A siren emerges from angry waters. Her mermaid tail transformed by mirage into the fanning of a red gown, she is a trick of the eye and is not to be trusted. “Mariah’s back for the holiday season,” someone warns, implying that she lives in the ocean’s deep the rest of the year. Behind the sea-witch, a tall pole emerges from the water bearing the McDonald’s logo. We are led to understand that this must be a vision of the future, when global warming has submerged all but the tallest of off-ramp fast-food signs, and only the divas survive, adapting to become something new and fearsome.
It’s the promo image for a new McDonald’s celebrity collab.
As far as the VIPs of Christmas go, Mariah Carey is right up there with Rudolph and Jesus. Come December, the chanteuse is busier than a rapid-testing center, her 1994 hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You” dominating our ears and, thus, the charts. I command-F’d “Christmas” on Carey’s Wikipedia page (because I am a very serious researcher). It shows up 108 times. The only person on earth who I can think of who appears to be just as big a fan of the holidays is Dorinda Medley. Carey doesn’t just rest on her laurels, either. She continues to put out Christmas content. Her 2010 song “Oh Santa!” is on par with Ariana Grande’s “Santa Tell Me” as one of the best new Christmas songs of the century. When Carey deems it Christmastime, it’s Christmastime. Last year, she had a star-studded holiday special. This year, she marked her territory in the snow the day after Halloween with a very festive 30-second slasher film on Instagram in which she massacred some pumpkins.
A little over a week after that, McDonald’s announced that it was releasing its next celebrity endeavor, a “Mariah Menu” unfolding over 12 days of Christmas. “Some of my favorite memories with my kids are our family trips to McDonald’s, and of course, each of us has our go-to order,” Carey said in the press release. “Mine is the Cheeseburger, and I get it with extra pickles.” Ah, yes. A woman of taste. We love “Cheeseburger” as a proper noun. Her menu sounded like an advent calendar from gastrointestinal hell.
Here’s how it would work: Every day, open the McDonald’s app and see what gift Mariah has left for you under your little deals tab. Whatever item she chose from Santa’s factory farm that day would be free with a $1 purchase. Diet Cokes at McDonald’s are $1 exactly. This was proof of intelligent design and divine presence.
It’s a clever promotion, the free giveaway element of it making Carey seem downright philanthropic. In the ad, she emphasizes that it’s not a meal — it’s a whole menu, and it’s free. The whole shtick motivates frequent use of the app and its rewards system, something it seems like every major fast-food outlet is in an arms race over. Still, I felt slightly disappointed that there were no new menu items introduced for this. They could have, at the very least, renamed some things. Carey is a wordsmith. Now that Sondheim is dead, she might be our best living lyricist. She rhymed “secret rendezvous” with “Wendy interview”; you’re telling me she couldn’t come up with a festive play on the word “McNugget”?
This would be an easy assignment to say yes to. I love Christmas. I love divas. I live mere steps away from a McDonald’s that never has a broken Diet Coke machine. Twelve Days of McDonald’s would be my own personal jolly happy Dante’s Inferno, each day a new circle. It would be Fast Food Journalism As Endurance Sport. I was ready.
Day 1: Big Mac
I opened the app around lunchtime on Monday, December 13, and added my nice little deal to my nice little cart, which contained in it two Diet Cokes for my roommate and me. It was my first time going to McDonald’s since the last time a celebrity pulled one of its little promotional stunts, and it was all decked out with festive decorations. McDonald’s even went to the trouble of stringing up tinsel in the dining area, which has been barricaded with high chairs for two years owing to the ongoing pandemic. A poignant little visual metaphor, like bad McNugget NFT art. I was pleased to see my order came in cute, Mariah-fied packaging, the brown-paper bag decked out with some holiday sparkle (it should’ve had literal Glitter, though). Back at home, I cut the Big Mac down the middle to split with my roommate, “King Solomon and the Baby” style. My half-Mac gave me a pickle craving, so I sliced two Bubbie’s Kosher Dills into thin rounds, at which point I decided if I’m ever approached to do an “Eight Days of Hanukkah Meals” promotion, I will partner with Bubbie’s and every day the meal will be pickles.
