Mariah Carey: An Unmarried Woman

Hit records, short, tight clothing, living single — it's all part of the job for the people's pop princess

Mariah Carey in NYC on December 4th, 1997. Credit: Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty

Mariah Carey has an intense relationship with her handbag. Nothing unnatural or bizarre, you understand, just something slightly more emotionally freighted than the average state of affairs that exists between a woman and the receptacle containing her cell phone, sunglasses, compact and lipstick. Tommy Mottola, the president and chief operating officer of Sony Music Entertainment, whom she married in 1993 and separated from last spring, used to make a joke about the bag, about how she reminded him of his grandmother, always with the bag. But to Mariah, the bag (Prada, what else?) is an extension of herself, a sort of mobile home for the soul. She and her mother (her parents divorced when she was about 3) moved around a lot when Mariah was a child, and being a superstar, as Mariah has been virtually since she signed with Sony subsidiary Columbia Records at 18, is an on-the-move type of a profession. Anyway, she likes to sleep with it next to the bed, so that if anything happens in the middle of the night, she has it right there and can just run out. So that's probably where it was when she had this dream:

In Mariah's dream, she has lost her bag, not to mention her two assistants, Katie and Stephanie, who are supposed to keep track of it. She is in a trailer, surrounded by freaky, drug-addicted people who are all physically impaired in some way, and she knows that if she doesn't find her bag, one of them is going to try to steal her stuff. She runs from the trailer toward a big building, pursued by one of the freaks, who, when she glances back at him, is no longer impaired and is laughing at her, as if in mockery of her gullibility. Continuing on, she bumps into two girls who tormented her when she was little. They are grown up now but have the same weird attitude they had when they used to throw rocks at her window and taunt her while her mom was at work. "Haven't seen you in a long time," say the girls. "Yes," says Mariah, "you used to terrorize me when I was in the third grade and you guys were older. You should have known better." Moving on, she sees a little girl who tells her that she has no friends where she lives now because she doesn't go to school — they won't let her go because she's a TV star. "Who won't let you go?" asks Mariah. "-----," says the little girl, naming a man who in real life tried to turn a sleazy buck off having known Mariah before she got famous. The little girl is not anyone Mariah actually knows, but she feels like she recognizes her as soon as she sees her. She can still see her in her mind.

Until recently, Mariah's official public image has been as pristine and regulated as her dream is chaotic and untrammeled. She is a franchise artist, the best-selling female recording artist of the decade, the vocal pyrotechnician whose sweetly soaring power ballads and bouncy dance singles have helped sell more than 80 million records worldwide since her 1990 debut, Mariah Carey, which itself sold 12 million copies and produced an unmatched four consecutive No. 1 singles. Melodies come to her so easily that she could write a song right now while she's sitting with you. She has never had to worry about her professional popularity; she is the people's pop princess. But she does worry a little; she is the worrying kind. "I'm the type of person who doesn't count their chickens until they're hatched," she says, and this is true. She is not even the type of person who counts her chickens after they're hatched. "In the past, much more so than now," she says, "I was very cautious and easily swayed by people telling me, if you do this, you're limiting yourself, you're limiting your salability, you're limiting your chances of success."

By "do this," Mariah means stirring a little hip-hop and some heavier R&B sounds into her mix, a harder vibe than the people who buy her albums for the ballads and who probably don't listen to the Wu-Tang Clan or Mobb Deep may be used to, as she has done on her new album, Butterfly. The record has caused something of a stir from its first single, the mildly horny and pleasantly funky "Honey," the video for which included a prologue showing Mariah being held captive and interrogated by a sharply dressed mobster. This was seen as a not-so-tacit acknowledgment of the rumors that Mottola was possessive and controlling to the point of basically keeping his wife prisoner in their secure and secluded Bedford, N.Y., estate. Mariah denies that the parallels were intentional, and although she is a lovely, charming, down-to-earth person, on this particular point, I don't believe her. She does wonder why nobody has commented on the first shot of her in the "Butterfly" video, which shows her lying on a daybed in a pose that echoes a famous still of Carroll Baker lying in a crib from the movie Baby Doll. In case you are not recalling, Baby Doll is based on a Tennessee Williams story that turns on the boredom and exploitability of a young woman married to a much older man. This reference was intentional, though Mariah does not specify the intention.

