A Butterfly Takes Wing

updated 03/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN HER HALSTON MICROMINI, stiletto heels and cascading honey curls, Mariah Carey makes a head-turning entrance at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Vamping it up throughout the show at the beginning of her current world tour on Feb. 3, the singer jokes and chats with the audience. A few years ago, Carey says, she would not have been allowed to wear such sexy clothing in public. At a news conference the next day, she elaborates: "Let's just say it wouldn't have been worth the drama to wear that particular ensemble."

These days, Carey is mercifully free of dramas, not to mention conservative threads. As the title of her new, triple-platinum album, Butterfly, implies, she has metamorphosed into a freer spirit since separating last spring from her husband, Tommy Mottola, 49, the powerful boss of Sony Music Entertainment. An impoverished teen with a seven-octave vocal range when Mottola discovered her 10 years ago (they were married in June 1993), Carey, 28, is now the reigning Queen of Pop. The two-time Grammy winner has sold a reported 80 million albums, and, according to Billboard, only Elvis and the Beatles have spent more time at the top of the magazine's singles chart. On Feb. 25, at the Grammy Awards in New York City (CBS, 8 p.m. ET), the diva will be up for three more golden gramophones for Butterfly, a hip-hop, R&B-flavored CD (with guest turns by producer Sean "Puffy" Combs and rap's Bone Thugs-N-Harmony). "She used to sing music that was older than her," says überproducer Jimmy Jam about the material she recorded as Mottola's muse. "Now she's singing music that she loves and listens to."

The more liberated Carey is also on display outside the recording studio. In the video of her No. 1 hit single "Honey," Carey escapes the clutches of a wealthy, nattily dressed older man who bears some resemblance to her wealthy, nattily dressed, older estranged husband. If Mottola has been stung by the video's portrayal, he is not letting on. "There has always been love and respect in our relationship, and for me it's still there," he says. "We have a very, very good working relationship. I will always be her biggest fan."

As with most show business couples, of course, conciliation pays. And since Carey still owes four albums to Sony—which, thanks in part to Mottola, has become one of the most successful record companies in the world—they will remain professionally joined for years. Carey, in fact, pays tribute on Butterfly to Mottola, who in turn calls the album her "best yet."

Such graciousness was in short supply when Carey moved out of the couple's $10 million Xanadu mansion (14 baths; two pizza ovens) in Bedford, N.Y., last year amid reports that she was seeing New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. "Tommy was madly in love with Mariah, and he was devastated," says Mottola's longtime friend and fellow music mogul David Geffen. But, says a close friend of Carey's, "some of that love wasn't healthy because it didn't allow her to grow and change. A man his age...wanted someone to come home every night and be with him." Or, as Carey herself put it recently: "I went out to a club, and no one had seen me in years," she said in Sydney. "Everyone was like, 'Shouldn't you be home hibernating?' "

But once she and Mottola split (no divorce proceedings have been reported), Carey quickly made up for lost good times by frequenting trendy Manhattan hangouts, including Justin's, a soul food restaurant owned by Puffy Combs, where she flirted and drank Cristal champagne. She insists her makeover is not just designer-deep. "Everyone's like, 'Wow, she changed her image,' " Carey said at the Sydney news conference. "I'm just doing what I want to do now."

While she once described her marriage as a fairy tale "like Cinderella," some friends say that Mottola was more Svengali than Prince Charming. "He's very intense...and manipulative," says a neighbor. Echoes another: "It was like a father-daughter relationship. He was very smothering. I used to see her driving her Mercedes convertible with a baseball cap on. It was the only time she could be alone—in her car." But an associate of Mottola's laughs at that assertion. "The idea of her playing the innocent who has broken away from the controlling husband is bulls—t," he says. "She was no innocent." The portrayal of Carey as the prisoner of Bedford especially rankles Mottola, another associate says: "It's the biggest crock he's ever heard. Mariah is a strong-willed, intelligent, talented woman. She came and went as she pleased." In that, Mottola has a surprising ally. Patricia Carey, Marian's mother, disputes that her son-in-law was overly possessive. "I did not see that," she says.

Mottola himself says only that Carey "is an extremely intense, sharp personality, and so am I. Put us together, sparks can fly." But he has confided to friends that he believes the pressures of sudden stardom proved too much for Carey, the youngest of three children of Patricia and Alfred, a Venezuela-born engineer. A former singer with the New York City Opera, Carey's mom frequently changed jobs and addresses while raising Mariah, who was 3 when her parents split. "Here was a girl from Long Island," says a friend of Mottola's, "thrust into a world completely foreign to her. The pressure just built up inside her."

In the wake of the split, Carey is not the only one who seems to be thriving. Mottola has begun dating Maureen Reidy, 28, president of the Miss Universe pageant. The couple were introduced by Mottola's pal, pageant co-owner Donald Trump. "They hit it off," says Trump. "They're doing well."

As for Carey, "she's very happy, healthy and strong," says her close friend, video director Diane Martel. And while the singer denies that she's involved with anyone at the moment, she was reportedly on the guest list as Jeter's date for a recent party at the St. Petersburg home of Florida Marlin outfielder Gary Sheffield. But one of Carey's main preoccupations, says Martel, is her forthcoming starring role as a '70s soul singer in the TriStar film tentatively titled All That Glitters. Carey, who has been studying with an acting coach, will begin work on the film as soon as her tour ends. As an actress, says Carey's friend, choreographer-producer Debbie Allen, "she's a natural." Adds Allen, who helped Carey choreograph her stage act: "She's growing. Butterfly is such a right name for her. She's come out of her cocoon, and she's spreading those wings. She's blossoming into the woman she's becoming."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
JENNIFER LONGLEY in Bedford, SUE MILLER. MARISA SANDORA and REBECCA DAMERON in New York City, KARMA MAGHADO in Sydney, ULRICA WIHLBORG in Los Angeles and DON SIDER in Miami

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