Her career is the stuff of legend. It includes songwriting (Carey was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2022); Olympic-level vocal gymnastics (she famously has a five-octave range); and game-changing artistic risks (her catalog of R&B, hip-hop, and dance-music remixes is still the gold standard to which all musical acts aspire). She is the only artist to have had a No. 1 single in each of the past four decades, and, with 145 million albums sold, she ranks as one of the most commercially successful musicians of all time. When her debut single, “Vision of Love,” was released in 1990, Carey tore through the charts like a rocket leaving Earth’s atmosphere. Her career has only ascended higher than the heavens above ever since. She has had 19 songs top the Billboard Hot 100—more than any other solo artist in history, and second only to the Beatles. Eighteen of those chart-toppers were written or cowritten by Carey herself, including “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which has charted every holiday season since it was released 28 years ago, in 1994.
But her endurance goes far beyond her towering stack of career receipts. A twinkling constellation of Dolly Parton campiness and Aretha Franklin musicality, her Mariah-isms are forever etched into the public imagination. Yes, darling, we love that every winter, the most wonderful time of the year commences only when Mariah decides to pull her red body-hugging Santa onesie out of her vast designer-filled closet. And there is something sublime that happens whenever the Songbird Supreme graces us with a live performance. This is true even, or perhaps especially, when a lack of sound check, a faulty sound system, or any other affront to her fabulosity triggers a series of regal on-stage eye rolls and knowing winks to the crowd that seem to say, “Darlings, can you believe this is happening to…me?”
Carey was born in Huntington, New York, to a Black father, an aeronautical engineer, and a white mother, a singer who performed with the New York City Opera. In her 2020 memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, she recounted harrowing scenes of violence and drug abuse among her siblings. “It was an extremely dysfunctional childhood, to the point where it’s shocking that I made it out of that at all,” Carey told me. She also felt “othered” as a biracial girl growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood on Long Island. “There were no role models for people who were clearly mixed or, you know, light-skinned or whatever we were categorizing it as then, so I didn’t know who to look up to when I was growing up. It was difficult.”
Her early years as a superstar were not particularly easy either. As a young artist, she was thrown into the restrictive world of fame and record-label contracts under the iron fist of her now ex-husband, the music mogul Tommy Mottola. It was a familiar story of male control over female artistry; we have all seen how such extraordinary pressures can crack even the greatest of pop titans. But those struggles only seemed to sharpen her purpose. For Carey, music has never been about just belting out pop hits. It has been a critical lifeline to personal and creative freedoms.
“There are things people are not aware of, because this whole quote-unquote ‘diva’ thing is always what people see first,” she said. “Yes, I play into it. And yes, part of that is real. I can’t help it. Like, what do you do if you grew up with an opera singer for a mother, who went to Juilliard and made her debut at Lincoln Center? There’s just a certain amount that is going to emerge. So, yes, it’s just an affectation, and sometimes it’s purposely done, and sometimes it’s just, like, you know, a response.” Yet, in conversation, whether during a kiki at 1 a.m. or over rolling phone calls from a bubble bath in her downtown Manhattan apartment, it’s clear that she knows that you know that she knows that there is more to her story than mere caricature, however diamond-encrusted her public persona may be. Carey’s mind wanders fast and furiously, jumping between encyclopedic music knowledge, existential interludes, career reflections, and disarming goofiness.
Real or imagined, her diva armor has protected her during her decades-long run as the most impressive voice of her generation—several generations, actually. Hit after hit, Carey’s voice has grown in tandem with her and her audience’s coming-of-age struggles. For her legendary 1993 remix of “Dreamlover,” with David Morales, Carey completely rerecorded the track’s sunny vocals and melodies, and transformed the short and sugary-sweet earworm into a clubland anthem of gay liberation and selfhood. Two years later, her remix of “Fantasy,” featuring Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Sean “Puffy” Combs, was a rebuff to music executives who urged Carey to play down her Blackness. “Those remixes were the only things I did during that time where there wasn’t somebody coming in trying to control things or pretending that they knew what my music should be like,” Carey said.
These days, few topics are off-limits. Carey told me she was game “to answer every question” I could think of. (Except one: her age. “I’m essentially 12,” she said.) She is currently working with the director Lee Daniels on a scripted television series based on her memoir. “My life in general is actually much more layered than what people know or what is even in the book,” she said. “People who have been friends with me for years were like, ‘How come you never told me all of this happened to you?’ At this point in my life, it’s about doing things that I really want to do.”
Hi, Mariah, how are you? Wait, is that running water I hear in the background?
I’m multitasking. I’m getting into my tub. I prefer to do interviews where I can get stuff done. Right now, somebody else is running the water. I’m here and it’s, like, boiling hot. So, I’m standing up. I’m having a standing-on-one-leg-talking-to-you moment, and it’s great.