Mariah also does not say exactly which people told her that she would limit herself if she put the kind of hip-hop-inclusive work she was already doing for remixes on the album proper. They were just "people in corporate positions." She does say that she has a good relationship with Columbia Records president Don Ienner and does not consider him just a Sony person. Tommy Mottola, head of all Sony people, declined to be interviewed for this article but faxed this statement: "Mariah and I continue to enjoy a close personal and professional relationship. I enthusiastically support her musical evolution and the creative decisions she's made in conjunction with Butterfly. It is her best work yet. Mariah is a world-class superstar, and I remain her biggest fan."

In another part of Mariah's dream, I am writing the number 10 on a pad of paper, and when she asks me why, I tell her that it's the number of times she's used the word like. I guess this could be anxiety about whether she's, like, expressing herself well; or it could be an acknowledgment that the interview process is about finding out what she's like; or it could be about whether people reading this piece will like her. In fact, even Mariah's insecurities are likable, which is a very rare quality.

It is the day after the dream, at about 2 in the morning, and Mariah, whose workday started at noon, is wearing a brown Tocca tank and cardigan, brown DKNY tights, brown Manolo Blahnik high-heeled boots and what looks like a miniskirt but is a Gucci bathing suit bottom ("Not to give away my secrets or anything, but it is. I found it the other night when I was desperate"). Although it might seem like a contradiction in terms, Mariah is a responsible pop diva and understands that it is her duty to wear tight, short clothing for public appearances. When she's just being a responsible something else — and if it's at all within the parameters of a 27-year-old entertainer's ability, you name it and Mariah is responsibly it — she wears a tight tank top and jeans. She's from Long Island, after all — born in Huntington Bay, N.Y., she moved 13 times in 14 years before concluding her odyssey in Greenlawn, where she graduated from high school. She herself would be the first to cheerfully admit this Jordache Jeans, feathered-hair heritage. For a Halloween party she gave recently, she chose to go as one third of Charlie's Angels. ("Farrah, of course. When I was little I had to be Farrah or I wouldn't play.")

We are having dinner at a downtown Manhattan brasserie, along with one of Mariah's friends, Tracy, of whom there are two, and the League, a hardcore hip-hop group, of whom there are seven, although they are strangely capable of seeming like many more. The League, who are with Mariah's label, Crave, have come from taping a TV performance. It has been a long day, and this is actually Mariah's second late dinner — her first was with her label head, Don Ienner, and her new manager, Sandy Gallin. (Mariah changed managers and lawyers after her separation; her previous manager, Randy Hoffman, and lawyer, Allen Grubman, are longtime associates of Mottola.) Since noon, she has also rehearsed for her tour; met with the Halston people who are doing the clothes for it and with Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein about a possible film project; been there for the League at the taping; and stopped in at the party for which she is still dressed up. She is also supposed to watch a video of Bell, Book and Candle that her agent has sent along, although nobody is recalling why.

In other words, like most of Mariah's days, this day has required her to be present in more professional capacities than could probably be handled by all five Spice Girls put together. She is a nocturnal animal by temperament, and also an insomniac. She works in an industry that keeps irregular hours, and she is compensating for not having gotten out much during her marriage. ("If I don't go out sometimes, I feel like life is passing me by, because I missed so much fun in the . . . past," she says tactfully.) So I'm just speaking for myself when I say that if my subconscious were as active as hers, I might sleep only a few hours a night, too.

In fact, one of the funny things about Mariah's dream — and as far as dreams about isolation, abandonment, persecution and loss of identity go, I think you'll agree that this one is relatively funny — is the way it hurtles along at the breakneck pace that in real life makes keeping track of Mariah's bag an epic struggle meaningful enough to leave its mark on her unconscious. She grew up without much money, the biracial child of an Irish-American mother and a black Venezuelan father, and has often said that her peripatetic childhood left her feeling as if the rug could be pulled out from under her at any time. Watching her in action, the thought occurs that a good way to avoid this is to not stay in one spot for too long. But according to Mariah, this is not the reason she's on the go. She's just busy.

Either way, she's enjoying herself in general and at the moment. The mood in the now-empty restaurant is goofy, like it gets at 2 in the morning, and although she doesn't end up doing so, she could stay out all night if she wanted. "Ma-ri-ah, come and rescue me," sings one of the League to the tune of Mariah's own "Dreamlover" as he does a little after-dinner dance. "Come here, silly goose," says Mariah, responsible label head, locating her bag and taking out a credit card. "Could you find the waiter and give him this?"

Mariah has been linked by the press to an assortment of men, including Sean "Puffy" Combs, Q-Tip and New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Actually, she seems to hang with her close girlfriends and a more loosely knit community of professional friends — rappers, radio and record people, and whatever Russell Simmons is (even impresario no longer seems sufficient) — whom she sees in groups, as if she's stepping into the social scene pretty much where being a world-class superstar and suburban wife had caused her to step out in her late teens and early 20s. Asked whether she feels she missed her youth, she says, "No, because I don't think it's gone."

