Photo: Dana Scruggs for New York Magazine
This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.
Mariah Carey loves Christmas. She loves it with a fanatic’s strict adherence to the laws of Christmas joy. She loves it like no one has ever loved Christmas before. (Did you have an actual reindeer at your holiday festivities last year? Did you hang out with Santa? Didn’t think so.) Christmas is also a cornerstone of the Carey complex. Frank Sinatra might have made the holiday classically jolly, Sufjan Stevens might have made it indie whiny, and Ariana Grande might have made it horny, but no artist has come to define our commercially driven holiday fantasies more than Carey has with “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Since the song dropped on her 1994 holiday album, it’s made an estimated $60 million-plus in royalties. It’s stayed relevant, thanks to fans, of course; a cover on the 2003 Love Actually soundtrack; an album reissue; an annual “All I Want for Christmas Is You” holiday-concert series that sold out a show at Madison Square Garden last year; an animated film; an Amazon Music mini-doc about the undying meaning of the song; and streams on streams on streams. Last year, it finally hit No. 1 on “The Hot 100” chart, after a record-breaking (for its slowness) 25-year journey. Who cares how long it took? It’s her 19th No. 1 hit — putting her above Elvis and one away from tying the Beatles. Does it matter if you like the song? (Full disclosure: I don’t.) No! It is the omnipresent anthem of holiday happiness.
And so this year, this exceptionally shit year of 2020, Carey, who always wants everyone to have a good Christmas, really thinks everyone should have a good Christmas, and she’s got 15 executives assembled in a Zoom war room at 10 p.m. to make damn sure everyone does. They’ve been going for two hours now, plotting ways to bring the merry and bright, no matter what it takes.
“I will sing with a puppet if it’s incredible,” I hear her say with deadly seriousness, that raspy, built-for-a-torchy-ballad voice floating in from one of many nearby rooms in the house she’s renting for the summer. She goes on to suggest possible puppets, determined to sing only with the best one or none at all.
Carey tippy-toes across the marble floors, carrying the Zoom meeting with her as she hovers in the entryway behind me. She’s in her comfies — black leggings, a black off-the-shoulder peasant blouse, and full makeup — but even dressed down, she’s walking like she’s in six-inch strappy Louboutins (a habit she references in the song “Crybaby”). She mutes her iPad mic to greet me quickly. “Hi! A.D.!” (Everyone in her immediate orbit is reduced to first and last initial. Stories sound like mathematical equations in which M.C. and M.R. meet J.D.) “I’m so sorry this is running late!” She’ll be with me soon, she says. She just has to find a diplomatic way to let these men know something they are suggesting is ugly! She goes back to the call. “It just isn’t giving me Christmas warmth,” she says, delivering her criticism as delicately as one of her famous vocal trills.
Carey is running 30 — well, 45 — okay, we’re going to be real with you: We don’t know how many — minutes late. This is what we expect of her, no? The Diva who bathes in milk and will only be photographed from the right side. We think of these indulgences as readily as her vertiginous notes, or those athletic vocal runs, or her belting “Juust. Liiike. Hoone-aaay,” while she holds her finger to her ear to keep pitch. So it’s hard to be mad at Carey for fully embodying all the various Mariahisms that define her.
Anything less would feel like short shrift, to be honest. Plus she’s a generous diva. She’s dispatched her five-person team, her COVID-quarantine pod, to tend to me while I wait. They’d been together since March, without any outsiders, until I was permitted to come tonight (with mask on face and fresh negative COVID-test results in hand). The excitement of a newcomer has everyone bustling around like a live-action reenactment of the “Be Our Guest” scene in Beauty and the Beast. “Allison, can I get you wine?” asks her longtime tour manager Michael, as he shows me to a couch and lingers to tell me, in his languid, Idris Elba–British accent, about the first time he met Mariah, decades ago, as she was glamorously coming off a Concorde. “Allison, it would be more comfortable if you sit in here — the lighting is better,” says Ellen, her longtime house manager. “Allison,” Kristofer, her Ken-doll-handsome makeup artist, calls out to me as I’m walking from one great couch to an upgraded one, “I’m making fresh shortbread. Would you like it with jam or powdered sugar?” Her ex–backup dancer and current boo, Bryan Tanaka, smiles at me, doing his part by just being charming. Ellen fluffs a pillow, pours a glass of wine and a glass of room-temperature water, and puts them down in front of the seat Carey will eventually occupy. I am left to sit in a luxurious beige-toned room that smells lightly of vanilla and gardenias — exactly like my rich childhood friend’s suburban home.
