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Back Atop the Charts, Her Way

Times Staff Writer

The photographers were screaming for Mariah Carey on Tuesday night the way they used to. They jostled to catch her eye backstage at the Billboard Music Awards, and she vamped and smiled while holding a metal bouquet -- she had won five awards, more than any other artist, and she was clearly thrilled.

Then she looked down at her wrists.

The weight of the trophies had left red lines up and down her inner forearms. Later, away from the crowd, in her suite atop the MGM Grand Hotel, she rubbed her arms at the memory.

“I can’t give them anything to use against me,” she said. “Someone, somewhere might see marks on my arms and the next day the world hears that I tried to kill myself or that I’m getting tied up. That is how it is for me now.”

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It is a wonderful and scary time to be Mariah Carey. While the Billboard awards are driven by sales, today, when the nominations are announced for the 48th annual Grammy Awards, the quality of her work will be on the line. If Carey, 35, picks up major nominations, it will be an acknowledgment of a career comeback that rivals any in pop music history.

She calls her recent run a “beautiful dream,” but she’s also barely removed from a career nightmare.

Almost four years ago, EMI’s Virgin Records famously fired Carey and paid a reported $28 million to do it. And at the time, it seemed like a good deal. Carey had become famous for bizarre public behavior and sinking album sales, and for starring in one of the year’s most ridiculed films, “Glitter.”

If there was any chance to escape the aura of disaster surrounding her, it ended when the “Glitter” soundtrack album hit stores on Sept. 11, 2001. Carey’s personal collapse was such a matter of public jeering that the rapper Eminem, with whom she had a brief fling, chose to begin his arena concerts by piping in snippets of tearful phone messages she had left begging him to return her calls.

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Then there were whispers of a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt.

“I never tried to kill myself; that is a lie,” she said. “I’m too afraid of God to do that. I’m a spiritual person. The songs I write, the messages in them -- how could I turn around and try to take my life? And by slashing my wrists? Please. I would never give up on life.”

She has the most played song of the year, “We Belong Together,” and the second-bestselling CD, “The Emancipation of Mimi,” a reference to her new sense of freedom and the nickname her friends still use for her. At midyear, she became the first act since the Beatles to have the No. 1 and No. 2 songs on American radio in the same week. In recent weeks, she circled the globe -- London, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas -- to collect awards and a measure of satisfaction.

“I’m not going to miss a moment of this,” she said as she munched a late dinner that would make a starlet waif shudder: French fries and chicken strips, washed down with a flute of Cristal Champagne. “A celebratory splash,” she said. “I have a lot to celebrate.”

Carey’s comeback arc can be viewed as a tale of personal redemption or as another lesson in the mercurial nature of the music business. There have been many pop comebacks before, but Carey’s is most comparable to Frank Sinatra’s tumble to the career carpet in the late 1940s and his mid-1950s return to grace. Like Carey, Sinatra’s fall was met with glee in many quarters, and he was written off despite his world-famous voice.

“Like Sinatra, Mariah has a voice for the ages,” said L.A. Reid, chairman of Island Def Jam Music Group, which includes Island Records, where Carey’s comeback has taken place. “I never doubted that she would have success again. With that instrument, it’s just a matter of getting the right music and the right moment.”

Reid’s longshot bet on Carey was shared by his corporate boss, Doug Morris, chairman of Universal Music Group. Her CD has been a commercial sensation for Universal Music, selling 4.2 million copies in the U.S. since its release in April, and tour plans are forming for next year.

According to the Recording Industry Assn. of America, since her debut album in 1990, more than 150 million Carey albums have shipped.

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Her music career began with a demo album that caught the ear of Tommy Mottola, then chief of Sony Music Entertainment. He signed her to Sony’s Columbia Records, where she became noticed immediately for her extraordinary vocal range. In 1990, at the 33rd annual Grammy Awards, Carey won two Grammys, including best new artist. With 16 No. 1 hits, she has a record that trails only Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

She’s had a writing hand in much of her music, including a co-writing credit on every song on “Emancipation.” Still, she says, “Most people don’t even know I write songs.”

Despite her commercial triumphs, she has found peer recognition hard to recapture -- since that initial Grammy splash, she’s not won another.

One reason for the chilly shoulder may have been Carey’s reputation as a kept canary. She found success under the wing of Mottola, who shaped her as a singer similar to Celine Dion, known for epic material and melodramatic sweep. (Carey and Mottola ended their five-year marriage in an acrimonious and public divorce in 1998 that she finds difficult to discuss.)

Carey says that during the years with Mottola she longed to act on her creative impulses toward soul and hip-hop music. It wasn’t an option those around her wanted to explore. Instead, she says, she was counseled to not only bury any hip-hop sound but to also avoid discussion of her African American roots.