“Merry Christmas to All!” sold out at Madison Square Garden.
I am extremely excited about some collaborative moments that are happening. I’ve honestly been trying to put this together in terms of just, okay, what are we doing for Christmas? Because it is “the most important time of the year.” Please say that I just sang that. But I will not sing right now, because I barely got any sleep last night. For once, I went out—oh my gosh. I kind of stayed up a little bit later than I should have, because I forgot we were doing stuff in the day. Typically, I’m nocturnal and I wake up late to just experience life as, possibly, a vampire. I don’t know. My friends and I laugh and joke about that, because it’s true. I’m just much more creative at night; I work better at night. I come to life.
Tell me about Christmas at the Carey household.
I create my own Christmas moment. I mean, Santa Claus visits us. He comes with his reindeer. I am not exaggerating—this is the truth. By the way, before my kids were born, I did all the same types of things. That’s just how it is with me and Santa and the reindeer.
Your twins, Moroccan and Monroe, are 11 now. Do they know that their mom is more iconic than Santa Claus?
Darling, look, I know a lot of the time people are like, “Oh, yay! Look at her! She’s, like, so festive and such a Christmas girl,” or whatever. But, really, Christmas makes me happy. People think I had this princess-style life or whatever, a kind of fairy-tale existence where I just emerged, like, “Here I am!” And that is not what it is. I doubt you have enough time to write about all that, so we won’t go into it. But when you grow up with a messed-up life and then you’re able to have this transformation where you can make your life what you want it to be? That is joy for me. That’s why I want my kids to have everything they can have. I want them to be able to understand that they can be anything they want to be.
Are your twins good gift givers?
Yes, they make a lot of the stuff that they give to me. Wait, hold on; I think the tooth fairy forgot to come last night….
Oh, dear. They have to learn that the tooth fairy has a life every now and again.
Yeah, she goes out and stuff—a lot. But she’s very generous, the tooth fairy, so I think they have enough saved up and accumulated that they could actually buy me something this year, which would be amazing. I love giving them gifts, because the act of opening up a ton of presents is something I wasn’t able to do as a child.
I’m scared to ask what music 11-year-olds are listening to these days.
Here is the thing: I am always listening to music. When I was pregnant with them, I would put this iPod-like belt thing on so that they could listen to inspirational music and just, like, have different types of relaxing moments or whatever. But once they started listening to their own music, you know, once I allowed the iPad moments to happen, then it became about whatever was going on in a game and certain songs that are more prominently featured in different video games. They’re not on TikTok yet, but I know they are on it behind my back secretly anyway. So songs are just 15-second snippets for them. But I have several different playlists that I play all the time. I try to let them hear some of my favorite artists that they may not have heard or they may never hear if they were just to listen to those snippets. I’ll quiz them and be like, “Okay, who’s singing?” And most of the time, they get it right. It’s typically Prince or Stevie Wonder. It’s Aretha Franklin. There’s Chaka Khan. And I’m like, “You have to listen to the tone of the voice. Listen to how they’re singing.”
Like those artists, you have also made some of the biggest pop records of all time. Let’s start with “All I Want for Christmas.”
Okay, so the idea of me doing a Christmas album at all came from the record company. It was very early in my career, and I thought it was a little early for me to be doing that, but I was like, “Well, I love Christmas.” I had some very sad Christmases as a child, but I always try to find the bright light there. I was sort of up late, walking around this house where I was living with my first ex-husband, and I had a keyboard, and, no, I am by no means a piano player, but I can pluck out chords when I need to. But I prefer to work with a virtuoso piano player because I hear the chords. I was actually having a conversation with Solange [Knowles] about this last night. When you’re hearing a chord, and you can sing each note to a virtuoso player, it’s much easier than me sitting there being like, “Oh, I know, I’m missing one little thing right here.”
I love the idea that this juggernaut of a song started with you jamming away on some keyboard in a big house.
I didn’t want it to feel specific to any era, so we didn’t use sounds that were happening at that time. That way, it would feel classic and timeless. But I could never have imagined that it would become such a major part of my life. Oh, thank you. Sorry, someone just walked in here—with her eyes closed, for the record, just so everyone knows. And I have a towel here as I am receiving my tea.
The butterfly has been a powerful symbol in your oeuvre, from your seminal 1997 album, Butterfly, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary, to your latest creative collaboration, two butterfly-inspired, diamond-studded collections with Chopard. Has the meaning of the butterfly evolved for you, either artistically or personally, over time?
Well, I don’t acknowledge time. I don’t know her.
Right. Time is a construct, obviously.
