Ahead of the premiere of her Apple TV+ holiday special, Mariah’s Christmas: The Magic Continues, Christobel Hastings sat down for a virtual chat with pop superstar Mariah Carey to talk music, memories and making this Christmas one to remember.
It’s 5.30am and in the darkness of my bedroom, my face is illuminated by my laptop screen. The weather is unseasonably cold for November, so I’m swaddled in a fleecey blanket. I’m also fighting off a terrible cold which, for two weeks, has laughed in the face of all medication. Reader, there is nothing remotely glamorous about this scene.
But none of that matters; not right now. Because this morning, I’m chatting to Mariah Carey.
Octave-spanning singer, pop culture icon, ultimate diva: whatever the words ‘Mariah Carey’ bring to mind, you need hardly to be one of her devoted ‘Lambs’ to know that she is a bona fide legend. Thirty years in the limelight, 19 number one hits, and a colossal voice that can flit from a whistle to a full-chested belt in a matter of seconds have secured the pop star an untouchable legacy. But Carey is nothing if not committed to her craft, and even after all this time, the long-term pop fandom can always rest assured that something new is just around the corner.
Such is the case with her new Apple+ TV show, Mariah’s Christmas: The Magic Continues. Following in the footsteps of her hugely popular Magical Christmas Special in 2020, the superstar has returned for a second Christmas special with the streaming platform, inviting viewers around the world to share in the holiday spirit.
Back in my bedroom, the only soundtrack I’m listening to is the clock ticking slowly on my wall. Outside, it’s beginning to grow light. Dawn breaks, and there’s still no word of Mariah’s whereabouts. Five hours pass by, and just when I’m beginning to give up hope, I’m abruptly given a 10-minute warning for my interview. I throw off my blanket, check my reflection, and navigate my way into another digital waiting room. Then, suddenly, the Queen of Christmas appears on my screen.
She’s a vision, of course, resplendent in a plush red gown, honey blonde hair flowing gently in the wind machine. In the background, silver stockings are strung above a crackling log fire. Two huge twinkling Christmas trees decorated with her initials are also in attendance, alongside stacks of presents with fancy ribbons. And there, pinned to her dress is a sparkling butterfly brooch; a symbol that has become synonymous with Carey’s name since her landmark sixth studio album was released in 1997. She’s like a living, breathing Christmas angel.
I’ll admit it: for a few seconds, I’m genuinely starstruck. That is until I spot the timer going down on my five precious minutes of allotted time. “Hi Christobellll!” she drawls in her deliciously husky voice. In that moment, I decide that I could listen to Mariah Carey say my name all day long. “Greetings from LA and from the land of Christmas!”
Given the splendour of the winter wonderland before me, I’m curious to know whether Carey is fully in the Christmas spirit yet, or merely just warming up. As it turns out, the dial is not quite set to Mariah-level Christmas yet. “I’m trying to do this, and let people know about my new Christmas special on Apple TV+, and my new single, Fall In Love At Christmas with Khalid and Kirk Franklin and all the exciting things,” she explains, reaching to show me some merch. “But also, after I do this stuff, I’m shutting it down until after Thanksgiving, which I know is a very American thing – and even here it’s questionable at this point – but I still do it. And after Thanksgiving, then I’m fully immersed in Christmas.”
While most of us mere mortals ring in the festive season with an advent calendar and a Christmas movie, Carey has her own special traditions. Every year, she travels to Aspen, Colorado, for a snowy getaway with her 10-year-old twins, Monroe and Moroccan, who she co-parents with her ex-husband, Nick Cannon. There, the Christmas celebrations really kick off, with reindeer sleigh rides, star-gazing and a visit from Santa Claus to the $22 million estate that she stays in every year courtesy of Airbnb.
“We wait ‘till we go to Aspen, and get in the snow,” Mariah tells me, waggling her fingers like she’s doing one of her virtuosic ad libs. “The kids are so used to it now and it’s just like…”. She pauses. “Look it’s my favourite thing. Like, we can make a thing out of it or not, but it is seriously my favourite thing.”
I don’t doubt Mariah’s sincerity. For even though Carey is inextricably bound to the season with her chart-topping number one hit All I Want For Christmas Is You – the biggest-selling Christmas song by a female artist ever – the veteran pop star has been open about the fact that her yuletide obsession stems from her unhappy childhood. In her 2020 memoir, The Meaning Of Mariah Carey, she explains that Christmases would routinely end up being ruined by the arguments of “dysfunctional family members”.
“I would sit there in the centre of the chaos, crying and wishing,” Carey recalls in the memoir. “Wishing they would stop screaming, wishing my mother could stop them from screaming and cursing. Wishing I could be somewhere safe and merry — somewhere that felt like Christmas.” And in the midst of it all, Carey dreamed that one day, she could have the magical festive holiday she so craved.
“I set about creating my own little magical, merry world of Christmas,” she continues in the book. “My imaginary Christmas was filled with Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen, and all the bells and trimmings a little girl’s dreams could hold.”
