If you’ve heard Mariah Carey’s albums since she burst onto the charts with her self-titled debut in 1990, you know her music is meant to inspire. But if you’ve really been listening in between all the upbeat No. 1s, you also know she has also been working through some deep-rooted pain. Songs such as “Looking In” (off her 1995 “Daydream” album), “Close My Eyes” and “Outside” (1997’s “Butterfly”) and even a cover of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” (1999’s “Rainbow”) have taken the poetic approach to the trials and tribulations in her childhood. Now her new memoir, “The Meaning of Mariah Carey,” dives deeper and proves the person she has been most trying to inspire all along has been “Little Mariah.”
“Little Mariah,” as Carey puts it, is her young self — the one who has been kept safe inside her all of these years and has let her voice shine through in the lyrics of some of her songs. But prior to this book, she hadn’t really gotten to tell her story yet. This memoir gives her the opportunity to share some of her earliest memories, but Carey says upfront in the book that what follows are the most important memories to her. So while she devotes ample time to spending Sundays with her father, her love of Christmas and her complicated marriage to Tommy Mottola, don’t expect her alleged relationship with Eminem to be included.
Here, Variety selects some of the highlights of “The Meaning of Mariah Carey,” which is also read by the author herself on the Audible audiobook, plus a few burning questions that still remain:
Opening Her Home
Carey has often spoken about being born to a white mother and Black father and not seeing anyone that looked like her as a child — not even her older siblings, who were both darker-skinned than she was growing up. Here she explains what that really meant for her psyche as a young child, including feeling like her siblings resented her for being a “golden child” as the youngest and the lightest, as well as thinking they thought she was passing as a white child since she lived with their mother in a mostly white neighborhood.
Even more emotional, though, are her descriptions of the volatility within her home that required the police to be called on more than one occasion: watching her father and brother come to blows and watching her father shove their mother into the wall so hard she fell unconscious. In that latter moment, a 4-year-old Carey called for help (though not the police, as she only knew one phone number); eventually they did arrive, surveyed the scene, and said, “If this kid survives it will be a miracle.” To have such a statement burning in one’s heart and mind all of these years can be both a drive to be that miracle and a constant reminder of just how rare your chances are.
Time spent with her father, Alfred Roy Carey, is remembered in this memoir as decadent Italian dinners, patient lessons on how words have meaning (asking her if she wanted to “borrow” money for the ice cream truck or simply “have” it is probably a good lesson for all of us), driving in the Porsche with which he was forever tinkering, and reading next to him while he watched football. The one book she remembered him having in his house that was appropriate for her age was about about a little blind, Black boy that she believes was her father’s attempt to “introduce the concepts of racism and perception” because they didn’t actually talk about “the shades and the shapes of us.”
Painting a Picture of Racism
Carey describes her first experiences with racism as “like a first kiss in reverse: each time a piece of purity was ripped from my being. Left behind was a spreading stain which seeped so deeply inside of me that to this day I’ve never been completely to scrub it out.” It’s both a beautiful and heartbreaking sentiment, especially when she follows it up by saying this experience took place in preschool when she was creating a family portrait. In her young mind, the skin tones of her family members were different cookies — from the graham cracker of her father to the Nutter Butters of her siblings — but the crayons she had to work with didn’t yet include so many hues, so she chose brown for her father, only to be laughed at and told she “used the wrong color” by teachers who had only ever met her mother.
“A brew of self-consciousness and embarrassment boiled up from my feet to my face,” she explains.
Carey then writes of a friend she had a few years later, in first grade, who stared at her father in shock and fear when she met him during a playdate. Although there was undoubtedly trauma associated with witnessing that reaction, and later losing this friend in her life, it is the way Carey describes this friend that demonstrates a detrimental internalization about skin color. This little girl “looked like what little girls were supposed to look like — she looked like the little girls who were adored and protected, like the little girl my mother might have had with a man her mother would have approved of,” Carey writes.
In the eighth grade, she recalls being called the N-word, not just once but “over and over” at a so-called friend’s house after a group of girls locked her in a room. “This was not your garden-variety schoolyard mean-girl scuffle,” she remembers. “It was a devious and violent premeditated assault by girls I called my friends.” Carey writes that she never spoke of this incident before and never wrote down the details before. But with lyrics including “She smiles through a thousand tears / And harbors adolescent fears / She dreams of all / That she can never be / She wades in insecurity / And hides herself inside of me,” “Looking In” was an earlier attempt to wade through the emotions of such an experience.
Although she was in an unhappy marriage at the time, what drew Carey to Derek Jeter, who she began spending time with while still married to Mottola, was not the idea of a new romance. Instead, he was someone she thought might understand how she felt growing up as a mixed girl with a Black father and a white mother, because his mother was white and his father was Black, too. The moment she learned this, at a dinner party, she writes, it felt like “the moment in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when the screen went from black-and-white to Technicholor.”
The meeting wasn’t totally chance — Jeter was a fan who wanted to meet Carey — but what spun-off from there was a secret outing for which Carey had to enlist the help of her assistant and “give her driver the slip” for fear of Mottola finding out and trying to “destroy” her. This led to the events in “The Roof” — exactly; as Carey puts it, that was her first “docu-song.”
Carey acknowledges her career, in large part, is thanks to Mottola, who gave her a record deal and even encouraged her to release a Christmas album when that was far from a sure bet. She also classifies their first encounter, locking eyes at a party, as him looking “into” her, rather than at her. “I recognized his energy, and and I think he recognized mine,” she writes.
Such intensity proved to be fruitful professionally, as the legendary story goes that when he took her demo tape that night, he ran right out to his limo to listen to it and then ran back into the party to find her. But soon enough that energy turned both controlling and unpredictable in their personal relationship.
