'Being called a diva is a compliment'

Feature With her personal struggles behind her, a critically lauded film performance and a slick new album to boast of, it's time to meet the new Mariah Carey.

Mariah Carey's 18 number-one singles in the US charts are the most by any solo artist, dead or alive.
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With her personal struggles behind her, a critically lauded film performance and a slick new album to boast of, it's time to meet the new Mariah Carey. She talks to John Hiscock about negotiating life's bumps, being happily married again and her philanthropic pursuits. Seeing her sweep majestically into the hotel lobby, an entourage of assistants and bodyguards around her, it's hard to believe that Mariah Carey, the pop diva whose name is synonymous with glamour and prima-donna ways, agreed to a makeover that transformed her into a plain, drab-looking woman.

Admittedly, she hated every minute of it and still shudders when she recalls what she went through. But, she concedes, the result was worth the emotional trauma. Carey is almost unrecognisable in the small but powerful role of a tough social worker in the raw, emotional Precious. Her performance earned her a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival and has led to speculation that she could grab an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Deglamourising was such a traumatic experience for the singer that she says she still can't watch herself on screen. "Hideosity!" she declares dramatically. "It was overhead lighting, all fluorescent… hideous. Very hideous." She screws up her face in distaste. "I had dark circles under my eyes and a little moustache. The hair was disgusting and the clothes were horrible. "I had to really let go of any vanity and not care about my good side or my bad side. I had to strip down everything I am and become a completely different woman and put myself in the social worker's shoes and understand how it felt every day to be with people just asking you for money."

She pauses, thinks for a moment and laughs: "Now that's something I can relate to." The film's director, Lee Daniels, picked her for the role of Ms Weiss after Helen Mirren backed out at the last minute, adding her to an eclectic cast headed by 25-year-old newcomer Gabby Sidibe (who plays Precious) and the comedienne Mo'Nique and also including the musician Lenny Kravitz. Daniels says that he deliberately deglamourised the singer to ensure the audiences wouldn't be distracted by seeing "Mariah Carey", but also to antagonise her for her own good and extract the performance he needed.

Set in Harlem in 1987, Precious (its full title is Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire) is the powerful, disturbing story of an obese black teenager whose early life is a hell on earth. Pregnant for the second time by her father and bullied and abused both emotionally and physically by her mother, she can neither read nor write. Threatened with expulsion from school, she is offered the chance to transfer to an alternative school where she finds understanding and help.

The film, which had its regional premiere at the Middle East Film Festival in Abu Dhabi last month, won the audience awards at both Sundance and Toronto. Critics have hailed the cast's performances, singling out Carey for special praise. We meet today in a second-floor suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Someone brings her a cola in a glass with a straw and another assistant is ready with the information that, today, "Mariah is wearing a brown Oscar de la Renta T-shirt, black Ralph Lauren pencil skirt and knee-high Gucci boots."

Looking as glamorous as you'd expect, her hair cascading in tawny curls on her shoulders, she tells me she is on a pak choy diet recommended by her nutritionist. "It's kind of like spinach and it's from China and it's very, very healthy if I eat it every day," she explains. "I haven't been eating it lately but I'll be back on it when I get back to New York because there are a lot more Chinese food places there and I'm a New Yorker, through and through."

