Mariah Carey on Her Fans, Her Feminism and #JusticeForGlitter

Mariah Carey isn’t someone who rushes anything. So when it comes to a photo shoot, an afternoon naturally stretches into an evening, which turns into a late-night event. At 10 p.m. — after a marathon of costume changes and notes on lighting (one of Carey’s many areas of expertise) — she’s finally ready to sit down for a print interview.

As we walk into her dressing room, Carey has refashioned this corner of the photo studio into her own private lounge. On a table, she’s displayed a scented candle and a lamp. “I just hate fluorescent lighting,” she says. “It’s toxic.” She sips on a glass of red wine and nibbles from a container of pumpkin seeds. After she puts on a robe, she feels shy, so she asks a member of her team to bring her a second robe to wear over that one. “I just need a little coverage, because we’re a little nude under her,” Carey says, talking about herself in the first-person plural. “Lord knows, dreams are hard to follow.”

Nonetheless, Carey has managed to make them come true, to climb to the peak of the music industry. Over her career, Carey has sold a staggering 65 million albums in the United States, according to RIAA, making her the second-biggest female artist of all time, behind only Barbra Streisand. And from 1990’s “Vision of Love” to 2007’s “Touch My Body,” 18 of her singles (17 of which she wrote herself) have reached the top of the Billboard 100 chart, a record for a solo artist.

Peggy Sirota for Variety

Through it all, Carey says that she’s had to battle against perceptions of being a female, mixed-race artist in an industry rampant with sexism. “I did not feel like I was being treated the same as some male artists when I was coming out with my first album,” Carey says of her 1990 debut.

She also recalls having to rebuff the unwanted advances of powerful men in the music industry when she was younger. “Older guys, younger guys,” Carey says, declining to go into specifics. “And my natural thing is to be a problem solver. And so when things happen to me, I’m, like, ‘Walk away.’ Because that’s how I was my entire life. I’ve been in the storm too long for that to shake me.”

For this week’s Power of Women issue (where Carey is honored for her philanthropy with The Fresh Air Fund’s Camp Mariah), the singer-songwriter spoke to Variety about her career, feminism, writing her upcoming memoirs and why she’s hopeful about the future of the music business.

Where is Mariah Carey right now — creatively, artistically, personally?
Getting ready for Christmas.

Already?! We just passed the last day of summer?
Yes, but I can’t skip Halloween, and I can’t skip Thanksgiving. I know that “All I Want for Christmas,” my song that I wrote, is very commercial. But it’s not coming from that place. It’s really coming from the place of a kid, just loving Christmas so much. There’s just no greater feeling or emotion than having that day. And everybody asks me what the secret behind [my song is], and I’m, like, it’s because I truly love Christmas. I don’t want to say it, but I might as well work in the North Pole. I legitimately have that much Christmas spirit.

Have you always loved Christmas?
When I was little, and we’re exploring this because I’m writing my book, I always wanted Christmas to be perfect and so special. And my elder siblings, who I no longer communicate with, would ruin it every single time. So therefore, I got my festivity from my mother because my dad wasn’t into it. But they were divorced so that was a different thing. And when I wrote “All I Want For Christmas,” I was just thinking about: What are all the things that make me happy? And then I turned it into a love song.

And you asked me a question that could have been much deeper and more about women’s empowerment, but I think one of my greatest achievements is writing that song. Although I love all of my favorite songs that I’ve written, I’m the most proud of “Butterfly” and “The Emancipation of Mimi.” “The Emancipation of Mimi” is something we should talk about if you want to get specific about female empowerment because that was really me having to fight the system.

Let’s talk about that. Were people on your team worried about the album, which came out in 2005, as it related to your image?
They’ve been worried — “they” in quotes — about my image since 1901. That’s my way of saying a long time without stating an actual year. But no, since the beginning. And, like, I had to keep my hair a specific way, and I had to be very, very down the middle. I had a whole supposed breakdown, alleged. All of this to be revealed in the book, by the way, which I’m obsessed with writing right now. It’s so cathartic.

The breakdown was alleged?
It was an emotional and physical breakdown, but it wasn’t a nervous breakdown, because you don’t recover from that really. And even my therapist was like, “You didn’t have a breakdown; you had a diva fit and people couldn’t handle it.” And that is something we should explore, because if a woman gets too emotional or too loud or too abrasive or too real, suddenly it’s like, “What’s wrong with her? She’s crazy.”

And what my therapist explained to me, he’s like: “You always try to be such a nice person where you smile, and when you smile everything goes away. Everybody thinks you’re fine.” These people are here making money off me; why don’t they care if nobody’s got an umbrella for me, and it’s a sunny shoot? And the minute I was like, “I’m not fine; I need a day off, I need a moment.” Nobody could handle it because they infantilized me from the beginning. And by the way, I do need someone to be like, “Ok, we’ve got to go; you’re running late.” Yeah, I am like a petulant child. But my true fans know this. I’m eternally 12. But we’re artists.

