Mariah Carey: 'Music was my escape'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Controversy never seems far from Mariah Carey – so she's hoping that a fresh foray into acting will generate more positive headlines

It's so easy to poke fun at Mariah Carey that it's almost become part of everyday life. Even George Clooney couldn't resist the temptation when he went to receive an award recently and declared, "I am like Mariah Carey, fucked up right now."

The actor was referring to Carey's appearance at the Palm Springs International Film Festival when she went on stage to accept an award as Breakthrough Artist for her turn in Lee Daniels' Precious, and with eyes glazed over addressed the audience: "Please forgive me because I'm a little bit... ". During the long pause, someone shouted, "fucked up", to which Carey replied with a slur, "Yeah".

Such is her fame that it was no surprise when footage of the 40-year-old's acceptance speech was played on the news around the world, and became a YouTube hit. But once the dust had settled, the big surprise was not that the singer-songwriter was drunk at an awards ceremony, but that she's winning acclaim and gongs for acting.

Ever since musicals went out of fashion as a cinema tool, it's been tough for musicians to be taken seriously when they decide to try their hand at acting, especially those who are viewed as superstars, divas or both. Just look at the myriad poor reviews that Madonna has received for her big-screen appearances.

The same was true for Carey, who, after making her screen debut as a cameo in the lacklustre The Bachelor in 1999, got pilloried for starring in Glitter in 2001, a semi-autobiographical account of Carey's rise through the music business. From that moment on she only seemed to want to dip her toes into acting, despite receiving reasonable notices for WiseGirls in 2002.

So far she has sold more than 175 million albums, singles and videos worldwide and was the first recording artist to have her first five singles top the US Billboard chart. She has the record for the most No. 1 singles by a solo artist in the United States. Indeed, only the Beatles have scored more chart toppers in the US than the 18 that Carey has to her name.

However, it's not music but film that is currently ensuring that Carey is carrying a lot of cachet. While her 12th album, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, was considered a flop after selling 168,000 copies in its first week in the US and "only" debuting at No. 3 on the Billboard album chart, she has been winning rave notices for going against her glamourous image and shedding her make up to appear as a social worker in Precious.

Carey, who admits that she is not an avid reader, was given Sapphire's novel by a friend who told her, "All women of colour have to read this book." Carey read the book, although she didn't end up agreeing with her friend's assessment. "For me, everyone should read this book, no matter who they are. We should all read it because there's an intensity in the book that leaves you flabbergasted. It kind of changed my life."

Precious is a 16-year-old who is sexually abused by her father while her mother turns a blind eye. Despite being an overweight black girl, she dreams that she'll escape poverty and a life of woe by being uncovered as a superstar. These dreams are shown in amusing sequences that break up the harsh reality of her everyday life – and give the proceedings a light touch that stops the film descending into depressing melodrama.

Reading the book brought back memories of some of Carey's own bad experiences. "The first relationship I was in, without realising it at the time, was abusive emotionally," she says. "That is in the past, but that helped me get to a place where I could grow and use all that stuff [in my work]."

The singer's involvement in the project came about because of her friendship with director Daniels, best known for producing the Oscar winner Monster's Ball and directing Helen Mirren as an assassin in Shadowboxer. Carey was so excited when she heard that he would be adapting the book that she admits she pestered him with questions. "I would say, 'who are you going to get to play the lead character?'" she recalls. "I wondered how he would find someone able to do the role. Then when it came together, he asked me to be a part of it."

Daniels decided to invent a new character, a social worker called Miss White, for his friend to play. Mundane and everyday, she runs entirely against the public image we have of Carey. "She is the complete opposite of me," says Carey. "What we had to do was strip away layers of myself, me as a celebrity, me as an artist, so that I could become this person who actually has to reveal to the audience what is going on. When she is told of the abuse she is as shocked as we are and I had to take in that big responsibility."

This was not something that the singer found easy. Being a friend, Daniels had had the privilege of seeing the Long Island-born personality at home in her slacks without make-up and now he wanted to show this side to the world – and make the singer look worse by deepening the bags under her eyes.

Recounting how difficult it was for her, Carey says, "I think it was crucial [to dress-down]. It was tough because making music videos is so different with the costumes, the angles, the lighting and stuff like that. In Precious, we sat in a fluorescent dentist's office and it was the worst-lit scene of the movie. The over-lighting emphasises the dark stuff under your eyes. One day Lee caught me trying to put blush on, and he said 'what are you doing?' I said, 'Precious has blush on,' but he would not let me do it. It was one of those things that I had to do. I guess now I'll feel better about myself when I'm dressed normally at my house and walk past a mirror and see myself. I'll be like, well I've looked worse."

Ever since she met Columbia records executive Tommy Mottola at a party in 1988 and persuaded him to listen to a demo tape, her image has been carefully cultivated. The singer married Mottola in 1993 after the success of her first two albums, by which time Carey had already attained superstar status in the United States. International success followed the release of her Music Box album in the year she said her nuptials.

By 1997 the singer had separated from her record executive husband and news about Carey started to become more focused on her problems rather than her successes.

Speaking about the stories that emerged about her upbringing she says, "I come from a very unique background. I don't know how many times I have to say it before the world knows. In my father's family there was a lot of troubled uncles and aunts and people we were not allowed to know – very unique situations."

Carey's mother is an Irish American opera singer and her father an Afro-Venezuelan aeronautical engineer. Carey's parents divorced when the singer was three years old and she had little contact with her father, while her mother juggled several jobs. Her racist neighbours poisoned the family dog and set fire to the family vehicle. It was to music that Carey turned to for comfort and from an early age her mother taught her how to sing.

"There are several chapters in my life," she says. "As a child, music helped me, my relationship with God helped me, my mother did install faith in me; if nothing else, she told me to believe in myself, because nobody else told me that kind of thing. Music was my escape, and as time went on, different friends and people would help me to see that I could get out of the difficult personal relationships I was in."

As her success grew, Carey was criticised for being a diva. She increasingly appeared in tabloids reporting on a succession of failed relationships and tales of excess. Her record sales suffered and she parted company with Columbia to sign a reported $80m contract with Virgin Records. Her behaviour became more erratic and in July 2001 it was announced that she would be taking a break from public appearances after she seemed to suffer a physical and emotional breakdown. The poor reviews for her music and the film Glitter did not help her, as the singer seemed to be hitting the self-destruct button. She was dropped by Virgin and signed to Island.

"I have met people who have gone through some of the things that I myself have been through," she says. "So there are things that I can draw on in terms of being able to sympathise and empathise with the idea of being like an outcast or feeling ignored. Most of us have had a slice of that, even though most people think I was born in this magic bubble, and here I am singing high notes. I know people who have been through some deep shit. Pardon my French."

Just as it seemed like Carey would never hit the heights again, her eighth album, The Emancipation of Mimi, became the best selling album in the US in 2005. The song "We Belong Together" would top the American chart for 14 weeks and the return to prominence was a story of triumph, snatched from the doors of disaster. Yet Carey would not be able to shake the reputation of being a woman on the edge.

In 2008 she married the actor and rapper Nick Cannon on her private estate in the Bahamas. It did not take long for Cannon to become embroiled in the madness of his wife's life; Eminem, in his song "Bagpipes from Baghdad", taunts Cannon about his relationship with the singer. It seems nothing in the life of Carey is ever straightforward and her drunken appearance at the Palm Spring Awards set off alarm bells. One wonders just how long Carey will be able to avoid the turmoil that is never far from her.

'Precious' opens on 29 January

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones