It's 10 p.m. on a Sunday night and we're sitting in a private room inside one of the most expensive hotels in Dublin. She has taken off her Valentino stilettossomeone packed them for her, but they're too smalland is patiently waiting for another someone to bring her snacks. The only things she's had time to consume since waking up are a little protein shake and some psyllium, a fiber supplement.
One of the someones finally arrives with a platter of charcuterie and olives and a bottle of red wine. We clink glasses. Mariah takes a sip with her literal pinkie in the air, the large diamond butterfly ring on her right hand (there's one on her left too) sparkling. She puts her bare feet up on a velvet ottoman. It's tiring being in the middle of a global tour. Not an international tour, honeya global one.
But after a few sips, Mariah is unsatisfied. "It just tastes disgusting," she says, sending the wine back with an apology. (For the record, the replacement bottle was "not so great" either.)
Many, including Mariah, would say that she's more than earned the right to demand exactly what she wants. This is the woman who entered the music business as an ingenue three decades ago, broke tons of records, and still, to this day, has produced more number one Billboard Hot 100 hits than any other female artist in history.
This is the woman who owned the entire '90s: Hearing just one note from "Vision of Love," "Always Be My Baby," "Hero," "Honey," or "Heartbreaker" is enough to send elderly millennials straight back to the glory days of Steve Madden platforms, Delia*s catalogs, and My So-Called Life marathons. (When I listen to the chorus from "My All," I can practically smell the middle school hair of my own Jordan Catalano.)
This is the woman who's kept going ever since—and not necessarily by reinventing herself. There is only one Mariah, after all, and she's ageless (like, literally ageless. Not even the internet knows how old she is for sure.) Instead, she's stayed relevant by hustling to intentionally adapt along the way.
Take one of the best-known memes of all time—"I don't know her"—which is both classic and current Mariah. When she was asked by a German TV interviewer in the aughts for her thoughts on music rival Jennifer Lopez, Mariah breezily shook her head and replied, "I don't know her." Years later, as meme culture exploded, this indirectly direct bombshell of shade minted Mariah as an internet queen.
So just imagine if, instead of constantly celebrating fresh gaggles of It Girls, we applauded the act of staying, of lasting, of never for a second even thinking of fading away. In this world, Mariah would always be It. That's more than she can say for the new breed of superstars, who, honestly...just don't know her. "They have no idea what I went through as a child to even get to be an 18-year-old girl with a record deal," she says. "This was before you could just go on YouTube and sing."
Mariah grew up on Long Island, outside New York City. She talks about herself as a biracial girl—a mix of African-American, Venezuelan, and Irish—with divorced parents and financial challenges. At the time, "people didn't understand who I was, what I was, my ethnicity, the fact that we didn't have money."
Her rocky childhood is one of the reasons she loves Christmas so much. "As a kid, I always hoped for great Christmases, and we didn't have them," she remembers. "My brother and sister would come back to wherever I was with my mom, and they'd be fighting and ruining the holiday. I would still be like, You know what? I just want to have the best time." (She eventually got that best time: This year marks the 25th anniversary of "All I Want for Christmas Is You," the most popular holiday song in modern history—it's estimated to have netted Mariah more than $60 million—and she now pours her heart into the season for her children. "We do everything that I always wanted to do as a kid.")
As a teen, Mariah waitressed to make ends meet and spent most of her free time writing songs. After putting a demo tape together, she managed to get it in the hands of Sony Music boss Tommy Mottola. The titan of the industry—he worked with Michael Jackson and Celine Dion—took a very young Mariah under his very powerful wing. Their relationship quickly turned romantic, despite a 20-year age difference, and the two married soon after her self-titled debut album became the best-selling record of 1991.
"You might want to picture a child bride," she says. "There was a conscious effort to keep me as this all-American, whatever that means, girl. It was very controlled. There was no freedom for me as a human being. It was almost like being a prisoner." Mottola has since called the relationship "wrong and inappropriate," and they split after eight years.
Still, she managed to create 6 number one albums and 18 number one singles (many of which she co-wrote), win five Grammys, and dominate the music world with her rare five-octave vocal range. Have there been mishaps? Sure. There was that infamous 2016 New Year's Eve performance, when her earpiece malfunctioned and she refused to sing along with the backup track. A casual viewer might have assumed Mariah was being "difficult" or, worse, planning to lip-synch all along.
"If people think that's the worst thing that's ever happened to me, then first of all, they haven't studied my career well enough," she says. "After what I've been through, who really gives a shit if my monitor broke, fell off, came out of my ears because the stupid robe was too loose? These things happen and it's over. My true fans stick with me, and the rest of the people will get over it."
Actually, the people will love it— or love to hate it—especially online. And don't think Mariah doesn't know that. After having twins with ex-husband Nick Cannon in 2011, she immediately branded them #DemBabies, way before celebrity kids as brands was A Thing. When she dislocated her shoulder in 2013, she showed up for the paparazzi wearing a bedazzled sling. Before launching into her Icon Award acceptance speech at the Billboard Music Awards this May, Mariah pulled a tissue from her bra, blotted her face, and tossed it to the side. Social media went crazy. ("It was so not planned," she says now, with a hair toss and a slight shrug.)
And it bears repeating: Nobody can drop viral-worthy shade like Mariah. Throughout our snack-and-wine time, Mariah never directly names any of her competitors—or the YouTube stars currently ruling the charts—but she has a way of talking about them anyway.
On the subject of writing: "A lot of artists say they write, but they don't really write. No offense to anybody. That's just what I've seen."
On style: "A lot of girls are just nude in front of everybody. No offense to them."
On music videos: "They don't do $2 million videos anymore. Anybody can make a video now."
On her apparent preference for younger men (she's currently dating her former backup dancer Bryan Tanaka): "I haven't had that many, but there has been a variety pack. I've only been with five people in my life, so I'm kind of a prude, honestly, compared to most others in the field."
Then there's this candid riff on her lips: "I look horrible with a red lip. I probably should have gotten my lips done, but it's too late." At one point, Mariah stands up and slides her hands down her torso. "There's nothing here but this knit dress," she says. By "nothing here," she means she's Spanx-free.
Midway through a series of these juicy confessions, it occurs to me: These aren't just sound bites. Most of what she's saying could be spun into (more) endless memes and headlines. She's cleverly engineering this very interview to be as post-able as possible, to ensure that she'll stay in everyone's feeds for days.
Like this: At the end of the night, as we're talking about skin care, she leans in, giving me a close-up of her perfectly full-beat cheek. I wait, almost not breathing—is this the side she's rumored to insist photographers shoot her on? Is she about to spill all the names in her variety pack?—until Mariah purrs, "You can compliment me on it any time you want."