For photographer Sharna Osborne, the hours before shooting Mariah Carey were ramped up with a very particular essence of fan worship. 'I was terrified,' says Sharna. 'This moment, for me, was pretty much the moment Dorothy gets to go behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. The thing about meeting your idols is that it could kill the thing that's got you through the worst bits of your life.'
When you grow up in New Zealand, Sharna points out, your vantage point to celebrity is pivoted at a strange angle. 'You are so isolated from it. The idea of it lives 24 hours away in another world, a plane ride away you probably can't afford. And suddenly, you're walking into this situation which naturalises it. 'Mariah's Music Box was the first cassette Sharna ever owned, at eight years old when she wanted to be as cool as her cousins. Now, after all those hours spent poring over her hero, she was about to encounter the reality. 'It's self-sabotage, in a way,' she notes. 'If it goes well, it could normalise this safety net you've been comforted by ever since you found it. If it's bad, it could ruin everything.'
When the shoot day arrived, Sharna walked into the sleek downtown New York studio where Mariah was being prepped. The wizard awaited. 'She was behind some polyboards, getting her makeup done. I could hear her voice, the voice which has meant so much to me for my entire life.' Such familiar textures and sounds, so many unfamiliar senses tapped. 'There's this sea of amazing hair. And I'm supposed to stand next to her and talk to her?'
Sharna says she did an awkward little dance towards the mirror. 'I looked at her just a person, sat next to me, staring into a mirror. I learned from the look she gave me that I could be as vulnerable and honest behind the camera as I needed to be. I learned I could be exactly myself from that one look.' She says this all happened in a matter of seconds. 'I could feel the power she has. I could see the emotional size of her. That magic. She is as powerful as fuck. And it comes from this incredible life she's lived.'
On account of her starting work on her memoir, Mariah Carey has been thinking a lot about her life recently. She's not yet set a publishing date, but all being well her vertiginous success story will coincide with the 30th anniversary of her entry into the music industry in 2020. Because she is Mariah Carey, she's allowed to release it when she pleases. 'If not now,' she says, in the upper chamber of a sleek New York photographer's studio, the night-time Downtown skyline glistening in the background, framing her like a film still, 'when?'
Mariah is finding the process of sitting down with a ghost and deep-diving into her backstory cathartic. Prompted by her trusted collaborator ('She gets it, one hundred per cent), there are long forgotten memories that the woman at the centre of it all has yet to process. Mariah is learning something new about herself with each session. 'Oh, every day,' she says, with a snap of her fingers and that familiar peal of Mariah laughter. 'Some of them are painful memories and some of them are not.' It sounds mostly like therapy for her. 'It is.'
The details of Mariah Carey's life as one of the most potent singers and songwriters of the last three decades can get mixed up in their dramatic retelling. Carey is many things to many people, a mass-market phenomenon, one of the last to emerge in the pre-internet music business, an artist whose many layers should make for some riveting backpedalling. For glory-days British ravers, Carey is immortal due to the remixes she handcrafted in the studio with the dons David Morales and Clivillés & Cole. The vocal acapella which introduces C&C's finessed dub of 'Make It Happen' or the indefatigable house mix of 'Dreamlover' still regularly send shivers up the spine of nightclubbers of a certain age. Equally, to their kids, the cascades of talent-show hopefuls and viewers who have become the musical landscape of the last 15 years, she is the high priestess of impeccable vocal acrobatics. To hip-hop connoisseurs she is the canny bridge who brokered the urban takeover of the Billboard pop than in the mid-Nineties, a legacy which remains undiminished to this day; every singer who has ever lent a hook to a hot rapper's killer verses owes her a conceptual five dollars. To mainstream radio, she is the only singer whose astonishing CV includes duets with the polarities of Luciano Pavarotti, Stevie Wonder, Westlife and Ol' Dirty Bastard.
Everyone at the top tier has a kind word for Mariah. Barbra Streisand is a friend and occasional confidante. ('That's not for the book. Some things I want to keep for myself.') Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin all cut stellar records with her. Ariana Grande echoed her movements 20 years later, piece by piece, for the strategic opening manoeuvres of her career. When interviewing Beyoncé in 2011, I mentioned the influence of Houston's pop-urban crossover record, 'My Love is Your Love'. 'Don't forget Mariah,' she chastised, suggesting that without Carey breaking the compliant shackles of what was expected of female singers during her primacy, 21st-century pop music would sound very different from how it turned out. 'She's sweet,' nods Mariah.