Day 2: McChicken
This year, I drew my dad for Jewish Secret Santa, a family holiday tradition that really deserves a catchier name. My dad is very difficult to shop for. After a week of deliberation, I figured out what I’d get him: a Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo plush toy. Mr. Hankey is another Christmas icon of the ’90s, his South Park episode debuting only three years after Carey’s Merry Christmas album. The people demand she covers this:
Mr. Hankey toys have been discontinued for over 20 years, but I found one on eBay, then I found a McChicken on the McDonald’s app. Even cut in half to split with my roommate, there was more mayo in one bite of this than I knew what to do with. But after scooping some of it off, I could taste the McChicken underneath. In this era of elevated fast-food fried-chicken sandwiches, the McC still holds up.
Day 3: McBakery
Because Mariah Carey’s 12 Days of McDonald’s menu is basically a complex multiplayer AR video game, day three challenged players to a side quest: Be one of the first 10,000 customers to order her daily item (your choice of baked good) on the app and win a free beanie with a little insignia of Mimi’s autograph. I had missed the TimBiebs merch wave in November because there are no longer two whole Tim Hortonses in midtown Manhattan, so I was counting on getting my hands on this Mariah hat. I set my alarm for 7 a.m. …
… And totally slept through it. I didn’t win a hat, but I did receive a cinnamon bun with my purchase of a coffee. (Contrary to some popular belief, McDonald’s coffee is a nonentity, a nothing. It gives one caffeine. It tastes of absence. It at least had a cute holiday cup.) Cinnamon buns are the rare McDonald’s item I had never had before, and this one was completely adequate — warm, pull-apart-able, with a nice cream-cheesy kick to the icing — but it wasn’t enough to replace the thought of that beanie. There would be another chance, though — a T-shirt with a vintage ’90s pic of Mariah eating McDonald’s was set to drop December 21. It looked like a better item, anyway.
Day 4: McNuggets
Today was the first time I went to McDonald’s at dinner time for the challenge, picking up a six-piece McNuggets and honey mustard. It was chaos. There was a beeping sound of unknown provenance or meaning. The order numbers on the pickup screen were in the six digits. A woman in a Santa hat complimented me on my leg-lamp Christmas sweater. Fully dissociated through it all, I realized that not once has McDonald’s actually been playing a Mariah song; why partner with a musician if you’re not going to go all in on the theme? Why doesn’t it get the artists it partners with to rerecord the jingle? Anyway, the nuggets were divine.
Day 5: Cheeseburger
I went on a run in advance of picking up my order, as if 20 minutes of moderate exercise would counteract 12 days of McDonald’s. It was Friday, December 17, and things were getting depressing out here. Omicron was (and at time of writing, is) surging through New York. I hadn’t been on the subway all week, my only outings consisting of getting McDonald’s and COVID tests, in order of importance. I used my mandatory $1 spend on a “Holiday Pie,” pictures of which I had spent the past week staring at while waiting to pick up my orders. It was like a thick Pop-Tart filled with vanilla custard, a too-sweet menu item that feels just weird enough that I’m surprised it’s even on American menus. I knew I didn’t have COVID because I could still taste the processed oil.
But all dessert hope was not lost, for Mariah had diversified her portfolio this Christmas season and had launched a line of “Holiday Hits” cookies through her delivery-only ghost-kitchen food brand, Mariah’s Cookies. According to the map on the delivery app, Mariah’s highly branded and surely lucrative workshop operates in Brooklyn out of Juliette, a Williamsburg bistro owned by the people behind Tartine in the West Village. Mariah’s Cookies is operated by Virtual Dining Concepts, the company behind other celeb brands (and future column fodder) like Pauly D’s Italian Subs, Foodgod Truffle Fries, and … oh my God, it has one called Steve Harvey’s Family Food. All of these present a sad simulation of a themed restaurant experience. Wouldn’t it be fun to actually go to a Family Feud–themed restaurant with games and a terrifying animatronic Steve Harvey? Remember when branding was tangible and had gift shops? Now, you just get mildly themed packaging. Virtual Dining Concepts sells its brands to independent restaurants as a way for them to pull in some side income. But what if VDC brands like the recently announced TikTok Kitchen take over these restaurants from within, like one of those parasites that eats a fish’s tongue, takes its place, and eats all its food?
