When the unrelenting pressures of celebrity turned our platinum princess into the prodigal daughter, she sought redemption, with the help from family, friends and faith in the Lord.
By Isabel Wilkerson
So there she is, the so-called fallen Diva, leaning on a balcony outside a hotel suite, shaking a copper fountain of curls from her eyes, the hairstylist spritzing an errant bang, the photographer reloading his camera, the Yorkshire terrier skittering at the makeup artist's feet, the towel-wrapped daughter just in from a swim in the pool, and a dozen or so other people somehow associated with the whole enterprise of taking a Diva's photograph craning to glimpse her face. The sun is setting orange behind her as if on cue, and there's just too much Prada and Gucci to mention, which is all very Hollywood, except this is Miami, one of Whitney Houston's favorite cities in the whole world, and she's the center of attention in this klieg light of a life she's in.
Hard to believe - Whitney turns 40 next month and has been recording for nearly 20 years. It's a lonely, hard road - this gigging and recording and trying to stay on top in a business in which people are always looking for the next new thing - and drink, drugs, depression and unworthy men seem to be occupational hazards. Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole and Diana Ross all dealt with one thing or the other.
"It takes you away from what's real," Whitney tells me later, "like the simple things in life, like your kids and family. You become this one person in a bubble by yourself. All you think of in that bubble is you, you, you. But it's not just about you alone. It's about so many other people, and you separate yourself from that and put yourself on the outside and sacrifice yourself. But then you feel good about it if you sacrifice for the right reasons."
A Time of Transition
For now we're at the photo shoot. She swings her head back and spreads her arms wide and turns on her famous smile like a light switch to the machine-gun click of the camera. "Gorgeous," the photographer says. "Beautiful." And all the while she's singing to herself, not "I Will Always Love You" or some other standard you could sing in your sleep, but a new one you haven't heard. "Take me aw-a-a-ay," she sings over and over again, as if looking for an escape from the craziness that seems to hang over her like a head cold. She's coming off a rough couple of years you wouldn't wish on anyone - from the break with her Svengali, former Arista Records head Clive Davis, to the death of her father, to rumors of her own death, to the tabloid headlines about her and husband Bobby Brown.
In a few hours, she is scheduled to sit for her first major interview since ABC's Primetime "crack is whack" standoff with Diane Sawyer last December. There is a palpable sense of wariness and skepticism among Whitney's aides about the very idea of another one-on-one. She is considered a notoriously difficult interview, tight with the info, sweet one second, street the next, ready to curse you out or cut you off in a Newark minute, and go silent or walk out if she doesn't like the sound of a question.
"I hope you're not gonna ask the same old tired questions," the hairstylist says between outfit changes, "like about her and Bobby and why she's still with him and all that," which, of course, anybody would ask if they got the chance.
"Whatever you have to ask, ask it early," her publicist warns. "She doesn't enjoy talking about herself."
"Order her some Bud," the hairstylist offers. "She likes Bud. Regular Bud."
The photo session is in full swing. The hair, the face, the light, everything is golden. She vamps and coos and then is swept into a back room to change into the next fab outfit, assistants fluttering on every side of her. The front room, where the hor d-oeuvres and bottled water and assorted relatives and bodyguards are, goes dim. Everyone is restless for her return. There's a rustle at the door and she emerges again.
"Celebrity on deck!" someone calls out good-naturedly, and she stands there taller than just about any woman in the room, as a swirl of fabric is adjusted over a shoulder and - we might as well get this out of the way - you realize she's not the skin and bones you saw on that Michael Jackson special. But she's thin, model-thin, somewhere between, say, Naomi Campbell and Diana Ross in her prime. You're relieved to see her looking healthy and can only wish you had that kind of metabolism.
The photo session winds down. Hugs and smiles all around. The sun is gone. It is dark outside now. Soon we're in another suite, bottles of Budweiser set out for her, some Merlot for me. She curls up in a leather wing chair. The Divas silk and stilettos are gone. She's in a white undershirt and black jogging pants and flip-flops. We start talking about marriage and how in the world hers has stayed together, about the losses of the past year, about the pressure of being Whitney and about her transition - a word she uses a lot lately - from drugs, from recklessness and messed-up priorities, and from a career that was once tightly scripted to one in which she is out there on her own. And you realize that she is quite capable of being funny and endearing and, contrary to the notorious broadcast interviews in which the purported ice princess comes off sounding like a longshoreman, she can get through a sentence without being bleeped. The interview stretches beyond the allotted hour before the publicist cuts us off. The whole time she props her feet up on the chair, her voice sweet and raspy from the Newports, she talks like a girl you could have known in high school - the glamorous one who didn't have to try too hard - and sips a glass of Merlot. Never touches the Bud.