To top the cake of her career with a particularly delightful cherry, for the last 25 years Mariah has become as synonymous with Christmas as untangling fairy lights and the seasonal family row. Amid a catalogue of red-hot bangers and lachrymose ballads, her atypical, Motown-ishly cheery seasonal foot-tapper 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' has stealthily implanted itself as a generation's 'Silent Night'. Carey still allows herself a smile when the infant school chorus breaks into it at the end of Love, Actually. 'I think it's adorable,' she says. 'Seriously, if I could have one month of tropical sunshine and the rest of the year Christmas, I'd take it.'
When Carey signed her blockbuster first record contract in the closing year of the Eighties, she insisted that one clause be put in. 'The only thing that I forced into my contract was that I could write my own songs and I wouldn't have to do what they told me.' All of which can get lost in the campy trappings of ostentatious femininity Mariah Carey has made her visual calling card: the rainbows, unicorns, music boxes and charm bracelets that recur repeatedly through her iconography.
'There aren't a lot of people that can say they have ownership of glitter,' notes Sharna. 'Mariah can.' When she was a pot-washer in the East London gay bar Dalston Superstore, Sharna used to sideline as a DJ with her friend Hermes under the pseudonym The Mariah Carey Soundsystem. 'We couldn't DJ, obviously,' she says. 'We just used to get our phones out and play loads of incredible Mariah tunes.' When she first met her friend in the DSS kitchens, 'he had a Mariah tattoo, an anchor with her name through the middle of it, and I was fucking livid he'd got there first.' One night after a shift she crafted a stick-and-poke tattoo on both of their wrists. The sentence she carries around reads 'I had a Vision of Love' in honour of Carey's debut single. 'When I lived in a squat, I would watch Mariah videos over and over again, all day. When I felt shit or something wasn't feeling good, Mariah was the default noise I needed. It was like air. And that remains to this day.'
'Isn't that great?' says Mariah, indicating the photographer's DIY tattoo. She first noticed it in the make-up chair the moment she was introduced to Sharna. 'I looked at her,' says Sharna, 'and said, "I'm really worried about this because I'm kind of obsessed with you. I've got this tattoo on my wrist..." She turned to me and suddenly the hair and make-up have left the room. She grabbed my wrist and there was genuine gratitude. She gets the power of having ink on skin, the message of what that means.'
There are several notable reasons why Mariah Carey connects in the way she does, all of which will no doubt be retold in detail in the piecing together of her memoir. Scratch the surface of her tale and the Angela's Ashes details drip from it. 'It's not "oh, pity me",' she says of her forthcoming book. 'It's just telling a story. I'm really putting a lot of myself into this. I think it's a good idea to get my side of the story out.'
Last year, a viral campaign instigated by some of her most hardcore fans set about redressing the balance of her misshapen critical appraisal. For a season, the sound of Mariah Carey was not just her unreasonably accomplished 15th studio record Caution, it was the reverberations of the global flutter of pop cultural history correcting itself. 'Here's the thing,' she says. 'As much as we were happy with that hashtag #justiceforglitter, that film could not be further from my life story.'
Glitter was Carey's 2001 film. She played Billie Frank in the fictional biopic, a rags-to-riches tale intended to evoke the basic tenets of her life. Like much of the Carey story, it has since accrued camp collector's value inside her fan base, while becoming increasingly subject to mean catcalls from detractors. The soundtrack, including her audacious cover of Cherrelle's 'I Didn't Mean To Turn You On', with its original producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's drum break as its ferocious opening 15 seconds, is still a delicious fan favourite, intersecting at the exact pivots of street funk, hip-hop and high-minded vocal accomplishments that have become her special calling card. 'Yes, there are some parallels to my life,' she continues. 'But it really is not my life story. At all. On so many levels, it is just not. So when everyone is like "the semi-autobiographical..." Just no.'
