Since releasing her chart-topping, self-titled debut album in 1990, Mariah Carey has transformed like a butterfly, growing from little-known singer into one of music's biggest superstars. She's also become the Queen of Christmas thanks to the wild success of her hit 1994 track "All I Want for Christmas Is You." To celebrate her star-studded new holiday extravaganza, "Mariah Carey's Magical Christmas Special" — which debuted on Apple TV+ on Dec. 4, 2020 — and its accompanying soundtrack, which debuted on Apple Music the same day, Wonderwall.com is taking a look back at Mimi's biggest career moments through the years. Keep reading for more…
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Mariah Carey's meteoric rise started with a chance encounter. In 1988 when she was 18, Mariah and a friend went to a party hosted by CBS, hoping to give her demo tape to a Columbia Records executive. Instead, someone snatched it from her hands and left, ruining her opportunity. In a serendipitous twist of events, the person who took her tape was none other than Columbia Records president (and Mariah's future husband) Tommy Mottola. After listening to the recording in his limo, Tommy immediately knew he had to sign the undiscovered star with a five-octave range. The record deal led to Mariah's eponymous 1990 debut album that included commercial hits like "I Don't Wanna Cry" and "Vision of Love." Practically overnight, Mariah became a chart-topping recording artist.
Four months after the release of her first album, Mariah Carey was booked as the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live" — an honor given to the most popular recording artists of the time and proof that Mariah's career was on fire. During her performances on the show, Mariah sang her hit single "Vision of Love" as well as "Vanishing." In this Oct. 27, 1990, picture, Mariah was captured laughing during rehearsals with the show's celebrity guest host, Patrick Swayze. Mariah has appeared on the long-running sketch-comedy series three more times.
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Mariah Carey turned a successful debut album into gramophone gold at the Feb. 20, 1991, Grammy Awards. Nominated for five awards, Mariah took home two statues — one for best new artist and the other for best pop vocal performance for "Vision of Love."
Becoming one of the biggest names in pop music kept Mariah Carey busy. By 1991, her sophomore studio album, "Emotions," was on record store shelves. The album — which included hit singles like "Emotions" and "Can't Let Go" — reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and earned Mariah two more Grammy nods (for best pop vocal performance and producer of the year).
Following an American Music Award win in 1992 for favorite soul/R&B female artist and the release of her EP from "MTV Unplugged," Mariah was ready to release her third studio album, "Music Box," in 1993 — the same year she married Sony Music exec Tommy Mottola. The album — which sold 28 million copies worldwide — became Mariah's magnum opus. Featuring singles like "Dreamlover," "Hero" and "Without You," the album rose to No. 1 on music charts around the world. "Music Box" was eventually certified diamond; it also earned Mariah three more Grammy nominations over the next two years.
In 1994, Mariah Carey gifted the world with her holiday-inspired album, "Merry Christmas." The compilation included pop covers of traditional songs like "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," "O, Holy Night" and "Silent Night" plus three new tracks including "All I Want For Christmas Is You" — arguably the most popular song on her album as well as every holiday season since, even decades later.
Mariah Carey's fifth studio album, 1995's "Daydream," was another critical success. It reached No. 1 in America, Australia, Britain and more countries and marked Mariah's first foray into a more urban sound. The new formula clearly worked as Mariah sold 20 million copies, making it her second most successful album of all time. Its singles "One Sweet Day," "Fantasy" and "Always Be My Baby" also earned Grammy nominations and the whole CD earned an album of the year nod.
As her marriage to Sony Music exec Tommy Mottola crumbled, Mariah hardly took a break. She continued to work on new songs and released her sixth studio album, "Butterfly," in 1997. The metamorphosis of her music was apparent in this hip-hop and R&B-laced compilation that featured songs like "The Roof," "Breakdown" and "Honey" — the latter of which earned two Grammy nominations. The album peaked at No. 1 in America, Australia and Japan and was later certified platinum.
Hollywood loves drama so it was no surprise that some media tried to pit Mariah Carey against another world-famous singer, Whitney Houston. At the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, Mariah and Whitney poked fun at their alleged feud by presenting together, purposely wearing identical Vera Wang dresses for some added laughs. Mariah and Whitney later made history when they performed their Grammy-nominated duet "When You Believe" from the soundtrack of "The Prince of Egypt" at the 1999 Academy Awards. Following Whitney's death in 2012, Mariah shared that the two became close after their performance, despite what the tabloids wrote.
On Nov. 2, 1999, Mariah Carey released her seventh studio album, "Rainbow." Although it didn't break through to No. 1 except in France, the album did hit No. 2 in the States and sold nearly 3 million copies. It featured several popular singles including "Heartbreaker" featuring JAY-Z, "Crybaby" featuring Snoop Dogg and "Thank God I Found You" featuring Joe and 98 Degrees. The latter was certified gold and earned Mariah her 23rd Grammy nomination.
