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Being a diva: the highs and lows of Mariah Carey

Despite a career of highs and lows, Mariah Carey is one of the most successful performers of all time - now she’s back with a hotly tipped movie based on her festive hit

Words by Michelle Davis

One night in November 1988, aspiring singer Mariah Carey was her friend’s plus one at a record-label party in New York. In her hand was a treasured demo tape she hoped to give to a music scout due to be there, but a stranger snatched it from her before she could hand it over and she left, disappointed that her chance at fame was dashed. Luckily for her, that stranger was Tommy Mottola, head of Sony Music. He played the tape in his limo on the way home and was transfixed. Mottola later admitted that he knew he’d discovered a superstar. ‘[I started] screaming, “Turn the car around! That may be the best voice you’ve ever heard in your life!”’ he said. But when he returned to the party, Carey had – like a modern-day Cinderella – vanished. What’s more, she’d forgotten to put her name on the tape. And, like Prince Charming, Mottola scoured the city until he tracked her down. Now, as she releases her first animated children’s film based on her hit All I Want For Christmas Is You, Mariah Carey’s career has skyrocketed and Carey is one of the most successful recording artists ever, with a net worth estimated at £394 million and a rare five-octave vocal range that can hit the whistle register – the highest note a human voice can reach.

Mariah Carey was born in Huntington, New York, on 27 March in 1970. Her father, Alfred, was an aeronautical engineer of African-American and Venezuelan descent, and her mother, Patricia, a voice coach and opera singer, was from an Irish background. They married at a time when inter-racial relationships were rare and, growing up, Carey and her two siblings were bullied for being mixed race. One of her earliest memories involves nursery school teachers questioning why she’d coloured her dad in brown in a picture she’d drawn. ‘They made me feel like something was wrong with me, that it was a bizarre, freakish thing,’ she told Oprah Winfrey in a 1999 interview.

Mariah Carey at the Grammys in 1991

The singer won two Grammy awards in 1991 for her hit single Vision Of Love

After graduating from high school in 1987, Carey moved to Manhattan to pursue singing. She worked as a waitress to make ends meet, but was sacked for having a bad attitude. Her disinclination to pander to others remained, even when she landed a record deal. Mottola lined up top producers to work on her debut album, but Carey dug her heels in and insisted her friend Ben Margulies, with whom she co-wrote her demo tape songs, was brought on board. She was only 19 and a rookie, but had grown accustomed to getting her own way. Her debut album, Mariah Carey, was released in June 1990 – the first single from it, Vision Of Love, went to number one in the US charts, peaked at number nine in the UK and won her two Grammys. Her follow-up album, Emotions, didn’t sell as well and, in 1992, she was forced to silence critics who claimed she was a ‘studio worm’ (a singer who only sounded good on record) by recording an MTV Unplugged session. Her stunning acoustic cover of I’ll Be There was a number-one hit in the US and reached number two in the UK, proving her vocal capacity.

With Mottola micromanaging his protégé’s every move, it was no surprise to those around them that their relationship segued from professional to personal, despite a 20-year age gap and him being newly divorced from his wife, with whom he had two children. They married on 5 June 1993 in New York in front of a showbiz congregation that included Robert De Niro and Bruce Springsteen. Carey wore a Vera Wang dress apparently modelled on the one Princess Diana wore to marry Prince Charles. However, after settling into their £7.3 million home, the singer discovered marriage to Mottola wasn’t like working with him.

Mariah Carey and Tommy Mottola wedding

Mariah Carey and Tommy Mottola married in 1993

In the studio, she had autonomy, co-writing and producing most of her tracks, and she had the Midas touch. The single Dreamlover from her 1993 album Music Box stayed at number one for two months, and in December 1994 she released All I Want For Christmas Is You – her biggest international hit to date. At home, however, Mottola was in control. He dictated how she should dress. Soon Carey was describing the house to friends as Sing Sing – the infamous US prison. ‘I had to get permission to leave [the house],’ she said. ‘I used to wish, hope and dream that someone would kidnap me. I never thought I’d get out of there.’ Eventually, she found the strength to leave and divorced Mottola in 1997.