With her new Apple TV+ show, Carey has an opportunity to resume her annual mission of spreading Christmas joy. Despite the challenges of the pandemic – Mariah tells me that making last year’s Christmas special, Mariah’s Magical Christmas, was “extremely difficult because we had to follow so many rules” – this year’s production promises the requisite level of festive cheer we’ve come to expect from a Carey extravaganza.
“We didn’t want to go into a big, brand-new-brand-new thing,” she says, holding her arms out wide. “We’re kind of like, drawing the attention to what we did, and this is a new moment, a new director Joseph Khan… he’s not a new director, he’s an incredible director”. Khan, a South Korean-American film and music video director, whose back catalogue includes artists such as Taylor Swift, Britney Spears and Beyonce, is one of Carey’s “favourite people ever”. It’s evident that she’s a genuine fan of his work. “He came in and just did… I mean, it blew me away,” she says, closing her eyes. “His ideas for what he wanted to do, and thankfully, everybody at Apple was so supportive of his brilliant ideas, and I think it just…” She pauses, placing a red manicured hand delicately against her chest. “Personally, it blew me away. I haven’t seen any production I’ve ever done at this level.”
Not only will the show help fans relive the memories of the songs they know and love, including a new rendition of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), but this year’s special will also feature the first and only performance of Carey’s new single, Fall In Love At Christmas, with Grammy-nominated artist Khalid and Grammy-winning gospel legend Kirk Franklin. The track showcases Carey’s knack for creating songs that feel nostalgic yet eternally fresh, while the fusion of R&B and gospel reminds us that Carey can and does effortlessly transcend genre – a skill she has fully reclaimed since the days when her first husband, the former Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola, warned her to curb her “urban” aesthetic.
“Apart from the ambition, Tommy and I were completely different, and the Black part of myself caused him confusion,” she recalls in The Meaning Of Mariah Carey. “From the moment Tommy signed me, he tried to wash the ‘urban’ (translation: Black) off of me. And it was no different when it came to my music. The songs on my very first demo, which would become my first smash album, were much more soulful, raw, and modern in their original state. Just as he did with my appearance, Tommy smoothed out the songs for Sony, trying to make them more general, more ‘universal,’ more ambiguous. I always felt like he wanted to convert me into what he understood — a ‘mainstream’ (meaning white) artist.”
Back to the music. Fall In Love At Christmas, Mariah tells me, is a “love song, yet a gospel song”, one with the transformational power to “take you to a spiritual place”. The song has an important message, too. “Kirk Franklin, who I adore and admire enormously, says this holiday season, you know, the most important thing is: let’s give love away,” she says softly. Filming the video was a memorable experience, too. “We made it snow and it was magical and everybody was here,” she says in a sing-song voice. “But it was just like ‘wow’, like, we all had this…” She trails off, placing her hand to her chest once more. “We all had the spirit of Christmas which just like, comes in, it goes out, I hide from it”. Carey puts her hands either side of her face and suddenly launches in her signature vibrato. “I’m like, ‘I gotta wait for the real Christmaaaaas!’”
Carey is adamant, though, that the new single is not in competition with All I Want For Christmas Is You. “It’s totally different,” she says sincerely. “I’ve written a lot of Christmas songs; some more spiritual, some more ballad-y, love, whatever. This is sort of both, and I don’t think I’ve done anything like this particular song,” she says, pointing her finger for emphasis, “particularly with Khalid, and with Kirk Franklin. I think it’s a really nice complement to last year’s version of Oh Santa, which is another song I wrote with Jermaine Dupri (the American record producer) who we wrote We Belong Together and Always Be My Baby [with].”
The very mention of those two mega pop hits has me fighting the urge both to ask Mariah for a spontaneous verse and to start singing them myself. Somehow I manage to restrain myself, which is just as well, because Carey is reminiscing about last year’s holiday spectacular in which she performed Oh Santa! with Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande – “that was fabulous for that moment” – and Here Comes Santa Claus with Snoop Dogg and Jermaine Dupri. “It’s just festive,” she says. “I happen to really enjoy making holiday music, and regular music, whatever it is, but there’s something about the Christmas spirit, because I was kind of like, deprived of a fun, childhood experience of the holidays.” She mentions that an adaptation of The Meaning Of Mariah Carey is in the works. “It’s very important to me to give my kids, like, the best Christmas they can have,” she says, smiling sweetly. “And to share it with the world, you know?”
Since we’re on the topic of Carey’s memoir, I take the opportunity to tell her that her audiobook pulled me through some dark times during lockdown (if you haven’t listened to it, I can definitely recommend). “Wow”, she whispers, looking genuinely awed. “Thank you so much, and thank you for listening to the audiobook, that really means so much to me, seriously. It’s 11 hours!”
I reiterate that I’m a huge fan, and that I think it deserves more attention. Carey beams. “Thank you so much. Thank you. New book coming – different vibe,” she laughs. “But sumpin’, sumpin’ on the way. But I really appreciate that.”
I ask Carey to keep me posted, and she gives another throaty laugh, thanking me once again. Sadly, my time is nearly over, but not before I get a special holiday greeting. “Happy holidays – early!”, she says, stretching her arms out wide.
Then she smiles, clasps her bejewelled hands, and disappears from my screen.
Images: Apple TV+