From our prudent vantage point of a hotel lobby couch, Clash watches incredulously as all around us the anticipation of an impending appearance from one of their noted guests sends officious-looking staff members into a flurry of impertinent gestures and repeated anxious checks of order and protocol, hovering around the front door, doing their best to maintain the dignity and decorum of this luxury establishment within its safeguarded dominion.
Meanwhile, the view to our left is a tall glass door through which we can survey the bewildered expressions of an antiquated doorman - the only defense between the entrance and a horde of impatient fans and paparazzi, some of whom have begun climbing trees for a more shrewd position. He remains noble, his flat black cap unruffled, but there’s a sense of relief when a team of young, hulking American brutes join him to secure the perimeter.
All this apprehension and expectancy is high entertainment for Clash, especially after a three-beer lunch. Fellow guests are unperturbed - some appear curious, perhaps unaware of the identity of their famous cohabiter, while others pretend not to care, yet stealthily keep one eye on the elevator. We, however, find ourselves caught in the middle of this maelstrom - part of it, yet somehow removed. But fuck it; we’re on holiday.
We arrived here in Paris a few hours ago, heading directly to this opulent abode, just off the Champs-Élysées, for over-priced steak frites, and to stay close as we awaited the latest news on the capricious movements of our interviewee. It took a couple of hours to hear anything, but then, finally, we got the call: Mariah wanted to go shopping.
And so this, all of this, is what happens when Mariah Carey fancies a bit of retail therapy.
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She flutters gracefully at the inside edges of the lobby, her inner calmness and confidence conspicuous in the surrounding mania. This is normalcy, it seems, and, when she’s ready to move, she glides across the floor with absolute purpose, a vision entirely in black - shades, leather jacket, jeans, and ankle boots with killer heels. Those prying guests have leaped out of their gilded seats to thrust phones in her face, where a patient and practiced smile withstands their intrusion as she makes her way through the first scrum, making a beeline for the glass doors.
When they open, hysteria erupts - the once-placid crowd suddenly pushes through the barriers to squeeze around her tiny frame. Despite the frenzy, Mariah pauses to greet her public, posing for more selfies, warmly receiving gifts, and saying hello to familiar faces while gradually edging closer to the waiting car - black, of course.
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In her wake, a teeming entourage follow - largely female, with similar aplomb, clutching oversized handbags prepped for an assault on Avenue Montaigne, the most glamorous shopping street in Paris. Then comes a camera crew, recording this hurried getaway. And finally, a young man wearing only a dressing gown comes hurtling through the lobby - on crutches - and dives into another car.
Then, as all vehicles depart, silence. The feverish mob disperses from under the door’s crimson awning - some joyously crying, others singing their favourite Mariah hits as they leave. The despotic hotel staff slink effortlessly back into routine. The doorman straightens his tie and resumes watch. Clash, thirsty for another beer, goes in search of a more affordable boozer.
Two or three hours later (who’s counting?), with the rails of Balmain reportedly emptied, Mariah has returned to her penthouse suite after a quick dinner nearby. She’s in her private quarters putting to bed her five-year-old twins, Moroccan and Monroe, while Clash negotiates the best place to erect our makeshift studio.
The rooftop terrace, with a breathtaking view of the neighbouring Eiffel Tower, would have been perfect when the sun was shining, but is now just dark and chilly, so our pink backdrop is built as the centrepiece of a swarming lounge.
All the faces from earlier are here, and Clash is introduced to everyone. The camera crew, making the most of the downtime, are changing batteries and awaiting the next scene. They are from E!, and have been granted full access to Mariah’s inner sanctum with the intention of chronicling the behind-the-scenes reality of her first European tour in 13 years. The guy with the crutches - now fully dressed - is, despite his injury, a bundle of energy. He bounces over to Clash and introduces himself as Bryan Tanaka. He is Mariah’s choreographer, but an awkward fall the other day put him in a cast and out of action. Over in the corner, representatives from Dolce & Gabbana have assembled a rail of new season wares for Mariah’s consideration. A handful of children cheerfully play while one - somehow - lies sleeping on the couch. The grooming team preps the dressing table, conferring with Clash’s photographer on plans for the shoot. Various personal assistants pop in and out, sharing in-jokes we are not privy to. The PR nervously picks at her Maltesers, assuring Clash that Mariah will appear soon. Her creative director, Anthony Burrell, shows up, keen to introduce some new dancers and awaiting a timely opportunity. Dominating the room with a forceful presence is Mariah’s new manager, Stella Bulochnikov, who’s wickedly funny; a self-confessed “Russian dictator,” she governs from a chair, seamlessly flitting between devilish witticisms to her team and doting whispers in her daughter’s ear. She is wearing an earpiece for her phone, and without notice will slip into a private conversation - at one point raising her volume, in true Brooklyn warrior style, to demand, “Is Bradley Cooper in or out?”
