For the generation glued to MTV in 2001, there was no bigger story than the pop diva’s bizarre appearance on TRL, where she stepped out on the stage wearing an oversized t-shirt and pushing an ice cream cart. As she peeled off her shirt to reveal a tank top and booty shorts, she began to ramble — sometimes breathlessly — during her subsequent interview. “Mariah Carey’s lost her mind,” Carson Daly said. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on here.” Looking back from today, the event seems tame compared to the on-screen celebrity hijinks that we’ve seen since. Back then, the event left a lasting mark on the reputation of an otherwise revered pop icon.
Today, in a feature in People, Carey revealed she was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, a condition that causes episodes of hypomania and major depression, in 2001. “For a long time I thought I had a severe sleep disorder. But it wasn’t normal insomnia and I wasn’t lying awake counting sheep. I was working and working and working…” Carey told the magazine. The article states that she was diagnosed with the condition after she was hospitalized for “extreme exhaustion” on July 26 that year, just a week after her appearance on TRL. In the wake of Carey’s decision to speak openly about her mental health, the very public moment of crisis she experienced 17 years ago takes on a new light. It also asks us to reconsider other lambasted “celebrity breakdowns” in eras that simply weren’t equipped to talk openly about mental illness.
That period of a couple years was, at least professionally, one of Carey’s worst. Two days after her highly-publicized spot on TRL, Carey gave an interview outside of an FYE music store promotional event where she talked about her need for a day off from the industry. Later, in the week of her hospitalization, Carey posted rambling voice messages on her website, which her publicist then deleted. The soundtrack for her semi-autobiographical film Glitter was released on September 11, the same day of the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil. When the film came out 10 days later, it was critically panned, and has since been remembered as of the worst movies of the 21st century. The following year, EMI Records released her from her contract. That December, Carey released her ninth studio album Charmbracelet, which too saw its share of middling reviews. One from the New York Times mentioned Carey’s hospitalization and rumored suicide attempt, adding “These stories are becoming part of the myth of her life, a myth she feeds, and feeds off, but can't quite control.”
Until the release of her comeback album, 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi, it seemed that Carey’s star had permanently dimmed, partly due to the reputation earned from her pre-hospitalization erratic behavior. The constant public jokes and speculation about her condition did nothing to help Carey. “Tell me about your summer. Was that just weird?” David Letterman asked Carey on The Late Show in December 2001. “So many things were so overly sensationalized over and over again,” she responded, going on to explain that her intense work schedule and sleep deprivation led to her brief work pause, an explanation she also gave during an interview with Oprah Winfrey the following year. She denied that what she experienced was a breakdown, a term now used in her recent People story. (In an accompanying video, the magazine’s editor-in-chief and author of the story Jess Cagle explains that fear of stigma is what kept Carey secretive about her diagnosis for so long.)
She’s not the only celebrity to have had to live out a period of mental health difficulty on the world stage. Amanda Bynes was widely mocked in 2013 for behaving erratically in public and online. Only years later, during her recovery, was she able to tell the story on her own terms, explaining that her behavior was the result of her own risky drug use, addiction, and untreated mental illness.
Most famously, the world watched in 2007 as Britney Spears went through her own very public crisis, best remembered now via paparazzi photos of the singer shaving her head and attacking a car with an umbrella. She, too, became a favorite pop culture punchline for a time. Like Bynes and Spears, Carey’s breakdown was largely treated as a joke, though in the time before the ubiquity of social media and lives lived online. One can only imagine how Carey’s breakdown on TRL would be memed to exhaustion today. Then again, the climate is such today that Carey could be more immediately open about her mental illness, without fear of blowback.
While Carey’s continued career has largely eclipsed any memory of the bad times, the disclosure still represents a sort of rehabilitation. Carey never had to reveal that she is bipolar, but in doing so she is taking on a critical task of representation and stigmatization of people living with mental illness. In addition to looking back on her 2001 with renewed empathy, however, her story provides an opportunity for self-reflection from the media industry and fans. In retrospect, Carey comes out looking like a fighter, having entered recovery even despite the obstacle of international, unfavorable press. The press and gawking onlookers, however, come out looking as predatorial as ever. Hopefully, things have changed.