Mariah Carey: The Whirling Diva

Recipe for the star's life: Mix one part screwball comedy, one part global capitalism, add hip-hop beats, shake well in a private jet and serve over ice

Mariah Carey in 2000. Credit: Peter Still/Redferns/Getty

Mariah Carey is in the characteristic double-helix whirl of activity that occupies what seems like 105 percent of her time. She is, to use her word, in a spiral. It is one o'clock in the morning, which is about the middle of the day in Mariah's universe, and she is wearing a gray hooded sweat shirt and customized Mariah jeans — with the cuffs and waistband cut off — a look she developed while shooting the cover for the "Heartbreaker" single. "My stylist, Tonjua Twist, was rolling down the top of my jeans, because when you wear jeans that are up to here, they can give you a roll of fat," she explains. "But I liked the way they fit on the butt. And she kept having to step in and step in, so finally I was like, 'Rip it, cut it,' and then that night, when I wore them out, everybody was like, 'Wow, where'd you get those jeans?' So then we started doing it to all of them."

For Mariah, the spiral wears many guises: There is the travel spiral, the mood spiral and, as is the case at this moment, the work spiral. Mariah is in Miami, although she started the day in Argentina, and she is just settling in for an edit session on a television special for which she went back and performed at her junior high school, on Long Island, where she grew up with her mother — her parents divorced when she was three. "It started out with wanting to do something after the things that happened in Columbine, and I still have dreams about junior high and high school days," she says. "So I thought it would be something positive to do."

After she's finished with that, she will be going to Venezuela to spend a few days with her boyfriend, Latin American pop superstar Luis Miguel, 29, and then to Los Angeles for a photo shoot, Las Vegas to accept the Billboard Music Award for Artist of the Decade, and Mexico to promote her record. With no makeup, her hair pulled back and her feet — clad in Prada mules with gray mesh tops and really, really high red heels — up on the desk in front of her, she looks a little bit like a third-grader who got into her mother's closet and then unexpectedly inherited a multinational corporation.

Although not actually the inheritor of a multinational corporation — Mariah grew up without much money, and her mother, an opera singer and voice teacher, sometimes worked as many as three jobs at a time to keep the family afloat — she is, at twenty-nine, a major asset to one: Sony, the parent company of her record label, Columbia. Since last summer, Mariah has written and recorded an album (Rainbow), seen its first single ("Heartbreaker") go to Number One, made three videos and shot a television special. She is the only artist to have had a Number One hit in every year of the past decade, a feat last achieved in the Twenties. She has had more Number One hits than any female artist, any active artist of either gender and, for that matter, any artist of any kind except for Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Globally, she has sold a staggering 105 million records since her debut, in 1990. She is currently in preproduction on a film she's been developing about a pop singer in the Eighties, called All That Glitters. She has done numerous in-store appearances and interviews. And she has done all this while wearing really, really high heels.

In fact, sometimes she has done all this while wearing really, really high heels twice — her evil alter ego, Bianca, with whom she grapples in the "Heartbreaker" video, is also not an aficionado of sensible footwear. Actually, given the grand arc of the spiral that is Mariah's life, two personae hardly seem like enough to handle the cell-phone traffic, let alone the work commitments. "I think her friends get more excited by her success than she does," says singer Trey Lorenz, who met Mariah when she was recording her first album. "I'll be like, 'You just broke the Supremes' record for Number One singles!' But maybe that's because she's always working."

Mariah recorded most of Rainbow in Capri, Italy, which was, because it's a hilly island and you have to walk everywhere, something of a footwear challenge. "I had to hike up a hill to the studio every day, so I just ended up sleeping there — it was a room that was not stellar," she says, making quotation marks with her fingers around the word stellar, which she pronounces, as she does certain words and phrases, a la Dr. Evil; Mariah is a big Austin Powers fan.

"It wasn't like a grand suite of any kind," she continues, preparing to launch into one of the most characteristic spirals in the spiral repertoire, the conversational spiral, "but I really don't care about having a huge room. I like to be in a more intimate setting. But this was taking it to the next level, because there were constant mosquitoes and it wasn't very clean and it was really small, so I would just go up and sing, and then I would sleep for as long as I could, and then, so I would at least feel like I had a little bit of a summer, I would take these little boats — there were no big boats available, because it was the height of the tourist season — to the Blue Grotto. One day I woke up right in front of the siren rock. The sirens would sit there and lure in the men. They gave them this rock because women were considered less important than men, and that's their revenge: They sexually entice men with their voices to come to this rock. And I happened to wake up in front of the siren rock, and I just fell in love with that."

