She was once the most graceful woman in America ... then the world watched as Whitney’s life came to a tragic end
As the documentary on singer Whitney Houston is about to be released, Barry Egan re-examines the life of a woman with the voice of an angel whose life became a drug hell
Didn’t she almost have it all? Unfortunately, in the end, life for Whitney Houston wasn’t like the one portrayed in her often beautiful, timeless songs. Sadly, the greatest modern soul singer since her godmother, Aretha Franklin, lost her very soul to drugs, to addiction. To the demons inside her head.
“She was like the black Princess Di — always in a gown; beyond gorgeous,” remarked Danyel Smith, former editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine. There is a certain truth in the comparison. Yet Princess Diana never appeared strung-out and waxy skinned on television, patently lying through her teeth about taking hardcore drugs.
“Crack is cheap,” Whitney said on ABC with Diane Sawyer in 2002. “I make too much money to ever smoke crack! Let’s get that straight, OK. We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is whack.”
Her career in free-fall long before she died in February 2012, Whitney was her own worst enemy, possibly because she seemed without real friends and was, for a time, trapped in a toxic marriage held together by crack. By her own admission, Whitney spent seven months living in her pyjamas in her drug den-cum-mansion with husband Bobby Brown, smoking crack.
When she ill-advisedly appeared on her husband’s reality TV show Being Bobby Brown in 2005, the reaction was as cruel as it was truthful: “Laugh at these strung-out has-beens who can’t help but degrade what’s left of their image by talking about their bowel movements on camera,” wrote one critic.
The singer, who was once the most graceful woman in America had become a figure of moral squalor, a virtual junkie one last high away from the grave. And so it proved. Whitney Houston’s death on February 11, 2012 — drowned in the bath of suite 434 at The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills — was a tragedy the whole world saw coming. Yet no one shouted stop.
The seedy end to Whitney’s life seemed to belie the lyric from one of her most famous songs: “No matter what they take from me,” goes the searching line from Greatest Love of All, “they can’t take away my dignity’’.
(The circumstances of her death were to prove ghoulishly similar to those surrounding her only daughter’s death: 22-year-old Bobbi Kristina was found unconscious in a bath on January 31, 2015, in Georgia, and placed in a medically-induced coma, only to die six months later.)
The amount of cocaine in Whitney’s system, as well as Champagne, marijuana, the muscle relaxant Flexeril, the allergy medication Benadryl and Xanax, secured her untimely and messy demise.
The star’s former chauffeur claimed that Whitney smoked crack in the back of a limo as her six or seven-year-old daughter sat next to her playing with a doll, with Whitney telling her that mama was “doing adult things”. Doing adult things cost Whitney her career and, most tragically, her life — and every cent she ever earned, if The Sun’s front page the week after she died was any indication: “£100m diva Whitney Houston blew fortune on crack: Star got addicted to drug and died broke.”
Born on August 9, 1963 in New Jersey, Whitney Elizabeth Houston first started singing in public at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark where her semi-legendary mother Cissy was the choirmaster. Whitney’s cousin was Dionne Warwick, so the young star in the making had good genes. As subsequent events were to prove.
The 19-year-old Whitney was spotted in a nightclub by Clive Davis of Arista Records, who signed her and turned her into a superstar in 1985 with the release of her game-changing debut album Whitney Houston. The girl from New Jersey would go on to sell more than 200 million albums worldwide and have 11 Number 1 songs in practically every country on the planet. I Will Always Love You was top of the charts in America for 14 weeks. Whitney’s vocal style would influence female stars as diverse as Mariah Carey, Rihanna and Beyonce.
Yet when she died the headlines around the world were unforgiving for an icon who was not yet cold in her bath, never mind her grave. They ranged from ‘Whitney’s Death Bath’ to ‘She Could Have Been Saved’ and ‘The Devil’s in the Diva’.
That last headline was possibly the closest to explaining what brought the singer with the voice of an angel to such a self-destructive place of personal hell. Whitney was herself, she told Diane Sawyer in that (in)famous interview, “the biggest devil” that she had to face. “I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy,” she added. “And that’s how I have to deal with it.”
Her last studio album in 2009, I Look to You, had the classic song I Didn’t Know My Own Strength in which Whitney sang as if it was a private hymn about her own redemption. It was a redemption she was never to attain.
“I crashed down and I tumbled,” sang Whitney, “but I did not crumble/I got through all the pain.”
Some black critics accused Whitney of selling out for a sound more palatable to a mainstream white audience.
There are theories that this played a part in Whitney marrying a druggie bad-boy rapper with severe law enforcement and reputational problems on July 18, 1992, in front of 800 people at her New Jersey mansion. Marriage to Brown was Houston’s way of saying to her detractors that she was not some homogenised superstar. It was as if she was saying to those who called her an Oreo cookie (black on the outside and white on the inside) and booed her at the Soul Train Music Awards in 1988 in LA for not being black enough, that by marrying this crazy addict she was black enough.
