Mariah Carey's reputation precedes her. While she may be the biggest-selling female recording artist of all time, with hits like Hero and Honey generating over 150 million record sales worldwide, the golden girl lost her Midas touch very publicly four years ago.
In August 2001, she was hospitalised with exhaustion after rambling on MTV and subsequently collapsing. Her movie Glitter was released weeks later, but proved to be a spectacular flop and, just months after, Mariah was paid £35 million to walk away from a £70 million contract with Virgin.
Her last album, Charmbracelet, released by Def Jam Records in 2002, and a worldwide tour in 2003, was the last we heard of the 35-year-old singer. Now she's back with a single, It's Like That, and her tenth album, The Emancipation Of Mimi, which refers to her nickname and sums up how she's overcome the emotional problems of her past.
It swaps the soft sound of her earlier hits for funkier tunes with a hip-hop influence. "The album says, 'This is who I am. Take it or leave it,'" she explains. "It's a profound statement for me, because I grew up a very insecure person."
For all her wealth, fame and anticipated career comeback, the one element that has so far eluded her is love. Her five-year marriage to former Sony boss Tommy Mottola was the closest she has come although she now describes it as "emotionally abusive."
"I do think that early on with Tommy, it was a very good, very nurturing relationship for me and, I have to say that he really did provide a sense of stability," she muses.
Yet despite this statement, a video for one of her new tracks does still seem to contain a thinly disguised attack on her ex. For We Belong Together, Mariah dons her wedding dress and plays a bride who ditches her older fiancé, played by 48-year-old Eric Roberts (brother of Julia) for a young stud.
But she insists that the reappearance of the $25,000 Vera Wang dress, complete with 27ft train, was not a publicity stunt. "At the last minute, we decided to tie two videos together [It's Like That and We Belong Together] with this wedding concept, but we only had one day to go get this wedding dress. So I said to Brett [Ratner, the director], 'Well, I do have a wedding dress in storage that I could pull out,' Why should I go buy a big thing that won't even fit me?
"My manager said I was really brave to put this thing back on, but it didn't freak me out. The hour I had the dress on at my wedding wasn't a bad moment the rest of the relationship was! The wedding was an attempt to salvage the relationship.
"But do you know what? I don't think I've ever really been in love," add Mariah, who claims to have had no more than five lovers. "And if I don't know, I probably haven't been."
Her new album includes the song, One And Only, with lyrics which illustrate her failure to find love" "Every time I turn around/I find my heart in pieces on the ground/So so lonely/I'm lookin' for my one and only".
She admits that she's had a tendency to "romanticise" things in the past, but then reality would hit home later on. "I would like to be in love. My problem is I can't really trust people, because I know what their agenda is. It's like you befriend somebody, you listen to all their problems, they talk about their stuff, you talk about yours. The next thing you know, they're lying to the world, saying that you had an affair and had a relationship with them."
Is the singer referring to rapper Eminem, who in 2002 announced that they'd had "somewhat of a relationship?" "Eminem and I were just friends," she demurs. "He just made up a story about me. I certainly didn't do anything physical with that guy."
It's not surprising that after such a blemished relationship history, Mariah's wary of starting another. "I'm not sure that's worth it unless somebody spectacular comes along," she says. But what kind of fella would she find spectacular? "A man who's got a sense of humour and isn't drab."
Some men are intimidated by her fame, although she doesn't like overconfident guys, either. "The thing is that sometimes men go overboard and they're like, 'I'm going to be the man who's telling her the truth.' But really, I've got friends who tell me the truth. I don't need someone who's going to be the truthful one and tell me things that are annoying just to prove a point that they're not kissing my ass. It's like, 'We get it!'
Last December, Mariah was pictured in a bikini chatting to Richard Branson on his private Caribbean island, Necker. But she denies there was any chemistry there. "I'd always wanted to go to Necker, and Richard invited me out and I brought some friends. His wife, Joan, is wonderful and so cool. I think they're a good couple. His whole family was so nice. He was a very good host and we had a good time."