1999 also marked a new turn in Mariah Carey's career. She made her big-screen debut with a small role in the romantic comedy "The Bachelor" alongside Chris O'Donnell and Renee Zellweger. In the film, Mariah played an opera singer named Ilana who shuts down Chris's character when he tries to convince her to marry him for money.
The pressure of nonstop recording, touring and paparazzi attention took its toll on Mariah Carey by the summer of 2001. During an erratic appearance on MTV's "TRL," Mariah stunned the audience when she stripped down to a pair of tiny shorts and a figure-hugging tank-top in front of host Carson Daly. Shortly after the show, Mariah posted a cryptic message on her website that read, "I'm trying to understand things in life and so I don't think I should be doing music right now. What I'd like to do is just take a little break or at least get one night of sleep." A week later, Mariah checked into a psychiatric hospital for what her reps claimed was "an emotional and physical breakdown." The singer later explained that she didn't have a strong support system at the time.
After years of professional highs, Mariah Carey's next two projects were unexpected lows. In September 2011, the fictionalized film "Glitter," which was loosely based on Mariah's life — and in which she starred — as well as its soundtrack album flopped. Critics called the film a "hodgepodge" full of "bad acting" while the album — released by her new label, Virgin — didn't fare any better. Selling just 2 million copies — which sounds like a lot, but not for a superstar like Mimi — her eighth studio endeavor proved to be her least successful.
Even if Mariah Carey fell off the proverbial horse with both her "Glitter" film and album, the Grammy-winning singer picked herself up and started fresh with a cameo on the Jan. 7, 2002, episode of "Ally McBeal." Mariah played Candy Cushnip, a witness in a trial involving a matchmaking company. Of course, Mariah also performed one of her songs, "Lead the Way," for her TV-series debut.
2002 delivered more highs and lows for Mariah Carey. At the start of the year, she left Virgin Records in the wake of her "Glitter" album's failure — less than a year after joining the label — and got a $28 million severance payment for her troubles, The New York Times reported. She then signed with Universal's Island Records, where she scored her own label, MonarC, and a three-album deal with more than $20 million. Then came another disappointment: Mariah went on to release her ninth studio album (and her first with Island), "Charmbracelet," which — although sales were slightly higher than "Glitter" — became the second worst performing album of her career at the time.
2002 also brought the release of another Mariah Carey movie — her third film, "WiseGirls." The project co-starring Oscar winner Mira Sorvino was a crime thriller about three waitresses serving dangerous clientele in New York's Little Italy. While the film wasn't a critical success, it fared far better than "Glitter."
Mariah Carey took a well-deserved two-and-a-half-year break between the release of "Charmbracelet" in 2002 and her 10th studio album, "The Emancipation of Mimi." The 2005 compilation was a breath of fresh air in Mariah's stagnant music career, becoming her bestselling work since "Daydream" a decade earlier. Some of the most popular singles on the album included "It's Like That," "Mine Again" and "We Belong Together" — all of which earned Grammy nods. Following a 15-year Grammy dry spell, Mariah earned an impressive 10 nominations and three wins (for best contemporary R&B album, best R&B song and best female R&B vocal performance), reaffirming her place as one of the top-performing music artists in the country.
Following her "Adventures of Mimi" world tour, Mariah Carey returned to the studio and in 2008 released her 11th studio album, "E=MC²." Unlike "The Emancipation of Mimi," this musical endeavor wasn't an overnight success. The album, which featured songs like "Bye Bye" and "Touch My Body," hit No. 1 in the States and Canada but failed to do as well internationally. The album sold a disappointing 2.5 million copies worldwide, replacing "Charmbracelet" as the second worst performing album of her career at the time. The same year as "E=MC²" dropped, Mariah also appeared in the independent adventure comedy "Tennessee," which was widely panned by critics, although praised by at least one for having an "unexpectedly powerful ending."
Unfortunately, Mariah Carey's 12th studio album, "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel," managed to eclipse all of her previous works to become one of the worst performing of her almost 20-year career at the time. Released in 2009, "Memoirs" peaked at No. 3 in the States but wasn't able to gain momentum anywhere else. What's worse is that the album's singles, which included "Obsessed," "I Want to Know What Love Is," "H.A.T.E.U." and Up Out My Face," never managed to move past No. 7 on the charts. Ultimately, the album only sold 555,000 copies in America and a little more than 80,000 in Britain, signaling Mariah's waning power as a music superstar.
While Mariah Carey's music career was suffering, her acting was drawing raves. In 2009, Mariah appeared in the Oscar-winning film "Precious," a gut-wrenching drama about a Black teenager's traumatic upbringing in Harlem. Mariah played Ms. Weiss, a social worker who tries to help the Precious (played by Gabourey Sidibe, right) escape the abuse she's suffering at home. For the role, Mariah traded her glamorous real-life hair and makeup looks for a jarringly plain appearance. "I had to leave all vanity behind," she told the Los Angeles Times.
