The Meaning of Mariah Carey Finally Introduces Us to the Real Mariah
The first time I can remember telling a lie, I was 7 years old.
I was in line with two classmates, about to walk into our second grade classroom after recess. While we waited, one of them plopped her fingers into my ponytail, which was even puffier and frizzier than usual after an hour of playing outside.
"Why does your hair get so big?" she asked as she tossed her own pin straight, dirty blonde hair over her shoulder. I didn't understand the pit in my stomach that I felt then, but it was a sensation I would come to know well.
"It's like that because my mom and dad both have really different kinds of hair," I answered matter-of-factly. "You know, like Mariah Carey? Actually, Mariah Carey is my cousin. That's why my hair looks kind of like hers."
As the words left my mouth, I knew they weren't true. But as I watched their eyes go wide with wonder, I somehow felt satisfied. For a few weeks after that, kids would approach me nervously on the playground to ask: "Is Mariah Carey really your cousin?" before adding, "You do kind of look like her!"
Luckily, like most elements of second grade life, it was a story that would be forgotten within a few weeks. But the memory came flooding back to me as I read the first few chapters of Mariah Carey's new memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey. As is obvious by my desperate need to claim Carey as a family member at age 7, I've been a major fan of the pop star since I was a kid; Emotions was my very first cassette tape, one that was played out endlessly on a red, yellow, and blue Playskool walkman.
In addition to her music, however, I always saw a bit of myself in Carey. Growing up as the daughter of a Black father and a Puerto Rican mother in the majority white suburbs outside of Baltimore, I was constantly looking for reflections of myself, any person who could help me better understand why I constantly felt like an outsider. So I vividly remember the first time I heard an interview with Mariah on TV where she called herself bi-racial, the daughter of a white mother and a Black and Venezuelan father. From that moment on, I paid attention to her interviews, thirsty for representation as I waited to hear her talk about feeling "other" or "not good enough," like I always did.
Looking back now, however, in all of those interviews, I could see in Carey's eyes the same feeling I felt in my stomach that day when I was 7: The constant need to explain yourself and who you are, even though you know that no answer you ever give will be good enough. It was why as a second grader, lacking the language to understand my identity, all I could do was cling on to the identity of a larger-than-life person I admired, a beautiful celebrity who spoke the same secret language I did—even if she, too, couldn't always express herself clearly.
So the fact that after a decades-spanning career and more awards than she can count, Carey is finally opening up about it all in a memoir, is cathartic—not only for her, but for me and so many women like me who will see their younger selves in the pages of her book. The new memoir was co-written by writer and activist Michaela Angela Davis and released September 29. And coming from a pop star whose brand has for so long been veiled by smoky mirrors, glamour, and a self-proclaimed "diva" title, each chapter is shockingly—but refreshingly—candid.
Many readers will, of course, want to pick up The Meaning for the long-awaited true stories behind some well-known moments in Carey's life, and she certainly delivers. As someone who has devoured more celebrity memoirs than I can count, I can say that The Meaning of Mariah Carey is one of the most revealing I've ever read. Carey and Davis don't mince words as they describe everything from her infamous mental health breakdown in 2001 to her repressive marriage to music mogul Tommy Mottola, a romantic rendezvous with baseball player Derek Jeter, and her marriage to Nick Cannon and the birth of their now 9-year-old twins, Moroccan and Monroe.
There were many moments while reading that I had to pause and re-read because I was surprised at just how personal Carey gets; after so many years of letting the tabloids tell much of her story for her, you can feel just how therapeutic every single word must have been. She gets so real, in fact, that about a quarter of the way through, I switched from my physical copy to the audiobook, something I've never done before. But knowing that Carey herself narrates the audiobook, I had an urgent need to hear her tell her story.
(By the way, I highly recommend the audio book experience. Not just because Carey's reading voice is just as alluring as her singing one, but also for the way she croons song lyrics we may not have realized were about a specific moment in her life. For instance, at the end of a chapter about her complicated relationship with the sister she used to make dandelion tea with, the emotion in her voice is tangible as she sings the lyrics to "Petals": And I miss you dandelion / And even love you / And I wish there was a way / For me to trust you / But it hurts me every time / I try to touch you...")
Still, for all of drama and revelations that sated my curiosity as both a Mariah fan and a journalist, to me there was nothing more insightful than getting to know young Mariah. By carefully and vulnerably sharing the details of her childhood with us, we finally get to meet the real woman behind the image of a diva.
There are many harsh realities in these pages. Carey describes feeling "uncared for" because her white mother didn't ever attempt to do her multiracial-textured hair, which left her curls matted and her feeling unkempt for most of her childhood. She also recalls the time when her six-year-old, white best friend, Becky, burst into fearful tears when she met Mariah's Black father. But most heartbreaking is the emotional abuse she endured at the hands of her siblings, particularly her sister, who once drugged her and often attempted to woo her into selling her young body to older men.
By seeing all that Carey experienced far too early in her life, we come to understand that "diva" image was created as a defense mechanism—a barrier to shield us all, and herself, from the pain she grew up with and still carries to this day.
For years, Carey has been an enigma, a shining, brilliant star as glittering as the diamonds she adorns herself with. Yet all along, there was something on the inside stopping her from shining as brightly as she could. Now, by releasing her memoir, Mariah Carey is finally free—and she's offering that key to freedom to readers like me who have longed to hear her true story so they can better understand their own. It seems she has finally, after all these years, become the butterfly she's always wanted to be.
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