"When I was growing up, I felt trapped in a world not suited to me," Mariah Carey said. "What I saw around me was scary, and it wasn't where I wanted to be. I refused to accept it as my future."
What Carey saw around herand what she was impatient to escapewere bigotry, substance abuse, poverty. She wanted to create a very different future for herself. Music was the means she used to do it.
"I had a goal," she said. "I knew I wanted to sing. It was more than a dream to me. It was a prayer that I prayed with my whole heart. It was something I truly believed would happen, and it did."
Mariah Carey, 35, is arguably the most popular female singer, ever. Since releasing her first record at 20, she has sold more than 150 million albums and had more No. 1 singles than any individual performer except Elvis Presley.
Still, Carey said, "I didn't feel worthy of happiness. One day, I looked around and thought, 'Why did I ever expect that if I had this success, I would have happiness too?'"
Four years ago, the sparkling world that Carey had worked so hard to create began spinning out of control. Her movie Glitter and its CD flopped. Her record company, Virgin, responded by paying her to go away. Her three-year romance with Mexican singer Luis Miguel petered out. Her father died of cancer. On top of all this misfortune, she had a physical and emotional breakdown that landed her in the hospital. Many people in the music business wrote her off. She was in a bad way, and she knew it.
"I needed the focus and determination that I once had," she said. "I wanted the faith back."Carey has now come back with The Emancipation of Mimi ("Mimi" is Mariah's nickname), a terrific new CD with lovely R&B ballads and danceable hip-hop, all written by her. An enormous hit, it had the biggest first-week sales of any of her 10 studio albums. "With this record, I wanted to get back to the little girl I was," she said. "I wanted that purity.
"The youngest of three children born into a biracial family, Mariah Carey was raised in difficult circumstances in Huntington, N.Y., not far from New York City. Her father, Alfred, was an aeronautical engineer. Her mother, Patricia, 67, a sometime singer, is of Irish Catholic descent.
"My mom fell in love with my dad, and it was a controversial situation because he was black," Carey said. "She had grown up in a very rigid environment, went to convent school, and to marry my father was a rebellious act. There was a lot of prejudice."
When Mariah was 3, her parents had a bitter divorce. In its wake came family disputes, financial distress and insecurity. "I grew up with nothing," Mariah said. "My mother struggled to make ends meet. I never knew when the rug would be pulled out from under me. Still, it was probably better to be with my mother than my father. He thought my dream of singing was far-fetched. It was my mother who taught me how to sing." Then she smiled. "My father taught me how to whistle.
"I started singing when I started talking," she went on. "I always had such a desire to be around music. I absorbed it like a sponge. I'd hear my mother singing Rigoletto around the house, and then I'd hear Al Green's 'Call Me' on the radio. At night I'd listen to the radio under the covers and sing along. The radio was my friend, speaking just to me. Music was such a gift!"
Music was also an escape from the racial prejudice she felt. "I'd go into a store with my father," she said, "and people would stare, you know. Or I'd be with my mother, who is very Irish-looking, and I'm mixed, and people would ask, 'What is your father?' The fear, the sense of inadequacy, the feeling of not being fully acceptedI felt all that.
"You get to a certain age, and you don't tell your parents everything anymore," she continued. "It's embarrassing to say, 'Well, I felt really ugly in school today. My hair was in knots.' You grow up looking at Sixteen Candles and wanting to be the popular girl. You look at the other kids and think, 'Where do I fit?' I felt like an outcast."
When Carey was 13, she got her first paid job. "I got money to sing background vocals," she said. "I thought, 'This is amazing. It's a whole other world!' I started by doing jingles, and then I did demos of writers' songs because I'm also a good mimic. If the sound du jour was a little thin and nasally [she trilled a scale], well, I can do that. Or I can do a more breathy sound, like Olivia Newton-John, which is my natural voice. I began thinking, 'I can write better songs than this,' and I started writing songs."
In 1987, after graduating from high school, Carey moved into Manhattan. She was 17, intensely ambitious, with a beautiful voice of dazzling virtuosity over an astonishing five-octave range. The next year, Carey was signed to a recording contract with Columbia Records by Tommy Mottola of Sony Music. In two years, her music would help make Mottola the most powerful man in the record business, and it would earn Carey fame and tremendous wealth.
Her debut album, Mariah Carey, released in 1990, sold 9 million copies and produced four consecutive No. 1 singles. Carey said that her long Columbia/Sony partnership eventually made the company more than $1 billion.
Mottola, 20 years older than Carey, was married and had two young children when they met. Carey was still a virgin. "I'm not a promiscuous girl," she said. "I believe that's something to be proud of."
In 1993, Carey married Mottola, who by then was president of Sony Music Entertainment, and they built a lavish mansion on a 50-acre estate in tony Bedford, N.Y. Carey paid for half of everything. "In the beginning, it was easy to be enthralled by him," she said. "He totally believed in me as an artist. He represented a stability I'd never had. I loved and cared for him."
She paused for a moment, then said: "When fame happened, he couldn't handle it. I was treated almost like a prisoner. Everybody around me was deathly afraid of him. I became so scared. I was like an obsession and a possession."She separated from Mottola, and they were divorced in 1998. "When I got married," she said, "I really thought it was going to be forever. I wish someone had smacked me in the face."
During this marital turmoil, Carey attended a gala for The Fresh Air Fund, which provides free rural vacations for underprivileged New York children. (As a teen, she'd spent time at one of its camps. Now there's a Camp Mariah in Fishkill, N.Y., named in her honor.) That night she met Derek Jeter. An eventual romance with the Yankee shortstop altered how she understood herself.
"Derek's parents are like mine," Carey said. "His father's black, his mom's Irish. So when I saw how great his family was, it gave me hope. I realized that I was blaming all the problems of my life on growing up biracial. Derek's family functioned great as a unit, and I'd never seen that before. I looked at Derek, and it changed my perception."
But the romance ended in less than a year. Why so soon? "It was the wrong time," she said quietly. "Our two worlds were just too much for that moment."
By 1999, she had begun an affair with Luis Miguel. That relationship lasted, on and off, until her career hit the skids. Mariah reacted with compulsive overwork and too little sleep.
Then she shattered inside.
I asked what had sustained her through the breakdown. She recalled a memory from childhood: "It was when I was 4 years old. My parents' battles, crazinesswhateverwas going on in my house. Everybody was crying. It got to the point where the police were called. That's how intense it was. Then someone called Nana Reese to come to the house, because we needed her."
Sarah "Nana" Cole Reese, her father's aunt, was a Pentecostal minister. "Nana was the real thing, a healer," Carey said. "She laid her hands on me, and I felt in that moment a connection between us. She said, 'You're going to be OK. All your dreams are going to come true.'
"The faith Nana Reese and my mother had in me carried me through," she said. "And because I know I'm not perfect, I've had to learn forgiveness. I try wholeheartedly to forgive anyone I feel has wronged me, because I hope people who feel I've wronged them will forgive me. I want to be a forgiving person."