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In the spring Mariah Carey seemed to be at the top of her game and heading higher. The 32-year-old pop diva was soon to release Glitter, her first disc for Virgin Records, which last year signed her to a record-breaking five-year $117 million contract. She was about to make her debut as a leading lady in the movie of the same name, based loosely on her own rags-to-riches life story. Another movie, Wise Girls, was in the can.

Then her professional and personal life began to unravel. Finally, on July 25, after posting a pair of rambling and plaintive messages to fans on her Web site, Carey entered n undisclosed East Coast hospital for treatment of what her spokes woman Cindi Berger calls "an emotional and physical breakdown." Carey's condition forced her to cancel all future engagements, including an MTV 20th-anniversary concert and press interviews for her movie.

Some who encountered Carey before her collapse say that they saw warning signs. In May, during her first week of work on Wise Girls, she and costar Mira Sorvino tangled on one of the few occasions the singer was late getting to the set. "Mira got into her face, and Mariah threw a salt shaker at her," says producer Billy Blake. "They wrestled to the floor." Then, two weeks ago, Carey appeared on MTV's Total Request Live to promote her single "Loverboy." Without warning, she launched into a striptease, yanking off her lavender T-shirt (which she handed to host Carson Daly) to reveal a skimpy halter and glittery shorts. "We were shocked," says one eyewitness. "We were thinking, 'Is she crazy or just fun?' " The next day, at a promotional stop at Roosevelt Field mall on Long Island, Carey rambled so incoherently that Berger snatched the microphone from her. "She was not speaking clearly," recalls Berger. "She was not talking about what she had come to talk about: her record."

Five days later Carey checked herself into the hospital, where she is receiving both medical and psychiatric care. Berger insists that Carey's erratic behavior has nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. "She literally was on no sleep," Berger says. Adds Carey's mother, Patricia, 69, who accompanied her daughter to the facility: "She's finally getting some much needed rest."

Of late, Carey's life has been anything but restful. According to her Web site posting prior to entering the hospital, she was in a "bad place." Just before her breakdown, Carey had returned from a grueling two-week European promotional tour. Career setbacks added to the stress. Accustomed to runaway hits since she became a pop sensation at 19, Carey watched "Loverboy," the first single from Glitter, receive mixed reviews and nose-dive to No. 60 on Billboard's singles chart. It soared back to No. 2 at the end of July but only after Virgin slashed the price of the single to 49 cents.

Romantic woes also may have played a role. Carey's heated three-year love affair with Latin singer Luis Miguel, 31, had cooled in recent months. Although he gave her a $1.42 million diamond bracelet to celebrate the completion of her movie, the two have not seen each other since April. "To my knowledge there's been no official breakup," insists Berger, adding that an "extremely worried" Miguel called Carey's manager to ask about her health.

Sources close to the singer are convinced that ex-husband and Sony Music Entertainment chief Tommy Mottola, 53, is behind a campaign to derail her career by feeding damaging rumors (of a feud with fellow Virgin artist Janet Jackson, for example) to the media. One Carey associate asserts that Mottola—who discovered the singer, married her in 1993 and continued to shape her career before their divorce four years later—wants revenge "because she left him, and she's out of his hands." Carey may have been alluding to this alleged conspiracy when she wrote on her Web site, "I just can't trust anybody anymore right now because I don't understand what's going on." Earlier this year she went so far as to hire San Francisco attorney and private detective Jack Palladino to uncover the supposed plot. Palladino, 57, calls her accusations "well-founded"—although he declines to offer specific evidence—and claims that Mottola's machinations are "an open secret in the record industry." But a Sony spokesperson calls the charges "completely untrue." Adds Mottola, who wed Latin singer Thalia last December: "Speaking on behalf of myself and everyone at Sony Music, we wish Mariah a full and speedy recovery."

Family, fans, friends and her record company are all hoping for a quick bounce back. "Virgin is extremely supportive of whatever Mariah needs," says the label's vice chairman Nancy Berry. For the moment, Carey's biggest challenge is rebuilding her health, both physical and mental. "Mariah will be back," promises Berger, "and she'll be stronger than ever."

Christina Cheakalos
Elizabeth McNeil and Larry Hackett in New York City, Kimberley Roecker in London and Jan McGirk in Mexico City

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth McNeil,
  • Larry Hackett,
  • Kimberley Roecker,
  • Jan McGirk.