In any case, the cookies came in a very cute Christmas-y box, and they were chewy and soft, but they lacked the warmth and gooey factor of, say, an Insomnia. The gingerbread cookie was dry and the chocolate raspberry truffle was medicinal. Best of the bunch was the sugar cookie, but none of these would outperform a Tate’s. The Holiday Hits came with the aforementioned three cookies, two of each. I was given the option to add an additional cookie from the regular menu for $2, and I opted for a white-chocolate chip that straight up didn’t arrive. This item is for true stans and lambs only.
Days 6 to 8: McApp McTroubles
The items on these days were ALLEGEDLY hotcakes, a McDouble, and an apple pie, but I can’t prove this, because the McDonald’s app failed its own Carey Competition. I got an error message every time I tried to access the Mariah deal. It was giving New Year’s Eve 2016, when Carey’s earpiece malfunctioned so she just sort of talked uncomfortably over her backing track. “I want a holiday too,” she said over a prerecorded whistle tone. “Can I not have one?” Same, Mariah. Same. If this whole promotion was mostly meant to promote app usage, McDonald’s should have done a better job debugging the app.
Day 9: McMuffin
No one told me McDonald’s stopped doing all-day breakfast.
And even if someone had told me, no one told me that it didn’t go until 11 a.m. at the very least. When I tried to get my Mariah Meal — a sausage McMuffin — at 10:41 a.m., the app would not allow it. This stung doubly hard, because today was the second merch drop: 10,000 people ordering the Mariah Meal would get a T-shirt. I couldn’t even get the sandwich.
The merch/apparel aspect of these celebrity-food-chain partnerships has been the thing that makes some campaigns stand out and the main way for celebs slapping their names on tired old menu items to actually get their imprimatur on the whole deal. The day before this letdown, Victoria Edel published a fascinating essay on the subject in Eater, drawing attention to exclusionary sizing in influencer-approved fast-food apparel. She writes: “Part of what helped change the narrative for fast-food companies were connections to thin celebrities,” and she reads fat-phobia into who gets excluded from these promotions. She writes about who is “allowed” to talk about their love of fast food: celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Lisa Barlow. At least these McDonald’s x Mariah tees were pretty size-inclusive, running up to 3XL. But I think about the stan-Twitter meme trend from a few years ago when people were Photoshopping Carey — who has been both curvy and very thin over the course of 30 years in the public eye — to look impossibly thin and tagging it “skinny legend.” Would Carey have agreed to do this promotion if she was at a different body size? Is it problematic for me to even be thinking about this? And is it any worse than the flip side?
I believe Mariah Carey eats McDonald’s about as much as I believe Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop supplements actually work. Celebrities have been entwined in both the diet and food industries for decades. I think of Queen Latifah’s Jenny Craig campaign and Jessica Simpson shilling for Weight Watchers, and the newer “wellness” era and all of its influencer-approved laxatives branded as healthy and mindful weight-loss pills. They are sides of the same coin, each mining parasocial relationships to profit off cycles of disordered eating as well as uneven privilege. Strangely enough, the celeb who best exemplifies the interconnectivity of diet and fast-food culture isn’t a pop star or an influencer. It’s Jason Alexander, who has done both McDonald’s and Jenny Craig ads. The two are 25 years apart and eerily similar. These multi-billion dollar industries manipulating the ways we eat are a snake eating its own tail, only it looks like Jason Alexander eating Jason Alexander. I do love McMuffins, though.
Day 10: Double Cheeseburger
I was running out of things to purchase for $1 to accrue these Mariah Meals. You only think you want a fountain Diet Coke every day until you forget what water tastes like. I was storing apple pies in the freezer (to serve when I have company over, I thought, classily). I had been saving it for a special day and decided this was the night: I wanted a Happy Meal. Specifically, I wanted whatever Encanto toy came with the Happy Meal. I hadn’t seen the movie, but Bilge Ebiri liked it and I have been conditioned since birth to enjoy a cute little toy in my cereal box/Happy Meal/Kinder Egg. It’s probably why I keep writing about these celebrity collabs: They’re themed Happy Meals for stunted adults.