Princess From The 'Hood
Who is this woman who has sung the sound track of our lives, the songs that won't leave your head, whom we know - or think we know - more about than some people in our own families? She arrived in the mousse-and-lip-gloss eighties, holding her notes forever and looking like the dolled-up cousin would could eat all the Doritos she wanted and never gain an ounce. It turned out she wasn't just some little girl trying to sing. The pipes had a pedigree too perfect for words - Cissy Houston's daughter, Dionne Warwick's cousin, Aretha Franklin's godchild. Even the name was anglelike, all soft and feathery. It almost sounded made up. (Little could Cissy have known that her little girl would become so much more famous than Whitney Blake, the sitcom actress she was named for, that nobody would remember the original.)
But Whitney says all the brilliant packaging keeps people from seeing who she really is. "It builds up a myth about you," she says. "It makes people feel like they can't touch you."
Her early coronation confounded her. "There was more expected of me than I expected of myself," she says. "Clive had the whole campaign - 'She's got to, she's the one.' And I would ride down the street and see these signs and go, Who are they taking about?"
Only after her image had been crystallized on VH1 did we first hear her speak and begin to see that under the charm-school veneer she was a round-the-way girl. If you were among those who had bought into the myth, seeing the real Whitney was jarring. But she reminds me that growing up in Newark meant negotiating the projects and the sad streets all around her, no matter who her relatives were. That may explain the great disconnect - outsiders wondering how in the world she ended up with Bobby Brown while it seems to make all the sense in the world to her. Would anyone bother to give it a second thought if she were some female rapper with an in-and-out-of-jail husband, instead of our dear Whitney? To her, it's as if people put her on a pedestal and got mad when she wanted to get off.
"It's like they expected me to do something very different," she says. "I was supposed to marry the White guy. I was a Black woman-princess-queen kind of figure, all that madness. But I can wear a gown as well as I can wear jeans and boots or sneakers. I think they just had me a little wrong."
Scroll back to the mid-eighties, shortly before Whitney and Bobby met. Whitney Houston was a fresh new face with a promising future ahead of her. Bobby Brown was a veteran of New Edition, the Jackson 5 of his generation. He was just establishing a solo career - "My Prerogative" and all of that - and was, dare we say it, considered a catch.
They met in 1989 at the Soul Train Music Awards. "He had on this cream outfit," she says, "jersey silk. Never forget it. Cream derby and the flyest 'gator shoes. And he just came on stage, and I looked at him. And I was like, This is a thoroughbred right here. He's a real kind of guy, the most real I've ever seen of anybody in the music industry. He was able to talk to me and to be cool and be himself. He was a star long before I as a star."
She takes another drag on a Newport.
"It'll be 11 years this year," she says. She laughs to herself. "They didn't give us ten minutes." She pauses. "We work. I don't know how we do it, but we work. When we fight, we fight. But when we work, we work it - really good love, good love."
For Better, For Worse
"Many people say that you're like the princess and the bad boy," I say, and Whitney laughs. "I'm pretty bad myself," she says. "Bobby's not bad by himself, trust me. I'm just more quiet than Bobby."
When they make the news, though, she's usually at his side and he's rushed to a hospital emergency room for reported heat exhaustion or to a court for yet another appearance before a judge - the last time in DeKalb County, Georgia last fall. "You know," I say to her, "it's been so long I've forgotten what he was in court for. Was it speeding?"
"We thought he must have murdered somebody," Whitney says. "It was like he was a murderer. I was going, 'All he got was a ticket.' They make it into a public spectacle because it makes them look good."
"Do you think part of the problem is that he's your husband?" I ask.
"Of course I do," she says. "They don't understand it. They don't know that we don't entertain 24-7, that we go home, we brush our teeth and go to bed and get up with bad breath and stuff like that. They don't realize that it's about two people who love each other. As long as I can be with Bobby and he's with me, none of that matters."
