Mariah Carey - Biography

       
 
 

Mariah Carey was so destined to be a diva that it's easy to forget her humble origins. After all, those who approach her now do so from one end of the stretch limousine. Maybe that's how she wants it. But even with a five-octave range, Carey knows that a lot of plain old work goes into hitting the right note. Mariah was born on March 27, 1970. Her parents, Alfred and Patricia, named her after a song from the musical Paint Your Wagon. Alfred was a black engineer from Venezuela. Patricia was an Irish voice coach and opera singer. Carey embraces her multiracial upbringing, but remembers that her mother's family "basically disowned her when she married my father." It wasn't long before she began to wonder where, exactly, that left her. Effectively, it left her without a dad. After suffering car bomb attacks and having their dogs poisoned by their neighbors, Alfred and Patricia divorced, with Patricia taking custody of Mariah, who was 3 at the time, and her epileptic older brother, Morgan. Mariah basically spent her childhood as a nomad, moving from home to home with the radio her only babysitter. This period of struggle formed an unshakable bond between mother and daughter. "She gave me the belief that I could do this," Carey explained at the beginning of her career. And do it she could. At the age of 3, Mariah was correcting her mother's phrasing - in Italian. Other influences included her brother's soul records and mail-order gospel albums. "It's hard to explain," she has said, "but sometimes when I'm singing gospel, everything seems to be right. I'm not thinking, 'I don't know how I'm going to sing the next line,' because I'm letting go, the choir's wailing and there's an uplifting spiritual moment - it comes from somewhere else." The music of gospel artists the Clark Sisters and Vanessa Bell Armstrong was powerful stuff, but for the most part Carey sang pop tunes like "My Funny Valentine" to her mother's musician friends. And when she'd go into Manhattan after slouching through class at Harborfields High School in Greenlawn, NY, she worked at writing future No. 1's with keyboardist Ben Margulies in the back of his wood shop. Carey dropped out of high school when she was 16. It was a tough time. She was living on bagels, crying herself to sleep, and spending her days sweeping up other people's curls at hair salons. But she was still composing and sending out demos. Inspiration was never far away: The following year she wrote "Vision of Love." Her break came in 1988, when she became a backing vocalist for Brenda K. Starr. The "I Still Believe" hit-maker had plenty of faith in her young protege and, at an industry bash, urged Carey to press her demo tape into the hand of Sony Records head Tommy Mottola. "Great, another demo tape," thought the exec. But a change of heart was quick. After a single listen, he turned his limo around to find Carey. It wasn't long before Carey's mother was perusing a contract and the singer became a Columbia recording artist. Mottola used her astonishing tape to lure Arista bigwig Don Ienner, the executive responsible for building Whitney Houston into a pop sensation, to the label. They then set to work creating Mariah Carey. She performed at record store conventions, spent almost a year meeting with radio stations, and slaved away at her self-titled debut. Ienner brought in producers like Whitney Houston's Narada Michael Walden and Michael Jackson's Rhett Lawrence. To her credit, Carey balked at working with Walden, whose work she considered "too schmaltzy." Carey's voice - as perfect and powerful an instrument as a Stradivarius - ended up doing the work for her. Released in 1990, Mariah Carey was one of the most heavily promoted albums in Columbia's history, and with a string of chart-toppers including "Vision of Love," "Love Takes Time," "Someday," and "I Don't Wanna Cry," Mariah had arrived. Though some critics deemed her "Whitney lite," Carey herself was under no illusions regarding her affection for romantic bombast. "There are moments when you can't resist schmaltz," she said in 1994. "People are affected by it; they're moved. And it can help them. One person could say [the 1993 No. 1] 'Hero' is a schmaltzy piece of garbage, but another person can write me a letter and say, 'I've considered committing suicide every day of my life for the past 10 years until I heard that song and I realized after all I can be my own hero.' So you can critique it to the end of time, but in some ways I've done my job." One of Carey's other jobs is sustaining a happy marriage between her own technical prowess and a record company's high expectations. After winning the Best New Artist Grammy, she eschewed touring to concentrate on blockbuster albums like 1991's Emotions and 1993's Music Box. Columbia committed to a yearlong promotion for 1995's Daydream. After the Boyz II Men-assisted "One Sweet Day" went to No. 1 for 16 weeks, though, the album pretty much sold itself. In 1993 Mariah also married the boss. After a ceremony with guests like Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand, Mottola and Carey built an enormous dream house in New York's Hudson Valley, populated with horses, Jack Russell terriers, and Mottola's weapons collection. "People think she has it made in the shade," producer Walter Afanasieff said in 1995. "It's almost the opposite. Tommy...pushes her harder than any artist; not in retaliation to critics, but because she's so talented...she knows she has to work harder to prove herself." By 1996 Mariah had sold 75 million records worldwide. While Ol' Dirty Bastard's appearance on Mariah's "Fantasy," from Daydream, warned the singer's audience that she could roll down the limo window every once in a while, the subsequent Butterfly was a full declaration of independence, with the virginal Cinderella now very much in glass heels. In March 1998, Carey, whose rocky marriage had become a tabloid topic, got a quickie divorce from Mottola in the Dominican Republic. She took Derek Jeter out to the ballgame, switched talent agencies, and hit the road with a celebrated tour. As the title Butterfly promised, she left her cocoon to metamorphose into a full-blown mega-star on the 1998 VH1 special Divas Live, trading trills with Aretha Franklin. She continues to live up to her diva-dom: Her greatest hits bore the proud title of #1's; her 1998 duet with Whitney Houston, "When You Believe," is better known for how Mariah treated it as a diva detente rather than an ordinary collaboration. She once refused to do an interview unless given a puppy to cuddle; she starred with herself, playing both the naughty Mariah and the nice one, in the "Heartbreaker" video; and, quite famously, she "doesn't do stairs." She's also taken Brenda K. Starr's "I Still Believe" to the top of the charts, smashed the Beatles' record for most weeks at No. 1 with her single "Heartbreaker," and duetted with the rapper Jay-Z. Rainbow may not have gone to No. 1, but its Jermaine Dupri-assisted hits show the singer still has an ear to the street. And during it all, she's donated $1 million to a summer camp for inner-city kids, brought the beneficiaries of her charity to the 2000 American Music Awards, and paid tribute to Diana Ross at Divas 2000. She could still do your hair, too, if you wanted. No, Mariah does not forget. And that might be what makes a diva most.

Mariah Carey (above)
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