The house is still daytime bustling even though it’s now edging on 11:30 p.m., which, according to Mariah Carey Standard Time, is the middle of the day, not the end. Carey is a self-proclaimed vampyyyyra. She loves a sunset, loves a sunrise, and would prefer to exist exclusively in those shadowy hours in between. (She has a sun allergy, she insists.) Her time zone has other quirks: True Love only occurs in summer, underneath the stars. Winter is always joyous. Any day has the potential to be Christmas. And she is eternally 12 years old, as she has been saying since at least 2008, which explains the recurring themes of butterflies, Christmases, dolphins — epic, song-worthy romantic fantasies. It’s in direct opposition to the other version of extreme femininity she likes to play with, that of the diva in heels on the stair-stepper. Neither persona fully explains how effortlessly she can command a platoon of professionals to execute her vision until you consider that this dualism may be her secret to career control. One cannot be dismissed if one demands what one needs operatically. One cannot be told what is or is not age-appropriate if one doesn’t acknowledge age.
Anyway, the whole 12 thing — it’s sort of a joke and it’s sort of not. Carey turned 50 in March, and Moroccan and Monroe — a.k.a. Roc and Roe, a.k.a. DemKids — her 9-year-old twins with ex-husband Nick Cannon, presented her with a cake with an enormous 12 candle, complicit in her continued crusade against getting older. One milestone is colliding with another. This year marks both half a century of existence and her 30th year in this business — 30 years since her first album, Mariah Carey, came out. In those three decades, she’s produced 15 studio albums, been nominated for 34 Grammys (and only won five — don’t get her started), and done everything a star can do (an HSN jewelry line, a Champagne brand, world tours, a reality show, a Vegas residency, an American Idol judging stint). This year, she’s been taking something of a victory lap with a celebration she’s calling MC30, opening the vaults on never-before-seen video footage and an album of unreleased songs and demos called The Rarities, and she’s finally put all that legendary shade to paper with a memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey. She’s still ignoring her age, but she’s at least letting herself acknowledge the passing of time.
She’s been teasing this memoir for more than a year, mentioning it at a “Genius Q&A” during the press tour for her last album, Caution, but thinking about it for ten. It’s 300-plus meaning-packed pages, and, yes, what she didn’t include has meaning too. Eminem, who was reportedly “stressed” over what Carey might say about their rumored 2001 fling, doesn’t have to worry. “There’s some songs that I can sing in response to that, but I will not do it,” she’ll say when I ask. And then, with a roll of her head: “If somebody or something didn’t pertain to the actual meaning of Mariah Carey, as is the title, then they aren’t in the book.”
What’s in the book is “for the fans” (of course) but mostly for herself, or at least a version of herself. It’s her turn now to “emancipate that scared little girl,” she says. It’s why she spent two years telling stories to her co-writer, Michaela angela Davis, turning the famed Moroccan Room in her Tribeca penthouse into an emotional vomitorium, in hopes that finally, after a career of people misinterpreting her, she can make it all clear. In a way, though, the story she tells in the memoir is the story she’s been telling herself, her fans, her critics — everyone — over and over again for years. And after 30 years of telling these stories, in different ways, you have to wonder why she still feels so misunderstood.
Photo: Dana Scruggs for New York Magazine
Hit it, Tanaka!” yells Roe, getting into position as Ellen and Kristofer pull open the French doors leading to the terrace overlooking the pool. Carey strolls out to where Roc and Roe are waiting to surprise her. The conference Zoom is over, but there’s one more thing to attend to before we can sit down.
Carey’s latest single, “Save the Day,” dropped just a few minutes ago, at midnight, and the twins want to celebrate. The opening violins of the song swell over the outdoor stereo system, and they launch into choreography they’ve spent all day perfecting. The song is a long-delayed collaboration with Ms. Lauryn Hill they conceived of in 2011. They decided to release it now, since its message about the importance of coming together to fix the world felt relevant with national Black Lives Matter protests and the lead-up to the election. “It’s very auspicious,” she says, musing that it would have been the perfect song to play during the Democratic National Convention.
