The Heroism of Mariah Carey
Visions of love, bravery and bad hair through the lens of a longtime ‘lamb’
By Chris Azzopardi | Photos by Denise Truscello
I told my mom I interviewed Mariah Carey and she cried. “I know how much this means to you,” she said, verklempt.
She knows Mariah saved my life. I was 10 and confused and gay when I first heard her voice. It was one of those meant-to-be moments: A friend eagerly, and thankfully, played me the cassette single of “Emotions.” That voice, all seven octaves, captivated me, changed me. Years later, when I heard the curly-haired, hand-wavey songstress singing pick-me-ups like “Hero,” “Make It Happen” and “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme),” I was lifted beyond those signature high notes.
In 1997, I was 15 and still confused, on the brink of self-discovery, without a role model. The parallel wasn’t lost on me – Mariah was coming into her authentic self, channeling the artist she never could be on the triumphant confessional Butterfly, a metaphorical nod to the newfound freedom she was feeling after years of professional and personal captivity. The album, which turns 20 next year, ended on a deeply intimate note with “Outside,” where she referenced the inferior feelings she harbored as a biracial child.
As a gay adolescent internalizing the “feeling there’s no one completely the same,” as the song goes, my already-strong bond to the chart-topper, the diva, the survivor – my musical salvation, my “it gets better” – was strengthened. It was more than music. It is and has always been a palpable affinity to Mariah’s courageous and encouraging life story.
The story of an emancipated 27-year-old woman asserting independence. The story of a broken-winged 31-year-old woman who, a decade into her illustrious career, hit rock bottom, entered rehab for “exhaustion” and more than made it through the rain – four years later, in 2005, “We Belong Together,” the second single off The Emancipation of Mimi, held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks. For Mariah’s ever-faithful “lambs” who, too, have experienced, or are still experiencing the outside, it’s her inspirational narrative they’ve clung to with undying devotion.
Nearly 25 years after first hearing her voice on cassette, my phone rings. It’s Mariah Carey, the sales-crushing icon with a whopping 18 No. 1 singles, the five-time Grammy winner, my childhood lifeline, our ally. As we speak, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the roots of our connection, so I do. We also, of course, talk about Vegas, where she’s headlining The Colosseum at Caesars Palace with her hits show, Mariah #1 to Infinity, now armed with more “confidence,” she says, to go on vocal “tangents.” Naturally, her lingerie collection comes up. Furthermore, Mariah elaborates on the “unconditional love” she’s experienced from the LGBT community, which she emphasized when GLAAD recently recognized her with an Ally Award for all the lives she’s changed. An honor she received, in part, and most admirably, by changing her own.
You can’t see me right now but I’m bowing down.
Awww! I’m bowing down right back.
I’m going to start with the GLAAD Media Awards because what a big moment for me, too, as a gay man to finally see you honored for being an ally. You acknowledged the “unconditional love” from the LGBTQ community, and it’s true: I’ve never had anything less than that for you. To be completely honest, you and your music were why I followed my dream of being a writer who one day wanted to interview you. And here we are. Anyway, Lamb 4 Life right here; not even kidding.
Oh, wow; that’s amazing! L4L! Seriously – that’s such a great thing to hear; thank you for telling me that.
What did you mean when you said you haven’t experienced much unconditional love outside of the gay community? And why do you think the gay community in particular has stuck by you through thick and thin?
What I was trying to express – and it was all so fast and it wasn’t the world’s greatest speech ’cause I just wanted to try and speak from my heart and, you know, sometimes there’s so much going on and it’s not the best representation of what I really wanted to say, which would’ve been simpler. Which is basically: Some of the songs that I have written, like I have a song called “Outside” that a lot of people from the gay community have always said they grew up listening to and were like, “That helped me come out to my family.” Different things.
And so, as a songwriter, I wrote that song about me feeling like an outsider, about being biracial and a lot of other things in my life. I like to leave it open so people can relate it to their own lives, and a lot of my fans tell me, “This song helped me get through having to talk about being gay with my family and with my friends,” and stuff like that. There are other songs, too, because I kind of come from that place of feeling different or not accepted, and so that’s what I meant.
For me, as a teenager, “Outside” really resonated. Those lyrics – “ambiguous, without a sense of belonging to touch” – are ingrained in my head, and they had a big influence on my own life. “Looking In” as well. When were you first aware that you were kindred spirits with the gay community?
The whole thing in terms of me feeling really comfortable around all different types of people, including different races, religions, gay, straight, whatever, started as a kid. Most kids that I grew up around had never even met anyone gay, but my mom was always very theatrical and she had a lot of gay friends, so I grew up with her two best friends who were guncles before people knew what that was. And yeah, they were great to me. They really treated me well as a little girl. Obviously gay marriage wasn’t, you know, like it is now – it wasn’t legal – so they weren’t married. But they lived together and they were my example of a really great couple. They stayed together for as long as I knew them, and so to me, that was just normal. I wasn’t like, “Oh, wow, this is weird; my mom’s friend is gay.”
