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February 6, 2006

Mariah Carey's Emancipation

Mariah Carey is tired of keeping secrets. Here, she talks about growing up poor, her so-called "breakdown," the only unconditional love she's ever known (his name is Jack), the truth about "sleeping around" and what could be the record-breaking year

mariah carey march 2006 cover

Photo Credit: Matthew Rolson

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Mariah Carey may have to tattoo it on her forehead: "I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth." In fact, she recounts an early memory, sitting in the back of a "putrid green" car that her mother called "the Dodge Dent": "I was looking out the window at the supermarkets and people driving normal cars ‑- forget Mercedes ‑- and I was like, When I grow up, I want to not have a Dodge Dent. I want to evolve from this," she says. "But more than that, I wanted to express myself through music, because that was what made me happiest."

The 36-year-old Carey has evolved, to say the least: As a performer as well as writer or cowriter of her songs, she has amassed a wealth estimated in the hundreds of millions. She has "expressed herself through music" to the tune of 150 million albums sold worldwide since her debut in 1990, with more number-one hits than any other female artist (her 17 are tied with Elvis's and behind only the Beatles' 20). That 17th number one was "Don't Forget About Us" from her most recent album, The Emancipation of Mimi, for which she has garnered eight Grammy nominations.

And while the past year has been, by her count, one of the best years of her life, she hasn't always been this happy. Now sitting in a hotel room in New York City's SoHo, wearing Hudson jeans and a white tank top in anticipation of a red-eye flight to Paris, Carey talks in a rich, dusky voice, alternately misting her tired throat with atomized Evian and a prescription medication. (She repeatedly refers to her throat doctor the way other celebrities might quote their agents or psychics.) She looks back on an unhappy marriage to music executive Tommy Mottola, her bitter divorce and extrication from both Sony and Virgin music labels, and a period five years ago of extreme physical exhaustion ‑- and she can peacefully pronounce that everything she went through makes her current success that much sweeter.

"There's this perception that I had a Cinderella story, but I extracted myself from a really negative relationship, one in which anyone who had any sense of self-worth would never have been able to exist," she says. "I think I allowed myself to live with that unhappiness because I didn't feel it would be fair for me to have everything. I have this career, I'm living my dream. Why should I be happy? I figured I was going to stay in that marriage until I died. I really did. And I really do feel guilty about being divorced, because as a child of divorce, that's the one thing that I always thought I wasn't going to do." But, as she sings in "Petals," she "fled to save her sanity" at the end of 1996.

Her divorce was perhaps more traumatic than her 2001 bout with physical exhaustion, which she says was grossly misrepresented in the press (she spent seven-and-a-half hours one day reading every clip, "because I wanted to be prepared") and derided by talk-show hosts ("who have since apologized to me, which is cool"). She categorizes the frenetic, exhausting schedule of making and promoting back-to-back albums as "telling the Energizer Bunny to work three times harder. My friend Maryann calls me 'I, Robot.' And I think that's how everyone looked at me." So when she needed a rest ‑- just a day or two or three to relax and sleep before the onslaught of making more videos and appearances ‑- it was seen as a nervous breakdown. She regularly records voice messages and posts them for her fans on her Website, and "it spiraled into me leaving the message that started all the breakdown rumors, which was something like, 'I don't even want to be doing music right now. I know you guys understand.' Because at that moment, I didn't. I was not a slave, I was a human being, and I needed to be treated like one."

When she retreated to her mother's home for the rest she craved, the telephoto lenses followed her ‑- and snapped a picture of her in her blue-cloud pajamas ("because I am 12 at heart") feeding her mom's dog out in the backyard. "They all said I'd had a nervous breakdown, but people don't recover from nervous breakdowns three days later! To my knowledge, that's not physically possible," she says. "But anytime you say 'breakdown,' people are going to scrutinize it and think, Whooo! This person went crazy! And it's like, hello? 'Physically exhausted' means I was physically depleted to the point of collapsing."

What upset Carey more than anything in the entire ordeal was the erroneous reporting that she had tried to commit suicide by slitting her wrists ‑- not only because, she says, "I am a God-fearing person and would never do that," and not only because her stylist and dear friend Tonjua Twist took her own life in the spring of 2000, but also because she would never want to set a bad example for her fans. Carey takes her position as role model to her young fans very seriously ‑- she does lots of charity work for kids and supports a Fresh Air Fund career-awareness program for underprivileged children called Camp Mariah. "I would never want them to think that the person who's writing about 'don't let go, don't ever, ever let go' ‑- whatever song you want to name, schmaltzy or not ‑- would try to commit suicide."

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