Roe executes a string of cartwheels while Carey looks on, hands raised to her face in beatific surprise, and Tanaka captures the moment on two iPhone cameras on tripods with lighting rigged. Rocky hits every dance currently popular on TikTok.
Rocky loves TikTok, but Carey thinks he’s too young to be on it. Recently, she had to put him on a “time-out” after he made a video asking his mom to say hi to “his fan.” Carey can be heard off-camera saying, “I’m on a business call,” and Rocky turns back to the camera and says, “My mom is not ready to be shot on TikTok,” sticks his tongue out, and blows a raspberry in disappointment.
“Okay, I was really on a business call,” Carey says, mildly annoyed at the whole situation. People assumed she just declined because she wasn’t wearing makeup. Plus she wasn’t the one who set up the account for him. “Co-parenting,” she says, then sings, “‘Yeah, it ain’t easy, baby. It ain’t easy.’ But you know what? It’s important. We keep it good for them,” she says of Cannon, whom she divorced in 2014. She won’t comment on his recent career drama (he was fired from his longtime gig hosting Wild ‘N Out for making anti-Semitic remarks on his podcast, Cannon’s Class) but speaks fondly of him in her memoir in the chapter called “Dem Babies.”
The performance ends. Carey runs to them, arms wide open, tears in her eyes, cooing over how lovely everything is — the dance, the sunflowers, the sign. She brings them in for a hug and photo op, but before the shutter can snap, Roe moves away too fast, ensnaring Carey’s large diamond butterfly ring in her hair. “Roe, wait, I’m tangled,” she screams, while Rocky emits a loud belch and giggles.
Carey says good night to the twins. It’s an atmospherically nice night, and she decides she wants to go outside to talk. “It’s better, right?” she says as we sit down at a long wooden table next to the violin-shaped pool (a Stradivarius, with a six-foot koi pond as the bow). Her people are again bustling, setting up the table for us, slipping out of the shadows, putting down drinks and candles, moving the whole setup outside.
“Ellen, will you make us some ‘horse devoirs,’ ” Carey asks, intentionally mispronouncing the word. “That’s what we call ’em.”
“Are you cold, Mariah?” asks Kristofer, who exits to grab her a little throw.
“Are you guys warm enough?” asks Ellen, who enters to put down snacks. More candles are placed around us.
“Oh, darling. Don’t put that down there for me, because that is hideous,” exclaims Carey. “That is underlighting!” The candle is whisked away. Carey asks Ellen if she wouldn’t mind taking Cha-cha, her emotional-support dog, to her bedroom, so that she’s there waiting when Mariah finally slips off to sleep sometime after the sun comes up.
Finally, wine poured, throw draped, candles arranged to ensure we both look cinematically beautiful, horse devoirs on the way, she settles back and gazes out over the property, watching the fiber-optic pool lights dance through the rainbow and back again. She’s a little tired, she apologizes, and already a little emotional.
“Can you believe I’m back here?” she says, sighing. “Here” is an upstate rich-person’s enclave not far from where Martha Stewart is thirst-trapping with her chickens. Carey hasn’t spent time in this town since what she refers to as “the Sing Sing days” — when, in the mid-1990s, she shared an over $20 million compound with her toxic first husband, the former Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola. Mottola discovered and signed Carey when she was 19. They married in 1993, when she was 23 and he was 43. Carey has repeatedly described the marriage as controlling. She felt like “a prisoner.”
Mottola and Carey split in 1996, but she still gets that clenched feeling in her gut whenever she talks about him. With a wave of her hand: “I say it all in the book. I’d rather people read it that way.” She takes a long sip from a big goblet of red wine. “And by the way, I forgot a lot of that stuff when I was writing the book. And then recently, people that were friends of his from childhood were like, ‘I hope she told the real story.’ ”
It’s not a new story in its particulars — it’s been alluded to in tabloids and interviews for decades by both Carey and Mottola. Even its emotional contours were out there already, in her own words, mostly in song lyrics. She’s made a habit of putting her stories — her past lovers, secret enemies, petty grievances, and big traumas — in her songs since she started writing them at 13. (And she does, may she remind us, write her own songs. That’s another thing she’s spent a lifetime reminding everyone — see the two-minute supercut of her saying “As a songwriter” — though she was only just inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year, a decade after she became eligible.)