Their marriage appeared to go downhill faster than a derailed soul train from the beginning — her career and reputation along with it. In 1994, she was two hours late to a White House state dinner. Whitney was scheduled to perform for Nelson Mandela. By 1996, as she told Oprah in 2009: “I was losing myself.”
Was Whitney’s terminal loss of self because she was married to a man she ultimately didn’t love?; because she had to hide her true sexuality (from the beginning of her career, there were rumours she was a lesbian)?; because she was making pop music that the black music establishment derided?; or was it just because she had degenerated into a borderline crack addict whose famous singing voice was wrecked beyond repair or recognition? Possibly all four.
The once wholesome star with the strong work ethic cancelled five concerts in 1999. A year later she was arrested with half-an-ounce of marijuana boarding her private plane at the Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, airport. She was billed to sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow at the Oscars in 2000. Whitney was so all over the shop at rehearsals that she was withdrawn from the show by the producers at the 11th hour. There were reports that her husband was sitting in the front row, drunk, with a coat over his head.
“You know, Bobby and I basically come from the same place,” Whitney, standing by her man, told Rolling Stone in 1993. “You see somebody, and you deal with their image, that’s their image. It’s part of them, it’s not the whole picture. I am not always in a sequinned gown. I am nobody’s angel.” A toxic marriage to Brown, which in turn became a toxic life, didn’t help the star much. But it was, of course, much more than that. Tragic deaths like Whitney’s are often far more complicated than the headlines they leave behind.
In February 2012, Whitney, who was out of rehab for the umpteenth time, had a week to kill herself with drugs and drink and pills in La La Land — she was in LA for a week in advance of the Grammys — effectively on her own. One eye-witness at an LA club reported that Whitney drank copious cognac and Champagne “and seemed completely out of it from the moment she arrived until the moment she left at 2.30am”. Another eye-witness claimed that the superstar “seemed almost manic at moments and practically unconscious the next”.
There were also reports of Whitney doing handstands by the hotel pool, and giving out to the bemused staff in a five-star hotel about watered-down drinks in the establishment’s bar. That said, her death prompted an outpouring of emotional tributes from around the world. “Mine is only one of millions of hearts broken over the death of Whitney Houston,” said Dolly Parton. “I can truly say from the bottom of my heart, “Whitney, I will always love you. You will be missed.” (Whitney had a worldwide hit with I Will Always Love You — for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, which Whitney starred in opposite Kevin Costner — the song which Dolly Parton wrote and recorded way back in 1973.)
“Heartbroken, and in tears over the shocking death of my friend, the incomparable Ms Whitney Houston,” Mariah Carey, who recorded the duet When You Believe with Houston in 1998, wrote on Twitter. “She will never be forgotten as one of the greatest voices to ever grace the earth.”
It is a real tragedy that Whitney, who was human after all and felt pain and hurt like the rest of us, never got to hear words of warmth and kindness like these in her final years. As author Elizabeth Wurtzel put it in The Atlantic: “Think of Whitney in the moments before she died, having no idea she would be remembered so gloriously.”
Feted documentary maker Nick Broomfield’s new film, Whitney: Can I Be Me attempts to delve into the humanity of the troubled legend. “We very consciously wanted to make a film that redressed the history of Whitney,” he said. “No-one’s pretending she didn’t have a drug problem, but as a reminder as a kind of person she was. I think she was judged so harshly and mocked. In earlier cuts, we had a lot of Letterman and Leno jokes in, and other lesser known talk-show hosts.
“They really just wiped the floor with her and everyone laughed. I think it must have been devastating to Whitney. I think a lot of our motivation was to try to come up with her humanity.
“She also had the misfortune of dragging around these lesser human beings who were living off her and managed to get through her money. I don’t think she got through her money, I think they got through her money and are kind of trying to continue to do so,” he added.
In his film, Broomfield also discusses Whitney’s alleged bisexuality and her rumoured life-long affair with her best friend and assistant Robyn Crawford (they met as teenagers in 1979 at a community centre in East Orange, New Jersey). It is claimed that, on the day of Whitney’s marriage to Brown, Whitney bought Robyn a state-of-the-art new Porsche out of the blue to stop any mood-swings from her alleged long-term partner.
“With the weird blend of investment and helplessness that typifies kin,” wrote Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker magazine, “we’ve watched Whitney Houston die in front of us, slowly and unmistakably, for more than a decade.
Now that she is dead at the age of 48, we face a new and weirder blend: the grief you feel for someone you didn’t really know but are unable to pretend you weren’t tied to, and the awkward truth that they’ve met the end you expected. Do we shrug, and walk away, humbled by the brutality of the body’s chemistry? Do we wag our fingers even harder at our kids, as if we can somehow scare their brains into being 2.0 brains? Considering how many times Houston confronted her own addiction in public, her end confirms that the pull of addiction can be stronger than the pull of dignity.”
Perhaps in the end Whitney Houston — like all of us — just wanted to dance with somebody who loved her.