Once again, the emergence of Mariah only seems to inject an aura of tranquility to proceedings. She saunters through the coterie on tiptoes to the dressing table, talking in smooth, hushed tones to her hair stylist and make-up artist. The volume in the room descends to the same level, but the silence is deafening. “Where is the music?” she pleads, cueing Tanaka to act as Bluetooth DJ from the comfort of the couch. Suddenly, the sound of Michael Jackson drowns out the chatter in the room, launching a champion hip-hop and R&B playlist that will soundtrack the ensuing shoot - Lauryn Hill and The Notorious B.I.G. notably receiving impressive sing-alongs.
We had been warned that Mariah was a night owl, but hadn’t fully expected to finally sit down for our interview at 2am. But, so it was, with the room fully cleared out for total privacy, that our formal conversation was set to begin. Noticeably tired but gracious to a fault, Mariah lifted herself onto the armchair next to ours, tucking her petite bare feet under her, and turned to face the music.
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Tomorrow she will play the 21st date in the European leg of the Sweet Sweet Fantasy Tour, her first jaunt of the continent since the Charmbracelet World Tour in 2003. The gigs have been an opportunity to explore her back catalogue and pull out more unexpected cuts from the past - ‘Loverboy’ and ‘I Know What You Want’ seeing the rare light of day - while a more scaled-back presentation ensures all attention is firmly on the star.
After so long away from these shores, why was the time right to return now?
“You know, it’s interesting,” she begins, softly brushing the hair out of her face. “I was doing a Vegas residency and people were coming from all different countries around the world, and it was such a great audience that I was like, ‘Maybe we should do a slightly different show and document it?’ It seemed like a good idea.”
In contrast to the fixed set-list of her Number 1’s residency, which resumes at Caesars Palace this summer, and finds her performing her 18 number one hits in chronological order, on the Sweet Sweet Fantasy outing Mariah is definitely having fun with spontaneity. With the intentions of making this series of concerts a more personal affair, she’s even been inviting fans to join her on stage.
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The whole point about me and my fans is that we have a very exceptional relationship...
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“The whole point about me and my fans is that we have a very exceptional relationship; it’s not typical,” she explains. “They are there to have an experience with me - it’s not just like, ‘Come and see me because I think I’m so…something,’ you know? I’m literally there to have an experience with them.”
A committed commander to her devoted fans - or ‘lambs’, as they’re known; collectively her ‘lambily’ - Mariah has been known to treat and surprise her loyal followers throughout the years, even establishing a Lambs Appreciation Day to show her gratitude for their love, but aside from the occasional behind-the-scenes glimpses found on her social feeds, Mariah remains quite guarded of her private life. Certain topics are off limits - not that Clash was going to enquire into her imminent third marriage, to Australian billionaire James Packer - so it’s curious to find her exposing herself so readily for the TV cameras.
“Well, you have to do a little bit of that,” she begins, keenly aware of the balance required to enjoy a private life while keeping her public sated. “And that’s why I said we can document the tour and we can see how that feels, because I should have always had that. I should have had my older tours documented - I should have had those moments - and I didn’t.”
It obviously feels okay, as the camera crew is allowed full disclosure on the most exclusive aspects of the tour, and is capturing everything. Well, not everything. “It’s not just me painting my nails and calling my friends,” she giggles, adding that it’s important to her that her lambs have this authentic window into her life. But, isn’t she worried about the possibility of them seeing a side to her that perhaps she wouldn’t want them to see?
“It’s a series, but it’s more of a documentary, so it’s not like I’m doing some weird reality thing where I feel weird about everything,” she says, alluding to the glut of stars embarking on staged reality shows that pollute our TV channels. “I would never do that because I’m too proud. I cut [the camera crew] off (clicks fingers) so quickly. I really do. But there’s a lot of jokesters and characters around me and you see the nonsense that I endure.”
From our experience, Clash confesses, it would appear that you’re the sanest person in this crazy world. She laughs heartily. “I think that was the point,” she nods, “to showcase that.”
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There’s a lot of jokesters and characters around me...
