Mariah’s World: utterly unrelatable and completely fabulous reality TV

<span>Mariah Carey performs at the 2016 New Year’s Eve concert in Times Square, New York – the same year her reality TV show Mariah’s World made its debut.</span><span>Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters</span>
Mariah Carey performs at the 2016 New Year’s Eve concert in Times Square, New York – the same year her reality TV show Mariah’s World made its debut.Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters

When I was 12 I wrote Mariah Carey a fan letter. She had suffered a very public emotional breakdown (as worded by her team at the time) and I sought to reassure her that her legion of fans, known by the collective noun “Lambily”, had her back. I impressed upon her that the only reason her debut movie, Glitter, had engendered such censorious critical and public wrath was bad timing: it was slated for release the same week as the 9/11 attacks. One day, I insisted, the culture would catch up to her genius. I told her she could call me on my parent’s landline anytime outside school hours and, smearing on some Coca-Cola lip smacker, sealed the letter with a kiss.

Related: A moment that changed me: I was vilified as a gay teenager – but Mariah Carey saved me

Fast forward through the requisite adolescent rejection of girlhood and all its infantile associations, including Carey and her five-octave range, and it turns out I had remarkable foresight. The 90s and 2000s icons – Mariah, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton – have all re-entered the cultural conversation, and it’s a repentant one in which we’re saying, “Sorry for all the sexism!” Even Glitter went from being much-maligned to a considerable cringey, camp classic.

Carey survived the 2000s, in large part owing to the critically acclaimed and fan favourite The Emancipation of Mimi in 2005, and Spotify’s annual reminder of 1994’s All I Want for Christmas is You. Then in 2016 she came out with Mariah’s World, a limited E! reality series documenting her Sweet Sweet Fantasy tour across the US, Europe and Africa. Other plot points include the singer dissolving her engagement to the billionaire James Packer, and her subsequent romance with her backup dancer Bryan Tanaka.

While not as scathing as those lobbed at Glitter, Mariah’s World received average to negative reviews at the time. But, as discussed, the culture doesn’t always initially get it. I had hoped the show would reveal the real Mimi, despite her hinting that her sense of reality has been compromised by a lifetime in the public eye (as in the quote, “I don’t even know what reality is, literally, in the terms of real and not real”). At least, I’d hoped Mariah’s World would display the acerbic wit and intelligence that belie her shiny exterior and evident in her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey.

The show starts promisingly, with Mariah in costume as her fictional nemesis Bianca Storm, sipping champagne and sassily deprecating the real Mariah. The bit immediately puts viewers onside. “I am what you say I am,” she’s effectively telling us, so that we’re led to retort, “No, you’re not.” Comedic gold also arises during the overblown feud between backup singer Mary Ann and creative director Anthony, a plotline straight out of 30 Rock’s Queen of Jordan that gifts viewers with the unforgettable line, “Mary Ann’s walking up to me like Shug Avery in The Color Purple.”

Related: Mariah Carey wants $50m from her ex – and it only makes me love her more

There are occasional insightful and vulnerable moments, such as when Carey discusses her fraught first marriage, the complexities inherent in being a biracial woman and the difficulties of juggling child-rearing with a challenging career. It’s an obvious attempt to convince us that Mariah’s just like us: even as she’s diving off her luxury yacht in stilettos and diamonds, or reclining in lingerie on a chaise lounge in her sprawling mansion. On the one hand, such gauche displays of wealth and privilege are giving Lucille Bluth asking, “It’s one banana, Michael, what could it cost: 10 dollars?”

But it’s worth also considering that Carey is caught in an intractable bind, and she knows it and even alludes to it at one or two moments in the show. If she were to present herself as truly relatable, say, by showing herself mainlining a family bag of Doritos in trackie dacks with a pimple patch on, we’d recoil from the shattered illusion. We demand authenticity while rejecting those who proffer it.

And so, she compromises by giving us fleeting glimpses behind the curtain. Can we really blame her for any reticence or obfuscation of the truth? Never forget in 2001 when she did show us something real, raw and messy, and we punished her for it, just as we punished Spears and other starlets for the very same.

Mariah’s World is a show comprised of frustrating dichotomies: it reveals that the rich and famous are just like us, and not at all like us, it juxtaposes real love with manufactured intimacy and spontaneity with scriptedness, and it shows us that Carey is both keenly self-aware and clueless. The name itself, Mariah’s World, is the first such contradiction. She knows we judge her for being self-absorbed but also knows that we crave that very self-absorption. Such appositions can never really create a unified whole, and so the end product leaves us hungry for something more. But speaking as a fan who witnessed the culture nearly eat Carey alive, I’ll gratefully treat the crumbs she offers us as a whole meal.

I do wish she’d hurry up and write me back, though.

  • Mariah’s World is available to stream on Apple TV+ in Australia and the US, and Prime Video in the UK and the US. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here