Mariah Carey's Big Comeback

After award-winning year, superstar diva takes her show on the road.

Ebony (US) August 2006. Text by Lynn Norment.

It could have been called "The Vindication of Mariah," and people would have understood. Yet, Mariah Carey titled her most recent recording The Emancipation of Mimi, and the tremendously successful six-times platinum CD became the best-selling disc of 2005 with more than 9 million units sold. It also earned her three Grammy Awards and anchored what some say is the best year ever for this multitalented songbird.

For Carey, success is perhaps the best revenge and response to the media critics and naysayers in the music industry and beyond who had written her off and sounded the death knell for what started out as a brilliant career. The resilient artist has demonstrated what it takes — enormous talent, guts and perseverance — to overcome adversity and endure personal and career setbacks.

The second phase of the comeback celebration is Carey's two-month tour that will kick off in early August and continue into October. The buzz escalates as the kick-off date nears. "I'm really excited about it," she says of the tour, adding that she also is especially excited about working with Randy Jackson, who will resume his role as her musical director. She says she knew Jackson long before he became famous for his role on American Idol. "There will be more than a few wardrobe changes," she says, adding that she will be mindful not to bore her fans by being off stage too often.

That's because concertgoers will want to hear her sing her endearing hits, from her debut "Vision of Love" on through to her recent No. 1 singles, "We Belong Together" and "Don't Forget About Us." She has now tied Elvis Presley's 17 Billboard Hot 100 hits, but Carey has a good chance of surpassing the Beatles' all-time high of 20 No. 1 hits.

She named the tour The Adventures of Mimi: The Voice, The Hits, The Tour (rather than The Emancipation of Mimi) to reflect her life. "It's been like a roller-coaster ride," she says in an interview while relaxing in her home in Tribeca in New York City. "I don't take myself too seriously. I always try to turn things into the positive — the glass is half-full, not half-empty. I just turn it around and don't let anything keep me down. I've come a long way in terms of just getting through each obstacle that was put in my way. This tour is going to reflect that, but in a subtle way. I'm not trying to ram a message down anybody's throat. The true message is in my songs overall. This is a moment in my life that is really exciting, and it really has been a ride to get here. If you don't take a risk, you never have the experience. I've definitely taken some risks! But that's what life is. It's like God doesn't put anything in front of us that is too much for us to handle. I really believe that.

"I just want to go on the road and enjoy myself with my fans. It's our moment to celebrate, to have an adventure. First, you get emancipated, then you have an adventure."

Carey's emancipation came at a price, a very public price. After her debut album earned her two Grammy Awards, followed by a succession of hits each year during the '90s, her life and career hit a series of potholes. The rough period began with the breakup of her four-year marriage to record executive Tommy Mottola (20 years her senior), who had signed her to his label in the late '80s. She finally got out of her contract with Sony and signed with Virgin Records. Then there were reports that she has a "breakdown" in 2001 while dealing with the pressures of filming the movie and recording the soundtrack for Glitter. (Neither project did well.) She checked herself into a treatment facility for exhaustion. Soon after, Virgin bought out her contract. It was a difficult time for Carey, who was still in her 20s. She recalls how she spent hours on a particular flight reading negative and incorrect press clippings about herself.

"I was just really surprised by how big a deal people made out of it," she says of the incident, adding that she simply was exhausted and needed some rest. "I was working within a system where my ex-husband was still in control, so those were some of the hardest days of my life. That was really why I was struggling, I was off Sony, finally, but at the new label I had two weeks to set up a record. It was just draining the life out of me because I still felt I had to fight against the system... The intensity of the label that I came off of was so huge that I still had to fight against it because I think certain people knew that if I succeeded, it made their efforts to make me look like a puppet in vain."

"For me to fight on their level, their playing ground, didn't work. I was in an uphill battle and it was time for me to just stop. Sometimes you have to do that because you're literally, physically going to collapse, and that's what was happening to me. I never looked at it as breakdown. Even a therapist told me that people don't have breakdowns and then the next day you're talking to them and they're fine. 'This is what happened to you [the therapist said]: You were overworked and nobody was treating you like a person, and you allowed it because you've been pushing yourself that way forever and you are used to a dysfunctional life. That's how it is'."

That was then. Today Carey says she is surrounded by a "really good support system," with entertainment veteran Benny Medina as her manager and L.A. Reid as chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group, now her record company. "L.A. is the first record executive who really understands me as an artist," Carey says. "He wasn't trying to put me in some box that everybody wanted to put me in."

Carey has never fit neatly into anybody's box. As a child, she loved to sing and she credits her mother for the "genes." She started vocal lessons when she was 4. As a kid she spent a lot of time listening to radio and her sister's records, taking in the soulful sounds of Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Al Green. Gospel music also was a great influence, and on occasion she accompanied her late paternal grandmother, who was Black, to a Baptist church. By the time Carey was in high school, she was writing her own songs, several of which appeared on her debut recording.

For most of her life, Carey says she was not in touch with her father and had limited contact with the African-American side of her family. But in recent years that changed, and she is grateful that she had a chance to spend time with her father before he died several years ago. "I was fortunate to be able to have a relationship with my father," she says. "My parents got divorced when I was young. When you grow up with one parent, you get one side of the story. I'm not saying there was a deliberate thing that happened, but that's just the way it is. So I was fortunate to find out things I never knew about my father. For one thing, I never knew he was in touch with my music and my career. He wrote me a letter [during those rough times]: 'It doesn't matter whatever is happening. You've always been a star to me, even before anybody knew who you were.' It meant so much to me."

In her home in Tribeca, she has a special place for the cards, photographs and family mementoes that her father left her, including notes she had written when she was kid. "I never knew he was sentimental," she says. "I was grateful to be able to spend time with him before he got sick. It was unfortunate that I lost him soon after, but I was grateful for the time I was able to spend with him."

Carey often jokes about having a "dysfunctional" family, marriage and life. But she has found stability and solace by establishing a strong relationship with God and her church. "I really give credit for everything to God. Everything I have is because He has given it to me. So if I've had to go through some times that were a little difficult, and where some people had some different opinions about me — they still do and always will — but as long as I have that unconditional love from God, and I realize that no matter what, He is the one who will always be here for me, regardless. For this particular moment in my life, I've been able to have a really good relationship with my pastor, [the Rev.] Clarence Keaton of True Worship Church [who performed on the Grammy telecast with Carey earlier this year]. He's just really a great person. That is something that has really helped me."

When asked if there is a special man in her life, Mariah says she prefers not to divulge details. "I don't feel comfortable being in like 50,000 different relationships," she says. "I've never been that type of person. I was married and that didn't work out, and that is something that in a lot of ways shaped the way I approach relationships." The man she chooses to spend time with "would be on the same page with me spiritually, have a sense of humor and is not concerned about being overshadowed by the fame thing."

After the tour, Mariah immediately will start production for the movie Tennessee. Acclaimed producer Lee Daniels saw her performance in Wise Girls and felt that she was perfect for the role of a waitress who takes a cross-country journey to tend to family business. "It's not a money-making moment for me," she says of the independent film. "It's another way to explore my creativity and to be able to work with someone of Lee's caliber."

While some say that Mimi is the best record of Mariah's life and career, she disagrees. "I don't feel that this is the best album of my life. That is yet to come. I'm ready to get back into the studio. I have so many ideas." And so much more music to make.