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Here, she talks past and present with Judith Newman.

Mariah Carey is sitting cross-legged on the bed in Bungalow 5a of The Beverly Hills Hotel —once the love nest of Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand, and the site of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's violent, vodka-fuelled arguments. But right now, Mariah, who in the 1992 hit Emotions sang about "the way you make me lose control," is oblivious to the room's lustful history. "Watch this," she advises, while very gently scratching down her forearm with an unvarnished fingernail. In less than a minute, the invisible line, extending from her wrist to her elbow, has turned into an angry red welt.

"It's call dermographia," she says with satisfaction. "Any little mark on my skin becomes red and raised." It is a condition related to stress, she explains. "It's pretty good today, actually. It was really bad a few years ago." That was around the time that her marriage to Sony Music Entertainment president and CEO, Tommy Mottola, first began to show signs of unravelling.

Emotion written on skin. You could hardly dream up a more appropriate condition for a singer whose ballads, full of passion and pain, have sent tingles down millions of spines. Indeed, despite the huge success of her 1998 album #1's (a collection of her first 13 number-one hits) and the release of her ninth album Rainbow last November, the last few years of Mariah's life would have given hives to far less sensitive souls. There was her divorce from Mottola, a man who apparently loved too much, her hasty rebound into the arms of baseball player Derek Jeter, which prompted accusations of earlier infidelity; the tabloid speculation about relationships with men ranging from Donald Trump to Leonardo DiCaprio to Sean "Puffy" Combs; the collapse of Crave, her own private label at Sony; the $1.5 million lawsuit filed by a limousine driver who alleged she had $40,000 in unpaid bills; and endless reports of prima donna behaviour, including the insistence that she only be photographed on her right, or "good" side. "A friend once told me that the definition of being a diva is 'goddess/prima donna'," she grins. "So I guess that being called a diva could be an extreme compliment or a 'dis'."

To her hard-core fans (and they're a devoted group —a fact confirmed by dozens of Internet sites), the details of her childhood are familiar. She's the daughter of an Irish-American mother and an African-American/Venezuelan father, whose marriage, fraught with noisy conflict, was over by the time the songstress was three. Her mother, an opera singer, struggled to support Mariah, her older brother and sister by juggling different jobs, including managing a pet store and working as a vocal coach.

Another well-known chapter of the Mariah saga is her discovery by Sony executive Tommy Mottola, in 1988. At 18, while working as a back-up singer, she attended an industry party where she handed Mottola a demo tape. He climbed into his limo, played the tape, then drove back to find her.

Mariah signed with Columbia Records in 1989 and from there, the '90s became a blur of platinum albums, provocative music videos and awards. While some may view her music as the equivalent of muzak, no one —not even Mariah's own musical heroes, who include Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Chaka Khan —has topped her sales, which currently exceed 115 million records worldwide.

Exactly when Mariah became involved with the then-married Mottola, 20 years her senior, is a matter of speculation; but they wed in June '93 and were separated by May '97. It doesn't take a $200-an-hour shrink to work out that, for a child who grew up without a father around, there might be something fairly comforting and secure about an older, controlling husband. Mariah hints at similarities between them, and her stories of separating from Mottola are oddly interwoven with memories of her father, who lives in Washington, D.C. and with whom she has only limited contact. Mariah says she'd like her father to be a bigger part of her life.

But whatever Mottola's control, Mariah finds it "sexist" when people assume, "because I was married to someone much older, who happened to be involved in my career, I was a kept woman." In fact, she always kept her finances separate from his. "I felt that splitting the house, the bills, everything, would make me more in charge of my life. As it turns out, I was--ahem--a little off in assessing that." Still, Mariah's bothered that "people thought I was this little girl who was taken care of —the canary in the cage." While acknowledging that "in a way, it's true," she does point out that "the case was actually half paid for by me."

These days, Mariah has made another life for herself. Since releasing Rainbow (the catchy hit single Heartbreaker was her 14th US number one), she's been taking acting classes. Earlier this year, she made her movie debut as an opera singer in the romantic comedy, The Bachelor, playing alongside Chris O'Donnell.

