Chris Azzopardi of MichiganÃ‚â€™s Between The Lines
It was the first time Timothy French had been away from home for an extended amount of time. And during the period French, 27, trekked from Birmingham to attend college in Chicago, Mariah Carey's life had also unraveled.
Carey left her husband - also the man who helped launched her career - and chronicled her personal experiences on 1997's "Butterfly." The album gave French a silver lining in the midst of personal turmoil.
"I had to grow up a little bit quicker than most people do," says French, who now lives in Ferndale and will see Carey live on Sept. 9 at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
While one of the album's most personal cuts, "Close My Eyes," was in constant rotation in French's dorm, he came to terms with his sexuality and constantly reminisced about the abuse he and his family had endured from their alcoholic father.
"It was definitely a very, very dark time," French says. "No kid should have to go through something like that."
A musical 'Hero'
If it weren't for a girl in one of French's sixth-grade classes, he wouldn't have had the comfort of Carey's music. One day the girl played Carey's bombastic ballad "Vision of Love" from a cassette single, and Carey's voice struck a cord with French.
"Her music really spoke to me," he says.
When he was 12, his mother left his father, and French - the oldest of four children - took on a patriarchal role in the family. "I had to fill in and help my mom."
Carey dealt with the same issue. Her father left the family when she was young. She also felt like an outsider because of her mixed race.
"There's an underlying theme of love and strength in all of her music, and I've soaked up as much of that as I possibly can," says Kelley Ann Hornyak of Allen Park. "I learned from Mariah that I can be strong on my own, and that I don't need everyone in my life to accept me as I am - and also that if they don't accept me, they don't need to be a part of my life at all."
Hornyak, 24, has gradually come out to the important people in her life over the past 10 years and feels her life has paralleled with Carey's music. She's found solace in Carey's gospel-tinged tunes, "My Saving Grace" and "Fly Like A Bird," the latter from her comeback album "The Emancipation of Mimi."
"I've grown along with Mariah's songs over the years, and it always feels like each album is telling my life story right alongside hers; like we're on a parallel path somehow," she says.
Like French, Hornyak has been a fan since Carey's first single. Hornyak, who's also a singer/songwriter, says, "I emulated her. I copied her outfits and I learned to sing the high notes just like her."
'A kindred spirit'
French hasn't exactly emulated Carey's risque attire, but he's tailored a couple of Mariah-themed shirts for himself. He'll work on a white tank top featuring a Mariah photo and rhinestones that will read, "I (Heart) Mimi," to wear at her upcoming concert. He might even wear it to Urban Outfitters in Somerset Mall, where he works. "Everyone I work with totally knows I love her," he laughs.
It wasn't a secret in Chicago, either. While browsing Tower Records, he noticed a stand-up Carey display. He asked the clerk whether he could have it.
"None of us like her here," the clerk told him. So, she gave it to him.
"There I was walking through the streets with a Mariah stand," French laughs.
When Carey's next album, "Rainbow," came out French received a phone call from his friend Jenny who managed Dragon Room, a club in Chicago. She called to tell him, "Mariah's here!"
It was a Friday night. French was lounging in his pajamas. "I threw on some clothes, grabbed a CD and jumped in a cab."
At the club, he rushed through the crowd with Jenny to the VIP section in the back, where Carey was surrounded by her entourage. "I was really, really nervous," he remembers.
Jenny pointed to French, who was pale in the face and shaking, and told Carey: "He's like your biggest fan!"
"Are you OK?" Carey asked him as she reached in for a hug.
When Hornyak and her girlfriend of 10 years met the diva for the first time at a meet and greet for her "Rainbow" album, it was like encountering "a kindred spirit."
The second time was during a listening party for "Charmbracelet," Carey's first album after her publicized breakdown.
"The second time was really special because she gave me a big hug, and I got to express to her how much her music has affected my life," Hornyak says. "Listening to most of the 'Charmbracelet' tracks for the first time in the same room with her was incredible, and I cried during 'My Saving Grace.' It was a kind of epiphany, realizing how far I had come and how different I was from the girl I used to be."