In the pop galaxy, where a singer can become a falling star just as quickly as she beamed bright, Mariah Carey's been a solar system unto herself. For one, the bestselling female artist can count 18 Billboard #1's as her own, the most of any solo act.
But divas aren't born that way: The 46-year-old was an ingenue once too. That's what struck me as I watched the Internet turn on like stadium lights after Tori Kelly's performance at this summer's MTV VMAs. And no, it wasn't just that masterfully messy mop of curly hair that had me seeing double. The largely unknown Kelly was widely hailed as having delivered the night's "best performance," one full of power and runs that would make Mariah
After some determined digging, what I discovered only magnified the similarities between 22-year-old Tori and rising star Mariah at 22. Call them good omens. Tori, take note.
The HairPaul Natkin/WireImage;Gabriel Olsen/Getty
OK, let's just get it out of the way. A simple Google image search for "mariah carey 1990s" is all the evidence you need that Tori, with her voluminous curls, bears at least a passing resemblance to a young Mariah.
Four out of the five singles released from Carey's self-titled debut became #1s -- at the time, no one had managed that feat since the Jackson 5. The album went on to be certified nine-times platinum. These days, if your name isn't Adele, you're probably not putting up numbers like this.
But it's clear the onetime YouTuber's team wants to position her to win. Kelly's June major-label debut, executive produced by hitmaker Max Martin, will be getting a rerelease. New single "Hollow," with its handclaps and seductive melisma, sounds engineered for awards shows and arenas.
The HyphenatesKevin Mazur/Wireimage;Christopher Polk/MTV1415/Getty
The pop charts are crawling with artists who can sing or interpret a song. But the true singer/songwriter is an increasingly rare hybrid in the age of Max Martin. Carey and Kelly (she plays guitar too) are in this special class.
"Something about songwriting just unlocks another part of me," Kelly, who began writing at 15, told Fuse back in 2013. "When you're in that zone, everything comes out, and mostly stuff that I wouldn't even say in a normal day -- I would just only say it in my songs."
At 22 and fresh off her first two Grammy wins, Carey told a magazine of her process: "There's something about the night. It inspires even when you don't want it to. Like, sometimes when I'm trying to sleep, and these words come into my head and I go, 'Oh no, I have to get up an write.' "
The FashionsKevin Mazur/Wireimage;Richie Buxo/ Splash News Online
SoCal native Tori has a casual, breezy style (think cut-off shorts) that throws back to early-'90s Mimi, before the Long Island-bred singer's palatial closets were lined with sequined gowns.
The Musical MentorsRob Kim/Getty
The man behind the careers of pop megastars like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande also signed Tori Kelly to his SB management company. It helps to have a guy like Scooter Braun, whom Kelly has said promised not to change anything about her sound. (He'd reportedly been among the more than 23 million people to view her 2012 cover of Frank Ocean's "Thinkin Bout You.")
Carey's own "Scooter" back in the Nineties was Tommy Mottola, the all-powerful head of Sony Music for 15 years. But we wouldn't recommend Kelly jump the broom with Braun: Carey famously married Mottola to not-so-great results.
The Multicultural Thing
Like Carey, who's of mixed Irish, black and Venezuelan heritage, Kelly's outwardly ambiguous ethnicity -- paired with her soulful singing -- has sparked both curiosity and controversy.
BET's decision to book Kelly and Robin Thicke (along with Ne-Yo) for its 2015 BET Awards tribute to icon Smokey Robinson didn't sit well with some viewers. As one Twitter user put it, Kelly is "white, and @BET stands for Black Entertainment Television." Even in 2015, conversations abound about who has ownership over traditionally black music.
The Media Coverage Of The Multicultural ThingJet
Right after the BET Awards, Tori stopped by NY radio station Hot 97, where morning show co-host Peter Rosenberg asked her pointedly, "Are you prepared for the fact that when you walk into a room like that, people are going to see you and, on sight, decide that you're the white girl, even though your background is multiethnic?"
Kelly revealed she's been dealing with that "all [her] life," adding, "I kind of like being the girl that I guess people are unsure, like, 'Oh, what are are you?'
African American interest magazines wrestled with Carey's race, too, back when she first broke. Cover lines I found online almost never fail to mention her racial background, like this issue of Jet from 1991, tagged "Mariah Carey Tells Why She Looks White But Sings Black." Carey, of course, eventually transcended all of that.
Kelly seems refreshingly unbothered, shrugging to Hot 97, "I really don't care what people think I am; it's really about the music."