Did you find that you were treated differently because you’re a female artist?
The decision makers, particularly in the beginning of my career, were always men and exclusively men. There were no powerful women around me, or even self-made women around me. I made a decision early on that I never wanted to be beholden to a man. I didn’t want to be a kept woman. Most people have the misconception that I was. I paid for half of every single bit of that gigantic mansion in Bedford. I paid for the lights, everything down to the water because I said I wanted to do that.

When you’re with someone 20-something years older than you, and you’re a female, the perception is always going to be this girl’s being taken care of. No, darling. And they made billions of dollars off my incessant work. I did nothing but make albums. And I don’t want to give you more than you need because I want to save some for my book. I don’t know if you know what I’m talking about.

Are you talking about your marriage to former Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola? 
Yeah. I can’t assume that everybody knows that. In that lifetime, which it feels like a whole lifetime ago, I used to feel like I lived vicariously through the girl on the screen. I would watch the “Dreamlover” video and it’s not that I don’t want to hear the song or don’t love the song. I mean, Aretha Franklin told me that she loved the song. I’m proud of the song, but I just don’t feel like listening to it because it reminds me of a very specific era when I was really controlled by powerful men and corporate people.

When you look back at your songs, what was the turning point for you?
“Fantasy” featuring ODB. Even “Dreamlover,” that was Dave “Jam” Hall and me. That was a very female empowerment moment for me. He was respected in his own right in the hip-hop community as a producer, and I’m in there really producing with him. Now, everybody’s just like, “Yeah so-and-so did a collaboration with me.” Back then it was like, “No, you better do a version that doesn’t include the rapper.” And the label never got it. They were always, like, “Why do you want to work with these artists?” As a biracial person, like don’t cut me off culturally from where I’m trying to find this place that I feel fulfilled as an artist.

I would say the “Butterfly” album obviously is a huge turning point; thus, the name and the whole thing. And then fast forward, after the debacle that was “Glitter,” which everybody can read about in the book, because it’s a real moment we’re getting into. And by the way, #JusticeforGlitter with my fans. I hope you include that if we talk about it, because the album went to No. 1 this year. That was a huge achievement for [my fans] the Lambs, who by the way named themselves. I did not name my fans, and I think it’s insulting that other people have named their fans. But whatever; we love everybody.

When do you expect your book will come out?
I just extended it a little bit, because I want to be really, really happy with it. So 2020 for sure, but not early 2020.

You wrote and sing “In the Mix,” the theme song to the ABC series “Mixed-ish,” which celebrates your biracial identity. Why was that important to you?
When I was growing up, for me, it was very much: “You’re one or the other. Which are you?” And it’s very wrong to do that to a kid. And that message is a message that many racist people start feeding their children when they’re babies, so the hate gets handed down. And it’s a real thing. When you’re so nebulous looking or ambiguous looking, people tend to forget, “Oh yeah, her father’s black. Maybe I shouldn’t say this to her.” And in my situation, I’ve always felt so alienated. Even in “Vision of Love,” it says “suffered from alienation.” That’s my first song I ever put out. That means I felt like an outsider. I felt like people didn’t get it and it was hard.

Have you met Donald Trump?

What was that like?
Not going to do it!

At Barbra Streisand’s concert in New York last summer, you took a picture with Hillary Clinton. And on Instagram, you called her “President Clinton.”
The Clintons were there, weren’t they? I’ve always loved the Clintons. I have a very kind of nostalgic attachment. And the Obama years, I’ll never forget the night that happened. And then I was fortunate enough to be one of the performers at the inauguration.

You sang “Hero” that night.
I did. Not my favorite performance of that, by the way. I was so unnerved. Certain things, I still get nervous, and then it’s live. It’s much better when I’m with my fans and having a casual moment. It’s just a little pressure, you know? It’s the first black president.

Do you think we’ll ever elect a female president?

I don’t know. I was so shocked when we had our first black president that I believe that anything is possible. We know that sexism exists. We know that racism exists. And we know that job is freaking extremely difficult. I think everything should be about, “What are your qualifications?”

Have you noticed a change in the way women are being treated in the music industry?
Yes, things are changing for the better. I’m really proud of looking at Missy Elliott and what she’s had this year, even though she beat me for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Not mad; the second year I lost. And I’m like, “Of course she deserves to have this moment.” I love the fact that she’s always been her and she’s allowed to be her. I didn’t have the luxury of a group of people standing behind me and saying, “No, you can’t do this to this girl because it’s not fair.” And for me, I was like, “I guess this is the price I’m paying, because I’m unhappy but I’m having success.” So I think something young women could take away from that is just be true to you and work really hard.

What do you think of the #MeToo movement?
I’m so proud of the women who have come to tell their stories, because I didn’t do it, and I should have done it. That’s an incredible accomplishment.