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Mariah Carey Is Happier Than Ever at 46: Here’s Why Her Charmed Midlife Is the Opposite of a Crisis

by James Patrick Herman 1:00 PM PDT, March 28, 2016
Photo: Getty Images

A writer who has spent time at home and abroad with Mimi, who turned 46 on Sunday, digs back into their most intimate conversations -- and says the star is finally ready for her charmed life to begin.

Imagine, if you will, the burden of being bombshell Mariah Carey in the bedroom.

“I’d only been with one person in my life,” Carey, a newly single woman after the end of her five-year marriage to former longtime head of Sony Music Entertainment Tommy Mottola, told me back in 1999.

Following that divorce, she said, “I was being linked to all these men, and I was feeling totally insecure about embarking on any new relationships, because I felt maybe I wasn’t good enough. I felt that I didn’t have enough experience. And I still have that sort of thing. I get close to people, I’m friends with people, I’ll stay with people, but I’m very guarded in terms of whom I let into my … personal space.”

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“It all stems from deep-rooted stuff that I saw growing up,” Carey said, presumably referring to her older sister’s teenage pregnancy and reported struggles with drug addiction and prostitution, “and I don’t talk about it because it’s not my place.”

“It’s definitely this self-protective thing that I have," the GRAMMY winner shared. "I’m not, like, rip-roaring, wild, living it up” -- she clapped her hands for emphasis -- “with a million guys, because that’s not me. And it’s not safe. I guess I’m sort of a contradiction in terms, because I do feel it’s OK to be sexy and free, but there’s a difference between sexy and…promiscuous.” She also admitted at the time: “I don’t know what the hell a date is.”

But that was then and this is now, when Carey is looking forward to her third wedding ceremony following her European romp, The Sweet Sweet Fantasy Tour, which, despite canceling its Brussels date, is currently in progress. As a longtime magazine writer and editor for InStyle, Glamour and Elle, I have interviewed Carey multiple times over the years. Few people outside of her inner circle have seen how, in person, once she lets her guard down, Carey is simultaneously over-the-top hilarious and disarmingly down-to-earth.

In a 2008 interview with ET, she acknowledged it was sometimes hard to find that balance. “I guess sometimes I’m like, ‘I don’t care what people say.’ And then sometimes I’m like, ‘I hate that picture, I hate that moment and why did that have to be?’”

“It is what it is, so you have to let things go,” she said, adding: “Life is a red carpet.”

When I recently ran into Carey at Elton John’s annual Oscar party in February, I was surprised -- and heartened -- by something that I have never seen before: Carey being herself in public. Guests caught a rare glimpse of the person behind the persona as she navigated the room without burly security guards in tow to clear her path. She was a beaming vision in black, table-hopping and exchanging air-kisses with the likes of Tommy Hilfiger.

At age 46, she seems happier than ever. Despite a new manager who reportedly has ruffled the feathers of her entourage, Carey’s midlife appears to be the opposite of a crisis. (The singer has a long history of heavy-handed people trying to control her career, including, of course, her first husband, and according to Billboard, has had five different teams since 2013.)

Antonio “L.A.” Reid, the longtime record executive and current chairman and CEO of Epic Records -- who is often credited with revitalizing Carey’s career with 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi -- even remarked on her radiance.

“She looks really happy,” Reid told ET in January, following the news of Carey’s engagement to James Packer. “We’ve all been through a lot, but she’s had to do it all in the public’s eye. I think that she’s at that point in her life that she really deserves just to be treated like a lady and the glamorous star that she really is.”

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And the perfect star vehicle for Carey’s larger-than-life personality -- along with the perfect man -- may have materialized in the form of Mariah’s World, a forthcoming reality show on E! that will follow her from her Las Vegas residency onto the road for her international tour. It has the potential to serve as an ideal showcase for the working mom behind the diva trappings.

As for Carey’s new billionaire dream man, Packer possesses three qualities that make him the perfect fit: 1) He’s rich; 2) He’s a discreet businessman who -- unlike ex-husband Nick Cannon -- seems unlikely to reveal intimate details of their personal life to the media; and 3) He worships the ground that she walks on. (Full disclosure: So do I.)

One thing's for sure: When the best-selling female artist of the Nielsen SoundScan era met the fourth-richest person in Australia, it was a match made in tabloid heaven. But Packer refuses to be filmed by Carey's omnipresent camera crew -- in other words, he has zero interest in trying to steal his future wife's spotlight. Like Carey, he also has children from a previous marriage. And this will be Packer's third time at the altar, as well as Carey's.

I wasn’t always a fan -- of Carey's music, her reputation or her look, which she revealed “was instituted by the powers that be: the young girl with the curly hair at the microphone, belting out a love song. My image was supposed to be a non-image,” Carey explained. “That's why I was in a field wearing a flannel shirt with cutoffs and sneakers -- girls could relate to that. And yes, that was a part of my life, but ever since I've been 12 years old, it was just in me to want to be someone who could change their look and be glamorous.”

From right, going clockwise: Mariah Carey with fiance James Packer at 2016 G'Day Los Angeles Gala; Carey performing on New Year's Eve in Melbourne, Australia; Carey with Kelly Osbourne at the 24th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation's Oscar viewing party. Photo: Getty Images

I will never forget Carey’s first words to me, which instantly altered that idea: “You look exotic. Where are you from?” she asked when I introduced myself at her cover shoot for the women’s fashion magazine, Mirabella, in Marrakesh, Morocco. Taken aback, I mumbled something about living in New York City’s West Village -- on Gay Street. “Mmm-hmm!” Carey said, looking me up and down before turning to walk away. “Of course you do, darling.”

