broken their record by being the first female lead artist in 47 years to occupy the number one and number two positions simultaneously with "We Belong Together" (a collaboration with Jermaine Dupri) and "Shake It Off." Has she always been confident that she would enjoy this degree of success? "I always knew I wanted to do it. I always dreamt that I would be able to have music as my career and I really had a lot of faith in the fact that it was going to happen and just wouldn't let go of that dream."

Mariah Carey was born March 27, 1970 on Long Island, New York, to Patricia Hickey and Alfred Roy Carey who already had a son, Morgan, and a daughter, Alison. Mariah's racial heritage is colourful: her mother is Irish and her father African-American and Venezuelan. Her parents divorced when she was just three and while she stayed in touch with her father for some time afterwards, communication between them was never an easy flow. Raising three children alone was predictably difficult for Patricia and they moved around a great deal. At night, she would sing in Jazz bars and Mariah was left in the hands of her older siblings. "I'd just do whatever I wanted," she recalls of these exciting but frightening times. "Eat all the icing out of jars by the spoonful, watch whatever I wanted on TV." Yet it forced her to grow up quickly. "I think it made me what I am, in a strange sort of way, because I was independent." School discipline would prove a problem because she found it hard to accept rules and regulations. "I knew how to look after myself already. Mom would say I was six going on 35."

As she grew older, Mariah followed Patricia to work at nights where she immersed herself in the music. It was an unorthodox life and one that isolated her from her peers due to their lack of understanding, but the young Mariah loved it. She says, "I didn't really tell kids in school what I did because you know I would be singing with jazz musicians and be hanging out with my mom 'til like 2 in the morning on a school night when most kids were doing their abcs. So I kind of kept it to myself."

But underneath that supposedly confident exterior lurked a troubled child. Mariah bore the mental scars of the racial prejudice her family had encountered in the early 1970s. Her brother, Morgan, had troubles of his own in the shape of mild cerebral palsy. "They'd shout racial slurs at my sister and beat her up," Mariah later recalled. "Then my brother would go in and fight for her, even though he was handicapped. It was tough." Poisoned pets and damaged cars were still relatively uncommon and attitudes unenlightened.

Music became Mariah's comfort. During these crucial formative years, she was heavily influenced by her mother's favourite singers like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder — the one artist Mariah cites as her all time favourite and main inspiration. Gospel artists also formed part of the soundtrack as did Minnie Riperton, whose 1975 hit "Loving You" demonstrated the kind of coloratura vocals Mariah would later incorporate into her own distinctive style.

Immediately after graduating high school Mariah Carey happily left for New York and the career she was convinced awaited her. There was nothing to keep her at home, least of all friends. She recalls, "yeah, I didn't love where I grew up 'cause I really didn't fit in." And far from being hailed as a child star at school, despite early success as Mariah in a sixth grade production of the Sound of Music, Mariah's musical talent became a mixed blessing as she got older. She chose to conceal her dreams from the petty jealousies of her teenage contemporaries. She says, "When I got into junior high I stopped talking about it because I realised that people weren't supportive and didn't want to give you the positivity and encouragement. They'd rather just say that it's impossible to do this as a living."

This secrecy stayed with her during her early days in New York. She continues, "I did all kinds of waitressing jobs, hostess, coat-check. I didn't tell anyone there what I wanted to do. Because every waitress in Manhattan is like, 'realy I'm an actress. really I'm a singer. I didn't want to be that. Music was too sacred." Money was tight. For the year it took until she was discovered by Tommy Mottola, Mariah lived more on adrenalin than anything else. She laughs, "It was a year of days on one slice of cheese with a bagel or some pasta because that's all I could afford. It was also a year of crying yourself to sleep at night because you want to do something so badly. It sounds exaggerated but a year can seem a long time."

And now that she's a star, how does she feel? "I still don't feel I'm a star," she laughs. "I thought it was like some sort of club that you join and suddenly you're in star world! It kind of is like that, but it's also like an extension of high school in my mind. Primarily I'm a singer, songwriter and producer and that's what I really focus on. That's my main platform." I'm curious to know how such a hard early life has impacted on her personality. She answers, "I think after you go through bleak moments you either become really bitter and miserable or more think skinned and able to shake off bad things and enjoy the good moments. Fortunately, I've been able to maintain my sense of humour. I think it's important to stay humble and just realise that everything we have is a blessing and go from there. Right now I'm enjoying one of the best times in my life and I'm just thankful for that.