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Sugarless Eminem

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In the short time it has taken Eminem to establish himself as a white hip-hop giant and a gun-toting bad boy, he has made it shockingly clear that he and his wife will never be rap’s answer to Paul and Linda McCartney. Indeed, the troubled one-year marriage of the man born Marshall Bruce Mathers III and his wife, Kimberly Mathers, is part of his act. “Kim,” a rap song on his new top-selling album, The Marshall Mathers LP, imagines a domestic fight between the couple that ends with Eminem strangling his wife. Last month, in a widely reported incident that earned him two criminal charges, he allegedly followed Kim to a rock club and pistol-whipped a man she kissed (a kiss she has adamantly denied). The week after, at a concert in Portland, Ore., Eminem told the crowd, “I know a lot of you might have heard or seen something about me and my wife having marital problems. But that s—- is not true. All is good between me and my wife. In fact, she’s here tonight. Where’s Kim?”

He then pulled out an inflatable sex doll, simulated an act of oral sex and tossed it to the crowd, which batted “Kim” around like a beach ball.

As ugly and bizarre as that scene was, it was still a performance. Real tragedy would follow. On July 7 Kim’s mother, Kathleen Sluck, was visiting her 25-year-old daughter at the couple’s $450,000 home in Sterling Heights, a comfortable Detroit suburb. Eminem, 27, was performing at a concert in nearby Auburn Hills. Sometime after 11 p.m., while watching a video with her granddaughter Hailie Jade, 4, Sluck, 45, went upstairs to chat with Kim and found her in the bathroom, weeping hysterically and trying to slash her wrists with a razor. “I tried to stop her,” says Sluck. “I called 911 and was talking to them while trying to stop Kim from hurting herself.” Mathers, who suffered superficial cuts, was taken to Mt. Clemens Hospital and released the next day.

Still, says Sluck, Mathers’s suicide attempt was “very serious. It is a cry for help. Kim has been really depressed the last few weeks. I could see it in her face. Just before the incident Kim was talking to Marshall on the phone. I don’t know about what.” Her son-in-law, she adds, “is on tour. He’s gone all the time. His career is getting more important. He’s been gone [on tour] for three months now, and it’s hard for Kim being the only parent and handling all the .” When she first dated Eminem in blue-collar Warren, Mich., 11 years ago, “Kim never thought in a million years she’d be where she is today,” says her attorney Neil Rockind. Now, says her mother, “she can’t even go out in the backyard.”

Meanwhile, Eminem, who visited Kim in the hospital before going back on the road through the end of August, has been uncharacteristically quiet about his wife’s suicide attempt, responding only through a record-label publicist. “Eminem is obviously concerned about his wife’s well-being,” said Interscope Records spokesman Dennis Dennehy. “As far as anything else, it’s a private matter.”

Maintaining his—or anyone’s—personal space has never been a priority with Eminem, who also goes by the rap persona Slim Shady. He has spoken so freely about growing up the “epitome of white trash” that his mother, Debbie Mathers-Briggs, 45, has filed a $10 million defamation suit. Denying Eminem’s claims that she used drugs, as he has alleged in interviews, Mathers-Briggs, co-owner of a cab company in St. Joseph, Mo., is also threatening to publish a tell-all book and release her own retaliatory rap next week. “There’s no excuse for dissing your mom,” says Mathers-Briggs, who says she and her son still speak occasionally. But she’ll never out-dis Slim Shady. Thanks in part to controversial rhymes that take bites out of parents, the media, fans, women, Christina Aguilera, gays and, of course, Kim, The Marshall Mathers LP instantly went to No. 1 and sold 1.8 million copies in its first week in May.

Eminem, who sports a tattoo on his chest that reads “Kim: Rot in Pieces,” occasionally retracts the vitriol aimed at his wife. “Sometimes he’ll say, ‘People are so stupid. Like I really mean what I’m saying,’ ” says his manager and childhood friend Paul Rosenberg. But even Rosenberg concedes, “The relationship is not great. I mean, he writes songs about killing her.” Says Rockind: “I think Kim is genuinely hurt by the lyrics.”

The violence isn’t restricted to song sheets, however. On June 4, sitting with Kim in a stereo-store parking lot not far from their house, Eminem got into a name-tossing feud with Douglas Dali, a rival rapper with the band Insane Clown Posse. According to police reports, Eminem brandished an unloaded pistol. Dali pressed charges. (On July 7 Eminem showed up at Oakland, Mich., district court to waive a preliminary hearing over the incident.) Then, in the wee hours of the following morning, June 5, Eminem trailed Kim to a local club in Warren. He allegedly caught her kissing a former bouncer, John Guerra, and then pistol-whipped him. (Guerra is now seeking unspecified damages.) The cops hauled Eminem away. “He does regret that night,” says Rosenberg. He’d regret jail time even more. “He wouldn’t be out there for his fans,” says Rosenberg. “The public quickly forgets.”

Then it was Kim’s turn. As police removed Eminem, she became so upset that they arrested her too, for disturbing the peace. (A pretrial conference will likely be held later this month.) “It’s unreasonable to expect she wouldn’t get emotional, seeing her spouse dragged away,” says her lawyer Rockind. Ah, but then her feelings changed again. On June 7 she issued a statement sticking it to Eminem. “I would also like to [say], since my husband has had no problem trying to make me look like an unfaithful wife, that every time I find a picture of him with other women, or read in magazines that he’s involved with ‘groupies,’ I don’t go…making a huge scene and getting our faces put all over the TV and papers. I have always taken his word on things and stood by his side.”

Amazingly, given all the turbulence, the couple (who wed only last year in a private nonchurch ceremony in St. Joseph) have been an item since friends introduced them as teenagers. “She was his first love,” says Mathers-Briggs. “All I can say is, love is blind.”

Back then Eminem was hardly husband—or star—material. “I never thought he’d make it,” says Sluck. Mathers-Briggs acknowledges that her son had a rough time growing up. He never knew his father, Marshall Mathers II, and for years he and his mother moved from one relative’s home to another in the Detroit area. When Eminem discovered rap at age 9, it became “his therapy,” says Rosenberg, “his psychotherapist.” He dropped out of school without finishing ninth grade and, honing his rhyming skills, worked as a cook at Gilbert’s Lodge in St. Claire Shores, Mich. “He’d rap the orders,” says bartender and waitress Jenn Yezback, a friend.

After he and Kim began dating, they moved back and forth between her parents’ and his mother’s houses. It was not a stable relationship even then, says Mathers-Briggs. But, as Neil Rockind puts it, “I have to imagine that—although I don’t know this—there is or was some genuine need on both of their parts for the other.” Kim gave birth to daughter Hailie on Dec. 5, 1995. Two years later Eminem—who picked his rap moniker from the first initials of his real name, Marshall Mathers—gave a standout performance at the Rap Olympics in L.A., landed a contract and started his ascent to fame and wealth. In 1999, months after releasing his breakthrough multiplatinum debut album, he moved his family into their 4,800-sq.-ft. house in Sterling Heights.

Kim, according to Rockind, has remained the same through these downs and ups. “This is a lady,” he says, “who prefers to wear jeans and gym shoes as opposed to Versace and Armani…a small-town girl who wants to be a mom.” As for Mathers’s state of mind, says Sluck, “Kim feels stupid and silly that she tried to kill herself. She wants to be there for her daughter. But right now,” adds Sluck, “she’s taking care of herself.”

Tom Gliatto

Amy Mindell and Mary Green in Detroit, Pam Grout in St. Joseph, KC Baker in New York City, Alexandra Hardy in Portland and Karen Brailsford in Los Angeles