If Mariah's relationship to her own adulthood is one that's only just being allowed to blossom, her relationship to her childhood is a carefully preserved flower, maybe like the single rose Mottola sent her at the very start of their relationship, a rose that she still has. She doesn't have many pictures of herself from when she was a child, so she values the ones she does have — there's one with a Christmas tree in the background, where she's a little, little girl, and another where she's older and has some majorly large blond-and-black hair. We are at Mariah's rented town house — the place came furnished, which Mariah doesn't mind, since it's nicely furnished and she feels like she spent the last four years choosing fabrics, wallpaper and carpet for the Bedford house. We are sitting in Mariah's large, clean kitchen, talking about her childhood. "My mother gets very upset when I say we were poor," says Mariah, who is wearing a little tank top that says FLIRT and a pair of jeans. "But, then again, we had a conversation the other day, and she was recalling that she worked three jobs at one point. And I don't think that's something to be ashamed of. She really worked hard to keep us afloat."

Mariah's dream, in the wish-that-your-heart-makes sense of the word, has been, since childhood, to be a star. This dream started to come true almost 10 years ago, when she (legendarily) handed her demo tape to her future husband at a Columbia party she had gone to with late-'80s disco diva Brenda K. Starr, for whom she was singing backup vocals at the time. "I almost didn't go to the party, because I had this deal with Warner Bros.," she says, "but I went. I waited, like, two hours for her, freezing my ass off in the one little black dress that I had, sitting on the floor. And she finally showed up and we went. And the rest . . ." Is history?

"Yep." The funny thing about Mariah's dream (in this context) is that it is the direct result of the kind of feelings that may also have prompted her other, sleeping dream. Hers is the kind of drive that draws strength not only from the desire to reach what lies ahead but also from the desire to lose what's left behind. "I've always felt so separate from everybody, even if I never talked about it to my friends, or my mother, or my family," she says. "Because of a lot of reasons. Because I didn't have as much as my friends. Because I moved around a lot. Because my father's black and my mother's white. Because I'm very ambiguous-looking. Because white people often mistake me for white and will therefore say things in front of me that are offensive."

Mariah has a brother and a sister, but both are almost 10 years older, and she was, in effect, an only child. (Her sister, who was pregnant and married by 16, and, according to press reports, subsequently a drug addict and prostitute, may have presented a more immediate example of the path not to take, as well as a living cautionary tale on the virtues of caution itself.) Whatever the particulars, her childhood, while not miserable, was not easy. The dream of a singing career, along with the support and love of her mother, are, she says, what pulled her through. "If there were difficult times when I was growing up, I got through them by being an optimist, praying and hoping, at the risk of sounding clichéd and corny, that through music I would rise above the whole thing and I wasn't going to be like people I saw."

Mariah has always known she could sing. She is no longer much in touch with her father, but one of her earliest memories, from before her parents divorced and her brother and sister left home, involves singing and its relation to self-assertion. "My father was very strict, one of the strictest disciplinarians, and there was this whole dinner-table etiquette; everybody spoke only when spoken to, and so on. And I was a more free spirit; my mom kind of shielded me from that. And I loved singing; I was singing since I started talking. I can't help it, I have music going on in my mind all the time. So I was singing at the table, and my brother and sister were just, like" — she pantomimes horrified astonishment — "and my father said: 'There will be no singing at the table!' So I got up from the table, and I went into the living room, and I got up on the coffee table and continued singing at the top of my lungs. I guess that was an early indication of who I was going to be."

I guess that could mean she was going to be a singer; or it could mean that she was going to be a singer in rebellion against a controlling male authority figure; or it could mean that she was going to be a singer who stood on coffee tables, though if that is the case, she has successfully concealed it from press scrutiny. She is, of course, a big, big, big, big star, possessed of the kind of fame that even people who don't know who she is know who she is. But Mariah has, for a couple of reasons, been very guarded about her personal life from the very start of her career; she had the kind of childhood that leaves you naturally guarded, and her success was so huge and immediate that being guarded (literally as well as figuratively) was a condition of survival.

Not coincidentally, from the very start of her career, Mariah has been dogged by rumor: first, that she was having an affair with Mottola, who is 20 years her senior and was married when the couple met (true, as it turned out); then, that her marriage to Mottola was oppressive and confining (more on this later); and, currently, that she is out swinging from the rafters of every nightclub in town, partying down with rap artists and dating Donald Trump (as are we all).

