For the last few decades, we have been — tragically — in a diva recession. Oh, we have balladeers and pop stars by the dozen, some of whom are sublime. But while some of our Miley-come-latelys tear pages right out of the diva how-to manual — Nicki Minaj, Adele, Beyoncé — they don’t quite have the same potent combination of power ballads, hot tempers, and public dysfunction that marks the careers of greats like Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, and Celine Dion.
In our era of reality mega-stardom and celebrity politicians — where fame, exposure, and branding are expertly manipulated for profit — the role of the diva, that sacred celebrity archetype, is not easy to locate. Divas were overexposed before reality television even existed, but it seemed artless — an intimacy with the public established partly through gossip, and partly through the raw vulnerability of performance, which channels the ugliness and heartbreak of their high-strung lives through an incredible, showstopping voice. Divas are famously difficult — the incredible range and vocal skill of a soprano seems to bring with it a whole host of histrionic character traits — but because of that intimacy, they are also beloved.
But since the ‘90s, divas have receded from pop culture. In their stead are celebrities who are mostly famous for being famous — a skill in and of itself, to be sure, but not quite the talent that draws sold-out crowds in stadiums. And much of the adoration for figures like the Kardashians and the Real Housewives is tinged with a kind of revulsion, too; reality television is frequently a theater of traded scorn, where one experiences condescension for the women on-screen and self-loathing for being invested in the first place.
Fortunately, a true diva has arrived on the scene, and she is here to be worshipped.
“Mariah’s World,” a new eight-episode special on E!, is a behind-the-music celebrity miniseries with a surprising sense of humor and humility. It is, of course, centered on diva Mariah Carey — who is both preternaturally presentable and unbelievably self-conscious at seemingly every moment she is on-camera. One of the reasons reality television works is because most people forget the cameras are filming them, after a couple of days of getting used to it (liberally poured alcohol helps). Carey never forgets — despite almost always accompanied with a glass of red wine. She’s always aware of the camera following her, speaking to the audience in half-explanation and half-performance. The camera looks at her, and she looks back as if it is a mirror — noting angles, lighting, hair, makeup, eye contact. She’s acutely self-conscious, in a way that indicates both insecurity and canny business sense. And while she is, of course, absolutely flawless — in the kind of artificial, Hollywood way that one sees on TV — she has no interest in maintaining the illusion of effortlessness.
It helps also that Carey — through sheer charm — makes what is essentially an eight-episode misdirect so delightfully human and engaging. “Mariah’s World” follows the pop diva as she tries to both plan a wedding and execute an international tour at the same time, which offers two separate avenues for drama. But anyone keyed into celebrity gossip knows that this year has offered Carey plenty of fodder for drama already; in between finalizing one divorce, trying to plan a wedding, and cancelling the South American leg of her tour. Spoiler alert: Carey’s wedding has been called off, amidst reports of a scandalously outrageous pre-nup and post-split lawyering-up. With that in mind, watching “Mariah’s World” — which appears to have begun filming this spring — might seem like a fruitless endeavor.
But this is where the genius of this particular show — and of Carey’s celebrity persona — kicks in. The thing is, “Mariah’s World” is a joke. A joke Carey is in on, and invites the audience to participate in, too. The show runs through the paces of any reality special — such as introducing secondary “characters” who feud and plot through their clearly established goals, or intercutting day-to-day footage with after-the-fact sitdowns with the major players, who can offer context or analysis or eyerolls. But in “Mariah’s World,” Carey’s sitdowns with the camera are in at least a half-dozen different chaise lounges where the diva reclines “casually,” styled within an inch of her life in an outfit typically utilizing six-inch heels, diamond necklaces, and skin-tight spandex. Her skin invariably glows, her hair routinely shimmers — and is it just my eye, or do her accouterments seem to become more ostentatious with each cutaway?
Watching her is like being trapped in a gag in a sitcom — such as in “Arrested Development,” when Gob can’t stop telling people how much his suit costs, but keeps upping the price in a desperate attempt to raise the stakes. Except Carey really can keep raising the stakes. Early in the first episode, she tosses her head while preparing to jump into the ocean. “Oh, the agony, I’m on a yacht, and I have to go on a swing, in diamonds and a dress.” She even interviews herself as an entitled alter-ego diva, throwing a champagne flute to the marble floor in disgust. The direction is in on the joke — zooming in with a sharp sense of wit on the ostentation, Carey’s quirks, and the abs of a particularly devoted dancer, as if Carey is both the object of the camera’s gaze and the person behind it, too. During one moment, she exits a scene with characteristic tongue-in-cheek genius: “I’m breaking the fourth wall, goodbye.” A hint of a laugh plays across her face — even in scenes deemed “serious” by the laws of the edit bay.
And that is the point. Carey is the butt of the joke, and the comedian telling the joke, and the audience offering sardonic side-eye. “Mariah’s World” is such a broad, winking interpretation of the celebrity special that it is nearly self-parody. Carey is anxious to explain herself, but also able to see how ridiculous she is; at one point, she tries to explain to the camera why she actually needs four different people to help her put on her shoes, in what is partly apology and partly a spirited head-toss of entitlement. She is high-profile enough that she doesn’t need to invent drama or public appeal; it flows to her in spades, while she sits on a throne and examines her manicure. Her understanding of public image, having lived with it for so long, is shaded, nuanced, and skillful; it slips under the carefully built-up defenses of the modern viewer, so used to Instagram stars and YouTube celebrities.
It’s honestly kind of joyful. As with every reality special, “Mariah’s World” has its frustrations and manipulations. But it’s a pleasant reminder, too, of what it is like to be charmed by a true diva — these walking contradictions of power and fragility, so self-possessed and yet falling apart.
The premiere episode ends with Carey, clad in all black, elegantly throwing herself onto a pristine white couch in Glasgow — one that has presumably been provided for her by a very detailed call sheet sent in advance by her assistants. It is the opposite of one of her sitdowns — sort of. The angles haven’t been tested, Carey’s hair hasn’t been arranged, light meters have not been held to her face. But her cleavage is artfully arranged, her outfit flawless. For a few seconds the camera observes her in repose. Then, she says, with an arm thrown over her eyes: “This is lunacy.” She means the delayed rehearsals and postponed wedding and jerry-rigged tour. But maybe she also means all of it; the entire mess of moving parts and business interests that led her to this moment, lying flat on a couch in Scotland with perfect hair while being filmed by a mute camera crew.
Frankly, she has a point.