It is a rainy Thursday afternoon and Mariah Carey is talking to me from her home in Los Angeles, her voice coming through my laptop. Is this the real life or is this just fantasy? (Sweet, sweet fantasy …) “Hello, good morning, good afternoon, this is a little unusual,” says a gravelly voiced Carey. You’re telling me, Mariah.
We are talking by video chat, but – as specified by Carey – without the video turned on, so it is pure chat. Despite her ability to hit the high notes, Carey has always described herself as an alto. Yet even taking that into account, her voice today sounds pretty husky. Is she feeling OK?
“It’s 6am here, and I’m awake in the bright light and it’s fabulous and I love it,” she says and makes an exaggerated groan.
I’m sorry you had to get up so early for this interview, I say.
“Well, darling, then let’s not book interviews at 6am if you’re worried! But please, it’s not you,” she says, and indeed it isn’t. The time and date of our interview have moved around so many times to accommodate Carey’s ever-shifting schedule that, for a while, it looked as if it wouldn’t happen at all. But at the last minute, it was decided we would talk at 6am her time, which I was promised would be fine because Carey is a self-described “nocturnal person”, so that would be 6pm for her. Alas, for reasons too complicated to get into, for one night only, Carey was a non-nocturnal person, so now 6am is just 6am.
“Typically I would have been working [all night] until now, but we had a situation and I couldn’t. Then I tried to get some sleep, but actually I watched the interview I did with Oprah. But it’s OK, it was just one night [of no sleep] and here I am,” she says. You don’t become one of the most successful singer-songwriters of all time – she has sold more than 200m records, and only the Beatles have had more No 1 songs – without being a trouper.
Carey, 50, has spent lockdown with her nine-year-old twins, Monroe, named for Carey’s hero, Marilyn Monroe, and Moroccan, named partly for one of her favourite rooms in one of her houses, the Moroccan room, “where so many creative and magical moments have happened, including Nick presenting me with my candy bling”. Nick is Nick Cannon, the twins’ father, and “candy bling” is Carey’s term for her engagement ring, which Cannon hid inside a sweet before proposing. Carey liked Cannon’s proposal so much that she even wrote a song about it, called Candy Bling. The marriage proved less enduring and the couple divorced in 2016.
“Honestly, I don’t miss anyone outside, so I don’t care about lockdown,” she says with a throaty laugh. “But it’s difficult for the kids, because they’re used to three-times-a-year Disney World moments and stuff like that, and that’s just not the current state of affairs.” It is not. So Carey is conducting the promotional tour for her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, from her kitchen table, and if she has her way – and who would dare to argue? – this will be the last round of interviews she ever does.
“No offence to doing interviews, but what would be the point? I can’t articulate it better than I already have [in the book]. From now on, I’m like, ‘Please refer to page 29,’ you know what I mean?” she says. Carey’s deliciously shady put-downs are legend: her “I don’t know her”, when asked almost two decades ago about Jennifer Lopez is still the internet’s most beloved diss. Speaking of Lopez, her name is notably not in Carey’s memoir. Instead, when recalling the hoo-hah that led to their fallout, when a sample Carey had planned to use on her single, Loverboy, appeared on Lopez’s I’m Real, Carey refers to her as a “female entertainer (whom I don’t know).” So is her official position still that she has never heard of Lopez?
There is a pause, then stifled laughter. “Oh my gosh, can you hear that music in the background? It’s Sam Cooke! It’s fantastic!” she giggles.
Not only has Carey not heard of Lopez, she cannot even hear questions about her, it seems.
Carey’s memoir is about a lot more than score-settling (although she makes time for that, too.) “I don’t think anyone could have known where I was coming from, because I was always very, I don’t know if it was protective, but I was cryptic about the past, let’s say,” she says. No more. The youngest child of an African American father and a white mother, Carey was three when her parents split up. Her childhood was threaded through with neglect and violence, not least from her older siblings. When she was six, she says, her older brother knocked her mother unconscious; when she was 12, her older sister allegedly drugged her and left her with creepy men.