Until that moment, I thought Carey and her ridiculously lavish lifestyle – most famously documented in a home visit by MTV Cribs -- were unintentionally hilarious. What I failed to realize is that she is not only in on the joke, but she’s also quick-witted enough to supply the punchline herself. How to explain the origin of Carey’s campy personality? “I loved watching Mommie Dearest as a kid,” she told me in 2006. “I associated it with glamour.” (Not surprisingly, I didn’t spot any wire hangers in the climate-controlled closet of her penthouse pad in downtown Manhattan.)

The subject of Carey’s image came up again and again during the course of our trip to Morocco in 1999. At one point over dinner, and more than one glass of wine, she confessed: “I don’t even know what my image is now.”

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I explained that in the late-‘90s, the public perception of her was a demanding diva who lives in her limo, parties the night away with everyone from Sean Combs to, yes, Donald Trump, and says things like: “When I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.”

This fictitious quote had been reported by respected publications all over the globe as well as online. “It’s the price of fame in the age of the Internet,” Carey told me with a shrug. “What am I gonna do? Get in a tizzy about it? Whatever.”

It turns out that Carey is more of an apologizer than a complainer. As in: “I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” and, “I’m sorry we don’t have more time to talk.” She also apologized for the crazy Neverland-like party scene that resembled a Moroccan carnival -- camels, snake charmers, belly dancers, fire-eaters, acrobatic children, everyone dressed in freaky costumes -- in which we found ourselves one evening. “Please don’t let people think I ride camels every day,” she begged me, surveying the surreal setting. “This is all too Michael Jackson.”

Photo: Getty Images

Need more proof of her sense of humor? When I first asked her about Jennifer Lopez -- at the time, Carey’s record label was about to drop the actress turned singer’s debut album, which was widely viewed as a revenge release by Mottola, then Sony’s chairman and CEO -- Carey deadpanned: “She’s a dancer, isn’t she?”

After I pointed out that Lopez is, in fact, the actress who starred in the critically acclaimed biopic, Selena, Carey turned serious. “She lip-synched Selena’s vocals, you know. I don’t think that, as a singer, we’re in the same category as artists.” Of course, I included that dig in my story, which did not make Carey happy.

When we reunited at an intimate dinner party to celebrate her cover, I was scolded for using those quotes about Lopez -- ecause it gave her then-rival attention by association in the tabloids. Carey would have preferred to ignore the problem in hopes that she would just go away, far away. (Much to our surprise, J.Lo went on to make eight albums, for which I now take full responsibility -- forgive me, Mariah.)

Like Lopez, Carey always wanted to make movies, but her attempts at an acting career never took off, mainly because her 2001 film, Glitter, bombed and became an instant camp classic. (She eventually redeemed herself with a shockingly unglamorous supporting role in the Oscar-nominated Precious.) In 1999, the singer told me: “The problem that superstars who want to make movies have is transcending your image. And my problem is that I wasn’t allowed to transcend my image, even as a singer.” In fact, Carey confided to me that she felt hopelessly depressed while married to Mottola, who, according to Vanity Fair, kept her locked up like a canary in a cage. Or rather a majestic 50-acre estate outside New York City, but a cage nonetheless.

“Unfortunately, this was a time when all I was allowed to do was sit there and pick out sconces,” Carey later recalled when I interviewed her at home for a 2006 InStyle cover story. On that particular night, Carey was running more than an hour late for a flight to L.A. -- Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg had sent his private jet to fly her to his Oscar party, at which she had agreed to perform. “Remember, Mariah, it’s not your plane,” her former manager anxiously reminded her. “Oh, right,” she replied. “I forgot.” Unlike a movie script, you can’t make this stuff up, which is why a typical day in the life of Carey should provide amazing material for a reality show -- and the kind of comical scenarios that The Real Housewives franchise could only dream of capturing.

I remember Carey telling me why she wanted to purchase Marilyn Monroe’s chipped, white baby grand piano, one of her most prized possessions, which set Carey back $662,500 at a 1999 Christie’s auction of Hollywood memorabilia. “I could have gotten the ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ dress or whatever, but that would have represented Marilyn’s stardom,” she said, “whereas the piano belonged to her mother and was a piece of her childhood.”

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Even more valuable possessions -- at least to Carey, if not Christie’s -- include dozens of family photos inherited from her late father, who died of cancer in 2002, and her grandmother’s pink hand mirror, which has a yellow butterfly painted on it. “My father was going to give me the mirror as a birthday gift but then he passed away,” Carey said. “He had saved all kinds of things for me, and I never knew it. I never knew he cared about me like that. This is the stuff that really matters.”

Carey told me that she had her luxurious apartment designed to look “art deco-y and Old Hollywood-ish, the kind of place I dreamed about having when I was little.” After her parents divorced, when she was three years old, Carey and her siblings grew up living with their mother in 13 successive houses on Long Island, which left her feeling “like the rug was literally being pulled out from under me.”

“I remember saying to myself, ‘I want to have a good life and feel secure,’” Carey said. “I had to have faith. That’s how I got over every obstacle along the way -- by visualizing and believing in something better.”

And now, with her beloved children -- twins Monroe and Moroccan -- and soon-to-be third husband, Carey seems poised to truly have everything that she ever wanted. The third time’s (hopefully) a charm, as they say, and the second half of Carey’s life has been nothing if not charmed.

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