To say that Mariah is a hands-on artist is to vastly understate the case. She is a dizzy dame (all those spirals), but her dizziness in no way indicates a lack of purpose or intelligence; if anything, it indicates an excess of those qualities. She is happy, she is in charge, and she is happy to be in charge. Her 1997 divorce from Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola, who signed her to her original deal after hearing the demo tape she handed him at a party as a teenager, has had a liberating effect. The marriage was not a peaceful one, and though both parties say that their current relationship is amicable, a burden has obviously been lifted — friends of Mariah's used to jokingly call the house in Bedford Hills, New York, that she shared with Mottola "Sing Sing," because the perceived demand for new records ("Sing! Sing!") was so unrelenting. (Incidentally, the house, which was sold in 1998, burned to the ground in December. Neither former spouse was seen running through the neighborhood with a torch.)

As the fair-minded and astute reader will perceive, as a simple explanation, this characterization of the marriage founders a little on the fact that now that she's at liberty to do anything, it makes her want to sing! sing! sing!

Either way, the point is that Mariah is a busy diva. "If I didn't see and experience all the things she does in a day, I wouldn't believe it, either," says her mother, Patricia Carey. "She's always been like that: never stopping, always writing, always doing something." "She's a trouper, to say the least," agrees director Brett Ratner, who did the "Heartbreaker" video. "But she's like a kid, too. That's what's so crazy, because when you're with Mariah, it's, like, Mariah's reality. It's like, 'Jump on and go for the ride.' And, look, she's really, really smart. She does everything: She writes, she produces. People think she's writing these songs just to sell records, but these songs come right from her heart."

In the meantime, Mariah's hectic pace is so well known that even her fan mail frequently abjures her to take some time off. She doesn't sleep, for one thing, and when she travels on business, she has to take along two people from her management company, so they can work in shifts. ("I just think I sleep better with anything that moves," she says. "Like on the plane, I know I have no choice except to stay put. When I was little, I used to sleep in cars.") Whether from anxiety or positive energy or a combination of the two, she is constitutionally incapable of doing just one thing — for example, in addition to traveling to Venezuela to see Luis, she is going to try to research the Venezuelan side of her half-African-American, half-Venezuelan father's family tree. (Mariah, whose mother is Irish-American, titled Rainbow partly in reference to her multiracial origins.)

With Rainbow, as with Butterfly, she has been even more involved than on her previous albums; since her divorce, her sound has increasingly reflected her taste for hip-hop, and Rainbow features guest appearances by Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Da Brat and Missy Elliott, and samples from songs like "Ain't No Fun If the Homies Can't Have None," as well as the purer pop of the inspirational ballads with which she is most associated. (In addition to having two personae, Mariah has three physiologically distinct singing voices: what's called a whisper voice, which is the uppermost part of her range; the high, breathy voice that falls in the middle; and the belting range. "They stick a thing down your throat — I have pictures of it," she says. "When my doctor lectures, he uses me as an example. A freak example.")

Quite apart from co-writing and co-producing almost all of her work, she has, since the release of Rainbow, been on a promotional spiral that has covered four continents and the purpose of which appears to be to come as close to meeting each and every fan in person as humanly possible while getting at least four hours of sleep a night.

"Sometimes I don't realize where I am anymore," she says, continuing to summarize the last five months, "because I'm in so many places — literally a city a day. But I think what happened after Capri is, I went to New York ... No! First I went to Tenerife [Spain], where Luis was giving a concert, and I thought that was going to be my little vacation time, but it wasn't as stellar a place as I thought it was going to be. But, still, it was nice to be with him, so I begged and pleaded with him to go to Capri with me before I went back and started my schedule. And that's not exactly a short jaunt. So, let's see ... then I went from Capri — are you cold? — from Capri to New York. Oh, and also, in the middle of this whole thing, I did the 'Heartbreaker' video in Los Angeles, and then I was completely bedridden, because I did my own stunts. I knew how to do a roundhouse kick, because my brother is a fifth-degree black belt, and they taught me the rest. But the person I had to fight against, she's a great girl, but she connected with me a few times, and I was bruised from head to toe.