“I think my staying up all night started from having such a dysfunctional family. Oftentimes, whoever was in the house was doing whatever it was that they were doing, and that felt kinda unsafe to me, so I started staying up,” she says. Another legacy of this time is Carey’s obsessive adoration of Christmas, because her childhood Christmases were so miserable. When she wrote the monster hit All I Want for Christmas Is You, she wanted, she says in her book, “to write a song that would make me feel like a carefree young girl at Christmas”.
As a child, her biracial identity made her feel she did not belong anywhere: she was so self-conscious about not being black enough that she wouldn’t even dance, as she associated that with black culture; meanwhile, white girls at school taunted her with the N-word. In one of Carey’s – and my – favourite chapters, she describes how her mother did not know how to look after her young daughter’s textured hair, so it was often matted. Carey would look enviously at the white women in shampoo adverts on TV with their flowing hair. “I am still obsessed with blowing hair, as evidenced by the wind machines employed in every photoshoot of me ever,” she writes.
One of the most painful moments in the book comes in 2001 when Carey is having what the press described as an emotional breakdown. (Carey writes that she did not have a breakdown, but “was broken down by the very people who were supposed to keep me whole.”) During this episode, she rages at her mother, who calls the police. The police take her mother’s side: “Even Mariah Carey couldn’t compete with a nameless white woman in distress,” Carey writes. Is that how she experienced it at the time, or is that how she feels generally, that not even she is safe if a white woman complains?
There is the briefest of pauses. “Those are my words, so please refer to page 29,” Carey says.
Race is very much the running theme in Carey’s memoir. This might come as some surprise to those who know her solely from the mega pop hits such as Hero and We Belong Together, as opposed to the more revealing songs, such as 1997’s Outside, which addressed her feelings of racial ambiguity (sample lyric: “Neither here nor there / Always somewhat out of place everywhere”). “I can’t help that I’m ambiguous-looking,” she says, “and most people would assume that it’s been to my benefit, and maybe it has in some ways. But it’s also been a lifelong quest to feel like I belong to any specific group. It shouldn’t have to be such a freaking thing – and please edit out the fact that I said ‘freaking’. I’m not very eloquent right now.” I ask if she was at all influenced during the writing of her book by the rise of Black Lives Matter. She dismisses the question: “Interestingly, this book predates everything that’s happening now, and the book just happened to be very timely.” In other words, Carey hasn’t caught up to the times, the times have caught up to Carey.
Despite her omnipresence over the past three decades, it is possible that you have not thought about her ethnicity. This, Carey says, has been part of the problem: from the start, she was marketed by “the powerful corporate entities” in a way that played down her racial identity. What made this even more complicated for her was that the most powerful corporate entity in charge of her career at the beginning was her first husband, Tommy Mottola, then the CEO of Sony Music.
Carey’s discovery by Mottola is the stuff of music industry legend. The then unknown aspiring singer gave him a tape of her music at a party in 1988. Mottola tracked her down, signed her and, a few years later, married her. She was 23 and he was 44. Within just a few pages in her memoir, she goes from wearing her mother’s busted shoes to work to living in a $30m mansion with Mottola, which she decorated with enthusiasm: “Though by no stretch do I like a rustic look, I do have a preference for tumbled marble on my kitchen floors,” she writes. Adjusting to the high life was not difficult.
