"I have never wanted to do this documentary in my life," Mariah says during the first episode of the eight-part E! series, Mariah's World. She's aboard a yacht—a gift from her (soon-to-be-former) fiancé, James Packer, who has his own yacht parked nearby. He's a night person and she's a day person, she explains, so naturally they can't be on the same yacht. "There's so little privacy in entertainment anyway," she continues. "But I think if I don't document this now, I don't know when I'm gonna do it again, and I think it's gonna be something I'm gonna treasure ultimately."
Just a few months earlier, elaborating on the series, she told the New York Times: "I refuse to call it a reality show... I thought it would be a good opportunity to kind of, like, show my personality and who I am, even though I feel like my real fans have an idea of who I am."
Mariah Carey is right; we already know who she is. She's the singer with the impressive range who married the man who discovered her only to eventually break free from his control and pen 1997's Butterfly. She's the fan favorite who had a nervous breakdown live on MTV's Total Request Live in 2001. She's the diva who coined "I don't know her" when asked about rival Jennifer Lopez (only to be asked again, years later, and responding, "I still don't know her"). She may not know Lopez, but we know her. The elusive chanteuse is not quite as elusive as she may think.
We also don't need a reality show to remind us that. Carey calls Mariah's World a documentary again and again; it is not. Not only would the editing and story structure disagree, but so would the cast of characters who the show's producers have chosen to highlight. One standout is the singer's comically difficult manager, Stella Bulochnikov—who bumps heads with creative director/choreographer Anthony Burrell (in turn, Burrell, of course, bumps heads with her backup singer MaryAnn Tatum). Furthering the notion that this is more reality show than docu-series, Mariah's World throws in a strange made-for-TV B-plot where Stella hires a tour assistant who has a mini breakdown while setting up Mariah's Apple TV. (Mariah will later prank call this poor assistant, adding to the "light funness" of the Mariah persona.)
Manager Bulochnikov even plays more like a reality TV star—specifically, like a Real Housewife of New Jersey—than a manager. This is unsurprising, considering she took over seemingly by force in 2015 when Mariah dramatically canned her publicist Cindi Berger and went with "a fresh approach." In a Page Six article titled "Why Mariah Carey's manager is more like a 'dictator,'" Bulochnikov was described as such:
"Stella is the furthest thing from a manager. She's a TV producer. She's practically moved in with Mariah and now she has so much stuff on her that she can get her to do anything. She's pulling the strings, and Mariah does whatever she says."
One of the strings she pulled was putting together Mariah's World. This is perhaps why it felt a little strange to longtime Mariah fans: It was something the singer would never do—something she didn't need to do.
But if she's going to do it, it's clear she'll do it her way. Mariah's World includes a reality show staple, but with her own Mariah twist: a perfectly lighted confessional. Mariah is perhaps the first reality star to provide commentary exclusively while draped horizontally across a chaise lounge.
Following common reality show tropes, Mariah's World also includes a love interest—not from the advertised source, billionaire James Packer, but from a young background dancer, Bryan Tanaka. Tanaka's confessionals (reportedly recorded long after the fact) reveal that he's majorly crushing on his pop-star boss. How cute! She flirts with him, harmlessly at first, but we all know that Mariah and Packer are not meant to be. Soon, she'll be very Tanaka—very publicly. It's weird watching what we're supposed to assume is the blossoming of their relationship, because it's almost certainly very specifically arranged, produced, and scripted television.
But while Mariah's World is certainly not a documentary, it still manages to be a frank and accurate look at Mariah Carey. Mariah has always given the illusion of "realness"—her frequent spouting of "I don't know her," her connection to her fans (the lambs, of course), her rendition of "4real4real" off 2008's E=MC². Where Beyoncé is inaccessible, Mariah is available and willing to comment. She manages to project the image of a diva while somehow remaining endlessly relatable. Perhaps it's because she helped pioneer and encourage a modern fandom identity—speaking directly to her lambs in a language seemingly made just for the both of them. Her penthouse apartment was MTV's Cribs most memorable: She let us into her home—her multimillion dollar home, sure, but when she hopped on an elliptical in stilettos, there was no one we felt we knew better than Mariah.
In that way, the show manages to straddle Mariah's own self-identity and that which makes her endlessly entertaining, both on and off the stage. She insists that she's authentic, straightforward, and without filter while maintaining a well-documented fear of fluorescent lighting (she won't be photographed in it without sunglasses, even going over choreography in shades). She remains, as always, the ultimate elusive chanteuse—even while convincing us that we know her.
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