Obviously, darling. I’ve always been—what’s the word? Not “obsessed,” because then people are going to be like, “Oh, she’s made a reference to her song!” So, I’ve always been intrigued by Chopard, one of the greatest and most respected brands, in terms of fine jewelry—the highest in the world, in my opinion. So when I got the opportunity to work with them, I said, “Let’s do the butterfly.” I wore this major butterfly necklace from the Chopard X Mariah Carey Collection yesterday, and I live for it more than any other piece of jewelry I’ve ever worn in my entire life. Seriously, darling! Now, let me get back to your question. Honestly, the butterfly represents so many things, so forgive me for going all around in circles. After transforming into the butterfly and learning how to fly, I had to gain that strength because the relationship I was in—the life that I was living—at the time was so difficult. Now, I’m not trying to talk about that right now, but I just wanted to express to you that I had to learn how to be a butterfly. There’s a lyric in my song “Butterfly,” from the album Butterfly, which we’re celebrating 25 minutes of—
Yes, darling, each year is just a minute, okay? I told you, I don’t acknowledge time! [Laughs] So, anyway, there is this lyric in my song “Butterfly,” from the album Butterfly, that goes, “I have learned that beauty has to flourish in the light / Wild horses run unbridled / Or their spirit dies.” So what I am really saying with that sentence is that I came out of that cocoon, which, in essence, was me being…there’s a word for it. You’re a writer, so I know you know this because I know you’re a real writer.
Yes. I was sequestered! Thank you, darling. So, yes, I was really, really not able to get out of that difficult, sequestered type of situation. But when I came out of that cocoon and made the song “Butterfly,” from my album Butterfly, I was in a place where I had finally gained the strength. And I’ll go back to the lyrics: “For you’ll never be mine until you know the way it feels to fly.” The actual butterfly symbol represents emancipation; it represents freedom. And The Emancipation of Mimi is a different album, I realize. And I realize that my fans have a little bit of a split going on, like, “What do we like better?” Some of the fans love “Butterfly.” They know it’s my favorite song. But other people love The Emancipation way better. What I would say is that Butterfly was my first emancipation. When I listen to that album, from top to bottom, I think to myself, This was the first time I was allowed to be myself.
Another important moment from that period was the black and white music video for “My All,” directed by the legendary fashion photographer Herb Ritts.
Okay, so first of all, I completely agree. Herb was a genius. I don’t even know how to put it into words, but I’m just so thankful that I was able to work with him. And the only reason I was able to was because I was out of that sequestered situation; you know the one. [Laughs] Serge Normant did the hair. Laura Mercier did the makeup. L’Wren Scott was the stylist. She put me in that incredible dress. I swear, darling, my body never looked better. Everyone was just so, so talented. They don’t make videos like that anymore.
You’ve been reflecting on many of your life’s moments these days. Your memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, was a New York Times best-seller…
Okay, well, hold on, darling. Edwin, how do we discuss this New York Times situation?
Edwin Tetteh [Carey’s publicist, on the phone]: Remember, The New York Times No. 1 instant best-seller.
My bad! Consider it permanently noted.
Yes, darling! No, really, it’s just that Michaela Angela Davis, who I wrote my memoir with, always reminds me that it became a best-seller in an instant.
And your children’s book The Christmas Princess is about a young girl named Little Mariah.
Little Mariah is a mixed-race girl with no money and no one to come do her hair. She’s like Pippi Longstocking or Harriet the Spy, but she’s biracial. A lot of people who are my actual fans feel that they are “other,” whether they’re white, Black, Brown, whatever it is—you know, any race, creed, or color. If you feel “other,” it’s just a different thing. And I believe that you know what I mean. I assume that we’re on the same page here, darling.
It’s a fairy tale about how being true to yourself is really the greatest Christmas gift of all.
That’s why she is called “the Christmas Princess.” Not because I think I’m a Christmas princess, or any of those things that I’ve never called myself. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, and when I was little, no one had my name. No one could even pronounce my name. My substitute teacher would be like, “Oh, hey, Marissa!” Like, they literally didn’t know how to say it. So we call her Little Mariah in this story, because we’re talking about a little girl who rises above her circumstances and ends up helping other people through music. Prince Charming doesn’t save her. Music saves her. Music always saves the day, okay?
Hair by Serge Normant for Serge Normant HairCare at Statement Artists; makeup by Kristofer Buckle at Crosby Carter Mgmt; manicure by Sunshine Outing for Pipbuzzz to Go. Set design by Ian Salter at Frank Reps.
Produced by Hudson Hill Production; producer: Wei-Li Wang; production coordinators: Arbelis Santana, Sheridan Telford; lighting technician: James Sakalian; photo assistants: Kaitlin Tucker, Conor Ralph; digital technician: Nickolas Rapaz; fashion assistants: Julia McClatchy, Tori López, Tyler VanVranken; production assistants: Rocco Stefan Christopher, Launa Dolicho, Linette Estrella; tailor: Macy Smith at The Zaks Team; set design assistants: George De Lacey, Issac Arvold.