“Honestly, if you look at the words to ‘I Wish You Well,’ it tells you a lot of things about different people in my life. It starts with ‘This goes out to you and you and you / Know who you are,’ ” she breaks into a half-sing. “And there’s a lot of different people referenced in that from my point of view as a songwriter.”
“And then, background vocals,” she says, indicating when the singers would have kicked in with the phrase “Can’t believe I still need to protect myself from you.” “And then back to the main verse: ‘But you can’t manipulate me like before.’ ” She’s speaking, but rhythmically; her fingers are waggling up and down near her ear like they do when she sings. She pauses. “It’s like I’ve been telling this story if someone cared to look deep enough. I just feel like there’s no way anybody could have known the complexities and the layered situation that is my life.”
Though her fans, her Lambily, as they call themselves (a combination of family and Lamb, as Carey sometimes refers to her loved ones), have usually paid close enough attention to know the significance of the songs that mean the most to Mariah. Even if she may have never come out and confirmed which lyric is about which incident or relationship, they have their theories. While my friend who is a Lamb Supreme has always suspected it, I, a solid Mariah fan who can sing at least ten of her songs without missing a word, was surprised to learn from the book that “My All” was not just about the general thrall of a new love so exciting you’d do anything to bone but about Carey and her brief fling with Derek Jeter.
The knowledge that this stuff is “already out there” made it easier for Carey to write the memoir. It removed the burden of dropping bombshells (though there are some) and instead lets her just confirm, contextualize, and detail things from her POV — like how she and Jeter met at a dinner party and started text-flirting, secretly, while she was at the end of her marriage to Mottola. Knowing that fans already suspected the song “The Roof” was about her first meeting with him made it easier for her to reveal what she wore the night they had a clandestine kiss on the roof (get it?) of his apartment building. There was Moët. She wore a buttery leather Chanel skirt. She remembers her boots and the rain and her hair curling in stunning detail.
“Of course I do! I can never forget that moment,” she says. “I mean, it’s not like it was some intensely deep, intellectually stimulating — again, it was a great moment, and it happened in a divine way because it helped me get past living there, in Sing Sing, under those rules and regulations.” When she belts, “I’d risk my life to feeeeyall / Your body next to mine,” in “My All,” it’s because she really was risking her life to have a night with Jeter in Puerto Rico, she says.
Her anxiety around Mottola sits just under the surface. She writes candidly about the security cameras she says were always watching her and the security team she felt was reporting her every move. “He was like this oppressive humidity,” she says. She could never escape. She could never talk about it, even if she was, in her own way, always talking about it. When she first discussed Mottola during a Zoom call we had the week before, she started to cry: “It ignites the triangle in my stomach.”
In his own memoir, Hitmaker: The Man and His Music, from 2013, Mottola denied being restrictive or controlling but deemed their involvement “wrong and inappropriate,” by way of apology, and takes credit for his part in her early success. Carey suspects he tried to sabotage her career after they divorced. More than suspects, she says, referencing a 2017 interview on Desus & Mero in which Murder Inc. co-founder Irv Gotti confirmed Mottola boosted a J.Lo and Ja Rule duet to mess with Carey. “It’s out there,” she says. She also knows he might be angered by her perspective, though she hopes he’s not. “I could have gone harder,” she says, suggesting she could have painted him as a monster. “And I didn’t. I give him credit where credit is due.”
So picking this same upstate enclave for her self-quarantine palace does seem inconceivable, but the kids needed space. “Not that the apartment wasn’t spacious,” she explains. (We know; we all saw it on Cribs in 2002.) Providing this for her children is just one way she ensures that they have a better life than she did. “They’re not running around with matted locks,” she says when asked how her own childhood has shaped how she parents. “They know that I’m here for them. They know that if they want to talk with their father, he’s a phone call away,” she goes on. “They have stability. That’s what I didn’t have. They will never have a holiday that’s not happy unless something I can’t do anything about happens. They understand that they are Black. They have a whole lot of self-esteem and self-worth that I never had. And I probably still don’t now. I know that I still don’t.”