Now released from her ‘private hell’, as she put it, Carey hit the social scene, where she became romantically linked to rapper Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and baseball player Derek Jeter. Her next serious relationship was in 1999, with Mexican singer Luis Miguel, who she met skiing. When they split three years later, it sparked an episode that was one of the darkest points in Carey’s life.

‘I am baffled, shocked and appalled when I’m called a diva.’

On 19 July 2001, she made an erratic appearance on the MTV show Total Request Live, shocking viewers by stripping down to a tiny vest and shorts. Afterwards, she posted a message on her website saying, ‘I’m trying to understand things in life and so I don’t think I should be doing music right now. What I’d like to do is just take a little break or at least get one night of sleep.’ A week later, Carey was hospitalised after her mum found her in a hotel room bleeding from cuts. Her publicist Cindi Berger said the star had experienced an ‘emotional and physical breakdown’ but denied tabloid claims she’d tried to take her own life. ‘She did break some dishes and glasses, and she may have stepped on them,’ admitted Berger. The singer spent two weeks recovering in an undisclosed facility in Connecticut, but her troubles weren’t over. Two months later, Glitter, a film based on her life in which she starred, was panned on its release. The soundtrack, her first album since she’d left Mottola’s label a year before to sign a $100 million contract with Virgin Records America, also tanked.

But in 2002, her luck changed when Island Records bought out her contract, and her next two albums, Charmbracelet and The Emancipation Of Mimi, re-established her as a chart topper. The latter produced the 2005 hit We Belong Together, widely regarded as Carey’s opus and her 16th US number one. Then, in 2009, she was critically acclaimed for her performance in Lee Daniels’ Oscar-winning film Precious. As her career soared again, so did her private life. In 2008, she met comedian Nick Cannon when she cast him in her video for Bye Bye. Six weeks later, they married in the Bahamas and, on their third anniversary, Carey gave birth to twins Monroe and Moroccan.

Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon with their twins

Mariah Carey with her ex-husband Nick Cannon and their twins Moroccan and Monroe in 2011

Throughout her career, like many strong and highly successful women in male-dominated industries, she was labelled a diva. Countless outrageous requests credited to Carey include the star refusing her limo outside a hotel until they rolled out a red carpet lined with candles and employing someone to walk backwards in front of her so she didn’t fall over. But she has always denied the rumours. ‘I am baffled, shocked and appalled when I’m called a diva. I’ve never done anything diva-ish in my life,’ she once said.

‘Music helps me get through some of the hardest times of my life’

Her new husband gave her the stable family life she’d never had – her parents divorced when Carey was three, her father had died in 2002 and she was estranged from her siblings – but it was short-lived. In December 2014, he filed for divorce after months of speculation, hinting to one interviewer that their differences were to blame. ‘When two people are in a relationship, it should be about growth. It should be a situation where everyone’s becoming a better human being in the relationship,’ he said. The divorce sparked another period of career lows. Her 2014 album Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse performed dismally compared to her previous records. Then, after a split from James Packer, her billionaire fiancé, in October 2016, there was the New Year’s Eve lip-sync disaster and the poor reception to her reality TV show Mariah’s World.

Mariah Carey and Bryan Tanaka

Carey and boyfriend Bryan Tanaka perform during the opening show of Mariah Carey: All I Want For Christmas in December 2016

Today, however, Mariah Carey is back on a high. She’s expressed her happiness with life raising her twins and is dating dancer Bryan Tanaka, who is 13 years her junior. And as another holiday season approaches and her hit single rings out from radio stations across the globe, she can take satisfaction in having nailed the most difficult music challenge of all – having the most successful Christmas single of all time. ‘Music helps me get through some of the hardest times of my life,’ she admits. ‘It also helps me celebrate some of the best times.’

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