Mariah Carey: My worst year

Thursday 12 December 2002

Contrary to popular belief, Mariah Carey does do stairs. The rumour surfaced a few years ago when Carey reportedly said "I don't do stairs" when faced with a flight of them. "The 'diva' rumours about me are ridiculous but they're very inventive," Carey says. "Apparently not only do I not do stairs but I won't walk on carpet and I refuse to walk on grass. What do I do to get around? Hover? I mean, you live and exist under a microscope and at a certain point the rumours become amusing."
While she's got a sharp sense of humour, Carey wasn't laughing much last year. Indeed, most jokes were directed at her. For the first time in what had been a stellar career (125 million records sold), things weren't going quite so well in Mariahland. She left Sony, the record label she loved so much she married the boss, Tommy Mottola, and lived the fairytale life that had eluded her as a child in a poor, dysfunctional household. "I had a very intense childhood," she says. "I saw a lot of things before the age of 12 that a lot of people never see in their whole life... there were people in my family who were involved in a lot of things not appropriate for a child to see. Because of that, I developed this really intense work ethic because I never wanted to end up back in the position where I started. But then I went through a lot of struggles in my personal life which I had to keep quiet, and that was so difficult, with my personal life so attached to my professional life. That was the biggest obstacle I had to overcome."
After four years she and Mottola divorced (Carey never even uses his name any more) and her relationship with Sony started to falter. She released an album called Butterfly and made videos with none-too-subtle metaphors about finally being free. And after years of sensible dresses, out came the plunging necklines, short skirts and collaborations with rappers, which confused some of her more mainstream audience. When her contract with Sony expired, she signed a $140 million deal with Virgin. The new partnership was christened by Glitter, her first movie and a resulting soundtrack. Glitter was far from a shining success. Ruthlessly panned by critics (one of the kindest called it a good showcase for her breasts), the movie was a major failure and the accompanying soundtrack the lowest-selling album of her career. However Carey, 32, feels the music, at least, was unfairly judged.
"It was a soundtrack album; it wasn't a Mariah Carey studio album. So many other artists have been able to go off and do a soundtrack and it was never judged the same way their studio albums were judged." The sharpest knives were reserved for the film, where Carey admits she "stepped outside" her comfort zone. It started as her idea for "a gritty, edgy, cool" movie partially based on her life. But things changed. A lot. "It was watered down so much by the time we started filming," Carey says. "By the time we finished I was so disappointed. They changed writers in the middle of the movie because it was getting too edgy, which is what I wanted - something with substance to it. It was a good concept that was put through a washing machine."
Does she cringe watching it now? "Some scenes I'm, like, 'Why?' But I also know there's footage they cut. I don't think it was the worst thing under the sun, but it was a PG-13 movie geared towards young, young kids, and that's not what I brought to the table. I didn't realise that if you're going to venture into something like that, you need an amazing producer and director and everybody to be on your team and protective of your idea. I didn't have that. It's all about the power people behind the scenes. I had a lot of political weirdness because of the whole Sony situation. I'd left Sony, I had four weeks to set up the record with Virgin: it was all a big mess."
The biggest mess of all was happening in Carey's life. Around the time Glitter was rusting, Carey was keeping up the work ethic ingrained in her from a young age. "I was working literally 23 hours a day... I'm not exaggerating. I was assuming I could make it better, fix it all myself. But I ended up hurting myself in the process. I overworked myself." She says her insomnia dates back to that dysfunctional childhood and divorce. "Those things tend to keep you up at night," she says. "And then when you're on a schedule like I was... well, I only learned how to say 'No' this year. The record company would say 'Jump' and I would say 'How high?' "
Carey posted odd messages on her website detailing her inability to sleep, then made a cryptic remark about wanting "to go where the rainbows are". The next anyone knew she'd had a mini-nervous breakdown and had been admitted to hospital by her mother. Paparazzi stalked her mother's house, while jokes were made about Osama Bin Laden hiding in cinemas where Glitter was screening. Carey now believes that the media took their chance, for the first time in her career, to kick her while she was down. "Because of the success I've had in my career and the circumstances that occurred prior to that of me being exhausted and ending up in hospital and all the rumours, there was a steamroller effect of people gunning for me," she says.
However it was the rumours that she'd tried to slash her wrists that hit the hardest. "All the other stuff I could handle. At one point, after reading so much garbage, I thought, 'You know what, now they're making me laugh.' It was my entertainment. But the suicide story was something I thought was very important to clear up. If you have a 13-year-old fan who emulates everything you do or looks at you as a role model and it turns out they believe what they read in the paper and emulate your behaviour, that would be the most devastating thing that could happen. So writing a song like (new single) Through the Rain was very important because I wanted to instil hope in people, that you can get through anything with faith and perseverance and hope. But the suicide story was so disturbing. I'm such a spiritual person, it's not my place to take my own life. I have too much faith for that."
Then Carey made one of the most public exits ever from a company. Glitter became her lowest-selling but most profitable album ever when Virgin paid her $50 million to leave. Hundreds of people worldwide lost their jobs soon after. She's now started her own label, MonarC, distributed by Def Jam (who paid her a reported $70 million), and has bounced back the only way she knows how: through music. Her new album Charmbracelet was, she says, her most therapeutic to date. She not only addresses her pain in Through the Rain, but also the death of her father.
"With this album there was no record company saying, 'How about you write this kind of song,' nobody dictating what I was doing," Carey says. "Not that that's been the case for the past few years anyway, but with this album it was much more about me needing to write more than worrying, 'How should I present myself to the world after all this nonsense and lies?' All my life was put out there and the stories were 99 per cent inaccurate, and while going through that storm was intense, it inspired me to dig deep and I wrote 21 songs. I just felt like having an album out this year."
It also continues her mixture of big ballads with streetwise urban collaborations, something Sony reportedly had trouble with Carey doing five years ago, but which is now almost the blueprint for modern R&B albums. Carey talks fondly of her 1996 collaboration with Ol'Dirty Bastard from the Wu Tang Clan; groundbreaking at the time. "I sort of sneaked that past the record company. They didn't know who he was or what he was saying on his album. But he was my favourite rapper. The Wu Tang's 36 Chambers is one of my favourite albums. I grew up on hip-hop in New York, I experienced the birth of hip-hop, it's organic for me. But a lot of people don't understand that." Especially those who'd be happy to see her belting it out a la Celine Dion.
"Society likes to put things in boxes because it makes us feel comfortable. Many people feel comfortable with me in the box of 'the diva who stands on stage in a gown and sings'. That is one box I can be put in, but my situation is that I'm not a one-dimensional artist or human. I'll always do that, and I love doing that, but it wouldn't be fulfilling to just do that. I love ballads, they're therapy. But doing songs with Cam'ron or Jay-Z, that's part of me too. Being a multi-racial person, I don't think the masses fully understand what that is. It is somewhat new for a celebrity to be as ambiguous looking as I am and to be part black and part white."
There is another rumour that hounded Carey. After she signed to Def Jam, a quote surfaced that they'd asked her to "tone down" her clothes, and cover up to be taken more seriously. Carey laughs. "Nobody's controlling me at this point in my life. Trust me."


Many thanks to Mariah Mania.

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