By the time 20-year-old Mariah Carey released her first single “Vision of Love” in 1990, Whitney Houston had already released two multi-platinum albums — the first which she released at the age of 22 — with hits like “The Greatest Love of All” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” But both had powerhouse voices, so naturally, they were likened to one another.
“When you’re new, you have to be compared to someone,” Carey even said in an early interview. “There are a lot worse people I could be compared to. She’s a superstar and a great vocalist.”
But when Carey’s self-titled 1990 debut album sold 15 million copies globally, compared to Houston’s third album I’m Your Baby Tonight selling a very respectable five million in the same year, the direct comparisons began, sparking what came to be one of the greatest music rivalries of all time.
The press constantly pitted Houston against Carey
What started out as a press-born battle, became real when Houston was asked in a European interview, “What do you think of her?” and replied with a snark, “What do I think of her? I don’t think of her.”
The comment was met with yelps from the crowd so impassioned that her following comment of “Musically, I think she’s a good singer,” was quickly ignored.
The battle for the top of the charts seemed to fuel their supposed rivalry. When Carey’s “One Sweet Day” knocked Houston’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” off the charts, Houston was again asked her thoughts, this time on MTV: “Maybe it’s not what I think, it’s what she thinks — it’s more important.”
For her part, Carey seemed to always take the backseat as the newcomer, even when she was a bonafide chart-topper and deserving diva. In fact, when the idea for the two to come together for a duet, Carey admitted to MTV that her first thought was, “Did she say that was cool?”
The singers shut down the rumors when they recorded a duet together, which won an Oscar
At the heights of the supposed rivalry, Dreamworks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg talked to both singers about his upcoming animated film Prince of Egypt, Carey told MTV in 1998. In a move that shocked the pop culture world, the two stepped into the studio together to record the 1998 movie’s title song, “When You Believe” — sharing meaningful lyrics like, “There can be miracles / When you believe.”
“It’s sort of a message song,” Carey said. “If we were ever going to come together on any kind of record, this is definitely the right one — and really the coolest thing to me is that after all that drama and everybody making it like we had a rivalry, she was just really cool and we had a really good time in the studio.”
Squashing the rumors all together, she added: “We had fun and so, if nothing else, it was a good experience and diva-ism, whatever.”
And if that show of friendship wasn’t enough, the pair appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show together on November 25, 1998, bemused by the way the press and public had convinced them that they were rivals.
“When we got together, it was like magic,” Houston told Winfrey. “We clicked, we laughed like old girlfriends.”
"When You Believe" went on to win an Academy Award in 1999 for Best Song.
Houston and Carey even mocked their rivalry
Houston and Carey continued their tour of friendship at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, where they showed up from opposite sides of the stage to present the award for Best Male Video together — both wearing the same brown dress.
“Nice dress,” Carey said as they looked each other up and down. Houston replied, “You look pretty good too.”
“That’s one-of-a-kind, huh?” Carey egged on, while Houston replied, “That’s what they told me.” Mockingly annoyed with the situation, Carey did a quick change, tearing away a part of her long gown revealed a shorter hemline: “Fortunately, I come prepared for situations like this.”
Of course, Houston followed, revealing a slightly different cut, but equally stunning, dress, as they showered each other with compliments. “That’s a page-turner,” Carey said to Houston, who replied, “No, you look good!” They sealed the bit with a hug.
The two repeated the coordination by wearing white gowns when they performed “When You Believe” together at the 1999 Academy Awards.
The rivalry was reignited in the press a decade later
While that should have sealed the deal on any further talk of feuds, any opportunity to create parallels between their individually successful careers always became exaggerated.
In 2009, when Houston moved the release date of her album I Look to You one day, from September 1 to August 31, it was seen as a symbolic gesture since Carey had pushed her album Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel from August 25 to September 15 and eventually September 29. One seemed uber prepared while the other seemed to not be able to get it together in time.
Carey called Houston 'one of the greatest of all time'
Following the untimely death of Houston just before the Grammy Awards on February 11, 2012, Carey has shown nothing but respect for her fellow singer-turned-friend, attending her funeral in Newark, New Jersey.
Looking back, Carey points to the imagined rivalry as a societal issue. “What has to change in our industry the most… is the pitting of women against each other,” she told Variety in 2019. “We didn’t know each other — and she was one of the greatest of all time. And then we finally did a duet together that won an Oscar. We had the best time working together. It was female camaraderie. We both got it. We were like she doesn’t hate me. We’re actually having a great time together and this is more fun than I have working alone, ever. So I think camaraderie with women you respect is a huge deal.”
She echoed that sentiment while talking to Billboard: “Working with Whitney was an experience I'll never forget. It was a bonding experience...we really put all the rumors and nonsense behind us that there was a feud.”
“I don’t think people could ever really understand our relationship,” Carey told Good Morning America. “There was always this supposed rivalry in the beginning and then we did the duet and became friends and I saw her toward the end and I loved her... her legend’s going to go on forever.”