“Mariah’s World,” which premiered Sunday night on E!, isn’t a reality show — because documentary sounds more grand. Carey’s fans (she calls them lambs) know that the singer likes things to be grand. The opposite, in Mimi parlance, is bleak. Carey’s quirks — Bianca, spontaneous accents, a glam wardrobe and a shameless ban on fluorescent lighting — are on full display in “Mariah’s World,” but the strangest thing about the eight-episode docu-series (as E! has billed it) might be that we’ve had to wait so long for it. Mariah Carey has always been reality-TV gold.
Her first brush with reality television happened nearly 15 years ago on a legendary episode of “MTV Cribs,” in which she led viewers on a tour of her palatial Tribeca penthouse. Carey changed outfits several times, demurred when it came time to show off her bedroom — opting instead to reveal a guest room where she keeps her fan mail — and famously dropped a silk nightgown onto the floor as she shimmied into her bathtub. (“I didn’t really take a bath. Like, hello, I had on a bodysuit,” she later clarified.) MTV says it’s the second-most-watched “Cribs” episode (behind Shaquille O’Neal’s) among the network’s target 12-to-34-year-old demographic.
Back then, in 2002, reality television wasn’t typically a place for a celebrity of Carey’s caliber. Only one Osbourne was famous on this side of the pond when “The Osbournes,” a precursor to the wacky family reality-show trope, premiered on MTV. Diddy was a rare exception on MTV’s “Making the Band,” but he was a sporadic presence, dropping in to deliver good or bad news. A decade later, reality TV had changed: In 2013, Carey joined the judge’s panel on “American Idol,” replacing Jennifer Lopez, also a megastar and long rumored to be Carey’s nemesis. “I don’t know her,” Carey once said when asked about Lopez. Earlier this year, when TMZ asked Carey about the enduring memes inspired by that comment, she doubled down: “I still don’t know her!”
Lopez returned to “Idol” when Carey, who notoriously clashed with fellow judge Nicki Minaj, left after just one season. Between perceived (or actual) shade thrown at her peers and delicious rumors like the long-standing one about her only wanting to be photographed on one side of her face, Carey has earned a diva reputation. She embraces it with a smile and a wink — and sometimes confirmation. “I have a rule, which states that I will not be seen in fluorescent lighting without sunglasses,” she says in “Mariah’s World.” “I know it’s very ’90s. I don’t give a f—.”
Like reality stars, Carey comes off as superficial to many while her passionate devotees see something deeper. She has talked (and penned songs) about her painful childhood and the struggle of growing up multiracial. Her rise to fame sounds like a fairy tale — she passed a demo tape to Tommy Mottola, then head of Sony, at a party in the late ’80s. She released her eponymous debut album in 1990. They married in 1993, and divorced four years later. Carey has since described Mottola as controlling, a characterization he has denied.
“Butterfly,” the 1997 album that followed the end of her marriage, marked a turning point in Carey’s life and career. Her wardrobe became noticeably sexier and more glamorous — a far cry from the sneakers, cutoffs and flannel shirt she wore in the music video for her 1993 hit “Dreamlover” — and she seemed to come into her own in terms of musical choices, veering more into R&B and hip-hop.
“Butterfly” also helped establish her personal brand — butterflies remain a symbol for the singer and are incorporated into the graphics on “Mariah’s World.” Several critically acclaimed albums, including a collection of No. 1 hits, followed before her highly publicized “breakdown” as she promoted her 2001 film “Glitter,” a commercial flop. Carey has described the breakdown reports as exaggerated, telling MTV in 2002 that she had merely been exhausted and overwhelmed by a packed schedule.
Call it what you will, but “Mariah’s World” has all the trappings of a reality show. E! goes behind the scenes as Carey prepares to go on a world tour, following the most recent leg of her Las Vegas residency. It takes a lot of people to stage a tour, and each one brings potential drama. Stella Bulochnikov, Carey’s straight-talking manager, is cast as the villain who won’t hesitate to fire anyone. Stella hires her own assistant, Molly, and informs her that she is not allowed to date in her first year on the job, or cry — ever. Molly, portrayed as clueless and inept, breaks both rules before the credits roll. There is also Carey’s newly promoted creative director, plus a slew of backup dancers, singers and other staffers, including the nanny to Carey’s 5-year-old twins with her ex-husband Nick Cannon.
As with the Kardashians, whose personal stories often play out in gossip headlines before making it into the family’s own E! show, Carey has had plenty of recent drama to stoke interest in “Mariah’s World.” The first episode finds the singer struggling to plan her wedding to Australian billionaire James Packer amid her impending tour. When their separation became public in October, People reported that the E! series was a source of tension in the relationship. “Now it’s a whole friggin’ thing,” Carey said during an appearance last month on “Ellen.”
Rumors have also swirled around Carey’s relationship with her longtime backup dancer Bryan Tanaka, who is featured prominently on “Mariah’s World.” Photos of him and Carey engaging in beach PDA surfaced Thursday. Carey declined to address their relationship in an interview Friday on “Today” but joked she was doing so “on the grounds that it may incriminate me.”
Hoda Kotb asked Carey if she had considered pulling the plug on “Mariah’s World” after ending her engagement to Packer. “Oh, I can’t give somebody that much power,” Carey said. Her response hints at one good reason to do this show now — she’s finally in control of her image. So what if that image often comes off as staged? Call it a guilty pleasure if you must, but it makes for great (reality) television.
“Mariah’s World” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on E!