So is there a man in her life now? "That, we're not talking about any more," she says firmly. "It's private. There may be, but then again there may not be. And it could all shift in a second! No, I'm just kidding," she adds mysteriously; but rumour has it that she is dating a 28-year-old who works for her.
"It's hard to go out with another famous person because it becomes a competition, and I don't want to compete," she adds, yet she is certainly attracted to famous men. Her other two public relationships have been with baseball player Derek Jeter and singer Luis Miguel, from whom Mariah split in 2002, though they were briefly reunited last year.
But her most famous pairing was her highly publicised marriage and acrimonious split from Tommy Mottola, 21 years her senior. The pair married in 1993 and divorced five years later. Mariah believed that Mottola who is now married to Mexican singer Thalia would become less claustrophobic after their wedding. But he failed to change.
"I thought that would make him feel less of a need to be overly protective and it would make him feel more secure. That didn't happen, and that's not a reason to get married, but I didn't have a template for what was a proper relationship. My parents got divorced when I was three, so I only saw dysfunctional relationships."
In spite of one bad marriage, the singer reveals she would consider another trip up the aisle. "I would marry again because I have it in its proper perspective, I think. I'd never be with somebody that has those same qualities [as Mottola]. and also nobody would ever be able to manipulate me like that again."
But as a woman in her mid-thirties, might she have started to hear her biological clock ticking? "First of all, I wasn't with the right person, so thank God I never had kids. But no, I don't feel pressure, because people that I know really kind of wait until they're in a place where they feel it's right.
"But for me, it's a very big commitment to have a child. Even just a famous person, to bring a child into the world, you have to think about how to explain it to them, because they're not choosing to come into the life of a celebrity, they're going to be born into it. I'd want them to live freely and not to be victimised by any kind of weird pressures or things that we as celebrities deal with. I don't complain about it because it's what I chose."
Born in Long Island, New York, Mariah is of mixed race, and she and her parents had to endure severe racial prejudice. Her late father Alfred, an engineer, was black, and her mother, Patricia, an opera singer and voice coach, is white. After her parents divorced, Mariah was brought up by Patricia, but they were often forced to move home due to their financial circumstances.
"I didn't feel pretty, like I belonged anywhere. I felt like an outcast, mainly because of coming from a bi-racial family. Because of my childhood and because soon after adolescence I got into this restrictive relationship. I never felt secure because my insecurities were preyed upon," says Mariah, who has written a book for mixed race children which would be out next year.
These insecurities were further exposed during her breakdown. "It was quoted as emotional and physical breakdown, but it was just exhaustion," she explains. "That time in my life was highly sensationalised and it came after years and years of basically being in a tremendously abusive relationship, coming out of that and then struggling to find my way on my own in the business and working myself into the ground because that was my work ethic from when I was a kid."
With therapy and rest, the singer is now back to her sparkling seld and she dazzled at her 35th birthday party at London's Tantra nightclub last month. Clad in a white dress and diamonds at the celebrity-studded affair, she was presented with a birthday cake that cost £5,000 and took 18 days to make.
It's no wonder she has been painted as a diva. The press are quick to pick up on her 'demands' on the same trip to London it was reported that she asked for a red carpet be rolled out and candlelit for her 2am arrival at her hotel but during our interview, the friendly singer couldn't be less diva-like.
"I don't sound like a diva? I'm glad!" she chuckles. "I don't think I'm hard to work with. But you know what? That's the last of my problems. If that's what people want to say, the negative connotations of being a diva, then it's not my problem."
And with a new determination to look after herself, she can even put a positive spin on the Glitter debacle. "I look on it as a blessing, really. I'm grateful for everything that moment brought for me because it taught me a lesson to really get focused, get grounded, get more in touch with my spirituality and make the best album of my life. That where I am now."