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There’s a sense that Mariah’s confessional habits are an attempt at absolution - a baptism from which to be reborn. It can’t be a coincidence that she’s so openly happy at work with a wedding approaching. A new life beckons. Look back to the 2005 album, ‘The Emancipation Of Mimi’ - named after Mariah’s nickname reserved only for close friends and family - for previous evidence of a renewal of faith. It stands not only as a career highlight (gleaming an international number one single, ‘We Belong Together’), but the restitution of an avowed artist that had long fought for creative control, negotiating her way through a difficult divorce from husband/manager Tommy Mottola in 1997, then exploring her musical identity with a series of creditable adventures - most significantly, fusing her hip-hop influences into a mainstream pop sound - with mixed results. In 2001, following the disastrous rags-to-riches movie Glitter, and its disco-themed soundtrack, and still reeling from a split with both her record label and her boyfriend - Latin singer Luis Miguel - Mariah was hospitalised with nervous exhaustion. Her rehabilitation began with 2002’s ‘Charmbracelet’, which focused on her struggles (“I can make it through the rain / I can stand up once again on my own / And I know that I'm strong enough to mend,” she sings in ‘Through The Rain’), but it’s with the more fully realised ‘…Emancipation...’ that Mariah’s comeback was assured, her assertiveness palpable throughout. Having the temerity to collaborate with names such as Kanye West, The Neptunes, Snoop Dogg and Nelly, yet sound completely cohesive and distinctly Mariah, she valiantly justifies the creative control she fought so long and hard for.
“I’ve always been about being in control of my music,” she upholds, “and even as a teenage girl, when I first got my record deal, I said, ‘You can’t make me do other people’s songs.’ I had two other record companies that wanted me, and I said, ‘I have to do my own songs. I’ll write with somebody else, I’ll work with somebody else, but I refuse to just be told what to sing.’ Because even as a little kid, I knew that a lot of the songs that I was hearing were not what I would have chosen, you know?”
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We touch briefly on the topic of Marilyn Monroe, a hero and inspiration to Mariah (and namesake of her daughter), who also sought to exert autonomy in her career - she’d become one of the first women in Hollywood to form her own production company - and it’s interesting to note that both came from impoverished childhoods (Monroe’s undoubtedly more tragic). These humble beginnings, she says, are the root of her conviction to be successful; her uncompromising work ethic “comes from having nothing as a kid - literally no money - and never wanting to be that way as a grown-up.”
“From the time that I was four-years-old I was determined,” she reveals. “I mean, seeing my mother as an opera singer and knowing that it was a possibility - like, when you grow up you can be a singer, and that’s what you can do for your living - I always knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Growing up in the suburbs of New York, Mariah always claimed to have felt like an outsider, her mixed race heritage rendering her indefinable among the various segregated communities around her. Music was an escape from the discrimination, the bullying, and the dramas at home following her parents’ split. It became everything. It was a way out.
Suddenly, the suite door bursts open, and in run three little girls in their pyjamas, too excited to sleep and restless in their own chambers. They sit by us, unaware we’re mid-interview, and playfully interrupt our conversation to speak with Mariah. “I think you should text your friend and see what they’re doing at home, because you’re really neglecting your friends,” she tells the eldest.
“I am?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Mariah advises, “you’re neglecting your friends.”
“But you’re my only friend,” the rascal retorts, teasingly, “don’t you know that?”
Mariah explodes into fits of giggles, scooting them back out of the room so that our interview can continue. She’s clearly very close to her travelling family, and you can tell that the children idolise her. Clash suggests she makes a good role model for them.
“Oh really?” she scoffs. “I don’t know if I am.”
When it comes to her own kids, however, “I’m different with them because I have to be their mommy.” They’ve been asleep for hours, and in the morning will get to experience another incredible day in the French capital. Their charmed upbringing, a blessing to Mariah, is testament to her own resilience and resolve that they not face the difficulties she endured, but she works hard to ensure they remain grounded despite enjoying the lavish lifestyle of their pop queen mother.
“I want them to still feel normal,” she confirms, “So, if they don’t like travelling around at some point, they won’t have to travel around. But they love travelling. They love flying. If I keep them home for like five days, they’re like, ‘When are we going on an aeroplane?’ They really love it. They love doing all these things and seeing places - they love the Eiffel Tower. It’s amazing, you know what I mean? I just have the best time with them.”
Beyond the positive influence she imparts on her children, as we wrap up our conversation, Stella lingering nearby to whisk her off for one more duty before bed (the replacement dancers need auditioned before tomorrow’s - sorry, tonight’s - gig), we ask Mariah whether she is aware of the impact she has made on the wider world, on contemporary singers, and what her legacy is.
“I think my work is my legacy,” she humbly offers. “Other people that have been inspired by me have maybe incorporated that into making it a part of their legacy, whatever that may be.”
And is she proud of the work that she has amassed?
“I believe so. There’s at least a couple of songs that, no matter what, people will know. But, yeah, I think we’re all just here and doing our best… I don’t know, is this a normal life?” she shrugs. “I don’t know.”
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Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Tung Walsh