With a stunning five-octave voice that she routinely put through stratospheric gymnastics, Mariah Carey became an overnight star when she released her 1990 debut. Her vocal prowess drew comparisons to Minnie Riperton and Yma Sumac, but most often to her contemporary Whitney Houston. Yet unlike Houston, Carey co-wrote or co-produced her own gospel-inflected, dance-pop songs and ardent ballads. And her hard work paid off on the charts: Carey is the best-selling female artist of all time, with more than 175 million albums and singles sold worldwide. She was the only artist to have scored a Number One hit in every year of the 1990s, and has had more Number One hits than any other solo artist in U.S. chart history. In October 1999 she surpassed the Beatles' long-running record of 59 weeks at Number One.
Carey was born to a black Venezuelan aeronautics engineer father and an Irish-American opera singer mother, who also worked as a voice coach. The couple divorced when Mariah was three, and she moved with her mother to successive towns in suburban Long Island, New York. At 17 she relocated to New York City and pursued a career in music while supporting herself as the self-professed "world's worst waitress."
Carey befriended keyboardist Ben Margulies, with whom she began writing songs, and landed backup singing jobs. One, with late-1980s dance-music singer Brenda K. Starr, proved crucial when Starr met Columbia Records chief Tommy Mottola at a party and gave him a demo tape of Carey's songs. Mottola reportedly played the tape in his car on his way home, and doubled back to the party to seek out Carey. He signed her and made her career development a top priority.
Carey's debut album (Number Four, 1990) yielded Number One hit singles in "Vision of Love" (1990), "Love Takes Time" (1990), "Someday" (1991), and "I Don't Wanna Cry" (1991), and brought her Grammy Awards in 1991 for Best New Artist and Best Female Vocalist. Emotions (Number One, 1991) continued Carey's roll, with such hits as the title track (Number One, 1991), "Can't Let Go" (Number Two, 1991), and "Make It Happen" (Number Five, 1992). Unplugged produced a hit cover of the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There" (Number One, 1992), which also led to a solo recording deal for Trey Lorenz, the backup singer featured on the single with Carey.
In June 1993, Carey married Mottola, a man 20 years her senior. She then released Music Box (Number One, 1993), which promptly yielded the chart-topping hits "Dreamlover" and "Hero." In fall 1993 she embarked on her first tour, for which she received mixed reviews. Her 1994 Christmas album spawned the hit "All I Want for Christmas Is You."
Carey achieved a milestone with the 1995 release of Daydream, which debuted at Number One. The first single, "Fantasy," debuted at the top as well (a remix featuring Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard demonstrated her increasing interest in merging her R&B-centric world with more hip-hop influences). With Daydream, Carey became the first female artist in history to have three albums that each sold more than 8 million copies. The second single, "One Sweet Day," a duet with the Philadelphia R&B vocal group Boyz II Men, also hit Number One, holding the spot for a record-setting 16 weeks. A third single, "Always Be My Baby," followed suit, completing the hat trick.
Carey and Mottola divorced in 1997, and free from a husband and creative partner she later described as intimidating and controlling, the singer moved even further toward hip-hop on Butterfly (Number One, 1997). The LP generated the Number One hits "Honey" (with rappers Ma$e and the Lox) and "My All." The following year's #1's collected Carey's 13 chart-topping singles, with four new tracks, including "When You Believe" (from The Prince of Egypt), a duet with Whitney Houston.
The 1999 release of the multiplatinum Rainbow (Number Two, 2000), which produced a Number One single in "Heartbreaker," capped a decade of Carey dominance. Musically, the singer continued to embrace hip-hop, emphasizing samples and inviting such rap stars as Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Da Brat, and Snoop Dogg to make guest vocal appearances.
In early 2001, Carey signed a multirecord, multimillion-dollar deal with Virgin that ended up failing both Mariah and the label. Her first Virgin release was to be the soundtrack to her semi-autobiographical film Glitter, in which Carey played a struggling singer. But before the film was released in September, Carey began to show signs of emotional and psychological fatigue. She left a series of cryptic messages for her fans on her official Website and showed up unexpectedly on TRL, where she pushed an ice cream cart and performed an impromptu striptease. She checked into a hospital for "extreme exhaustion"; when Glitter hit theaters, it was widely panned, and its soundtrack didn't fare much better. In 2002, the same year Carey showed off her quirky personality on a now-famous episode of MTV's Cribs, Virgin bought out Carey's contract, and she moved on to Island Records.
Carey's Island debut Charmbracelet, released in 2003, fizzled in the eyes of many critics, failing to provide any indications of new inspiration since her hiatus. But two years later, Carey sounded reinvigorated on The Emancipation of Mimi, which was hailed as a comeback and garnered several Grammy Awards, including Best Contemporary R&B Album and Best R&B Song for "We Belong Together." The LP became 2005's best-selling album, and Carey hit the road for her Adventures of Mimi Tour.
Mariah mined similar aesthetic ground on follow-up E=MC² (Number One, 2008), which debuted at the top of the charts on the strength of first single "Touch My Body" — the song that gave Carey her 18th Number One single. While shooting the video for ballad "Bye Bye," Carey met actor-rapper Nick Cannon, who is 10 years her junior, and the pair wed in April 2008.
Though nearly all the songs on 2009's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel focus on love, Carey first released the single "Obsessed" (Number Seven, 2009), an angry track coproduced by The-Dream and Tricky Stewart that began a bitter war of lyrical responses from Eminem (the rapper claims to have had a relationship with Carey; Mariah denies it). The record inspired so many remixes, Carey assembled them into an album titled Angels Advocate, which features contributions from Ne-Yo, Gucci Mane and more artists. Carey performed a New Year's Eve show at New York's Madison Square Garden and officially kicked off her Angels Advocate Tour the following day.
Carey also spent part of 2009 resurrecting her film career. She appeared as a low-key social worker in Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Saaphire, and won a Breakthrough Actress award at the Palm Springs Film Festival for the role.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Caryn Ganz contributed to this article.