[From MSN Slate]

Wayward Diva Week
Mariah Carey redeemed and Whitney Houston unstrung.
By Virginia Heffernan
Posted Thursday, December 5, 2002, at 2:41 PM PT

Mariah Carey—blond, fresh-faced, a happy weight—visited each of her famous five octaves on MTV on Tuesday night, when she performed a small studio concert on a triumphant special called Shining Through the Rain. On several of the slight songs from her new album, Charmbracelet, Carey laddered confidently up and down her scales on odd phonemes, gesturing, as she went along, at places in the air that seemed to have musical corollaries. This she is known to do—a pool shark calling her shots.

In her interview with John Norris, in contrast, she stuck close to middle C. The interview, which was spliced into the concert, was Carey's opportunity to come off as cool, brave, and normal, in spite of having in the past year lost her label (to a failure of corporate confidence), her father (to cancer), and her bearings (to what her camp has called "an emotional and physical breakdown"). Now Carey is well-rested and smiley. To extenuate her past eccentricity, she copped to little more than exhaustion. She was tired, it turned out, when she did a strange striptease on MTV's Total Request Live; she was tired when she checked into a hospital; and she was very tired when she left what is invariably called her "rambling message" to fans on her Web site. Strikingly, the message, read now, doesn't seem to ramble much: "I just want you to know that I'm trying to understand things in life right now and so I really don't feel that I should be doing music. … I just can't trust anybody anymore right now, because I don't understand what's going on."           

Having satisfied her MTV fans that she now trusts people, she understands what's going on, and she should be doing music, Carey dutifully sounded the same note for Matt Lauer on Dateline NBC, immediately after Shining Through the Rain. Wearing a half-zipped hoodie and an indeterminate silver pendant, Carey blamed her exhaustion, in part, on her racial heritage. "I never felt like I belonged, or fit in, because I'm the product of an interracial marriage," she explained, her diction a little stiff, as Dateline helpfully produced archival photos of her handsome parents (her father an aeronautic engineer; her mother an opera singer).

As she had on MTV, Carey excused her flop film Glitter as a mistake, plain and simple, adding, "There were some cute things in it." This was endearing. She denied having had an affair with Eminem ("I can count the men I've been with on less than one hand, and he's not on the hand"). At the same time, she implied that they'd spent some unclassifiable, mind-bending time together. In the end, Carey seemed OK to me—shrewd, fun, in good voice—and I was persuaded that she'd gotten her rest.

But the next day, a more stubborn head case came to prime time: the other dashed diva, Whitney Houston, who appeared on a special edition of Primetime (ABC) to promote her new album, Just Whitney. Houston far outstripped Carey for psychological showmanship. Gangly in white, the bones of her skull prominent in her face, Houston lurched and flared, as Sawyer—who seemed to have prepared for a neater narrative—attempted to maneuver through.

Sawyer quoted Houston the headline "Crack Rehab Fails." Houston coughed. Then her cough turned sharp—a scoffing bark. "First of all," she said, leering. "Let's get one thing straight. Crack is cheap." She nearly doubled over. At last she closed the case: "I make too much money to ever smoke crack."

More than once, Houston threw questions back on Sawyer. When charged with anorexia—and presented with pictorial evidence of her stripped shoulders and upper body—Houston said, mysteriously, "What is it, Diane. Tell me, do you know? I can believe what you feel. I can believe that. But do you really know? Do you really know?" She also asked that Sawyer take a look at her own marriage (to hothead Mike Nichols) before she questioned Houston's.

Mean Bobby Brown, Houston's husband, made an apparently unplanned appearance, during which he discussed his use of pot to treat bipolar disorder. He did little to put to rest suspicions that he resents his wife's success. "No, it doesn't bother me at all," he said, bloody-eyed, perspiring hard. "She's a female. And no one can touch me as an entertainer."

Once Brown left, Sawyer, who throughout the interview had preserved her manner as patronizing moralist (to whom no one would conceivably confess anything), attempted once more to bare the mysteries of Houston's marriage by telling Houston about a flight attendant Sawyer had met (in her traffic with "the people").

"A flight attendant said to me, 'I'd just like to ask [Houston] why she stays with him. Why doesn't she just leave him?' "

Houston's chin went up. "Well," she said, narrowing her eyes at Sawyer. "I'd like to ask her why she stays with her man." Chin up again. "I'd like to ask her how her utopia is"—pause—"then we can talk."

Diane Sawyer said nothing.

Ultimately, this Primetime—unlike Mariah's slick "I'm cured" tour—was an unusual kind of superstar sit-down, rare since the '70s: It was a portrait of a woman who is uncured, unrecovered, unrepentant.

"My business is sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll," Houston said. And let's get that one thing straight.

Virginia Heffernan covers television for Slate.



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