In the summer of 1997, I was 10 years old, and Mariah Carey was the center of my little girl world. I was the perfect age to obsess over a singer’s looks, lyrics; to cut her out of a magazine and hang her on the wall. I was about to start the fifth grade, and I felt so adult. We were like the seniors of elementary school. We knew something the single-digit kids didn’t.
Mariah was set to release what would be her grand opus, Butterfly, that fall. Two years had passed since the release of her last album, her longest hiatus to date; but much had transpired in that gap. Mariah, whose story was often compared to Cinderella, was no longer a rags-to-riches fairy tale princess. She was an unhappy wife, in the middle of a divorce. And she was only 27.
That summer, “Honey,” the first single and video from Butterfly, played on every station. People noticed how all of a sudden, Mariah, the early ’90s Turtleneck Queen, had a body. Bronzed and blonde, from here to eternity, she was bikinied—a tube on top, a tube on bottom. It seemed the video was a stab at her newly axed music mogul of a husband, the one who had stuffed her into the morose wardrobe, the saccharine pop. In the video, “Agent M” unlocks the handcuffs behind her back and thwacks the big, bad Italian standing in her way. In real life, Mariah divorces the big, bad Italian she married at just 23. She dives off a balcony into a pool, jet-skis to her new lover, and saves the day.
The metaphor of her album’s title was unsubtle. Though she denied that the “Honey” video had any relation to her ex-husband, and insisted that her transformation was not purely about the divorce, still, it was there. She’d spun her 20s too tightly, become ensnared in the mess of her marriage, her creatively restrictive record deal. At 27, she shed her dark colors and dark hair, her old man, her old skin. At 27, she spread her wings and prepared to fly.
I was so young when Mariah became famous, too young to understand that there was a spectrum of youth. I couldn’t understand, that Butterfly summer, that she was also a young woman, and going through a painful, public transformation. She was unraveling, tearing through her silk, trying to reach the light on the other side.
When I was 23, Mariah’s age when she married, my naiveté was a huge, unmanageable force that pulled me under every tide. There was a black hole where my wisdom would be. I could feel every mistake I made, imminent and unstoppable. I could feel my future self slowly growing in, but she couldn’t get here fast enough, and I was left to waver in the chasm, one hand holding the girl, the other reaching for the woman.
After I turned 23, I realized how hard it must have been for Mariah. To be fatherless, then fall in love with your impresario, to be Eliza to his Henry Higgins. To get bossed up the castle stairs, told what you can and cannot wear, to have him sign your permission slips, your contracts, to send you to bed, grounded, to leave you penning longing love songs by the window, your curls growing down, down, down.
Now, at 27, I am the pupa. The imago. I am what some would call an adult, with four wings to take me. When I was little, I read about women like me in magazines: career women, single women, women with boyfriends, mothers-in-law, exes, jobs, companies. Now I’m here. I think about 19-year-old me, who had only an inkling of what she didn’t know. I think of me at 23, a girl on the cusp, so eager to be a woman. Now, this lovely butterfly year, my mind buzzes at what I might learn. What am I looking at that I can’t see?
I’ve reached an age where other young women ask me for advice. Eighteen, 19, 20 year old women—and I look at them and remember: You think you’ll be all assembled by now. That you’ll be where you mean to go, by twenty-something, 27, career woman, working girl, you think you’ll have the world all sussed out. It is beautiful to watch. I must have been beautiful to watch.
Originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Sarah Lawrence Magazine