Mariah Scary

She looks the part. A natural to play herself in the pop pic Glitter. So she gave herself the starring role. And then she lost the plot...
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At the end of November a film will be released which tells the story of a girl with a dream and a voice. A girl who rose from poverty to become a star; who suffers, as she sings a range of Eighties hits, until in the end she finds love. So far, so Hollywood. But if Glitter had told the real Mariah Carey Story it would surely have been less ho-hum than Hammer Horror.

"Ladies and gentleman. Mariah Carey has lost her mind."

These were the portentous words uttered by MTV veejay Carson Daly in July, six days before the most successful female singer in the world checked into Silver Hill Hospital suffering from "mental and physical exhaustion". Less than a week earlier, during her appearance on Daly's show, Carey had launched into an impromptu monologue. "I just want to have one day," she burbled, "where I can swim and eat ice-cream and look for rainbows and learn how to ride a bike. See, if you don't have ice-cream in your life you might just go a little bit crazy. And I'm not going to do that." She delivered this speech while wearing gold micro-shorts and matching tank-top, while pushing an ice-cream cart around the studio.

Carey was cracking up in public. Following reports that she had claimed Marilyn Monroe was speaking to her through her piano, and that she had decided she was invisible, not to mention the incoherent messages posted by her on her fanclub website, came the news that Carey had had an "accident" involving broken plates. Aides took her to see her mother, who phoned the police in a panic and said, "I think she is going to kill herself." Mariah was taken to Northern Westchester Hospital in New York with bandaged arms and was classed as "emotionally disturbed".

The collapse had been ostensibly triggered by her intense schedule promoting Glitter, the film and album, the first she had delivered to her new record company Virgin, and by the break-up with her boyfriend of three years, the "Spanish Elvis", Luis Miguel. Mariah was sleeping three hours a night and phoning friends to ask them to sing her lullabies.

The breakdown was a disaster for Virgin, which had offered Carey an estimated $140m (£96m) deal to join the label. The publicity department has been working overtime to rehabilitate the star's public persona. "Mariah is back at full strength." So says her UK publicist. "'Hero' has been one of the most requested songs on American radio since 11 September. She has been making lots of appearances on American television, but is taking things slower since events this year. She will be doing performances but not interviews." An industry marketing executive has another story: "Mariah is being wheeled out to every event possible by her record company. But she looks ill, and rumour has it that she still is ill."

Only last month, on Hallowe'en night, Mariah was spotted at a Hollywood restaurant wearing a Wonderwoman outfit: a sequinned bra and knickers and blond hair, just to go for a burger.

It seems that rather more than a fortnight in rehab is required to solve Mariah's problems.

People within the industry are suggesting Carey's disintegration began a lot earlier than July. "She has been very unstable since her divorce from Sony boss Tommy Mottola," says a record producer who declines to be named. That was on 5 March 1998. Mariah had been married to Mottola for five years. He is 20 years her senior.

In 1988, Mariah – then aged 18, unknown and a self-proclaimed virgin – met Mottola at a party and presented him with a demo tape. Within days she had signed a record deal. Two years later she was the proud owner of two Grammy awards and had sold 6 million copies of her debut album, Mariah Carey. Five years after that she married the mogul at a wedding styled on video footage of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer's Westminster extravaganza. Mariah walked down the aisle towing a 27ft train and wearing a tiara that was designed to resemble Diana's.

Mariah and Mottola moved into a 50-acre, £10m estate in the Hudson River Valley. They shared the estate with four horses and two pizza ovens. Yet, despite all this conspicuous wealth, Carey enjoyed very little control over her own finances. The deal she had signed when she was 17 meant that for 13 years she received only half her royalties.

She has since said that her time with Mottola was among the lowest of her life. And it gave rise to a new drive. Following the couple's separation, she went about reinventing herself, straightening and dyeing her hair blond. Whether she had surgery to enhance her breasts, as is repeatedly claimed by the tabloids but denied by Carey, is still open to debate. She went from being the fairy-tale princess in a gilded Connecticut cage to something entirely different, developing an image that somehow spliced together elements of both working girl and schoolgirl, highly sexual yet oddly, artificially innocent, an overgrown Lolita.

But then we could go even further back to explore the first stirrings of Mariah's personal problems. In 1960 Patricia Hickey, an Irish opera singer, married Alfred Roy Carey, a half African American, half Venezuelan aeronautical engineer. Their third child, Mariah, was born 10 years later. And when Mariah was three, Dad left Mum, who was then compelled to take on a second job as a voice coach, with the result that from the age of about six, Mariah pretty much looked after herself.

Her childhood was defined by insecurity – the family moved house 13 times – and feelings of alienation. "I always felt like the rug could be pulled out from under me at any time," she has admitted. "And coming from a racially mixed background, I always felt like I didn't really fit in anywhere."

Her voice was her salvation. This extraordinary burnished instrument – she claims that she can cover seven octaves – was discovered when, aged three, she picked up her mother's missed cue in rehearsal for Verdi's Rigoletto – in Italian. By the age of 16, Mariah was dragging herself to Harborsfield High School, Long Island, in the mornings after staying up deep into the night working on demo tapes. Days after graduation she moved to New York with one ambition: to make it as a singer. She was so poor that she had only one pair of shoes – a battered pair of black sneakers, a size too small, handed down by her mother. She was wearing these when she met Tommy Mottola a year later.

Mariah's carefully constructed persona is a compound of received ideas about what famous people should be like. The lyrics she writes are akin to the secret, self-dramatising poems of a 14-year-old girl. "I have learnt," she sings in "Can't Take That Away From Me (Mariah's Theme)", "There is an inner peace I own, something in my soul that they cannot possess, so I won't be afraid and the darkness will fade."

And she has adopted the traditional behavioural habits of the diva with epic relish. "She is considered an absolute pain," says our industry insider. "Clive Davis [boss of Arista Records] wouldn't even mention her by name, such was her rivalry with Whitney Houston, his star. Mariah was constantly trying to get one up on Whitney. When they recorded a track together he would only ever call it the Whitney duet, and wouldn't even play the section that Mariah was singing on." Then at last year's World Music Awards in Monte Carlo, Mariah insisted that she collect her award for Female Artist of the Millennium twice over because Michael Jackson, nominated for the male award, had been given a more extravagant presentation.

She is fond of seeing herself as street-smart, wise beyond her years, a woman who "saw things before I was 12 that most people may never see in their lives". But she also regards herself as an international superstar who must have her own lighting consultant travelling with her at a cost of $2,000 a day; a superstar girl whose favourite colour is pink and who once insisted upon being supplied with six kittens to keep her company in her dressing room.

It's easy to see Mariah Carey as a victim of the relentless billion-dollar music industry, of her restless ambition to escape an under-privileged childhood and the need to replace the father who left her when she was three. She is certainly the victim of her own desire to become something other than herself: a diva, something her mother never managed. To this end she has spent the last 15 years expending herself on a never-ending cycle of self-creation and re-invention, ending up burying herself beneath layer upon fictive layer of mightily dramatised versions of her fantasy self.

But perhaps there is another way of looking at this grimly glittering story. Perhaps this recent episode, this "mad" Mariah Carey, is her latest, most baroque creation yet. After all, the archetypal diva, from her operatic beginnings to her current incarnations, is defined by her tragedy. She exists ever precariously in that gleaming place where delusion shades into madness. Now that would be a good subject for a film.