She sighs deeply. She’s been up all day — like actual day. So tonight, with the wine and the eerily quiet country night, her 1 a.m. feels like everyone else’s: a time when the existential takes hold and won’t let go.
“But maybe one day I’ll feel equal to the rest of the human race. I didn’t even think I was worthy of happiness and success. I thought I wasn’t allowed to be that person that would have that.” She gestures again to the pool, the property, the basketball courts, the baseball diamond (“not a big one”). “Like, sitting here, looking at this? And after describing the shack?”
The shack is what she calls her childhood home on Long Island, a run-down house at the end of a nice block that she’s still embarrassed by. It’s easy to assume that her dogged adherence to the age of 12 stems from its being a simpler time, that there is something happy to relive there, but that’s not quite right. “I always say, ‘I’m only 12, yay!’ But when you see how many times I talk about ‘I was 12, and this happened,’ it’s clear I went through a lot of stuff as a kid.”
Carey grew up, as she tells it, poor, mixed race, in an all-white neighborhood that made her feel her mixed race–ness, where she was not white enough “but not Black enough to scare people into not saying stuff around me.” Her father, Alfred Roy, was a Black engineer from Harlem, and her mother, Patricia, an Irish American opera singer from Illinois who was disowned by her family for having his children, separated before she was 3. She lived with her mother and only saw her father on the weekends she’d go to visit him and eat his special linguine e vongole. One of the good memories. She never felt like her home situation was stable. She was always aware of tension between her parents and between her parents and her siblings. School wasn’t much better. In the book, she catalogues the racial slights she suffered at the hands of white children.
She writes about her childhood as the thing she had to overcome to become Mariah Carey. And because our traumas are like pothos plants, easily propagated from the clippings of the original, her parents’ trauma (her father’s of existing as a Black man in America; her mother’s of familial rejection for marrying a Black man and a career that didn’t come to fruition) became hers to overcome as well. As did the difficult upbringings of her older brother, Morgan, and her older sister, Alison, whom she now refers to as her “ex-brother” and “ex-sister.” Carey writes about witnessing Morgan’s volatility and fights with her mother. She discusses how she longed to have a real big-sisterly relationship with Alison but instead ended up in dangerous situations, sometimes with men, whenever she got too close. (Her nickname for me, A.D. — she asked to call me that, she told me, because she’s so estranged from her sister she doesn’t like to say Allison.)
“Alison and Morgan both believed I had it easier than they did,” she writes. She hasn’t spoken to Alison since 1994, though she maintains a relationship with the son Alison had at 15. Mostly, Carey constantly worries that they’ll go to the tabloids again, as she says they have done in the past. She doesn’t want them to see her as an “ATM machine with a wig,” she says. (Recently, Alison has made headlines for accusing their mother in a court filing of forcing her into sexual acts and satanic rituals as a child.)
“Here’s the thing: They have been ruthlessly just heartless in terms of dealing with me as a human being for most of my life. I never would have spoken about my family at all had they not done it first.” Even still, you have to wonder how Alison will feel if she picks up the memoir of her estranged superstar sibling and reads how her sister learned a hard lesson about what self-worth should be during the baby shower for her teen pregnancy.
I ask Carey if there is any chance of reconciliation with her ex-siblings in the future. “I have forgiveness in my heart,” she says, “and so I forgive them, but I am not trying to invite anybody to come hang out over here. I think they’re very broken, and I feel sad for them.”
Though she writes as candidly about her mother as she does about her siblings — their confrontations and competitions — she finds it harder to separate herself from the woman who discovered she could sing. (When Carey was barely 3, she sang along with her mother while she was rehearsing a song from Verdi’s Rigoletto, so the legend starts.) Carey still takes care of her, financially, “and always will.” She is one of the book’s dedicatees. “I tried to make her feel like I really do think she did the best she could,” she says and picks up her glass to cheers me.
“I cried writing a lot of parts of this book. Maybe it’s because I have such vivid recollections. You know what? I’m sure I’m going to have to deal with a lot of people being upset with me. I hope not.”
