It's 7pm on a wet and blustery evening as I brave the elements en route to my late-running interview with Mariah Carey. The superstar is in town working the press mills to promote her latest movie Precious, a new album and a new perfume, Forever. As I sit waiting in the opulent surroundings of the Dorchester Hotel for what seems like an eternity, I receive that dreaded phone call from her publicist: "Mariah is running behind schedule." Suddenly, I begin to wonder whether all the press rumours about the queen of prima donnas may hold some truth.
So, it was to my surprise, some two hours or so later, to find an extremely, up-beat Mariah greeting me with a warm hug before introducing me to close friend Rachel, who is also sat in her private suite. "Do you want some wine?" she asks, and judging by the table of glasses, I can tell the party has already started. When I hesitate, she looks genuinely hurt. "Why not? It's Friday!" It doesn't take me long to finally give in to her playful persuasion. After all, how often do I get a chance to clink glasses with Mariah as she teaches me her special drinking routine, which consists of a toast, a tap of the little finger, a girly bumping of the hips and finally shouting, "Cheers!" My initiation into the Mariah sorority is well and truly sealed as I sit opposite the superstar.
At 5ft 9in and wearing black leather boots with 5in heels, the singer is all legs and hair, with her honey-coloured curls flowing past her shoulders. Dressed in black leggings, a white vest top and a black leather jacket, she looks as though she has been poured into her outfit. Her jacket is open to reveal a substantial cleavage and an elegant necklace with a diamond "Mimi" pendant. Wine glass in hand, she reclines on the sofa opposite me, her long legs crossed underneath her. Her face is flawless, like a porcelain doll, and although the look is simple, she still exudes glamour. She is a far cry from her acclaimed role as Mrs Weiss, the dowdy-looking social worker in the movie Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire. Totally unrecognizable, the superstar is stripped of all make-up, big hair and sex appeal. "I walked past a mirror, and it was so not pretty!" she shrieks.
Tipped to be "the next Color Purple", Precious centres around the eponymous 15-year-old an obese and abused girl. It is the sort of gritty subject matter that one would expect a seasoned actress to tackle, so when actress Helen Mirren, who was originally cast, stepped down at the last minute, Mariah seemed an unlikely replacement. "The director, Lee Daniels, said, 'Look, you can't look like you, so I'm going to scrub your face down and then add some stuff to it to make you look as ugly as possible, to see how long you can stand it.'" She looks genuinely mortified. "So, I just let the physical part go and dealt with the inner work that I had to do really quickly. Sidney Poitier told me he didn't recognize me in the film, and he was so complimentary. That was such a huge honour."
Once you get over the initial shock of Mariah "doing ugly", she actually gives a convincing performance. Indeed, has earned a Breakthrough Performance Award and successfully redeemed herself from her debut performance in Glitter, which was notoriously panned by critics in 2001. So it was a risk worth taking on Lee's part, then? "It was very challenging because I had to be strong. I had to be a social worker, and not everybody loves social workers," she says candidly. "It was very emotionally draining. I would love to do more roles where I can lose myself in them. I really felt like Lee gets me, he understands me. He knows that my life hasn't been, like, oh, 'Tra-la-la, I'm a princess.' No. He's hilariously funny, but he's deep, and he knows that we're the same type of soul."
She refers to a particular, improvised scene in the movie, when Precious asks Mrs Weiss, "What are you? Are you Greek, Jew, Hispanic?" This is a question that Mariah has become accustomed to throughout her life. Born to an Irish-American mother and black Venezuelan father, the singer has always spoken of racial abuse growing up as a blond-haired, mixed-raced child in New York. "Right now, Obama is so popular with black, white or whatever race you are, so I feel like, you know, maybe people will accept me a little bit more as a human being instead of asking, 'What are you? Are you black or white?' Of course I'm black my father's black, so that makes me black. But I have a white mother, so I'm extremely light-skinned. What do they want me to do?" she asks rhetorically.
As one of the biggest-selling female artists in the world, Mariah has successfully courted both her white and black audiences. And while the big powerhouse ballads rapidly clock up the number ones, she is also riding high in the R&B charts with collaborations with some of the biggest names in hip hop, such as Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and Ol' Dirty Bastard. She jokingly drags out the phrase "urrrrban" and raises her hands to do "air quotes" whenever we talk about her R&B remixes, understanding the politics of the industry.