Mariah's new-found independence has also seen her purchase a Manhattan loft-style apartment for a reported $US9 million, which she is renovating. And Mariah has also enlisted a team of financial managers to look after her affairs. But it's extremely difficult, she says, to find advisers who are trustworthy. "It always ends in disappointment," she observes, "and that's a sad thing." (Among the lawsuits brought by people she thought she could trust was one brought by her ex-stepfather for reneging on an alleged agreement to license a line of "Mariah dolls." The suit was eventually dismissed.)

The way in which Mariah deals with loss —by trying to recognise the absurdity of a particular situation —is something new, too. "I think that I internalise a lot of my sadness, but I try to laugh through the difficult times. Even when I'm in a moment of intense despair, I'll think of some joke, and if I'm crying hysterically, I'll just laugh," she explains. "I'll say, 'I don't have the right to be this upset'." Mariah believes humour helped her to maintain a sense of reality while trying to live up to Mottola's image of what she should be, and who she really was. With Mottola, she says, "I wasn't even allowed to be myself."

The ability to be herself, and to trust, are hard-won struggles —which may also explain Mariah's close relationship with her mother, Patricia. In the middle of the interview, Mariah reaches for the phone to call her to check the accuracy of some of her childhood memories. "I'm so proud of her —she's lost 17 kilograms," says Mariah as she dials. "I got her this swimming pool, and —hi, mom!"

The very moment she hears her mother's voice, Mariah visibly relaxes. Even during the most difficult times in her life, Mariah says, her mother has always been there for her. "But it certainly wasn't a traditional relationship. Sometimes she was the mother, sometimes I was. We traded off." With her huge success, Mariah loves being able to provide Patricia with all the things the family couldn't afford when she was growing up. Mariah has bought her mother not only a swimming pool, but also a house in upstate New York. "She's always rented houses, and never had one of her own. I understand the importance of having something that's all yours. I knew she'd want that," she says quietly.

Mariah is sitting, racking her brain, trying to remember a weird dream she had the other night. "Wait, wait, I'm sure it'll come to me if we talk about something else, she says. So we do.

Mariah's always more than happy to mention her favourite causes, most of which involve children. In 1998, she was named celebrity spokesperson for New York City's Children's Adoptive Services department. Since 1994, she's played a similar role for The Fresh Air Fund, which named a facility in upstate New York "Camp Mariah," to acknowledge her efforts on behalf of the fund.

A less pleasant topic for Mariah is the relentless speculation about her post-Mottola love life. "Lies! I was never seeing Leonardo DiCaprio or Q-Tip (rapper from A Tribe Called Quest), and there was never anything with Puff Daddy (Sean Combs, the rapper and her sometime producer)." So all the wild party-girl stuff was the fevered imagination of gossip columnists? All of it?

"When you finally get to this level (of fame)," Mariah says, "it's really hard to be with anybody without hearing rumours. You hear rumours about them, they they hear rumours about you." The whole gossip-column reading world seems to hear them. Take, for example, what happened when Mariah met current beau Luis Miguel at celebrity ski resort Aspen, in December 1998. For months after, both Mariah and Luis, the 30-year-old Latin singer known as "the Elvis of Mexico," denied they were spotted kissing in public. Outed around the world, they were forced to admit that they were involved. Eighteen months later, Mariah's only comment on their relationship is, "Right now, I feel good. I'm in a relationship where I feel supported and I don't feel too stifled."

Suddenly, Mariah remembers her dream and launches right into a detailed description. "I was getting a massage, -sometimes it helps with my insomnia. While I was being massaged, in this dark room, I fell asleep. In my dream, I told the masseuse that I had to go to the bathroom and I'd be right back. She asked me, 'Do you want me to leave the light on for you?' And I said, 'No, you can leave the lights off because being in the dark equalises us all'. What does that mean? I'm not sure."

I'm not sure what Mariah's dream means, either. But if I had to guess, I'd say that sometimes, no matter how much you love being a diva, it's nice to be able to turn the spotlight off —to just be yourself. And, as I'm leaving, I notice that the whole time we've been talking, she's kept the lights dimmed low.

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