Despite being accused of being a ditsy diva, Mariah Carey is
one of the most successful pop singers ever. Aaron Hicklin discovers a star with a savvy self-awareness and an astute wit
I’d like to say a word on Mariah’s behalf: Mariah makes me laugh. She makes herself laugh, too – breathy chuckles that ripple through our conversation, as if she is leery of taking herself too seriously. She says she will sometimes wake up like that in the middle of the night – laughing. That, of course, is part of the image that Mariah Carey cultivates. It’s part of the charm, too. “Darling, I’m eternally 12 years old,” she purrs when the subject of her age is broached – a familiar line, and all part of the act. “I’m going to give her to you,” she says, clicking her fingers with a flourish. “Ready?” And she slides into a 12-year-old girly voice – “Hi” – all fluttering eyelids and adolescent bashfulness.
Carey loves this kind of pantomime. Her first and most enduring influence was Marilyn Monroe, and you don’t need to spend much time in her company to see that the identification runs deep. When I note the dazzling butterfly ring on her finger, she extends her hand theatrically, like a caricature of Monroe’s Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “This is Van Cleef and it’s missing a diamond, and it is shocking,” she says, faux dramatically, before riffing: “Shock and awe, shock and awe – I’m very upset now, Aaron, I gotta tell you.” She pretends to fling her ring across the room, before anticipating how this might read in print: “It’s missing a diamond.” She tosses it on a couch. Another bubble of laughter. “There, I did it, so now you can say I did it.”
Carey traces her obsession with Monroe back to her childhood, when she received a copy of Norman Mailer’s hefty biography of the actress as a Christmas gift. “I couldn’t have been more than 10,” she says. “I was a reader as a child, believe it or not.”
Why should I not believe it?
“It doesn’t go with the ditzy image, I guess. I have too many highlights!” She breaks into laughter, and I ask if that image – of the ditz – frustrates her. “No. I flirt with it and I play with it. If it pisses people off, whatever.”
Marilyn Monroe was pretty smart, I offer.
“Marilyn was reading Nietzsche on the set of Something’s Got to Give,” Carey replies. “Marilyn Monroe Productions was the first female-owned production company in Hollywood. She paved the way for women in Hollywood, and every single woman owes something to her for that, whether they agree with her image or not.”
It’s tempting to hazard that some of Carey’s struggles, in her personal life and within the entertainment industry, parallel her idol. With both women, their public persona served as a disguise for a much more thorough grasp of their circumstances than either is given credit for. Like Monroe, Carey has experienced the ways in which the entertainment industry tries to control women. In 2005 she told Allure magazine that during her five-year marriage to Tommy Mottola, the chairman of Sony Music, she “longed for someone to come kidnap me… I used to fantasise about that. A lot. I’d have my pocketbook with me at all times in case I had to make an escape.” It was Mottola, also, who engineered Carey’s most saccharine songs with albums such as Music Box (1993) and Daydream (1995), resisting her efforts to explore other avenues in hip-hop and R&B. She was the biggest-selling artist of the 90s, but rarely on her own terms. When she did get her way – such as inviting Ol’ Dirty Bastard from the Wu-Tang Clan to rhyme over her 1995 hit “Fantasy” – the results were inspired, but it wasn’t until her post-divorce 1997 album Butterfly that fans got to hear Carey as Carey yearned to be heard.
The toll of all those years must have been immense. The first Mariah Carey album was released in 1990, spawning four number one singles in the US. She has been a hit-making machine ever since, dropping albums approximately every 18 months and generally burnishing her reputation as the most successful woman in pop of all time. That well-worn line about being eternally 12 years old is no mere vanity. It’s her pressure valve. “As a kid I made this pact,” she says, recalling an incident from her tough-as-nails childhood on Long Island. “There had been some sort of argument with my mom and the man she was dating at the time, and somehow I became a part of it – I was around eight or nine years old, and I said: ‘I’m never going to forget how it feels to be a kid, and you can’t be seen or heard.’ It’s as though your opinion doesn’t mean anything, or your feelings are not real.”
