Mariah Carey: 'Music was my escape'

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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

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