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How Sweet It Is

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SOMETIMES, EVEN IN FAIRY TALES, IT RAINS—but never a depressing cold drizzle like this. All morning the picturesque farmhouse in Upstate New York has been suffused in gloom. Inside the lavishly renovated white colonial, however, a crackling fire fends off the chill as Mariah Carey, 24, talks about her quick ascent to pop-music majesty. “When I look back and think about it, it’s so unbelieveable!” she says. “I mean, it really is like Cinderella.”

Indeed it is, right down to Carey’s storybook June wedding to mentor and Sony Music mogul Tommy Mottola, 43. Ever since her bearded Prince Charming slipped that shining Gibraltar of a wedding diamond onto her hand, Carey has been cruising in happily-ever-after mode. “Tommy is so romantic,” she gushes. “I was in London for a week, and every morning he had two dozen pink roses sent to my room. By the end of the trip, it was filled with roses.”

This day Mottola is tending to thornier business in Manhattan, 90 miles away, leaving Carey the run of their baronial Hudson River Valley estate. Its sprawling main house and adjacent guest lodge sit on a hill surrounded by acres of woodlands and mowed pastures near a barn where the couple’s four horses are stabled. Of course, no fairy tale is trouble-free, and lurking under Carey’s bridge of happiness is a pack of trollish critics who slammed her fourth album, Music Box. Even so, the album ascended quickly into the Top 10, while its first single, the trilling ballad “Dreamlover,” spent two months at No. 1.

Carey has been hearing sour sounds from critics ever since she first came octave-surfing onto the scene three years ago with a voice that could swoop from operatic highs to warm, moaning lows. Her 1990 debut, Mariah Carey; sold 6 million copies and won two Grammys. Two follow-ups also moved like Big Macs: Emotions (3 million sold since 1991) and Unplugged (2 million since ’92). While one critic called hers a transcendent talent, others find her vocal style showy. Another likened her lyrics to “hackneyed high school poetry” set to music.

Then there has been the issue of Carey’s mentor, Sony Music president Mottola, who plucked her out of anonymity when she was 18 and spent almost two years—and lavish sums—nurturing her talent. Industry insiders say he treated her like a hothouse flower, sequestering her in recording studios and limiting her public appearances and press exposure. “All the special treatment really upset me,” says a former Sony employee. “They spend $200,000 on a video and Mariah doesn’t like it? No big deal. Just junk it and make another. Other artists as talented, as deserving, never get the shot. They didn’t marry the chairman of the board.”

A Bronx-born former pop singer, Mottola was a successful artists’ manager (Hall & Oates, John Mellencamp, Carly Simon) before joining CBS Records as head of U.S. operations in 1988, shortly after Sony’s takeover of the company. Hoping that he had discovered the next Whitney Houston, he signed Carey to a contract that year. Since then, Mottola has described a career arc as fast-rising as Carey’s. Sony Music’s U.S. revenues increased 50 percent under his stewardship—helped in part by Carey’s success—and corporate bean counters hardly faulted Mottola for his pro-Carey bias. To the contrary, two months ago he was put in charge of Sony’s $2 billion worldwide music interests.

For her part, Carey says her only regret is that her sudden success caught her unprepared for performing in public. “I didn’t come up doing clubs like most people, so I wasn’t ready,” she says. “Now I am.”

Out to prove it, Carey launched her maiden tour in Miami Nov. 3. (A warm-up performance in Schenectady, N.Y., filmed in July, will air Thanksgiving night on NBC.) Her Florida debut left some listeners underwhelmed, though by the time Carey got to Boston last week she had recovered from her jitters enough to get a rave from a skeptical Boston Globe reviewer for “a spectacular performance…[which] bowled over the crowd with a confidence that grew before their very eyes.” Carey admits she’s happiest in the studio: “I love to go in and sing all the background parts and then hear like 20 tracks of my own voice coming back out of the speaker.” But she hoped that the tour would give her a chance “to give something back” to fans and talk back to the critics.

“Someone said I never paid any dues,” she says, with a rare flash of anger. “I feel my whole life was struggling, because we were poor. We were alone, we had nothing—no security. I feel I have paid my dues. I’ve been paying my dues all my life.”

Carey was just 3 when her father, Alfred, a black aeronautical engineer from Venezuela, separated from her Irish-American mother, Patricia, an aspiring opera star from Indiana. As a mixed-race couple that moved from one all-while Long Island suburb to another, “they went through some very hard times before I was born,” says Mariah. “They had their dogs poisoned, their cars set on fire and blown up. It put a strain on their relationship that never quit. There was always this tension. They just fought all the time.”

The Carey family disintegrated when Alfred and Patricia divorced in 1972. Mariah’s elder sister, Allison (now 32 and a New York housewife), lived with her father, who eventually settled in Washington, and her elder brother, Morgan (now 33 and a fitness instructor in L.A.), moved out on his own. “My father and I had a good relationship for a minute there, right after the divorce,” says Mariah, whose weekly visits with Alfred gradually dwindled down to amicable but infrequent meetings. “Everybody wishes they had the Brady Bunch family, but it’s not reality.”