It was also as a kid that Carey found her voice. “I started singing when I started talking,” she says. “My mother was doing Rigoletto – she’s from the Midwest, but she got a scholarship to Julliard and came to New York – this young girl with the high shorts on meets my father, who she thought was Yul Brynner, driving around in a Porsche – there weren’t many bald black men driving around in a Porsche, and he was fly.” The marriage lasted three years, and Carey spent her childhood dealing with the dichotomies of her mixed-race background, neither white enough, nor black enough, to fully belong anywhere. “Being biracial is so much a part of who I am that it’s almost: ‘Let it go already’,” she says. “It’s intrinsic to me. I think a lot of my fans relate to me because they felt different.”
She has her own family now. Carey is mother to fraternal twins Moroccan and Monroe (from her second marriage, in 2008, to the multi-hyphenate Nick Cannon, whose Wikipedia entry lists him as actor, comedian, rapper, entrepreneur, record producer, radio and TV personality). “Pulling them away from me is so hard,” Carey says. “It’s unconditional love, and I never thought I was going to have kids – ever.” Why not? “I remember, as a child, saying: I’m never going to get married. I’m never going to have kids.” She pauses. “Here’s the thing: would I have been better off if my parents stayed married? No way. They were miserable together, but the grass is always greener. I had a great childhood in some ways – and that’s an amazing thing to be able to say – but I also didn’t, because I was the caretaker and I still am, like it started long before I had any financing.”
Her explanation for wanting to purchase Marilyn Monroe’s baby grand piano at auction in 1999 is instructive. “It was her only piece of the childhood she’d never had,” she says. “It was very important for her to find something to cling to.”
One reason Carey has developed such a strong and rewarding friendship with the director Lee Daniels, who cast her in Precious in 2009, is that both can connect over their hardscrabble childhoods; both grew up feeling like outsiders. “He brings out the schoolgirl in me,” Carey laughs. “You shouldn’t lose your inner child, but everybody does.”
Carey’s inner child plays better with some audiences than with others. At the OUT 100 Awards in New York last November, she generated rousing cheers and whoops from several thousand gay men assembled to see her present an award to Daniels.
“I’m a straight girl – I don’t really know why they asked me to be here – but my boobs have been out for years,” she joked, channelling drag-queen shtick as she flapped a lacy black fan against her face. By contrast, she shudders at the memory of an appearance with Daniels at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2010. “We didn’t really know what we were walking into, but it was a pretty conservative crowd,” she recalls, namechecking Sean Penn, Sidney Poitier and Clint Eastwood among the attendees. “Lee calls me Kitten, and I call him Cotton: it was just a private joke, onstage, on champagne, and the world was like: WTH, WTF, we don’t understand.” That appearance is one of several that are routinely aggregated in online symposia assessing Carey’s state of mind.
The most notorious remains an unscheduled appearance on the VH1 show Total Request Live in July 2001, when Carey surprised the host, Carson Daly, by pushing an ice cream cart on to the set before whipping off her T-shirt to reveal hotpants and a body-hugging top underneath. That incident, in which she told the live audience: “I just want one day off when I can go swimming and eat ice cream and look at rainbows”, was widely viewed as a nadir in Carey’s career. She was hospitalised for exhaustion a week later. This came shortly before the 11 September 2001 release of Glitter – the soundtrack to her semi-autobiographical movie. The extensive panning that both movie and album received knocked her career for six and lead to the annulment of her $100m, five-album contract with Virgin Records.
Even now, with Carey’s career back on the rails – her bestselling 2005 album The Emancipation of Mimi easily saw off the spectre of Glitter – the internet is a viper’s nest of snarky asides about Carey’s less-scripted moments. In 2008 the woman’s interest site Jezebel – usually a citadel of indignation at the ritual humiliations that women undergo – resurrected that TRL clip with the headline “Remember When Mariah Carey Went Crazy?” But for those less wrapped up in her baby-doll image, that appearance made Carey likable and true. Who doesn’t sometimes feel it’s all too much? Who does not, in their heart of hearts, pine to spend a day swimming and eating ice cream?