Aside from releasing her second holiday album, "Merry Christmas II You," in 2010, Mariah Carey was absent from the music studio for the next few years. In 2013, however, she returned to the industry in an entirely new capacity — as a judge on the long-running singing competition series "American Idol." Mariah shared her wisdom for just one drama-filled season that saw her make headlines as she feuded with fellow judge Nicki Minaj.
Not only did Mariah Carey liven up our TVs in 2013 — she also shined on the big screen in the biographical drama "The Butler." Her performance in a controversial role — she played a mixed-race plantation sharecropper and the mother of the film's protagonist in the racially charged post-slavery 1920s-set drama — was praised by critics for its grittiness and emotional depth. During a press conference for the film, Mariah — who's of Afro-Venezuelan and Irish American descent — recalled how a scene in the film in which a white woman spits on a Black woman at a lunch counter reminded her of her own early experiences with racism. "That actually happened to me," Mariah shared, explaining that a classmate once spit in her face on the bus because of the color of her skin.
A compilation that was more than three years in the works, "Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse" was finally released by Def Jam in 2014, becoming Mariah Carey's 14th studio album. The project — which featured the singles "#Beautiful" and "The Art of Letting Go" — peaked at No. 3 in the States and only managed to sell 127,000 copies, becoming the worst selling of her career.
Twenty-five years after her debut album came out, Mariah Carey was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015. The star was a reminder of her immense success and myriad achievements in music over the last quarter century. That same year, Mariah also announced her Las Vegas residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace.
If Mariah Carey is the queen of anything, it's reinventing herself and her career. In 2016, she announced a new E! series, "Mariah's World," which marked her transition into the world of reality television. The eight-episode show was met with lackluster reviews, with critics calling it "shallow" and "glittery" without substance, but fans loved it. The same year, Mariah was also signed by Epic Records, which was a shock to many considering Epic's parent company is Sony — the label she notoriously left in 2001.
The summation of Mariah Carey's difficult 2016 came during her technically challenged performance on "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve with Ryan Seacrest" on Dec. 31. The awkward live show marred by sound issues quickly went down as one of the most embarrassing performances of Mariah's career after she stopped singing — or stopped lip-syncing (her manager insisted she was only singing to track) — in the middle of her set, walked around, complained that she didn't have a soundcheck for one song and more. Her camp blamed the event's production staff, insisting that Mariah's earpiece didn't work. Producers insisted that any errors were not on their end.
Putting a year of bad reviews behind her, Mariah Carey reclaimed her success with three film roles in 2017. In addition to a cameo in the hilarious comedy "Girls Trip," Mariah lent her voice to two animated films: "The Lego Batman Movie," in which she played Mayor McCaskill, and "The Star," in which she played the hen, Rebecca. Mariah also performed the song "The Star" for the film's soundtrack and earned herself a Golden Globe nomination for the music in 2018. That same year, she launched a new label, Butterfly MC Records, as an imprint of Epic Records.
Mariah Carey released her 15th studio album, "Caution," in 2018. It landed at No. 5 on the U.S. charts and failed to sell well, moving only 43,000 units in the States — less than half the sales of her previous worst performing album, "Me. I am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse." Mariah was, however, able to pull in $7.5 million during her 2019 world tour for the album, which ended that August.
Mariah Carey has proven, time and time again, that even if she's down, she's never out. With a career that spans nearly 30 years, this indomitable force of music, acting and entertainment power has continued to reinvent herself and how she reaches her fans. In 2019, she introduced us to the Instagram web series "Moments with Mimi," in which she makes prank calls, plays charades and offers beauty tips to viewers at home. She also released a 25th anniversary deluxe anniversary edition of her beloved holiday album "Merry Christmas" in 2019 — her classic song "All I Want for Christmas Is You" even topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time that year — and continued to perform in Las Vegas through early 2020. Despite a global pandemic, the year still ended on a high note for Mariah…
Nearly a year into a global pandemic, Mariah Carey did her best to save 2020 with the release of two big projects in December. "Mariah Carey's Magical Christmas Special" debuted on Apple TV+ on Dec. 4 featuring a lineup of guest stars including Ariana Grande, Tiffany Haddish, Jennifer Hudson, Billy Eichner, Snoop Dogg, Jermaine Dupri, Misty Copeland and Mykal-Michelle Harris — as well as Mimi's adorable twins with ex-husband Nick Cannon, Moroccan and Monroe. The same day, the holiday queen dropped the accompanying "Mariah Carey's Magical Christmas Special Soundtrack" on Apple Music.