“His presence felt dense and oppressive. He was like humidity — inescapable,” she writes.
Among her assertions about the marriage: When she’d get up in the middle of the night for a snack or to write, the intercom would sound, and his voice would ring out, asking what she was doing. He once got mad about an article in which the journalist dream-cast her in a movie. He canceled Thanksgiving after getting upset that the then-head of Epic Records asked Carey her opinion on Diddy (then Puff Daddy) as a musical artist. He had “guns out and s—” when Carey and Da Brat “snuck out” for French fries one night while collaborating. He even held a butter knife to her face, she writes.
Carey is quick to talk about her own culpability during this time. “I’d just provided the design inspiration, and put up half the money, to build my own prison,” she writes of the $32-million home in Bedford, N.Y. she shared with Mottola. “You don’t have to do this,” she recalls people telling her of the marriage. But “I truly believed I had to. I saw no other way out.”
The biggest revelation through this section may be that they went to couples’ counseling together. For as manipulative and aggressive as Carey says Mottola could be, this was a moment of trying. Itt was there that she began to understand she didn’t have to continue to live this way, she says, which eventually led her to taking acting lessons and getting a small place of her own next to her teacher’s so she could just sleep and rest, this was so Mottola would think she was crashing at her teacher’s after a long session.
“Why are you acting as if you’re dealing with a normal situation? It’s not normal!” she recalls their therapist telling her.
When Carey was just a teenager, still trying to get her big break, she turned down a $5,000 offer from a publishing company to place “All in Your Mind” in a movie. Although the money would have meant a lot to her at the time, she didn’t sell because she believed her songs came from “somewhere special inside of me, and that selling them would be selling a piece of me.” In the end, it worked out more than handsomely, as her first real publishing deal netted her a million dollars.
An Almost-Collab with Biggie
Although Carey says she at one time thought “F– him” about the Notorious B.I.G., because of his lyrics “Jasmine Guy was kinda fly / Mariah Carey’s kinda scary,” she got on the phone with him and he said, “No disrespect.” Convinced the line was all in good fun and looking to add grit to a remix of “Honey,” she and Puffy were planning to bring Biggie into the studio. But unfortunately he died before they got the chance to record.
Alt-Rock or Just Angry?
Carey reveals that while she was recording “Daydream” in the mid-1990s, she would often go off in a corner and write down lyrics unlike anything she ever released. (She offers a sample: “I am! / Vinegar and water / I am! / Someone’s ugly daughter / I am wading in the water / And I am! / Like an open blister.”) While she was able to channel a little bit of this inner turmoil into her black-haired alter-ego Bianca a few years later for “Heartbreaker,” she put it on full blast for what became an album credited to the group Chick, “Someone’s Ugly Daughter,” released the same year as “Daydream.” She’s not credited on the album, nor does she explicitly name-check the album in the book. But it’s clear she’s using her platform with this memoir to take credit for darker parts of herself than she has previously allowed the public to see.
Justice for 2001 Mariah Carey
Carey mentions but doesn’t quite go all-in on what she thinks went wrong with her big-screen debut, “Glitter,” starting from the fact that “the powers that be” were worried about casting Terrence Howard as her love interest, which she wanted, and pushing him into the villain role; she also mentions sabotage from Mottola and her acting coach. But she does spend a bit more time talking about her “too late and a bit messy” publicity stunt when she allegedly crashed “TRL” and host Carson Daly announced she was stripping.
Carey explains that no one can actually crash such a television show. “Whole-ass teams of people knew I was coming,” she writes. “It was a stunt. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
And it was all to generate publicity for “Loverboy,” the first single off the “Glitter” soundtrack that had only hit No. 2 on the charts. That time in her life, she writes, came with fear about Mottola tracking her down, little sleep (in part due to a “grueling” music video schedule) and the manipulations of her brother who used inside codes to gain her trust but then pulled her out of safe spaces. Eventually, she let him take her to her mother’s house, where an argument spurred her mother to call the police. “Even Mariah Carey couldn’t compete with a nameless white woman in distress,” she writes.
After all Carey went through in her own childhood, she writes that she sincerely thought she would never have kids. That changed when she was in a relationship with Nick Cannon and, she admits, it’s why they got married so quickly. Her pregnancy was no walk in the park, she notes, between gaining more than 100 pounds and developing poisonous edema and gestational diabetes. But a combination of Cannon’s mother and recording her second Christmas album helped her get through the roughest parts. And now that her kids are here and growing rapidly, Carey has vowed to give them what she never had.
“They have multitudes of memories and images of being with two loving parents together. Their lives have never been threatened. Cops have never stormed our house,” she writes. “They do not live in fear. They have never needed to escape. They don’t try to destroy each other. My children are happy.”
Other pieces of classic Carey history in the media that barely get a mention in the memoir include her decades-spanning chart-topper “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” working with Walter Afanasieff beyond “Hero,” the events surrounding her 2016 New Year’s Eve viral performance and even her time in institutions after her mother called the cops on her.
Carey gives props to a number of other singers in her memoir, including Cindy Mizelle, Aretha Franklin and Aaliyah, but barely mentions performing with Whitney Houston. She spends half the book on Mottola and a couple of chapters on Jeter but only one on Luis Miguel, and her chapter mentioning Cannon is really more about their kids.
Additionally, there is still enough interest in what exactly happened between Carey and Eminem to warrant a chapter. While it makes sense that she doesn’t want to give the story more oxygen (or headlines) by including it here, whatever went down spawned music from both of them, not to mention Cannon, so inquiring minds still want to know. Especially after she used “stan” as a verb in one of her final chapters. Maybe she’s saving these bits for a sequel…