Our tête-à-tête inevitably moves to the diva myth that surrounds the superstar. "I've been a diva since I was three. And what?" she laughs. "The true meaning of a diva is a talented female singer. My mother sang opera, and so all my life I heard my mother going, 'Oh, she is very much the diva,' way before they had Divas Live." But that's not the definition of diva we're talking about! What of the rumours that Mariah demands fresh flowers in each hotel room? "People give me flowers upstairs, but I didn't say I wanted that!" Oh, and she gets her assistant to pick out the blue M&Ms... "Blue M&Ms? Do they even exist? I don't really eat chocolate M&Ms. Here comes my diva," she jokes. "A diva would be like [she waves a manicured hand and taps her nearly empty wine glass], 'Rachel, wine, I need more wine!' We all have it in us." She gets up to refill her glass, offering me a top-up before tottering back to the sofa, legs curled back under her. "I'll tell you this." She leans forward as if sharing a secret: "I think that's sexist. There are a lot of difficult male divas out there, but no one says anything about them. See, I don't take this shit seriously."
Mariah has a surprisingly witty sense of humour, and every so often she will break into a different accent or burst into song to showcase her impressive five-octave vocals. "I'm actually a true comedian at heart. People think I just stand there and sing 'Hero' on stage, like 'Laaaaaa!' [She mocks an operatic shrill.] No, that's not what I do." This newfound sense of being comfortable in her own skin can be attributed to her husband, comedian and CEO of Teen Nickelodeon, Nick Cannon. The unlikely couple surprised the world with their whirlwind romance and married in 2008. "We met at the Teen Choice Awards in 2005," the singer gushes. "He said, 'I'm not coming to this show unless you let me give Mariah Carey her award.' He always said I was his celebrity crush!" Considering he is ten years her junior, aged 29, his dream certainly came true, but Mariah insists that her dream also came true, and they enjoy being "eternally 12" together! In any other world, this statement may sound bizarre, but not on Mariah's planet. "It was the anniversary of my 12th birthday," she giggles. "I said, 'I'm going to call you Mr C,' and he said, 'I'm going to call you Mrs C,' and from then on we were just naming our children, and now we have a new puppy! There's no other guy who would put this ring [she holds up her left hand, to flash her 17-carat pink-diamond and platinum ring] inside a kid's pop candy ring. I have a song called 'Candy Bling' on the new album." The couple wed in a sunset ceremony at Mariah's home on the Bahamas in the presence of only a select few people. "We wanted to elope. We planned it, but the only people we told were my friends and two of his family members." As an afterthought, she adds regretfully: "I can't believe I've been married twice oh, Lord help me! Even my pastor said to me, 'You have to make sure you do this and do it right'!"
So, it isn't any wonder that Mariah would want to keep her relationship with Cannon under wraps. And while many cynics were placing bets on how long it would last, the celebrity couple are going strong. So, what is it like at home with the Cannons? Is Mariah a domestic goddess? "Well, my favourite recipe is linguine in clam sauce," she reveals in between sips of wine. "It was my father's favourite recipe, and he was in the army, so all of us got put into the chef category. He left me the recipe before he passed." And how about motherhood? With rumours circulating about Mariah's alleged pregnancy, is her biological clock ticking away? "Yes," she reveals cautiously, "but I need to keep it quiet, because when people say, 'Oh, she's pregnant,' it's actually not cool. You never know what's going on, and people say stuff, and it's not good."
The door opens, and her slightly weary-looking PR team files in. What was supposed to be a 30-minute chat had gone on for over an hour, and now, at just after 11pm, Mariah seems more awake than ever. Feeling the effects of the red wine, I lose myself in Mariah's surreal yet enchanting world. She is delighted that her dogs Cha Cha and Jack have mated, and she is proudly showing me pictures on her BlackBerry of the new family additions. The eternal 12-year-old is back! She flashes a smile: "It was nice to meet you." She uncurls herself to give me another warm squeeze and three air kisses before she is whisked off again, glass in hand. Diva? Contrived? All I found was a sweet, charming woman who works hard and lives up to her inner diva when she wants to because she can. Maybe we should all take a leaf out of her book!