Also, while publicizing the private lives of big, big, big, big stars is hardly ever bad for business, publicizing the private lives of the chief operating officers of big, big, big, big multinational corporations like Sony is hardly ever good for it. In Mariah's case, owing to her marriage, these things were one and the same.

"It's unnatural to curb what you say; it's fucking hard," says Mariah, miserably, of the limitations on what it's OK to reveal. "I mean, for me to get to this point...it took an enormous amount of strength for me to get out from where I was." We are at lunch at a Japanese restaurant, and Mariah, I would be derelict if I did not inform you, is wearing a honey-colored spaghetti-strap suede minidress with matching ribbed wool tights and high-heeled boots. She has a honey-colored cardigan tied around her waist and a pair of Fendi sunglasses pushed back in her honey-colored hair. "Can't we go shop for kittens or something?" she asks wistfully when the subject of her marriage comes up.

Mariah says that she cares about Mottola and doesn't want to hurt his feelings. People close to Mariah say that while it was not like he handcuffed her, beat her and forced her to admire the foliage in Bedford, where the two had built a $10 million mansion, the rumors of manipulation and control are not entirely without basis. Everyone agrees that there was genuine affection on both sides; still, the atmosphere was often, according to one witness, one of psychological warfare. Mottola reportedly wanted to control every aspect of his wife's career, image and social life, down to the last detail: The couple fought about where she went, what she did, whom she saw, which photographers she wanted to work with, which directors should do her videos. According to friends, Mariah was followed by a Sony employee on at least one occasion when she went out and was closely observed when she was at home; Mottola opposed his wife's interest in acting, and things deteriorated to the point that she and her friends conducted phone conversations in code (a Sony employee who seemed to be miraculously turning up wherever Mariah did was code-named 007, for example).

In a nutshell: In addition to wanting the control that every label head probably wishes he had over his franchise artists, Mottola is said not to have understood that it is a responsible pop diva's duty to wear short, tight clothing for public appearances. The pressure this put on Mariah is said to have been so relentless and all-encompassing that she was reduced to making small gestures of autonomy, like styling her own bangs, just so she could feel like she was in control of something.

Since Mottola declined to be interviewed, I couldn't say what his side of this sad story is, although I'm sure he has one. However, I don't actually think that the things he is said to have done are that unusual. There is a time in most people's lives when need and circumstance collide in such a way as to put one person's ego in the hands of another; and no matter how responsible the other is, that's always going to cause constant, raging, unassuagable anxiety for as long as the situation lasts. Who has not made a hang-up call or checked for a light in the window? It's just that most people do not have the power of a big, big, big, big multinational corporation at their disposal or probably the drive and tenacity that would put them at the head of one. In any event, he remains her biggest fan.

From one point of view, it is hard to imagine Mariah cooperating with conditions as suffocating as those said to have constituted the last years of her marriage, because she is a strong, larger-than-life personality, comfortably in control of her world in a way that suggests control is not an issue. (People are, for some reason, surprised to learn that she is a not-at-all-petite 5 feet 9 inches. Also, that she is smart.) She does not like the tag businesswoman ("I guess it bothers me because it connotes that I'm going to have a business suit and Hanes stockings and sit behind a desk"), but she is prodigiously on top of her own affairs. From another point of view, submission is easy to picture. Mariah is not a patsy, but she's something of a people-pleaser, a rememberer of birthdays, the type of person who does not like to disappoint, the type of person who as a child was just like a little adult. She keeps her commitments, of which marriage is one. She was also, she says, not ready for marriage ("I hadn't experienced enough of life itself. I probably still haven't") and was somewhat swept up in the excitement of a dream come true. "I mean, obviously, it's like a glamorous, flattering, amazing thing when someone on that level believes in you so much and is interested in you and is focusing on you. He represented a form of stability I'd never had." And she was very young when the relationship started. "I probably looked like a vixen, but I was very innocent at the time we met," she says. "Or, I don't know if vixen is the right word, but I looked like I look, I dressed like I dress, except I didn't have as much money to buy clothes. But my only other boyfriends were when I was in high school, and I never took them seriously because I knew it was something that wasn't going to last. I hadn't actually had intercourse with any of them, so Tommy is the first person I was really with."

Mariah is aware that many people will not believe that Mottola was the first (and is still the only) man she has had sex with, although she has had other sexual experiences. But this would be an odd thing to lie about, and it is very much in keeping with her general comportment. Despite the short, tight clothing, she projects a cheerleader kind of an aura, like the prettiest, most popular girl in school, who, because she is so pretty and so popular, is very, very careful about whom she lets get close. In some ways, Mariah seems not so much younger than 27 as untouched by adulthood.