Of all the knots she’s eternally trying to unravel, there is one that, she feels, has refused to come loose easily: “I really have been like, ‘I’m mixed. I’m mixed. I’m really, really mixed,’ ” Carey sings at me, turning her lifelong repetition into a little ditty. “Like, whatever. Not to make a song out of it. That’s what we do.” This, according to Carey, is her most famous refrain, the one where she explains that she is biracial over and over again.
She already, actually, did make a song of it: “Outside,” from 1997’s Butterfly. She quotes it often in life and in the book (and will sing it on the Audible recording). And now she sings the lyrics to me: “Standing alone / Eager to just believe it’s good enough to be what / You really are / But in your heart / Uncertainty forever lies / And you’ll always be / Somewhere on the / Outside.”
When she cites feelings of alienation or shame, it’s often at the hands of white people. She writes about an incident where she was invited over to a friend’s house in the Hamptons, only to arrive and be called the N-word. It’s the Black women in her life who held her up when nobody else did. Her Nana Reese (her great-aunt on her father’s side) provided some stability. Her “aunties” were the ones who tried to help her learn how to do her hair. Da Brat once helped her escape Sing Sing to go get fries from Burger King. She dedicated a whole chapter to her Cousin LaVinia (“Vinny”), who was one of her closest friends. LaVinia recently died, but it’s her estimation of Carey’s struggles that most shaped her understanding of her mixed-race identity. “It’s like Vinny always said: ‘You kids had all the burdens of being Black but none of the benefits.’ ”
Before Davis and Carey turned in a draft of The Meaning of Mariah, Davis sent an email to her editor. “I was like, I have to put this on record that all the conversation around race and particularly the view of white people is all Mariah,” Davis says over the phone. They had a nickname for her when she got in this mode: “Militant Riah.” “There were a couple of times that she was like, ‘You’re being too careful. They hated me. I would never be good enough for some white people.’ ”
And yet, when she first debuted as an artist, a number of reviews misidentified her heritage. In 1990, a Los Angeles Times writer called her a “white singer who has a black vocal style.” Nelson George, a Black critic writing for Playboy, called her “a white girl who can sing,” while another accused her of being marketed as a “white Whitney Houston.” Carey says she can’t speak to the intentionality behind her marketing at the time — “I was 19, what did I know?” In her book, she references how her label sometimes “scrubbed” her music of its “urban inflections.” She recalls recording the “Fantasy” remix with ODB in 1995 and playing it for Mottola. “The fuck is that?” he said. “I can do that. Get the fuck outta here with that.”
Carey would eventually cease to be considered solely pop, becoming more of a crossover pop–hip-hop–R&B fixture. Even still, she’s spent a significant portion of her post-Mottola era defending her biracial identity. After Carey released the hip-hop-heavy album Butterfly, comedian Sandra Bernhard made a series of racist jokes during her stand-up special about the way Carey was “acting [N-word-ish] … with Puff Daddy,” suggesting that the white-perceived Carey was all of a sudden acting “Black.” At the time, Carey commented, “If I was two shades darker, there’d have been people protesting for me.” (She ended up writing the NAACP, and the special was taken off the air.) The commentary didn’t stop in the 2000s. Even as recently as 2008, her race was being written about weirdly, e.g., when Jody Rosen sniped about her “racial ambiguity [being] mildly interesting” while trying to determine if she was a captivating pop star or just a good singer. (He decided on the latter.) But “Vision of Love,” she reminds me, went to No. 1 on the R&B charts first. And she performed it live for the first time on The Arsenio Hall Show. “Someone knew they were introducing me as a Black girl.”
In the 1990s, being a “white artist” or a “Black artist” often created deeply divergent music careers. White meant pop, Black meant hip-hop or R&B, and within those silos, there were separate charts, audiences, magazine covers, award recognition, and dress codes, and to seek one audience meant potentially alienating the other. As Carey was building her career, there was very little room for crossover, and there wasn’t a lot of understanding afforded to those who didn’t really fit in the boxes. If you were acceptable to white audiences as a pop star, as Houston was, you ran the risk of alienating Black audiences and vice versa. It’s what Lena Horne called being the “kind of Black that white people could accept”: Carey, because of her light skin, and Houston, because of the way she spoke (softly, like a newscaster). The 2017 Whitney Houston documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me, revisits the moment in 1989 when Houston performed at the Soul Train Awards and the crowd booed and called her “Whitey.” It’s only recently that we’ve begun to more fully acknowledge how damaging and destabilizing the label of “not Black enough” can be.
