Wherein we reflect with music goddess and queer ally Mariah Carey on her artistry, her new Vegas show and her love for the gay community
Nearly 25 years after I first heard her voice on cassette, my phone rings. It’s Mariah Carey, the sales-crushing icon with a whopping 18 No. 1 singles, the five-time Grammy winner and the outspoken LGBT ally. We talk about Las Vegas, where she’s headlining The Colosseum at Caesars Palace with her show Mariah No. 1 to Infinity, and how now armed with more confidence, she says she can go on vocal “tangents.” Naturally, her lingerie collection comes up. Carey also elaborates on the “unconditional love” she’s experienced from the LGBT community, which she emphasized when GLAAD recently recognized her with an Ally Award for all the lives she’s changed … an honor she received, in part, and most admirably, by changing her own.
— Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: Let’s start with the GLAAD Media Awards, because what a big moment to finally see you honored for being an ally. You acknowledged the “unconditional love” from the LGBTQ community. What did you mean when you said you haven’t experienced much unconditional love outside of the gay community? And why do you think the gay community in particular has stuck by you through thick and thin? Mariah Carey: What I was trying to express — and it was all so fast and it wasn’t the world’s greatest speech ’cause I just wanted to try and speak from my heart and, you know, sometimes there’s so much going on and it’s not the best representation of what I really wanted to say, which would’ve been simpler. Which is basically: Some of the songs that I have written, like I have a song called “Outside” that a lot of people from the gay community have always said they grew up listening to and were like, “That helped me come out to my family.” Different things.
And so, as a songwriter, I wrote that song about me feeling like an outsider, about being biracial and a lot of other things in my life. I like to leave it open so people can relate it to their own lives, and a lot of my fans tell me, “This song helped me get through having to talk about being gay with my family and with my friends,” and stuff like that. There are other songs, too, because I kind of come from that place of feeling different or not accepted, and so that’s what I meant.
As a teenager, the lyrics for “Outside” really resonated with me. “Looking In” as well. When were you first aware that you were kindred spirits with the gay community? The whole thing in terms of me feeling really comfortable around all different types of people, including different races, religions, gay, straight, whatever, started as a kid. Most kids that I grew up around had never even met anyone gay, but my mom was always very theatrical and she had a lot of gay friends, so I grew up with her two best friends who were guncles before people knew what that was. And yeah, they were great to me. They really treated me well as a little girl. Obviously gay marriage wasn’t, you know, like it is now — it wasn’t legal — so they weren’t married. But they lived together and they were my example of a really great couple. They stayed together for as long as I knew them, and so to me, that was just normal. I wasn’t like, “Oh, wow, this is weird; my mom’s friend is gay.”
I guess I was just always comfortable because they were kind to me, and cool. And so then when I grew up I would always naturally gravitate toward the fun gay guy in school, you know what I mean? You know! It’s just like different moments. Even a friend of mine when I was growing up, her mom was in a relationship with another woman and they lived together and the whole thing, but she didn’t know — she didn’t understand it. But because I had such an open-minded mother who explained that kind of stuff to me, I wasn’t gonna out her mother to her. I was just like, “OK, fine.”
You’ve been a lifeline for many of your LGBT fans because you’ve showed us that even an outsider can find his or her place. When was the first time in your life you were exactly the person you wanted to be? Wow. The first time I can think of, and this is a great thing that actually incorporated work and fun and being free and music, was when I made the video for “Honey” [in 1997], and I went swimming in the shoes. It was just… I always wanted to have the freedom to be myself and I wasn’t in a situation where that was OK; I wasn’t allowed to because of that, uhh, first relationship [to ex-husband and then-Sony Music head Tommy Mottola]. I had to overcome a lot to get through that, but that video — prior to that, I always had to settle for less than I wanted to be, and I wasn’t allowed to be who I was. And it really took a lot of courage. It wasn’t just like, “I’m gonna make a video.” It was, “I am moving on with my life, and I have to for my own self because I’m trapped in a situation.”
You’re doing some of your earliest songs during your Vegas residency. How has your voice and your approach to singing these songs, some of which are over 20 years old, changed? You know what, certain days I’m like, “Oh, this is a really good day for me; I had a lot of vocal rest today and blah, blah, blah,” and some days for me I have to be a little bit more experimental and play around on stage because maybe it’s not as strong for that minute. Really, I just think I’ve become more confident and more experimental in a good way, if you know what I mean, in using different parts of my voice and things. I always did it, but I was more “stick to the script” and “don’t go off on a tangent.” You know, I think that people kind of like the tangents that I have! (Laughs) Singing tangents. Breaking a high heel on stage tangents; whatever the case may be.
You in your lingerie making pizza tangents — all of it. It was real! That’s what I walk around in! I barely own any clothes! All I have is friggin’ lingerie.
How have you made yourself feel at home in Vegas? I just bought a lot of lingerie!
What do you think 1990 Mariah would think of 2016 Mariah? Ah, I don’t know… I was such a kid, just in over my head, but I knew that I was gonna do this for my life and soooo: I probably would’ve been like, “Who does your hair and makeup?” ’Cause they had me with some people who didn’t know what they were doing and I knew it wasn’t really good and I’d just be like, “Who does your lighting, hair and makeup?” is what I’d ask her.
They liked to put you in a lot of black. They did. It was just like, ahhh, such a long story. You don’t even wanna know.
We’ve seen a lot of greats pass away in the last several years: Prince, Whitney, Bowie. In what ways do their untimely deaths have you reflecting on your own legacy and what you want that to be? It’s really interesting: I loved Prince and I still do. I love his music, and I’ll always have it, and I grew up listening to Prince, ya know what I mean? I was lucky enough to get to know him, but before I knew him I was listening to his music as an adolescent, as a kid, so his passing was very… I really felt like he was one of those people who would be around for a really long time because he just was kind of ageless in a lot of ways.
But in terms of me reflecting on my legacy? I’m not at that place right now. I’m still very much doing fun, creative things that, you know, I don’t want to go into a long, drawn out thing about, but a lot of different projects. Some movie things. I’m getting ready to go back in the studio really soon, and obviously I’m doing this residency in Vegas. It’s really fun, but I’m not trapped there. I can do other things. We just got back from the European tour, which was amazing audiences, and then we went to Africa, so it’s like, all that stuff is great.
But what do I think my legacy will be? It’s really hard for me to answer that. I just hope the fans who’ve been so supportive of me throughout my whole career will have my music and it’ll make a difference in people’s lives as you told me it did for you, which is amazing, because not everyone knows songs like “Outside” or “Looking In” or “Close My Eyes.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2016.