"So I was in bed and I couldn't move. I was in misery; I had her hand prints on my leg, and nobody was there helping me except for Luis. He was like, 'I'll be your assistant for the day,' so he was taking care of me and getting me stuff. And he said, 'Open your eyes, open your eyes, look over there,' and I thought, 'Ooh, what did he do?' because he's a master of surprises. So I opened my eyes and Mini-Me was standing there in the bathroom! I thought it was the real Mini-Me, because Mini-Me hangs out and is often spotted at clubs. So I was like, 'Don't even tell me he brought Mini-Me here when I'm in this state of misery.' And it was a cardboard cutout that he saw in a store, but since his bathroom has lots of mirrors and I only opened my eyes for a second, it looked real.

"Then we went to Europe and I did this whole promotional mess, and I'm not sure if I went home in between or not. Oh, yes, I came back and we released the album, and then I took some fans who were winners of a contest to Europe with me on a plane. They called it Rainbow One, but it wasn't like it was some elaborately painted, beautiful plane. They were, like, they were going to make this rainbow plane, and I was like, 'Oh, great.' And then when I got there, they had thrown this sticker on; it was not stellar at all, it was not banging. Then I went to Chicago on the Rainbow plane and did Oprah, and we brought fans with us, which I love. Anything that involves actual interaction with real fans who give me feedback and stuff like that. Then I either went back to Europe or I went back to Hong Kong, I'm not sure which happened first. Then I went through Asia and to South America, and now here."

Mariah and Luis met a year ago in Aspen, where each was spending Christmas. They were set up by the real-estate agents who rented them their respective houses Mariah's agent told her that Luis wanted to meet her, and Luis' agent told him that Mariah wanted to meet him. Although Mariah's love life is the subject of intense speculation in the press, her relationship with Luis has been relatively quiet on a public level. It does make an occasional appearance in the gossip columns, however. Shortly after they met, an item appeared reporting that he had given her a diamond necklace.

"Well, he did do that," says Mariah when this rumor is raised. "But it was not like a big, elaborate diamond necklace; it's a nice Bulgari diamond necklace, and it was Christmas Eve, so it was appropriate. We met the day before Christmas Eve." She is sitting, eating carrot and celery sticks, in the vaguely Etruscan courtyard of the Miami recording studio where the vocal tracks for the television special are being mixed. (If there is one thing Mariah, who has been dieting, would like the world to know, it is that Joan Rivers has caused her to have an eating disorder by saying she looked fat at last year's Academy Awards.)

She is wearing her Mariah jeans and a short gray tank that leaves her midriff bare, and on one wrist a bunch of bracelets made of multicolored semiprecious stones that she collects for their rainbow symbolism, along with a gold bracelet she got as a birthday gift from a friend and a very tasteful diamond bracelet she got from Luis for Valentine's Day.

"In the beginning," she says of their relationship, "I didn't know where it was going, I was just in my whoo! stage of hanging out. And it was like I was on ecstasy everything was like it was the greatest thing on earth. Because of my fixation about feeling like an outsider in every situation, I used to have this whole thing from when I was a little girl that was like, 'Someday I will meet somebody mixed who will look like me, and we'll have a similar life, and we'll be happy ever after,' and that would complete me somehow. Not to be quoting Jerry Maguire, but I felt like it was going to make me whole as a person, because I felt like such a fragmented combo plate of things. But it doesn't work that way you have to find someone who is emotionally compatible. And Luis is that way, because, first of all, the fact that we're both musicians is an interesting new dynamic, which is really great. I went to a show of his last week where women were passing out and fainting and being carried out on stretchers. It was, like, 50,000 people, and some people had signs that said 'Luis and Mariah,' and it was just really nice, it was really cute. It's not nasty or competitive or negative. Because he's like a king in those countries, but I have devoted fans down there, too. People ask me all the time if there's any competition, but it's the furthest thing from that."

As the oblique references to her brief relationship with multiracial Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter in the above quote indicate, Mariah is a little reluctant to discuss her personal life in detail. However, she is obliging to a fault, and several days later she calls from ... oh, someplace, where she is getting her makeup done in a car on the way to a press conference, to deliver the following report on the Billboard Music Awards, spiraling toward a Luis anecdote, which is the purpose of the call.