There are reasons for this besides the childhood that left her cautious. However cloistered her marriage was or was not, she has made almost a record a year since 1990, which does tend to keep you in the studio. "I was basically tied to the board for years," she says. "Not like I was miserable doing it, but it was like a steamroller." And owing to that huge and immediate success we mentioned earlier, for which, I should emphasize, she is very grateful, there are probably some aspects of life she hasn't had to engage with very fully since she was an adolescent — for example, weather. Mariah is wearing tank tops or spaghetti-strap dresses every time I see her, though it is late November and cold and rainy. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just that a limousine takes her everywhere (she also doesn't know her own street address and isn't even positive about the street). She is, however, very considerate about other people's transportation needs and arranges them without being asked. This regular-person thoughtfulness, in a world-class superstar, is even more unusual than likable insecurity in a regular person.

Mariah's limousine is a very pleasant place to be, and you can meet interesting people there. Theoretically, Mariah lives in the nicely furnished, rented town house on, I don't know, some street. She does have her family pictures there and a few other possessions, but most of her stuff is in storage. So Mariah's limousine is the true center of her life, the place she is in most regularly, her hang, a mobile home for the soul of the party, always on the go, from morning till ... well, morning, from dream to dream in every sense.

Mariah is not involved with any of the men with whom she has been linked. She characterizes these stories as "99.9 percent untrue." If I had to guess who the .01 percent was, I'd pick Derek Jeter. But she does go to a nightclub now and then, and is, as she says, a fun-loving girl — after a certain hour, where there is Mariah, there is also Cristal, as a general rule. ("Have some champagne," she instructs Katie or Stephanie via cell phone from the limo as we wing from the studio to the offices of Crave. "No, no, I know it makes you sleepy. I'm saying have some there for me.") She and her close girlfriends talk in a close-girlfriend code that is based entirely on the work of the Jerky Boys, whom Mariah loves. ("One of the perks of fame is you get to meet the Jerky Boys.") Composed of words and phrases also found in plain English, this is not an argot that can be understood through logical explanation, but here's an example: "A-a-a-nd begin." This doesn't really mean anything, but it gets laughs. What can I tell you? It's an attitude. You sense it.

Mariah's own attitude is positive, a lifelong attribute. (Asked if she was a happy child, she says, "I wanted to be.") Butterfly is her favorite record ("by far"); she is pursuing acting projects; and she is free to proceed at her own pace, which is both rapid and cautious. If she did spend most of the last several years in the suburbs when she would have preferred to be in the city, she's not bitter or vengeful about it. Nobody held a gun to her head; that's just the turn her life took. "Even if I'm angry about certain things, they have to remain personal and private," she says. "Regardless of what happened, I care about Tommy and still love him as a person. Tommy represents a huge portion of my life, and he's helped shape the person that I am. Although he obviously was at a very big level when our relationship started, I think we both shaped each other's careers. And that way, when you look at how many records I've sold for the company, I didn't get most of those profits, you know what I mean? That goes to the company. I think everybody's done enormously well by this."

Some final, unrelated facts about Mariah Carey: She has a little talisman of two rings melted together (one a gift from her sister, the other from a high-school boyfriend), which she always wears, along with a heart-shape charm from Mottola and a cross, either on a chain around her neck or her waist or her ankle or, if all those places need to be bare, in her bra. She doesn't like her forehead, and it is only recently that she has allowed it to be seen. She has really high iodine levels and seafood makes her break out. Walking around her large, clean kitchen in her bare feet, she walks tiptoe, as she says she has done when walking barefoot since she was 4 years old; she doesn't know why. Asked to think about it for a moment, she says, "Because I've had to tiptoe around things my whole life."

Mariah was a big fan of the last Hole record, Live Through This, and used to play it a lot up at the Bedford house. She especially likes "Violet" and "Asking for It." I find this enchanting and keep bringing it up. I picture her in some room involving chintz and pictures of dogs and horses and geese, wearing headphones and screaming along with Courtney Love's angry, dense lyrics, although she says she didn't scream. "I have to be more protective of my voice than that," she says. "But I felt it when I listened to it." She sings a little of "Asking for It" — "every time that I stare into the su-u-u-un" — her beautiful voice reproducing the ragged little variations of the original vocal. What Courtney certainly arrived at through lack of control, Mariah achieves with complete technical command. And it is funny and moving to hear, because irrespective of the means of production, the source is probably pretty much the same.