Clearly, Glitter is on her mind the evening we meet. Perhaps it's the chapter she's working on. 'Terry [Lewis] and I were talking about #justiceforglitter and how it went to number one on Google after all this time and yeah, we loved making that movie together.' Its release coincided with America's moment of existential terror and national crisis. 'You couldn't have got worse luck,' she says, 'than to come out on 9/11.' When a career like Carey's pans out, when a star becomes ubiquitous, there are times when the reception to what you make has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the world around you. 'They really couldn't discuss what's going on in current affairs on light-hearted TV, so it was like, OK, let's poke fun at the movie. I'm not saying this is a great movie. But I do know that there is a certain demographic of people who grew up with that movie. I mean, I watch certain movies that are coming out today and getting nominations for things and some are really good and some are, like, wow, that is not much better than Glitter. OK! I feel vindicated.' She smiles. It hardly needs pointing out the #justiceforglitter campaign coordinated almost exactly with the universal fanfares greeting Lady Gaga's performance in her own Glitter-shaped fairytale of beleaguered pop infamy, A Star Is Born.
Conceivably in Carey, lifetime, her memoir will be made into a film. 'And at least they'll have something to work with,' she laughs. 'Because there was no script on Glitter. Literally, it was written as it went. It was a mess, but actually I enjoy it. I've allowed myself to.'
Being slap-bang in the middle of looking back on her life has meant moments of reflection for Mariah. 'The music industry is totally different than it was,' she says. 'Who knew that an entire industry, including record stores, record companies... They're still there, but everybody's so influenced by what goes on with streaming. It's just a different world. In the beginning, as a teenager, I made a conscious decision not to present as a teen act. And so... I was an adult contemporary, an R&B contemporary artist from the start. "Vision of Love" wasn't a teenybopper song. It wasn't what was going down on the radio. I don't know what the word teenybopper means, even.' Debbie Gibson and Tiffany? 'I mean, whaaaaaat?' She corrects herself. 'No offence to Debbie, we love her, she's a sweet girl, but I just mean about the music.'
Because Mariah entered the global music industry at the top tier, amid peers 10, 20, 30 years her senior, she is now surrounded by ghosts. Luther, Prince, Aretha, Whitney, Michael Jackson, even her great vocal styling hero Teena Marie are all gone.
Does the room feel empty around her? She pauses. I ask another question: why did most of them go so young? 'Because the culture of celebrity is bigger than the way people protect artistry, if that makes sense. I don't think that people who are starting now or even people who started in the last eight to 10 years really appreciate the amount of effort it used to take to get to a worldwide audience.'
Sometimes younger stars, stuck in the analytics of the eerily intangible reach of social media statistics, stare at the global influence of their forebears in disbelief. 'People would say, how does Mariah get to sell all these records to all these audiences?' She answers with one simple sentence. 'It's called hard work.'
Mariah Carey was on the promotional run for her debut single when she first came face to face with her fanbase. She was queuing outside a New York cinema. '"Vision of Love" had been released two weeks before,' she recalls. 'It was still really new and a girl was listening to it on her headphones in the line behind me.' Through the faint, tinny hum of Walkman cans, she could hear the unusual six-eight time signature she'd sketched out for the song at home while still making rent as a backing vocalist. 'Her friend asked her some question about who she was listening to. And she says, "Mariah Carey."' Mariah was unnerved by this new switch-up in her fortunes. 'That was the first "woah, what is this?"' Mariah wrote the song at 18 and released it at 20. 'The interesting thing was that I played that first on the piano and it was freehand,' she says of its youthfully haphazard composition. 'You know I'm a terrible piano player? But I did that with certain songs, and it was just luck that I'd hit the right chords. Because I am terrible.'
It opened a portfolio of five out-of-the-box number-one US singles, a first by any artist on the Billboard Hot 100. By the time she was ushered to signings at record stores, on the release of the accompanying album, her fame had already taken on esoteric new twists. 'This woman came up to me and said, "This is my daughter" she was holding a baby "and I named her Mariah Cara,"' She doesn't remember the surname. 'No offence, but it was a couple of years ago.' It was 1990. 'Somebody, named their child after me? Someone I don't even know?' She pauses. 'No.' Fame had found its freshest saviour and target, newly dislodged from a Harlem walk-up, straight into the penthouse suite.
With his opening marketing declamations for Whitney Houston, the mogul Clive Davis asked the question, 'Why hasn't there been a black Barbra Streisand yet?' Whitney put in the handiwork in rectifying the situation. Five years later, Mariah Carey, the biracial daughter of an opera singer mom and absentee father, with an unmistakable, powerhouse eight-octave vocal range and a pocketful of self-penned tunes, picked up the baton and ran with it. Both struck commercial gold dust, inventing a stardom model that felt comfortingly old-fashioned and scintillatingly brand new.