Davis and Carey met in 2005 at an early-listening event for The Emancipation of Mimi, one of Carey’s comeback albums. Four years earlier, Carey had suffered her first major flop with the movie Glitter. She’d been dropped by EMI a year after it signed her to one of those historic colossally big deals (reportedly, $100 million for five albums). She had a public breakdown and was hospitalized for exhaustion after she made an erratic appearance on TRL. (In the memoir, she reminds us that, despite all that, the song “Loverboy” from Glitter ended up being the best-selling single of 2001. “I’m real,” she mic-drops.)
The Emancipation of Mimi was a reassertion of Carey as an artist, her opportunity to set the tone for the next phase of her career, one she wanted to be centered around her Blackness, and she wanted to do that with a cover story for Essence. “It was very strategic that she started with Black women,” Davis says. At the time, Davis was an editor at the magazine. “Black women have always grounded her in truth,” she says.
Essence had never had Carey on the cover before. Previous editors-in-chief had passed “because, they literally said, ‘Mariah Carey has never said she was Black,’ ” recounts Davis. The writer, Joan Morgan, brought in evidence: stacks of clippings and transcripts where Carey said “I’m Black” or “My father is Black.” In the end, Davis won. They ran an article in which Carey discussed, similarly to now, what people didn’t know about her struggles with her racial identity. At the end, the article declared her “a grown ass Black woman.” The cover line read: “America’s Most Misunderstood Black Woman.” That was 15 years ago.
From a musical perspective, at least, many of the issues Carey faced early in her career feel less intense now. Hip-hop culture is pop culture. And thanks to Mariah Carey’s 1997 album Butterfly, the once-novel idea of a pop-hip-hop crossover — what her friend and collaborator Jermaine Dupri calls hip-pop — is essentially just what a new song by any artist sounds like.
It’s worth considering whether she would have been as big of a pop star if she had originally been marketed as a Black artist. Would she have been able to collaborate with ODB and the long roster of hip-hop artists and producers she favored, and to see those songs become megahits, if her proximity to whiteness hadn’t made it all seem “non-threatening” to white audiences?
“The truth is I will never say I had the same experience as a darker-skinned woman,” Carey starts in. She acknowledges the privilege in her being accepted by white audiences and a white-run music industry, but to her, it also means “having a white mother, and being forced to live in white neighborhoods, and feeling ashamed that there is nobody visibly Black there … and I’m being so real right now that I want to edit myself,” she pauses.
“Believe you me, I’m not thrilled to be this skin tone all the time.” Then she launches into the questions she has asked herself her whole life and maybe continues to ask: “How was I supposed to fit in? I was, like, the only one that’s this weird mutant, mutt — using an antiquated phrase that I’m not asking anyone else to ever use again, but I’m embracing it — mulatto girl. I’m not even embracing it. It’s a horrible way of defining somebody. It actually means ‘mule.’ ”
Whatever it did for her career, she says, it also “distanced me from the comfort of support and protection from some Black people. Which is an even deeper kind of a pain, pile of pain, if that makes sense. It’s been a lot.”
Photo: Dana Scruggs for New York Magazine
If there’s one thing that makes Carey nervous about the release of this book into the world, besides some content that is going to “surprise even her best friends,” it’s that people will misconstrue why she’s talking about a lot of this stuff now. She has wanted to write the memoir for a decade, she says. “Whether or not it suddenly became okay to deal with stuff, this book was coming out anyway.” She doesn’t want to seem like she’s capitalizing on the moment.
