When a 'Diva' Is Diagnosed

Will Mariah Carey’s battle with bipolar II disorder make people reevaluate how they’ve talked about her behavior?

Mariah Carey sings for New Year's Eve 2018
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Though diagnosed in 2001, the pop titan Mariah Carey kept quiet about her mental illness until speaking to People for this week’s cover story titled, “My Battle With Bipolar Disorder.” It was only recently that she began receiving treatment for her swings between hypomania and depression, having previously lived in denial of her bipolar II disorder. She says she’s now going public because she’s “in a really good place right now” and is “hopeful we can get to a place where the stigma is lifted from people going through anything alone.”

The reaction online thus far has been largely understanding and empathetic, lauding Carey for being truthful and expressing sympathy for what she’s gone through. For some in the public, it’s a moment to reconsider their perception of the self-proclaimed elusive chanteuse. In a Good Morning America segment, Robin Roberts read a representative tweet from someone who said, “I’ve always loved her music, I didn’t like her, but now I understand and respect her.”

Right there is a sign of widespread contradictory attitudes around mental health and the “diva” celebrity class for which Carey has been the mascot. For years, she’s been nearly as discussed for her personal dramas as for her music. Apparent meltdowns, feuds, and lavish displays of vanity created a persona that some found poignant, some found campily amusing, and some found horrifying. Fans and skeptics alike often employed the word crazy—partly as speculation about Carey’s mental health, but more as an aesthetic description, painting her outlandishness as part of an act for public enjoyment.

“Who doesn’t love it when celebrities go crazy?” began a Carey-appreciation post from a blogger at NewNowNext in 2016. “Whether it’s Britney or Lindsay, or even Amanda Bynes, we all just plop down on the couch with popcorn and watch the spectacle unfurl. For me, though, there’s no one who does crazy like Mariah Carey, mainly because she’s never completely gone off the deep end and yet never completely swam to the shores of sanity.” What followed was a listicle of Carey’s erratic milestones—her cartoonish MTV Cribs episode, her feigned ignorance of her celebrity rivals, and her hospitalization after behaving oddly on TRL. As the post suggested, the popular notion of Carey as the “best” of the “crazy” celebrities (not coincidentally, female ones) relied on the idea that she was not actually “off the deep end.” It was presumed fair game to LOL at her.

It’d be presumptuous to now suggest that every viral Mariah moment was a symptom of bipolar disorder. But it’d be insensitive not to account for an element of suffering in them, either. “For a long time I thought I had a severe sleep disorder,” Carey said to People. “But it wasn’t normal insomnia and I wasn’t lying awake counting sheep. I was working and working and working … I was irritable and in constant fear of letting people down. It turns out that I was experiencing a form of mania.”

Shame around the diagnosis itself worsened the problem, she told People. Indeed, the stigma against talking about one’s own struggles with mental health is real, demonstrated in surveys showing that many Americans don’t want people with mental disorders in their workplace or marrying into their family. But in the specific and highly symbolic realm of celebrity, at least, attitudes do appear to be changing. Stars like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Demi Lovato have continued to enjoy career success after talking about their bipolar disorder, led by the tireless and hilarious confessional career of Carrie Fisher, who also helped push the conversation forward on depression and addiction.

Pop culture may, in fact, be in a transitional phase when it comes to mental health. It’s still apparently okay to mock someone as “whacko” … until they’re diagnosed. Britney Spears’s 2007 head-shaving episode was, for years, the easiest punchline in any celebrity gossip conversation. But a reevaluation of her troubles began recently, tied to the pop star speaking openly in 2013 about having bipolar disorder. When, last year on the Grammys red carpet, Katy Perry slung mild Spears-referencing jokes about her own pixie cut—“It’s called taking care of your mental health … I haven’t shaved my head yet”—she was blasted on social media for making light of a serious struggle.

To ask whether a Spears-like reversal might happen regarding Carey—no more chuckling about New Year’s Eve 2016, maybe—is to edge into another dicey topic: believability. Already, you can find plenty of tweets calling the bipolar admission an “excuse” for bad behavior, positing that it’s a PR tactic for sympathy. It’s, of course, natural to be skeptical of everything a pop star says about their lives: Pop is about artifice. But going out of one’s way to question a reported diagnosis certainly only feeds the stigma around talking about mental health. And it fits into a particularly gendered pattern of women’s pain and traumas being reflexively doubted.

What’s fascinating is how putting a clinical label on an individual changes the conversation, even when there have long been compelling reasons to talk about their behavior as more than arrogant silliness. Carey has, for decades, spoken about the immense stress of having been thrust into the public spotlight soon after high school and struggling to stay there. She’s also talked about her early years of being manipulated by her manager and ex-husband Tommy Mottola. Gaslighting by the industry is why, for example, she strains to only be seen on camera from her right side, she’s said. But her life story alone hasn’t been enough to get Carey seen as a three-dimensional human. Maybe diagnosis will.