Raised by Patricia, who remained single until remarrying years later, Mariah says her mother “wasn’t one of those moms who dressed you up with little bows in your hair.” While Patricia scratched out a living as a singer and freelance voice coach, “I sort of took care of myself a lot,” says Mariah. “I always felt like the rug could be pulled out from under me at any time. And coming from a racially mixed background, I always felt like I didn’t really fit in anywhere.”

Whatever her social insecurities, Mariah always had one gift to rely on. “From the time Mariah was a tiny girl, she sang on true pitch; she was able to hear a sound and duplicate it exactly.” says Patricia, who discovered Mariah’s talent in 1972 while rehearsing at home for her New York City Opera debut as Maddalena in Verdi’s Rigoletto. “I missed my cue, but Mariah didn’t. She sang it—in Italian—at exactly the right point. She wasn’t yet 3.”

From then on, Patricia encouraged—but never pushed—Mariah, coaching her at home and applauding her best efforts. “She was not a stage mother at all,” says Mariah, who sang for family friends, joined occasional folk-music hoots and performed in school talent shows. While still in high school, and with Mom’s blessing, she began commuting to Manhattan to write songs with a musician friend of her brother’s, sometimes staying out until 2 a.m. on school nights. Within days of graduating from Harborfields High in 1987, says Mariah, “I packed up my stuffed animals and my posters and tapes, and I moved into the city.”

There, after just 10 months of struggling as a waitress, coat checker and part-time backup singer for rhythm-and-blues diva Brenda K. Starr, Carey met Mottola at a Columbia Records party. Anxious to sign a female singer, Mottola snatched Carey’s demo tape as she was about to hand it to another music scout. Driving home, he played the demo in his tape deck. “It didn’t have my name on it,” says Carey. “He couldn’t match up the voice with this Long Island kid in a football cheer-leading jacket. So he drove back to the party to find me, and I was gone.”

And so, using the plastic cassette tape as his glass slipper, Mottola launched a search for pop’s future princess, finally tracking Carey down a week later through Starr. “He left a message on my machine,” says Carey. “I called back, stuttering: ‘Can I speak to M-Mister M-Mottola?’ He said, ‘I think we can make hit records.’ I was like freaking out!”

Five years later, Carey looks nothing like the scared kid from Long Island Lolitaland. Tall—5’9″—and striking with her mahogany-colored hair and ebony eyes, she seems unaffected by her fame. When old high-school pal Jennifer Colombo, 22, visits, the two lapse into giggle fits. “She’s as funny as the first time we met,” says Colombo. “I think it was in the girls’ room at school.”

For Mottola, his marriage last June to Carey—in a splashy wedding at Manhattan’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church attended by family and friends including Robert De Niro, Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen—marked the end of a secretive courtship. Married and the father of two preteen children when he and Carey met in 1988, Mottola separated from Lisa Clark Mottola, his wife of 20 years, in 1990. After a bitter legal battle, the two divorced a year later, with Mrs. Mottola winning custody of the children and Mottola receiving liberal visitation rights. His relationship with Carey had turned to romance while the two were working on her debut album. “Here I was, coming from an apartment with mattresses on the floor into this whole different world,” says Carey. “It just sort of happened. Tommy is just the greatest person. He knows so much; he’s funny. I can’t imagine anybody else who would be so supportive and so understanding and helpful. He lifts me up.”

So far, Carey can’t find a downside to life with one of music’s top moguls. Since returning from their Hawaiian honeymoon, the power-pop couple has been dividing time between a Manhattan apartment and their farm, where Mottola keeps his extensive shotgun, pistol and hunting rifle collections. Carey, a former vegetarian who would rather cuddle than shoot animals, believes marriage can bridge differences, even their almost 20-year age gap. “I don’t think of Tommy as an older person,” she says. “I think of him as a very special person. Everybody who knows us realizes that we’re right for each other.”

As for some youngsters of her own, Carey says she and Mottola are agreed: “Eventually, but not soon.” They do, she admits, “sometimes get in fights” over business. “He’s ready to say, ‘Do it this way.’ At the same time, I’m very independent.” At home, however, there is one realm where Mottola always rules: the kitchen. “Tommy is a wonderful cook,” she says. “I’m so spoiled by his cooking. I bake when I’m bored, but he’s the chef.”

Outside, the rain has stopped, the skies seem about to clear, and Carey is feeling exultant. “Every day I count my blessings,” she says, executing a spontaneous pirouette in front of the fireplace. “I mean, I’m this poor kid from Long Island and now—this! I couldn’t have made it any better if I’d created it myself.”

Well, there is one thing. “Okay,” she adds after a second’s thought, “maybe those critics could go.”