By This “mulatto” is hardly tragic. There is no haunting semblance to the 1959 movie classic Imitation of Life. And Sarah Jane-the movie’s beautiful, self-hating protagonist who abandoned her dark-skinned Black mother and chose to pass for White-does not live here. The woman who does live here in this expansive penthouse in Manhattan’s Tribeca is Mariah Carey. She has jokingly described herself as a bit of a “mutt” (the offspring of an Irish-American mom and a half-African-American, half-Venezuelan dad). But she’s not tragic. Not tragic at all.

In some ways Mariah Carey, 35, is everything you would expect a pop diva to be who has sold 150,000,000 albums-comes third behind Elvis Presley and the Beatles-for most weeks spent on the Billboard Hot Singles chart and who emerged from her decade-and-a-half career as the best-selling female artist of the 1990’s. Her apartment, which spans three floors, comes with a whirlpool bath big enough for four and a freaky chamber whose tiled walls squirt mist. Carey lies there on a big white bed when she needs to humidify her vocal chords. Odd for you or me, but completely appropriate for a woman whose voice does supernatural things like traverse comfortably from pop’s smoothed-out terrain into the grittier domains of R&B, hip-hop and soul-all in a five-octave range. But in far more compelling ways Mariah Carey is not what you would expect: She’s a natural mimic, effortlessly assuming the accent of whomever she’s with. The sex-kitten persona you see in her videos gets turned off with the camera: A self-described “prude,” she enjoys Bible study and watches her favorite movie, Mean Girls, with almost Rocky Horror-esque devotion. And contrary to the reports about her “nervous breakdown-suicide attempt” in the summer of 2001, she is not crazy. Not now, not then. However, she does suffer from nightmares, recurring ones about her days as Mrs. Tommy Mottola, a time when she could not be free to live as her true self.

Race Matters So this isn’t a twenty-first-century version of Imitation of Life. Still, race and racial identity have been central themes throughout Carey’s career-arguably more so than for any other artist of her generation. It took folks forever to figure out where Carey fit in ethnically despite the fact that she never denied her mixed heritage. In an ideal world it shouldn’t matter. But as we all know, America’s stance on race matters is far from ideal.

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Photo Credit: Ruven Afanador