There is something of an irony to the fan's baby-naming incident. Mariah has never been comfortable with her own insignia. As a child she felt like a misfit, neither white enough to be white nor black enough to be black, a subject she spoke fluently and openly about from the outset. Money was tight. 'It was a broken home.' Then there was the name, which she'd been led to understand was either chosen from a Gaelic derivation of Mary or the more ignominious source material of a police prison transport wagon. 'When I was little, nobody was called Mariah,' she says. 'That was another thing, on top of it all. Now I have to have a weird name, too? Really?' She laughs. 'Couldn't it just be something simple?'
She is starting to unravel the sources of some of the confidence she had to reach into, to present that implacable front of super-stardom. 'I think it began when I was a little kid. I think it came from having nothing. Growing up and not feeling a sense of belonging. Just wanting to prove that it was OK for me to exist. To validate my existence.'
During the book's research, she came across a bunch of video clips from interviews at the start of her journey, 'and I am never asked about song-writing. I'm constantly integrating that into the conversation. You can see me going, "Well, as a songwriter," "Well, it's very important to me when I'm writing songs," "You know I write the songs?" I really do believe that if I'm not seen sitting behind a piano or strumming on a guitar, it's always the diva thing that becomes the discussion, or something to talk about.'
Next year, little Mariah Carey, the baby introduced to Carey at her first record store signings, will turn 30. The book has a lot of ground to cover. 'Darling, there's always a wealth of material in me, because of what we go trough on a daily basis. I don't count years any more. I don't know what they are. Why would you?'
'The ability to make butterflies and rainbows and charm bracelets and music boxes all your fucking own?' says Sharna Osborne. 'How baller is that? Bus she's ballsy as fuck underneath it all. That's the veil. I can't put on a charm bracelet without thinking about her. But those things are almost superfluous to her body of work. Beneath it all is this deeply sincere search for love and belonging.'
After shooting Mariah, how does Sharna feel about never meeting your heroes? 'That's another thing she owns. Hero,' she notes. 'If you are an honest person and you respect people with the same values, then meet your heroes. She was an actual dream to shoot.' Musical stardom is different now, Sharna thinks. 'The framework to be a pop star now is you do this, this and this. There's a set of rules, which Mariah invented. It's not about writing because you want to write and singing because you want to sing, which Mariah did. Pop stars like Mariah didn't create a career, they created a religion. She's a jetpack for life.'
'It's so different now,' says Mariah. 'I feel fortunate that I started when I did. For someone to last a long time the way the world is now? It's going to be interesting to see how that works. I think I got in under the wire.' Some things change for the better, she things. 'People are much more accepted for who they are and who they want to be at this point. But we still have a long way to go. As for me and the femininity thing... it just is what it is. That's just me, how I grew up, what I grew up loving. It's kitsch, darling.'
Your sense of camp is second to none. 'Please. I grew up with an opera diva for a mother. Everything was camp. She had such an eclectic group of people around I couldn't help but become that.'
On Caution, Mariah Carey makes a little reference to Streisand on the effortlessly smooth slow jam she crafted with Dev Hynes, 'Giving Me Life'. 'Livin' like Babs 'cause it's Evergreen' she sings, nodding to one of the greats who paved the way for a career like hers. 'There's no one higher,' she says, when I mention the line. 'I mean, fuck, yes, there is a higher power. But we love Babs. She's also been brilliant in the choices she's made. As a performer, as a director. All of it. Her lifestyle is incredible. I've been blesses to have met her and known her. We've had conversations and stuff, but she's not... She's not your everyday gal, you know?'
At what point does Mariah Carey consider herself in the legends category alongside her? 'I don't think like that,' she says. 'Yes, I sang with Aretha. Yes, I've had certain conversations, certain moments that I'm probably not even going to put in the book, like with Barbra Streisand. These are moments for myself.'
She has thought about this already. 'Everyone says, "But people will find this really interesting," and I guess the celebrity part of it is important. But I think it's secondary to the essence of the human being who wanted to become something.' says Mariah. 'Because I didn't feel like I was anything.'