Even in the afterglow of this year and this night, those troubles seem to haunt her. Carey plopped down on the couch in her 61st-floor suite, pulled off her sparkly heels and grew reflective. Playing on her iPod in the corner was the Aretha Franklin music that she grew up loving.

“When I was a kid I felt like a misfit and an outcast because of my [biracial] heritage and the way people made me feel about it,” the native New Yorker said, referring to the days when she could walk on neither side of her family and feel completely comfortable. “In my music -- in the days when I was being told what to do, if you know what I mean -- I was told to push all of that even further down, and it tore me up.”

Now that sound is anything but hidden. The new album’s dance-floor slink and urban inflections speak to her true music heart, she says. Unlike the days when she sang huge, soaring ballads, the new album finds its core in songs of resilience -- the hit “Shake It Off,” for one, has her shedding a bad-news lover.

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But Carey’s return took more than her own voice. She also needed a new manager and found one in Benny Medina. He had worked with Jennifer Lopez and Brandy and found success with both, but he also saw each of those relationships end in legal squabbles. Medina was wary of Carey. He had been watching TV like everyone else.

“I didn’t know what to think. But she was smart: She invited me to a show to hear her sing -- the concert was in Las Vegas -- and I was amazed by watching her perform,” he said. “I also had plenty of ideas about different ways to do things. If you have Billie Holiday, you don’t need to put on a Cher show.”

She also found a producer in Jermaine Dupri, who wanted to bring her studio work closer to the street. Hers is a hybrid sound that melds R&B; melody with hip-hop breakbeat and pairs smoky singers with rap stars. Now Carey’s CD, in addition to being one of the year’s biggest hits and her “declaration of independence,” represents the dominant trend in R&B; music today.

“Mariah helped invent this sound and doesn’t get enough credit for it,” said Dupri, who produced “Shake It Off” and “We Belong Together,” as well as other hits off the new Carey CD. “She doesn’t sound like anyone else. Now when you hear a song, it’s a Mariah song, and that’s hard to do these days.”

Dupri has an interesting vantage point on Carey’s return to form. As a producer and an urban music executive at Virgin, he has watched her story line from two very different sides.

“I’m part of both worlds, and it’s strange,” Dupri said. “I’m a president at Virgin, where they spent this huge amount of money to get Mariah out of the building, and now to see what’s happened ... every time those songs come on, people at Virgin wince -- and those songs come on a lot.”

The most interesting facet of Carey’s comeback may have presented itself to Reid in April, when he visited a record store in New Jersey and casually asked a clerk how the newly arrived Carey album was selling. The answer grabbed his attention. The clerk told him that the register had been busy ringing up the middle-school set.

“I never expected her to get new fans with this album; I didn’t see that coming,” he said. “The people buying this album are 11- and 12- and 13- and 14-year-old girls. I thought it would be like when Cher came back -- the old fans would come back and embrace her. But here, Mariah’s getting old fans and new ones too, and that has made this huge.”

With that in mind, Carey has added record-store autograph sessions to her busy schedule. One of those in Hollywood last month shut down traffic, as the once and future diva visited the Virgin Megastore to autograph copies of “Emancipation.” Later, she recounted how many of the youngest fans, some of whom had waited in line for 27 hours, told her that her new songs had helped them deal with broken hearts and broken homes.

“I’ve had people tell me that these songs make them not want to kill themselves. Can you imagine how happy that makes me?”

She also had someone tell her the other day that she’s the last true diva.

“I took that as a huge compliment,” said Carey, who went on to explain the fine art of ordering caviar in Monaco. (“You ask for caviar and then you pause [she pauses] and say ‘be-luuu-ga.’ ”) She went on to say, “I have fun with the diva stuff because I don’t take myself seriously.”

During the Billboard show, she was scampering around backstage from interview to interview, in a dress that was as short as possible. “I don’t have to sit down -- I cannot sit down in this dress,” she said.

Carey was surrounded by a ghetto-fabulous equivalent of a NASCAR pit crew: One person held a fan to cool her, a makeup artist dabbed at her cheeks, another stylist primped her amber-colored locks and another, without ceremony, tugged the back of her dress to keep it ready for prime time.

Her style has gotten increasingly sexually provocative after the Mottola years, which served up a more elegant, polished Carey. At the American Music Awards last month, Carey opened the show -- barely. Arriving late, she was hurried to the stage as her handlers finished sewing her skimpy dress on. Carey admits she was worried that she was showing the nation a bit more than she planned.

Yet for all the talk of how scattered or strange or diva-like she had become, the Mariah Carey of this week was a model of serenity, whether on stage thanking the television audience or alone in her suite.

If there’s a dominating cultural current in the media of 2005, it’s the nonstop delivery and dissection of celebrities. Few stars have felt that scalpel as cruelly as Carey.

“I never really felt famous until my fame was used against me,” she said. “I never felt I was different than anybody else until I couldn’t get away from anybody.”


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