In the hotel suite where I meet Carey, with its tasteful arrangement of white roses, the fancy Diptyque candle and the glasses of prosecco, it’s hard to tell whether she’s on- or off-script this particular evening. She talks in a gush, changing direction mid-sentence, forcing me to keep up with the zigzags in her conversation. One minute she is talking about her nodules (“That’s how I hit those notes, because I’ve learned to manipulate them somehow”), the next she is tugging at the back of her dress.
“The zippers to these dresses,” she says, all good-natured exasperation and curves and smiles. “They make them and they break; it doesn’t matter how much you pay for it, they frickin’ break. There was a seamstress there, but she had gone; they had to call her back –Natalia from Italia. So it took a minute to get our tiny tailor and everybody to come back, and here we are, Aaron – I apologise, truly.”
It takes a moment to realise that this wardrobe malfunction is Carey’s explanation for her three-hour delay, a familiar drill to those who’ve interviewed her before.
Thirteen others were lined up behind me to chat to her that night, a veritable conveyor belt of platitudes and soundbites, predicated on the imminent release of her 14th album, formerly known as The Art of Letting Go and currently untitled. We’d each been promised an exclusive playback prior to meeting Carey, but a long-running series of delays and false dawns meant there was still no album to play. Instead we listen to three songs, all previously issued: “#Beautiful”, a duet with Miguel, “The Art of Letting Go” and “You’re Mine (Eternal)”, released on Valentine’s Day. None of these has yet succeeded in setting the charts alight, and the album’s birthing problems has given rise to rumours of deeper, underlying issues.
Carey’s post-Mottola career has been distinguished by big hits and modest hits, but lately it is the column of modest hits that gets longer. Carey’s last album, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, sold just over 2m worldwide, compared to 12m for The Emancipation of Mimi, which earned eight Grammy nominations (and three wins).
Carey insists she just wants to get it right. “I want the album to be heard and felt [as] an experience,” she says. “I don’t want to just be, like: ‘Here’s another iTunes moment’ and this and that. Back then I allowed people to – how do I say it? – dictate policy to me, meaning if I didn’t like something they didn’t care. I listened to people – I was, like: ‘Fine, cool, do whatever.’ So now I’m just being adamant.”
But does Carey feel at all anxious that, at 44, she may soon have to reckon with the challenge of pop culture’s fixation with youth, a whole lot harder for women than for men? When I point out that she’s been a pop star for 25 years (her first number one single in the US was 1990′s “Vision of Love”) Carey goes into full-on Eartha Kitt mode. “First of all, don’t round up,” she admonishes. “If you’re going to round, round down!” There is that laugh again. She continues: “I don’t count years, but I definitely rebuke them – I have anniversaries, not birthdays, because I celebrate life, darling.”
As if realising this is almost too much a caricature of a diva, she adds: “Please put an LOL next to this, because people are going to be, like: WTF?”
Of course there is no written rule that a musician must find a way to keep putting out platinum-selling albums. Carey’s musical hero, Aretha Franklin, hasn’t had a major album since 1985′s “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”, released when Franklin was 43, and her last commercially significant single was a 1987 duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting”.
Carey describes her first meeting with Franklin as like meeting the Queen. She says she already received the ultimate accolade last Christmas, when she got to sing with Franklin at the tree-lighting ceremony at the White House. “Of course, I – like an idiot – stand there and sing, with no umbrella, in the rain – my hair was destroyed, after I went through so much trouble in my white ensemble. Aretha, she had her umbrella, she had everything, it was magical, and she walked by my trailer singing [Carey's massive hit] ‘All I want For Christmas is You’.” Carey sings the words in her famous voice, all trills and stretched vocals, then begins to laugh. She is still laughing as a publicist ushers me out of the room to make way for the next writer. It’s a genuine laugh, and long after I leave the hotel, I can hear it, tinkling in my ears.
Mariah Carey’s as yet untitled album is released at the end of May
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