"It was really great, and afterward we went to this restaurant. And there was this woman there, and it was her boyfriend's birthday, and she asked me if I would sing 'Happy Birthday' to him, because she had told him the night was going to be full of surprises. So my friend Trey and I did a little impromptu version of 'Happy Birthday.' But before that, she was going, 'I'll give you $100 if you sing, I'll give you $100.' And I said, 'No, it's OK, you don't have to.' And she's going into her bag and pulling out money, and I was saying, 'No, it's OK! Keep the $100, it's not a problem.' Isn't that pretty great? I think it's pretty funny, after winning Artist of the Decade, to be offered $100 to sing 'Happy Birthday.' So I had this really great night. For once, I had this really happy, triumphant feeling about the whole thing. I was really happy with the whole thing. And also, Luis sent me flowers to the suite and a congratulatory note, and it was really sweet, because he tried to send ten dozen roses but they only had seven dozen in all of Vegas. And so with the roses there was a note from the florist, apologizing and saying, 'He tried to send you ten dozen but he cleaned out all the roses in Vegas.' So how cute is that?"

Truth be told, Mariah is, in her happiness, in fact something of a screwball diva. For example, she is thinking about doing a world tour and starting it in Guam, because she has always, since she was a little girl, had a hypnotic fascination with the word Guam, and she recently received a fan letter from Guam, saying she had a lot of fans in Guam, and Dr. Evil, she believes, has his underground world headquarters in Guam, but she has heard there are a lot of snakes in Guam, which fall out of the trees of Guam, and the snakes of Guam have eaten all the birds of Guam, so there are no birds in Guam.

Strangely enough, one thing that has historically been used to kill the snakes of Guam are the Jack Russell terriers of Guam; even more strangely, Mariah has a number of Jack Russell terriers, one of which is named Guam. So, she reasons, she will start her tour in Guam, and she will have Sporty Thievz for her opening act, and they can sing "No Pigeons," and then, at the end of her show, she will do "Hero" and release a bunch of pigeons. Then there will be birds in Guam, and maybe she will also donate some Jack Russell terriers. When objections to this plan are raised, she says, "But I'm afraid of snakes. What else can I do?" Well, if she puts it that way, nothing.

"I always said that if Mariah's personality came out as it really is, there would be no stopping her and people would really love her," says Trey Lorenz. "I think it was different even a few years ago, when she really wasn't able to express herself. Now, when people are like, 'She's so different!' I say, 'No, you're actually seeing more of Mariah, as far as the cool side and the person who's just like you, more than you ever got to see.' Because she's cool people."

Agrees Mariah's mom, "She's certainly more content with herself, and there's a peace that she has now that she didn't have for a long time, that she certainly didn't have when she was married. But now she's back to being the old Mariah. The Mariah who grew up fun-loving and outgoing is back. And she wasn't here for a while."

Despite having sold 105 million records worldwide during the last ten years, Mariah, who recently bought an apartment in downtown Manhattan but who has been living in hotels and sublets since her marriage ended, owns only one piece of furniture: Marilyn Monroe's mother's old white babygrand piano, for which she paid $662,000 at auction last fall.

"My accountant was dying," she says. "Actually, I also own a chair that Louise McNally, my manager, gave me because she felt bad that I didn't own any furniture. It's a gold and white chair, from probably circa 1801. It's a very nice chair; she gave it to me for Christmas last year. But I have always loved Marilyn, since I was a little girl and I saw my mother watching a documentary about her life, and for some reason I was really taken by her. And the rest of the world was, too, so it's not such a thing, but I had an increased fascination with her, and I started reading books about her. Which was maybe not really material for an eight-year-old kid to be reading, but I learned a lot of things about her life, so I know that the piano was something that belonged to Gladys, her mother. And since her mother was institutionalized and it was a big issue for her, and her father never acknowledged her, and she didn't have any children, although she tried a lot of times, and she had no family to say how she would want her things distributed ...

"I mean, would you want someone auctioning off your things randomly who you didn't even know? I feel like she's such an icon that she deserves a Graceland, but she doesn't have one. Anyway, my point is, the piano was her mom's. She lost it along the way when her mother was institutionalized, but somehow she went through all this trouble to find this white piano again. So that was a really sentimental thing for her, and she didn't have very many things that belonged to her family, so I just wanted to make sure that someone who cared about it got it, and I'm going to keep it, but I'm going to make sure that eventually it goes to a museum. When something happens to me. Or maybe before that I'll put it in a museum, I don't know — I'll have to see what the energy and the vibe is around it, because it's a pretty intense thing. But she was taken advantage of by a lot of people.

"I was glad I got the piano, because that's something that I think shouldn't be exploited, when it was something she really cared about. And it's kind of coming full circle from being a little girl reading books about her to being able to actually buy something like this. I guess what it cost was kind of a joke, but I don't own anything else — this is the only thing that I own. And it meant something to me. In fact, I'm really happy about it."