ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Who Knew Mariah Carey’s Life Was Such a Train Wreck?

From chaotic home life to dealing with Jim Crow-like racism in the heart of Long Island, New York, this woman has paid in full for her Diva status.

Photo Credit: Butterflyrares@ Instagram

I have to admit, I am not part of the Lambily, Mariah Carey’s name for her most dedicated fans, yet, for anyone like me, who came up in the 90s, her music is the soundtrack of our lives. Back then, it was fun, bouncy, and full of love and hope, but hidden behind the cheery façade, was something darker.

What’s Wrong Mariah?

One day, in 1999, I was walking down Kadıköy’s Istiklal Caddessi, on the Asian side of Istanbul, when I saw a Mariah Carey poster. She was in a bikini, her hair was windswept and spread out like the rays of the sun. The aim was, I guess, to be sexy, but there was something in her face, that put it off. It was a sort of shame or fear. It was then, that I understood, that despite her now bleached blonde tresses and her off-white skin, the pain in her face, said, “I am not good enough.” By then, she had nearly a decade of hits, she made it, so this left me wondering, what was the meaning behind the look?

After listening to her audiobook, The Meaning of Mariah, got all the answers to my whys.

It took me a few weeks to finish it-I often replayed some parts because, I don’t know, it was like having a friend, just telling me about her adventures. She was, like “Ooh, gurl, let me tell you what happened…” And I was like, “Whaaaat? You jokin’!?” There were other parts, like, her marrying a man 30 years older than her, which made me think, “Where’s your mama? Why didn’t she stop you?” Mine would have driven me crazy, telling me what a mistake I was making.

A lot of her stories in the book, make you wish you could hear the other person’s side. Did it really happen like that? I was asking myself. As Arsenio Hall, used to say, “Wanna go, Hmmm…”

How Did She Get There?

If there is any lesson to be learned from her book, it is this: When you have talent, don’t let it go to waste, do everything you can to use it and make it grow and make a success of it. Mariah had two talents, her natural voice and the ability to write songs. In this area, her book runs like Maya Angelou’s Singing and Swinging and Getting Merry, Like Christmas, it’s a list of things that turned out ok for her, but there is no way they would for you. In many cases, they were just too dangerous, but both Mariah and Maya, had a team of angels protecting them along the way.

She began making music with two guys’ she describes as, “Not too pervy.” My skin crawls just writing this. Then, at 17 end up living in New York City on her own, but somehow, hooks up with the right people and becomes a background singer.

Mariah’s road to riches was pretty much like climbing Kilimanjaro, with a toothpick. Nevertheless she had toothpicks of steel. One thing that seem to keep her going was her determination to change her life and an extreme work ethic.

In the book, she also talks about her dealings with the madness of racism, her brother putting her in the psych ward, and why her first film, Glitter, flopped. Finally, her description of her life under the surveillance of her husband, Tommy Mottola, is like something out of a Stephen King novel.

Passing

Was Mariah consciously passing as White or was she just light? Looking at her videos, one sees her surrounded by Black people. Like that one light-skinned with the pretty hair in every class. No one really thinks about her, but it’s fun to play with her hair while standing in line. But this time, she is the star and everyone is in the background, quite the opposite of how she grew up.

No one really questioned it as long as the music was good. But as time goes on she begins to look whiter and her hair goes from mousey brown to sun-kissed blonde.

The fact she was racially ambiguous and stayed that way for a long time was part of her marketing strategy, trying to hide any semblance of blackness.

From Italian Bambina to suburbanite with a homegirl twist, to devastating diva, she played them all. She was always a mystery. She never mentioned whether she was Black or White, but instead often threw out hints, like, there was a lot of jazz music played in her home and that she somehow has some Venezuelan roots, and that was pretty much it.

But then again, the ’90s was a free for all. It was literally one nation under the groove, to borrow from Bootsy Collins and the Funkadelic. It was the 90s that gave us Eminem, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stacy Lattisaw, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, Janet Jackson, and J-Lo. The difference with most of these acts was we knew who they were and what they were-with Mariah, it wasn’t clear.

Another reason, she sort of hid her Blackness, was because of how much she suffered from the Jim Crow-like racism, from many of the people around her despite living in Long Island, New York in the 1970s and ’80s.

An Artist

One thing I learned from the book that stuck with me was, that Mariah writes all of her own songs. In the book, she also, explains some of the hidden meanings behind their lyrics. This made the book even more fascinating and gave me a much deeper meaning to one of my favorite songs, Bye Bye, which is about her father. Also, one learns a lot bout the inner working of the music industry. There is one episode where Mariah goes all the way to Japan to try to get her rights from the Sony Corporation. Gurl had chutzpah.

Mariah Carey@Youtube

Inquiring Minds

There are a lot of interviews about her on the internet, but they won’t really make sense without the book. Also, many of her interviews seem like she is just trying to squash all of the rumors and lies put out by the tabloids, which at the time, made getting canceled today, look like being put in the corner for five minutes.

If there was one thing missing in her book, it’s how she went from a skinny kid with “blown out bangs” to the Ultra Diva, sometimes called Mimi, who doesn’t go to the supermarket because “Have you seen the lighting in there?” she quipped during one interview.

When did that happen?

Perhaps she’ll write another book and tell us, how a scared, scrawny caterpillar turned into a brave, bold, butterfly.

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Maryam Ismail

Maryam Ismail

Mom. Journalist. Pizza maker New School for Social Research Alum, MA in Sociology and Historical Studies.