Mariah Carey’s new memoir is called “The Meaning of Mariah Carey” (Andy Cohen Books/Henry Holt). Whether or not a reader comes away with a deeper understanding of what Mariah Carey “means” probably depends upon the reader and his or her definition of “meaning.” Any reader, on the other hand, cannot help but grab onto some unlikely morsels that apparently mean something to Carey herself.
The third child of an Irish-American mother and an African-American father, Carey grew up in the eastern Long Island township of Huntington, within which, she says, her family moved 13 times to places including Melville, Northport and Centerport. Her mother had been a Juilliard-trained opera singer; her father, who left her mother when Mariah was still quite young and was a rare presence in her life, was an engineer. Her mother was supportive of Carey’s creative inclinations; by age three, her ear for music began showing and she could even out-sing her mother (or so she says).
Carey pinpoints her first artistic “breakthrough” — the moment when her own belief in her talent was externally affirmed — to when she was 11-years-old and attended an “exclusive performing arts summer camp.” (For some reason, Carey chooses not to identify the well-known USDAN Summer Camp for the Arts, whose other famous alumna include actress Natalie Portman and jazz singer Jane Monheit). Carey was cast in the role of Hodel in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and according to her recounting, it was more than just a meaningful experience:
I lived to go to rehearsals… I was fascinated by the storytelling in the musical. I even managed to make a ‘camp friend’ in the community of largely Jewish and mostly wealthy kids…. We even kinda looked alike. She was Israeli with thick curly, almost kinky hair…. Because people saw us together, saw some physical similarities, I think they thought I was a blondish Jewish girl from means.
I loved Hodel because she fell in love with a revolutionary boy and went to the ends of the earth to follow her passion. My big number was in the second act, a song called ‘Far from the Home I Love.’
When performance day came around, Carey’s father, who up until then had not been supportive of her creative aspirations, was in the audience.
That day at camp as Hodel, I sang and smiled and pranced about the stage and sang some more…. I was good, and everybody knew it. I could hear the loud clapping as I took my bow; it was like another kind of grand music, giving me energy, giving me hope. As I raised my head I saw the widest smile on my father’s face.
While performing in “Fiddler” was her “breakthrough,” Carey says her triumph was marred by the fact that once everyone saw her with her Black father and realized she was biracial, she “never got another major role in a play at that camp again.”
Carey pays tribute to her mother’s close friend, Sunshine, who became like a second mother to her, especially in how she took it upon herself to make Mariah’s wardrobe and appearance her personal project. “She would often bring me cute, girlie clothes that she had made herself,” writes Carey. “She even got my hair to lie down in pigtails (maybe being a Jewish woman and having textured hair gave her some insight).” Mariah’s hair is a recurring motif throughout the book; there’s actually more discussion of her lifelong hair problems than there is of her creative process as a musician and songwriter, of which there is almost none.
Carey’s ambition propelled her to seek every opportunity to perform, and she quickly outgrew what little there was of a local music scene in Suffolk County. As soon as she could, she moved out of her mother’s house and into New York City, where her older brother had already made some modest inroads into the music industry — enough to get her started.
At first, she shared an apartment with four other women, sleeping in a loft above the kitchen. She was the very picture of the starving artist. As she writes, “The first decision of everyday was whether I was going to get a bagel from H&H or buy a subway token…. H&H bagels were sublime: soft, warm, and plump to perfection, a classic NYC morning staple that would keep my stomach occupied until three o’clock (H&H stood for Helmer and Hector, the two Puerto Rican owners, who arguably made the best kosher bagels in the world).” Give her credit for knowing her H&H trivia. As for her taste in bagels, that’s a totally subjective matter, but many lifelong aficionados of that Jewish delicacy would take issue with her choice of H&H.
Carey’s first big professional break came when she was hired to sing backup vocals by a Latin R&B singer named Brenda K. Starr. Starr was born Brenda Joy Kaplan to a Puerto Rican mother and a Jewish-American father, organist Harvey Kaplan. Also known as Harvey Kaye, Kaplan was a member of the 1960s band the Spiral Starecase, best known for their 1969 hit single “More Today Than Yesterday.” One day, Starr took Carey to a music industry party thrown by record-label honcho Gerald “Jerry” Greenberg. This was where Carey first met Tommy Mottola, the man who would sign her to Columbia Records and help make her the huge star she became. Carey wound up marrying Mottola, about whom she has nothing good to say, portraying him as a control freak of egomaniacal proportions.
But that pretty much is the theme of her memoir. Carey has little good to say about just about anyone in her life — her closest family members, ex-friends, and collaborators, including Ben Margulies, who spent several years working with Carey on her demo tapes and who co-wrote seven of the 11 songs on Carey’s eponymous debut album, including three of its five number-one hits.
Maybe that’s the meaning of Mariah Carey.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He often mines popular culture for hidden Jewish stories.