The hits – I’ll Be There, Emotions, One Sweet Day – were unstoppable. The Mottola-Carey marriage did not fare as well, imploding in 1997. Carey expands at some length on her previous allusions to Mottola’s controlling tendencies, claiming he would spy on her and that she was effectively a prisoner in the house. In his 2013 memoir, Mottola admits his relationship with Carey was “absolutely wrong and inappropriate” and adds: “If it seemed like I was controlling, I apologise. Was I obsessive? Yes, but that was also a part of the reason for her success.” Carey points out that she went on to have nine hit albums without Mottola’s controlling obsession. She writes that Mottola tried to “wash the urban” off her, recoiling at Carey’s increasing leaning towards hip-hop and collaborations with African American artists such as ODB. “I believe I said ‘urban, translation black,’ just in case anyone thinks I don’t know,” Carey corrects me. Does she think that was just for commercial purposes, or was something else going on with Mottola? “In my opinion there was a lot of other stuff going on there,” she says.
It must have been pretty upsetting to revisit that period during the writing, I say.
“Yes it was traumatic, but was it harder than some of the other things I’ve gone through? Maybe yeah, actually,” she says with a rueful laugh. “I don’t know if I’ll ever fully recover from the damage of that emotional abuse. But in my school of thought, you have to be a forgiving person.”
Carey is extraordinarily honest in her memoir, but the book is almost as striking for what she does not include as what she does. A lot of attention has focused on her confirmation that she did, as long rumoured, have a fling with the former baseball star Derek Jeter (“I’m not being shady, but he had on pointy shoes,” she recalls a little shadily of their first meeting.) But there is no mention of other boyfriends, such as her former fiancé, the Australian billionaire James Packer.
“If it was a relationship that mattered, it’s in the book. If not, it didn’t occur,” she says.
But you were engaged to Packer, I say.
“We didn’t have a physical relationship, to be honest with you,” she says.
And that is that.
Carey’s singing voice made her famous, but her penchant for being thrillingly, hilariously high-maintenance played its own part in shaping her legend. On an episode of MTV Cribs, she explained that she had a chaise longue in her kitchen because “I have a rule against sitting up straight”, and she has talked about bathing only in milk. Does she think she is high-maintenance – and, if so, does she think it is because she came from nothing?
“You know what? I don’t give a shit. I fucking am high-maintenance because I deserve to be at this point. That may sound arrogant, but I hope you frame it within the context of coming from nothing. If I can’t be high-maintenance after working my ass off my entire life, oh, I’m sorry – I didn’t realise we all had to be low-maintenance. Hell, no! I was always high-maintenance, it’s just I didn’t have anyone to do the maintenance when I was growing up!” she says and cackles with delight.
By now it is almost 7am for her and she is wide awake. I tell her I enjoyed all the references in her book to her enjoying “a splash of wine”.
“Oh, do you? Do you love a splash for yourself?” she asks, pleased.
I do, but I was intrigued by her description of a night out with her friends, including Cam’Ron and Juelz Santana, when they were all “high” on “purple treats”. What were these “purple treats”?
“A legal substance in California known as mari-ju-ana. It’s called purple because that’s the particular weed they liked,” she says.
And did she like it?
“Are you enquiring for yourself or are you asking if I enjoyed it?” she says, mock coy.
I am asking if you enjoyed it, Mariah.
“No, I hated it,” she deadpans, then laughs. “I’m sorry, but it’s obvious!”
I have been interviewing famous people for a long time, but talking with Carey is the closest I have come to how I imagine it would have been to spend time with Bette Davis or Aretha Franklin. There are lots of ridiculous modern celebrities, but Carey is not like that. With her mix of slightly self-parodic ridiculousness undercut with no-messin’, true-to-herself honesty, she is a proper grande dame of the old school. A diva, in other words. It is a term she has laboured under throughout her career, and it is unlikely she will escape it, even if people now finally know where she is coming from. Does she mind the D-word?
“No! Who the fuck cares?” she laughs. “Honestly! ‘Oh my God, they’re calling me a diva – I think I’m going to cry!’ You think in the grand scheme of things in my life that really matters to me, being called a diva? I am, bitches, that’s right!”
The Meaning of Mariah Carey (Macmillan, £20) and The Rarities (Sony Music) are out now.
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