She is friendly but appears somewhat unfocused, blaming her occasionally distracted demeanour on the fact she had had only an hour and 20 minutes' sleep the previous night because "I was out being a bad girl". She won't elaborate but remarks several times that she's sleepy and frequently sips at her cola because she's "trying to stay caffeinated". The singer has a reputation for being "difficult" and there are plenty of stories of her outrageous demands. There's the one about her requesting that rose petals be strewn across the carpet of her hotel room; another that she insists on having her Jack Russell terrier transported by chaffeur-driven limousine. "The stories are just not true and I've learned to shake them off," she says with a shrug. "Anyway, being called a diva is a compliment." She speaks in a low, Long Island drawl and is in turn playful, thoughtful and philosophical. The praise she received for her acting is a novel experience for Carey. Her last high-profile role was in the disastrous 2001 film Glitter, a rags-to-riches tale of pop stardom loosely based on her own life. The film opened to scathing reviews and was described by some critics as one of the worst movies ever made. Carey was savaged for her wooden performance and won the Golden Raspberry Award for the Worst Actress of the year. "It's still kind of a sore spot for me but I think I learned something from it, which is that it is all about the material," she says. "I wanted to do independent movies but people wanted to put me into something where I was playing a star so I think that was forced upon me rather than me being allowed to do what I really wanted, which was to lose myself in a character and really be an actress. It was very difficult for me because I didn't have a support system or the right team. You need to have a great director and someone you can trust and have a relationship with." Despite her success with Precious, acting remains a sideline. Carey is, after all, one of the biggest-selling female artists of all time. After making her recording debut in 1990, she became the first artist to have her first five singles top the US charts; her 18 number-one singles are the most by any solo artist, dead or alive; she has sold 175 million albums and won five Grammy awards. The daughter of an Irish-American mother and a father with Venezuelan and African-American roots, Carey's parents divorced when she was three years old. Her mother, an opera singer and voice coach, gave her singing lessons. By the time she was in high school, she was well on her way to a singing career, often skipping classes to perform as a demo and back-up singer at local recording studios. She relates, she says, to the plight of the teenage Precious and tantalisingly hints there is more to tell about her own upbringing. "Like Precious, I always felt like an outsider growing up because it's very difficult when you come from an interracial family. We didn't have a lot of money, and nobody goes through what Precious went through but I've had certain situations that I wouldn't talk about in public, ever, because… well, maybe when I write my book one of these days. My real memoirs. "It's tough. It was an identity crisis for me because I didn't feel either white or black. I didn't know what I was so it was kind of a journey of self-discovery, trying to figure out who I was and who I should relate to. Was it my mother or my father? "We moved, like, 13 times, and everything would change, depending on what type of neighbourhood I lived in. There was always an adjustment period, but I guess it made me stronger. Some of the things I went through, people have no idea. Everything I've been through has gotten me to where I am today." Her life changed dramatically in 1988 when, aged 18, she met Tommy Mottola at a party. The Sony Records executive 20 years her senior was to become her svengali and husband. Hearing her demo tape, he was amazed by the range of her five-octave voice, tracked her down and signed her. Her debut album, Mariah Carey, reached the top spot on the US charts, spawned four number-one singles and won her two Grammy awards. She dominated the music scene throughout the 1990s, but separated from Mottola in 1997 amid rumours of violence and reports that Carey felt trapped by her controlling husband. Her career dived in the early 2000s, sunk by poor album sales, a bad case of food poisoning, a plagiarism lawsuit, Glitter and a hospital stay to recuperate from what her publicist called "an emotional and physical breakdown". Looking back on this period, she says, "I never really classified it as a breakdown. It was sort of like just the time of my life that was a little bit out of control and I think all of us go through it, but not everybody's under the scrutiny of cameras and being on television all the time and being misunderstood and stuff like that. Nobody's perfect, so I think when we all go through different stages in life and [have] ups and downs, it kind of just shows us that we're all human, you know?" She battled back, appearing in two low-budget but well-received movies, Wise Girls and State Property 2, and returning to form musically with the 2005 album, The Emancipation Of Mimi. "I can't let anything keep me down. I've always had to be a survivor since I was a little girl, and I refuse to let anybody get me down. I had to go through a whole journey of looking into myself and abandoning the chains that surrounded me. I don't want to sound too dramatic but it was a difficult thing for me to go through. But I think everything happens for a reason and it was just one of those situations where whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger." She has recently released her 12th album, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel, which marks a change in style. Gone is the trademark warbling and in its place, a more cool, creative and laidback sound ("it's R&B hip-hop with a lot of slow jams… and a lot of humour"). She co-wrote and co-produced all but one of the 17 tracks. Most deal with love in all its aspects, a fitting theme since she is 18 months into a happy second marriage, to the actor, rapper and TV host Nick Cannon, whom she married in a small, surprise ceremony in the Bahamas last year. She wears a diamond pendant bearing the letters MCC that was designed for her by Cannon. "People were surprised when we got married but it seemed like the right thing to do and wasn't anything out of the ordinary for us," she says. "I definitely feel more complete than before. There's a void you have when you don't feel you've found the other part of who you are, so I'm in a different place now and that's nice to experience. I think being able to collaborate with Nick and being in a really great place in my life is having a great impact on my music." She is finally receiving recognition for her songwriting and producing skills. "I've been writing lyrics and poetry since I was about six years old, so writing and singing have always been my outlets," she says. "A lot of people really like the ballad I Want To Know What Love Is from the Imperfect Angel album and it's a beautiful song from Foreigner. But my favourite songs are the ones I write myself because I feel closest to them." In addition to her music career, she has serious philanthropic interests, including Camp Mariah, based in upstate New York, which gives inner-city children a chance to explore the arts and career opportunities. "It's a place where kids can go and learn about their options in life... a lot of the kids from inner cities who go there have never previously left the street they live," she says. She would argue it's not easy being her, and she may be right. "I'm very hard on myself and have too many issues. It's difficult for me to relax and I work myself into the ground. But I think I'm a nice friend and a good person and I try to do my work as best I can." Mariah Carey's 12th album, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel, is available in record stores now.

A new Mariah Carey album wouldn't usually make business news headlines, but with Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel, Mariah Carey and her record company, Island Def Jam, have reinvented the way music is sold, pioneering a new marketing model for the struggling music industry. In a recent newspaper interview, the singer berated record company executives for failing to spot the trend in illegal downloading. "Big, powerful music industry executives made a giant mistake, and now we're all paying the price. Those stupid executives may have given up on the music business but I haven't. It's bleak out there for musicians. We have to do something." What she's done is turn Brand Mariah into a giant billboard, using her album to sell advertising, which will cover recording costs and boost overall revenue. Here's how it works: inside the first million copies of the CD is a 34-page mini version of Elle magazine, which, along with the lyrics and liner notes, features fashion, beauty and relationship articles all about Mariah and her fabulous life. It also contains advertisements selling high-end products to help, it says, "Mariah up" your life. There are designer shoes, cosmetics and luxury holidays, and some - such as Forever perfume and Angel champagne - in which Carey has a stake. Each advertising spot was sold by the record company for up to US$100,000 (Dh367,000), more than covering the magazine production costs. It's called "product integration", and in this instance, it's a clever way to ensure Island Def Jam recoups the album's estimated Dh25million recording costs. Antonio Reid, the chairman of Island Def Jam Records, told the magazine Brandweek: "The idea was really simple thinking. We sell records to people who buy lots of other stuff, so you should advertise with us. My artists sell two, five, eight million records - that's a lot of eyeballs. People hold on to these records for years. Most magazines are not that successful." If the ground-breaking project works, Reid says he will look for similar deals with his other artists. Kanye West, Rihanna and Bon Jovi are said to be in negotiations. Helen McLaughlin