The staff at this McDonald’s three days before Christmas were in a great mood, and they accidentally gave me two Double Cheeseburgers, so I handed one off to the unhoused guy on the corner and brought the other home for review (my review is it was a burger). I realized when I opened my Happy Meal that these were the first McDonald’s fries I had had this entire promotion; they weren’t ever one of the free items. My only reasoning for why this could be is that Mariah didn’t want to be outshone by an even bigger icon. I also realized I was given a stale-ass, crusty-ass Eternals toy. What child wants to play with “Ikaris,” the PG-13 superhero who ponders moral relativism and has chaste missionary?
Side note: If you want to see some truly abysmal animation, watch Mariah Carey’s 2017 animated special. It’s worse than a Merge Mansion ad.
Day 11: Sausage Biscuit
It goes without saying I missed the breakfast item again; I was 0 for 3. But, really, this feels truer to the spirit of a Mariah Carey Christmas. She has famously claimed that she sleeps for 15 hours each night with 20 humidifiers running. I couldn’t picture the chanteuse getting up at the crack of dawn for a free biscuit. But that’s okay; this day could still be made Mariah-ful. I saw that she had a new Apple TV+ special out called Mariah’s Christmas: The Magic Continues. Her kids are cute in it, and she performs her new song “Fall in Love at Christmas” with Kirk Franklin. Then I saw Joan Didion had passed away. Joan Didion, who elevated the art of the journalistic essay. She was revolutionary in part for centering her first-person perspective in her pieces and capturing the changing mentalities and lifestyles of a generation of Americans. I write things like “The mayo tasted wet.”
Day 12: Chocolate-Chip Cookies
I spent Christmas Eve with my friend’s family. As a host gift, I had wanted to bring this Mariah Carey Milk Bar cake I had heard so much about and her Black Irish Cream liqueur that it was promoting. I spent all week popping into liquor stores in my Brooklyn neighborhood and learned the only celebrity-collaboration space more crowded than fast food … is booze. I saw Snoop Dogg’s wine and Wiz Khalifa’s gin. I knew which bus to take if I wanted to find mead brewed by a Sprouse twin. But what I couldn’t find was Mariah Carey’s Black Irish Cream. Not only that, but the cake was apparently a one-day-only event, and that day was way back in November. In lieu of McDonald’s cookies, my friend’s sister made chocolate-chip cookies from scratch. Prior to baking, she put on Mariah Carey’s “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” and proceeded to share what she called a controversial opinion about it. This, she said, is “actually Mariah’s best Christmas song,” not realizing it’s a cover of a Darlene Love song 30 years older than “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” It was a totally reasonable misunderstanding, because Mariah’s Merry Christmas album so seamlessly blends originals with covers with gospel and because by the time my friend’s sister was born, the album was already a classic. This made me think that it’s never too late to make a Christmas tradition … I just don’t think daily McDonald’s visits will be mine.
It’s been a long year of everything — fast-food celebrity collaborations inevitably included — and if this marriage of legacy artist to legacy brand taught me anything, it’s that the gimmick is stale as cold fries. Did this promotion get me to open the McDonald’s app for 12 days straight? Yes, as was surely the intended goal. But it mostly reminded me that McDonald’s’s American menu remains confoundingly boring and sparse. (There’s a reason it wasn’t Mariah’s Menu Month.) Where are the experimental limited-run items of the ’90s and 2000s? The salad shakers, the fruit-and-yogurt parfaits? In my native Canada, McDonald’s has breakfast bagels, six different types of wraps, and poutine. Where’s that variety here? Does BTS have to do everything?? McDonald’s should take a lesson from its erstwhile business partner Mariah Carey’s 2018 album Caution and proceed with none. Because the shtick is getting old and I’m running out of new things to say about the same burger. 2022 is already promising more interesting things in the ridiculous field of celeb fast foodery. Taco Bell is giving Lil Nas X a C-suite role, and KFC announced a yearlong partnership with Jack Harlow, beginning with tornado relief. Both of these seem more involved, more fun, and, hopefully, more delicious. The Industry Babies are coming.