“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.