June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

WHEN MARIAH CAREY SPOKE, four years ago, of her remarkable rise from impoverished Long Island, N.Y., teenager to pop princess and of her marriage, at 24, to Tommy Mottola, a record mogul nearly 20 years her senior, she described it as a fairy tale. “It’s so unbelievable!” she told PEOPLE in 1993. “I mean, it really is like Cinderella.”

Sadly, it now seems that the carriage has turned into a pumpkin. After weeks of rumors, Carey, 28, a Sony superstar who has sold 75 million albums since 1990, and Mottola, 47, the Sony Music chief, announced on May 30 that they had indeed separated. The admission came just shy of the fourth anniversary of their lavish June 5, 1993, New York City wedding, attended by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand. Some friends blamed the biz. “How many marriages do we see in this entertainment world that work?” muses an ex-Sony exec. “It’s very tough, very stressful.” He adds that Carey, whose next album is due in the fall and who owes four more to fulfill her current contract, is no longer dependent on her former mentor. “She can make her own phone calls now,” he says. “I don’t see this affecting her career.”

Mottola had been married for almost 20 years and had two children when he first met Carey, then an 18-year-old restaurant hostess turned backup singer, at a Manhattan industry party in 1988. Eager to discover the next Whitney Houston, Mottola snatched up a demo tape displaying Carey’s operatic range as she tried to hand it to a scout. “It just sort of happened,” Carey said of the romance that bloomed after Mottola (whose divorce was finalized in 1992) signed her and dined her. “Here I was, coming from an apartment with mattresses on the floor into this whole different world.”

But, as the world turned, Carey grew to feel trapped in the $10 million princess palace she and Mottola built on a 60-acre estate in Bedford, N.Y. “He’s controlling,” a friend of Carey’s says of Mottola. “Mariah is really into rap, and Tommy is not,” says a friend of Mottola’s. “There was a big-time generation gap.” Apparently too big. “She was a kid when they met,” adds Carey’s pal. “Here’s an old man and a young, beautiful woman. It’s not surprising at all.”

STEVE DOUGHERTY

SUE MILLER and WAYNE EDWARDS in New York City

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