Earlier this week, Mariah Carey spoke publicly for the first time about having bipolar disorder in a People magazine cover story. Her declaration immediately made news and inspired an outpouring of support on social media, as many identified with her experience. “I’m hopeful we can get to a place where the stigma is lifted from people going through anything alone,” Carey told People. “It can be incredibly isolating. It does not have to define you and I refuse to allow it to define me or control me.”
Carey had every reason to think she might be publicly defined by her condition, given the reigning cultural attitudes about mental health in 2001, when she was forced to publicly live through and explain what her then-publicist described as an “emotional and physical breakdown.” A current generation of younger pop stars have since opened up about their own experiences with mental health on their terms. Selena Gomez, for instance, has openly talked about her depression and anxiety as a lifelong condition that one doesn’t simply “overcome.” Demi Lovato, like Carey, opened up about her bipolar diagnosis as well as addiction; the singer Halsey has also spoken publicly about her bipolar disorder. These celebrities have revealed their diagnoses in the context of a broader conversation about stigma around mental illness in recent years and were able to draw on increasingly matter-of-fact language that frames mental health — and addiction — as medical issues.
But Carey, like Britney Spears and Whitney Houston, is an icon from an earlier time, who had to deal with a culture that treated mental illness as a form of personal messiness or irresponsibility, especially for women, and particularly female pop stars. For a celebrity already depicted as an “irrational” or outrageous diva, any public sign of behavior that could be read as unconventional could quickly become — whether she wanted it to or not — grounds for questioning their mental health. But Carey’s announcement appears to be a harbinger of a changing conversation around the representation of mental health and female celebrities, inextricable from the ways the media talks about gender and tells women’s stories.
Like Houston — who became defined by the “crack is wack” meme until her death — Mariah Carey has spent a large part of her career trying to deal with jokes and parodies about her mental health, ever since she was hospitalized in the summer of 2001. Carey’s hospitalization became public because, as she said in later interviews, her mother called 911 after she fainted in her house. The tabloids quickly reported that she had broken plates at her hotel before fainting. The exact details of what happened were never clear, and are nobody’s business. But she has now revealed that that hospitalization was when she was first diagnosed as bipolar. “I was so terrified of losing everything,” she told People, explaining why she didn’t go public with it at the time. “I didn’t want to carry around the stigma of a lifelong disease that would define me and potentially end my career.”
This was before the reign of TMZ, and she was spared the kind of paparazzi surveillance that greeted Britney Spears during her own 2007 “breakdown,” but the images evoked by news accounts at the time sounded like the clinical male gaze of early psychiatry: ABC News described her as being in “hysterics,” and the New York Post described her throwing a “terrifying tantrum.” Some quickly began to speculate that this “breakdown” was the result of career struggles — as the single from her Glitter movie soundtrack was flopping on the charts — and the end of a relationship with singer Luis Miguel, a narrative that Carey herself later dismissed as laughably sexist.
In the months before her hospitalization, Carey had tried to talk about what was going on in her life, which did involve an abusive relationship that was affecting her career. At the time, Carey had hired a private investigator amid accusations that Sony Music head and former husband Tommy Mottola was gaslighting her and trying to sabotage her career, accusations that were later confirmed by others. (After 2005, Carey started describing her relationship to Mottola as “abusive” and one that “preyed on every insecurity she ever had.” And Mottola publicly apologized for being “controlling.”)
This narrative seemed not to resonate in the pre-#MeToo era, or even now, in part because it was about the intersections of gender and corporate harassment — rather than sexual abuse. Perhaps because of the difficulty of getting her message out through conventional media channels, Carey tried to talk about this directly to her fanbase in the way younger celebrities now use social media. “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 right now,” she said on a message on her website in July 2001, right before her hospitalization. “I just can’t trust anybody anymore right now because I don’t understand what’s going on.”
But after news broke of her hospitalization, everything Carey did before then, like her website messages, her jokingly “stripping” on TRL, or complaining about “haters” after Howard Stern mocked her weight, was treated as generally off — as if she wasn’t making sense. A crude Mad TV skit depicted her manically breaking plates — one of the rumors that her publicist confirmed at the time — and performing erratically in Glitter, as if she was out of control both artistically and physically.
Most pop stars’ lives are so intertwined with their careers and music that we expect them to not just perform for us, but also to live out — and explain — their personal drama for the public. Carey was expected, by the public as well as her record company, to address the “breakdown” narrative on talk shows and sit-downs. “It was like, I don’t wanna go through this again,” she said about these demands years later. “This was so sensationalized and it was so overdramatized, the whole breakdown moment.”
She reemerged in the fall of 2001 by singing “Hero” at a televised 9/11 tribute and later performed for the troops, as if she had to perform properly demure feminine citizenship to make up for her “bad” behavior. She also went on David Letterman’s show, where he asked her, "Is it a nervous breakdown, is it a physical breakdown, an emotional breakdown, not a breakdown?" Carey tried to joke about it all to defuse some of the sensationalist tabloid power of the terms and ultimately chalked up her difficulties to “exhaustion.”
Even during the publicity rounds for Carey’s next album, in 2002, her new record label expected her to talk about what happened. “Everybody wanted me to be like, ‘Let’s have that moment, let’s sit and cry with Oprah, let’s just have tearful moments of like, ‘I’ve overcome this,’” she said, looking back from the vantage point of 2005. “[But] I think I was still overcoming it.” She sat down with Matt Lauer for an interview about her “comeback” the following year, with the ballad “Through the Rain,” which was supposed to be a triumph-after-adversity song. She stepped back from the term “breakdown” and mentioned her workaholism and hints at her attempts to deal with Mottola’s gaslighting. And she never framed what had happened as a mental health issue — until sharing her story with People this week.
In a 2013 essay for the Atlantic about the way Justin Bieber was able to positively spin and insulate himself from his own troubling behavior, via his Instagram and its direct line to his fanbase, Esther Zuckerman notes that younger pop stars have greater control over their narratives than those of the previous generation, thanks in part to social media. But the ways the media scrutinizes and talks about “normal” celebrity behavior isn’t just a generational issue but also a question of gender. (And race; in Carey’s and Houston’s cases, they also had to contend with racialized stereotypes about the supposed inclinations of women of color toward addiction, excessive sexuality, and anger.)
Bieber actually engaged in vandalism and violence, had a "meltdown" on Twitter (not unlike Carey’s messages on her website), and, like Spears, attacked the paparazzi. But his behavior was simply deemed “alarming,” described as “lashing out” and a “mini meltdown,” which makes it sound like rambunctious growing pains. And we’ve since been assured that he left all that behind after the success of his 2015 album Purpose. In contrast, the media and public still seem to feel completely justified in endlessly speculating that Spears has been “dead behind the eyes” and not the same since she’s been in a public conservatorship. Last year, however, when Katy Perry joked about Spears’ “head-shaving,” she was hit with a quick backlash, suggesting the way that the media talks about female pop stars — whether or not they decide to publicly address their mental health — is finally undergoing a sea change. Lovato and Gomez are part of a new generation of celebrities who have decided to openly name their diagnoses. As even the New York Times described it, Carey’s statement in People is “one of the first instances in which a celebrity of Ms. Carey’s stature has acknowledged her struggles with mental illness.”
The pop icon’s historic willingness to publicly name her illness is already causing a widespread, overdue reckoning with the ways the media and public mocks and talks about the behavior of women celebrities. Carey didn’t owe anyone any explanations, but in sharing her story, she’s already helping change the terms of a conversation that has been wielded against people, particularly women performers, for too long. ●