Mariah Carey Was ‘Mortified’ When This Singer Tried to ‘Upstage’ Aretha Franklin in ‘VH1 Divas Live’

Mariah Carey takes pride in calling herself a diva, given the word’s definition to mean a woman with a soaring, operatic voice. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Grammy-winning singer performed at VH1 Divas Live, which paid tribute to artists including Carey’s idol: the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

(L-R) Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Shania Twain and Celine Dion at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, New York | Kevin Mazur/WireImage
(L-R) Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Shania Twain and Celine Dion at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, New York | Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Mariah Carey sang with Aretha Franklin in her ‘VH1 Divas Live’ tribute

In 1998, Carey got the opportunity to sing a duet of Franklin’s hit “Chain of Fools” with the Queen herself. It was a moment that Carey treasures to this day.

“Aretha Franklin is my high bar and North Star,” she said in her 2020 memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey, “a masterful musician and mind-bogglingly gifted singer who wouldn’t let one genre confine or define her.”

Aretha Franklin (right) and Mariah Carey
Aretha Franklin (right) and Mariah Carey perform “Chain of Fools” at “Divas Live-An Honors Concert for VH1 Save the Music” at the Beacon Theater, New York, New York, April 14, 1998 | Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Mariah Carey, Céline Dion, and others sang ‘Natural Woman’ on ‘Divas Live’

At the end of the show, Carey and Franklin were joined by Céline Dion, Gloria Estefan, Shania Twain, and Carole King for a larger-than-life performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” the beloved song written by King and made famous by Franklin.

But things took a turn during the performance that neither Carey nor Franklin were expecting.

Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Celine Dion and Shania Twain
Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Celine Dion and Shania Twain | Kevin Mazur/WireImage

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Mariah Carey was ‘mortified’ during Celine Dion’s performance of ‘Natural Woman’

What was meant to be a tribute to Franklin became a competition between Franklin and Dion to out-sing and out-riff each other. “Look, if Aretha was going to riff or ad-lib anywhere, that was her prerogative as Queen, but you do not — repeat, do not — take it as a challenge,” Carey said. “One of the divas didn’t understand the culture of the court and tried to come for the Queen a little bit during the song.”

“It was fine,” she continued. “I wouldn’t have ever done that. To quote Ms. Franklin, ‘Something was askew.'” As Franklin began to sing gospel during the song (with Carey ad-libbing “Jesus!”), Dion tried to match and outdo all of the Queen of Soul’s vocal acrobatics.

“She was the bandleader; you followed her,” Carey said of Franklin’s role in the performance. “The dueling diva had gone too far before (in my humble opinion) and appeared to try and outsing Aretha. That. Happened. I couldn’t believe anyone would try to upstage Aretha Franklin on her tribute, while singing about Jesus, no less.”

But Franklin was totally unfazed. “I was mortified, but of course Aretha didn’t care,” Carey recalled. “She had more skills, soul, and natural talent than all of us combined and then multiplied. She had so much fun that night and tore it down.”