But the current moment does seem to keep giving new context for her experiences. For example, the conversation surrounding Ellen DeGeneres’s reportedly toxic workplace behavior led to a clip of an interview with Carey resurfacing on Twitter. It’s from 2008, when there were rumors Carey was pregnant. DeGeneres, apparently determined to get Carey to confirm the speculation, challenged her to drink Champagne. Carey was forced to announce her pregnancy. She miscarried soon after. “I was extremely uncomfortable with that moment is all I can say. And I really have had a hard time grappling with the aftermath,” she says. “I wasn’t ready to tell anyone because I had had a miscarriage. I don’t want to throw anyone that’s already being thrown under any proverbial bus, but I didn’t enjoy that moment.” Carey goes on to say that there is “an empathy that can be applied to those moments that I would have liked to have been implemented. But what am I supposed to do? It’s like, [sings] ‘What are you going to do?’ ”
Her fans have also helped her reexamine her past. In 2018, a Lamb-led campaign, #JusticeForGlitter, turned her former career low into a cult classic and earned the soundtrack a place on the charts for a little while. The movie did come out the week after 9/11; it never truly got a fair shake. With the help of her Lambs, and a Change.org petition demanding that streaming services finally offer it, the album reached No. 1 on iTunes. That same year, Carey was on the cover of People, revealing her battle with bipolar disorder for the first time. It seemed to explain what happened during Glitter, when she went on TRL, but she chose not to elaborate further in the book. “Because I don’t feel like there’s a mental-illness discussion to be had,” she says when I ask. “It is not to deny that. I am not denying that. I just don’t know that I believe in any one diagnosis for a situation or a human being.”
For her, the real story of Glitter, which she tells in great detail for the first time, was the story of her working too hard, of succumbing to the exhaustion of sleep deprivation, and of her family betraying her. (Her mother called the police on her when she was acting erratically, and her brother was the one to check her into a recovery facility, she writes.) That’s perhaps the biggest benefit of this memoir to her: “Now, if people have questions, I can be like, ‘Please refer to chapter x,’ rather than me having to stick up for myself, protect myself, defend myself. Because we can all be wounded, but are we going to sit around licking our wounds forever?”
It’s nearing 4 a.m., and she could talk more, but she desperately needs to use “the loo.” She slips away while her team comes out, partly to keep me company and partly to signal it’s time for me to wrap it up.
The first time we talked, Carey mentioned that it was a bit lonely realizing that she was the only one of her peers who lived to write her own story. Whitney’s gone. Prince is gone. There’s some pressure that comes with that: What story are you willing to tell about yourself, and what are you willing to accept? Carey has finally shaped her story the way she sees it: one of herself as a perpetual underdog who has risen, fallen, and climbed back as dexterously as her famed melismas. It’s the narrative that has propulsed her to greatness; it’s also her mental loop.
Carey comes back from the bathroom and, it turns out, a costume change. She’s swapped her peasant blouse for a black satin kimono robe. It’s humid, her hair has fallen flat, and her laugh is mingling with the chirping cicadas that have emerged. Sunrise is closer than sunset, and it’s starting to feel loose, like the last hour at the club, right before the lights come up, as the DJ tries to find the perfect song to send you off.
Tanaka slips his hand into hers and murmurs that the pasta aglio e olio he has made her is ready. Her emotional-support dog is waiting in bed for her. Her two kids are upstairs, happy but maybe only pretending to be asleep.
Despite how legends want to be seen, this is probably how we most want to see them. As living proof that a life of ups and downs and hard work and too much work ends with you rich as fuck, sitting next to a violin-shaped pool with the family you’ve created to supplant the one you had to endure.
Michael is recounting a story of the time a group of Bloods came up to Mariah backstage at the Source Awards and he was worried. “Oh, I’m good at diffusing tense situations because of my childhood,” she says. Everyone was scared, but they just wanted to take pictures with her on their disposable camera, no big deal. Despite urging me to leave, he pulls up a chair, and they start swapping memories.
“Oh, remember,” Carey says, lurching into another tale, “Jay [as in Z] has that great story of when we were all there together at the club and Prince was taking so long to perform? Whatever, it’s a long story, but he didn’t go on until like 5 a.m. with Chaka Khan, who was having Hennessy and smoking and still singing like a trumpet, and it was amazing. It was amazing.”
Not everyone was there, but everyone agrees it was amazing.
“By the way, this should have been in the book,” she says.
Yes, everyone agrees, it should have been in the book. There was a lot that could have been in the book.
“There’s so much more dragging that could have been done,” she says. “I really didn’t say everything,” she adds with a smile, leaving us hoping, again, for another piece of the story.
*This article appears in the August 31, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!