I guess I was just always comfortable because they were kind to me, and cool. And so then when I grew up I would always naturally gravitate toward the fun gay guy in school, you know what I mean? You know! It’s just like different moments. Even a friend of mine when I was growing up, her mom was in a relationship with another woman and they lived together and the whole thing, but she didn’t know – she didn’t understand it. But because I had such an open-minded mother who explained that kind of stuff to me, I wasn’t gonna out her mother to her. I was just like, “OK, fine.”
You’ve been a lifeline for many of your LGBT fans, including myself, because you’ve showed us that even an outsider can find his or her place. When was the first time in your life you were exactly the person you wanted to be?
Wow. The first time I can think of, and this is a great thing that actually incorporated work and fun and being free and music, was when I made the video for “Honey” (in 1997), and I went swimming in the shoes. It was just… I always wanted to have the freedom to be myself and I wasn’t in a situation where that was OK; I wasn’t allowed to because of that, uhh, first relationship (to ex-husband and then-Sony Music head Tommy Mottola). I had to overcome a lot to get through that, but that video – prior to that, I always had to settle for less than I wanted to be, and I wasn’t allowed to be who I was. And it really took a lot of courage. It wasn’t just like, “I’m gonna make a video.” It was, “I am moving on with my life, and I have to for my own self because I’m trapped in a situation.”
I know what you’re saying – I’ve been there. I mean, I’ve not made a music video…
(Laughs) Treat the music video as “I had a great time somewhere!” But it included me doing work and making a video, which for me, that’s not really work if it’s fun. And then also just all the elements that I love: the beach, the water, the freedom, the whole narrative of the thing. But yeah, it took a while to get there.
You’re doing some of your earliest songs during your Vegas residency. How has your voice and your approach to singing these songs, some of which are over 20 years old, changed?
You know what, certain days I’m like, “Oh, this is a really good day for me; I had a lot of vocal rest today and blah, blah, blah,” and some days for me I have to be a little bit more experimental and play around on stage because maybe it’s not as strong for that minute. Really, I just think I’ve become more confident and more experimental in a good way, if you know what I mean, in using different parts of my voice and things. I always did it, but I was more “stick to the script” and “don’t go off on a tangent.” You know, I think that people kind of like the tangents that I have! (Laughs) Singing tangents. Breaking a high heel on stage tangents; whatever the case may be.
You in your lingerie making pizza tangents – all of it.
(Laughs uproariously) It was real! That’s what I walk around in! I barely own any clothes! All I have is friggin’ lingerie.
How have you made yourself feel at home in Vegas?
I just bought a lot of lingerie! (Laughs)
What do you think 1990 Mariah would think of 2016 Mariah?
(Ponders; tongue sputters) Ah, I don’t knoooow! I was such a kid, just in over my head, but I knew that I was gonna do this for my life and soooo: I probably would’ve been like, “Who does your hair and makeup?” (Laughs) ’Cause they had me with some people who didn’t know what they were doing and I knew it wasn’t really good and I’d just be like, “Who does your lighting, hair and makeup?” is what I’d ask her.
They liked to put you in a lot of black.
They diiiiid. It was just like, ahhh, such a long story. You don’t even wanna know.
We’ve seen a lot of greats pass away in the last several years: Prince, Whitney and David Bowie. In what ways do their untimely deaths have you reflecting on your own legacy and what you want that to be?
It’s really interesting: I loved Prince and I still do. I love his music, and I’ll always have it, and I grew up listening to Prince, ya know what I mean? I was lucky enough to get to know him, but before I knew him I was listening to his music as an adolescent, as a kid, so his passing was very… I really felt like he was one of those people who would be around for a really long time because he just was kind of ageless in a lot of ways.
But in terms of me reflecting on my legacy? I’m not at that place right now. I’m still very much doing fun, creative things that, you know, I don’t want to go into a long, drawn out thing about, but a lot of different projects. Some movie things. I’m getting ready to go back in the studio really soon, and obviously I’m doing this residency in Vegas. It’s really fun, but I’m not trapped there. I can do other things. We just got back from the European tour, which was amazing audiences, and then we went to Africa, so it’s like, all that stuff is great.
But what do I think my legacy will be? It’s really hard for me to answer that. I just hope the fans who’ve been so supportive of me throughout my whole career will have my music and it’ll make a difference in people’s lives as you told me it did for you, which is amazing, because not everyone knows songs like “Outside” or “Looking In” or “Close My Eyes.”
“I was a wayward child”… trust me, I know those words by heart.
Trust me, I do too. “…with the weight of the world that I held deep inside.”
Is the weight lifted?
You know what – is the weight lifted? Ahhh, I think that it’s different now. It’s just different. … I don’t want that to be misinterpreted; I don’t want you to misinterpret that. I just mean like, in a lot of ways there are other things that are the “weight of the world” to me. Like my life now, I have other responsibilities. I was really writing that about the child version of me; I really did have the weight of the world on my shoulders as a kid, that’s how deep it felt for me.
Thanks for clarifying so nobody takes that out of context.
(Groans dramatically) I knooooow.
Mariah, I so deeply appreciate this moment and it means more than you’ll ever know. I hope our paths will cross again at some point soon.
I really thank you so much. I thank you for talking about the music. Really – I appreciate that. I adore you, daaahhhling!