"What was the most difficult time in your marriage?" I ask her.
"Probably the second or third year," she says, which would make it the mid-nineties, when she was doing a string of movies and he was in and out of the tabloids. "It was a rough, rough time. You know, you get through the first year, it's like honeymoon time. The second year you start to really some some s--- and learn from it. The third year you go, 'Oh, who the hell are you?' So you find out about the person, you start to really get into him, start to know him. Third year, fourth year, fifth, sixth, seventh are trying times. After seven years, you're home free; you're riding after seven. You make it to seven, you're cool."
"So what do you think has kept you together?" I ask.
"God, definitely God," she says. "I don't care what we're going through, whatever it is, I always turn to God. I pray, 'Please help us, please, just give us strength to bear this weight and to overcome it.' "
She says they've gotten to the point where all they can do is laugh at what people say about them. "All the talk made us closer," she says. "It didn't push us farther apart. We look at the TV and go, 'Hey, look at that. Oh, that's funny.' As a matter of fact, we're going to make a parody of it pretty soon."
Their daughter, Bobbi Kristina - Krissy, they call her - also helps keep them tight. Back at the photo shoot, when a gaggle of 10-year-old girls romped into the suite from the pool, it was easy to tell which one was Krissy. She was the quiet one who looks just like Bobby and who Whitney says can already sing. An 18-year-old niece also lives with them, and come summer and Christmas vacation, Whitney plays mom to two of Bobby's children from Boston, LaPrincia, 13 and Robert, 11 - bringing her brood to four. "They make my life," she says. "They teach me to be unselfish, not so self-centered. I jump on the trampoline with them, do flips in the backyard, skate. It's fun."
She's not your average mom. "I know who's singing what," she says. "I know the music on the radio. I'm a very cool mom. I can dance the little dances. But there's a side to me that Krissy understands is her mother. There's nothing that she could ask us for, not the slightest thing, that I would not try to give her."
She wants things to be different for her daughter. "I spent all my twenties making music, doing gigs and videos and movies," she says. "By the time I got to be 28, I was crazy. I did that and had fun. I know what that's all about. I can definitely tell Krissy, 'This is what you don't do.' "
A Wake-Up Call
From the outside looking in, it seems Whitney's always the one saving Bobby. She says it's the other way around sometimes. She says he was the one who encouraged her to do The Bodyguard and to stick with it when she doubted herself, so people wouldn't blame him if she didn't go through with it. He's the one who cooks, since she can't, the one who can tell her she sounds good when she thinks she doesn't, and she believes him. And he was the one who broke the news to her last February that her father had died.
She happened to be in Miami and had just come back from a studio session with Missy Elliott. "I got home and Bobby was standing in the door looking at me," she says, her voice growing low and serious. "And I looked at him. And he said, "That's it. Pop-pop is gone.' I just, my knees buckled and I just said, 'What?' I didn't know what to do. I started to run, you know. And grabbed me and he held me in his arms and he said, 'It's okay, it's okay. I'm here. Pop-pop may not be here. But I'm here.' "
She pauses. "Bobby was with me, thank God. Yes, thank God."
"Where is Bobby right now?" I ask.
"He's in L.A. doing a movie called Nora's Hair Salon," she says proudly. "He's very good. He just finished a movie called Roses and Guns. He plays the guy who comes to take over the town. He's the villain. I'm talking about a fantastic performance. He likes to act, that's his thing. Me, I'm a singer-actress. I sing. I can act, but I sing. That's my gig. That's what I love to do."
In the early and mid-nineties, the world belonged to Whitney. For a time, she owned the Billboard and box-office charts. But the past two years have been her most difficult. She broke with Clive Davis, the man who masterminded her career. Davis left Arista but she stayed. A legendary partnership had ended. She was on her own for the first time in her career and scared, trying to put together her first album in four years. Bobby was in and out of court, and her father was ailing. With all the pressures and temptations of the business, she fell into drug abuse, and she lost weight. "I was shut down. I was literally shut down because I was in a transition from Clive, making all these changes, and I felt like I was dangling from a string and going, 'Hey, somebody save me.' Clive was my man for all those years. Where was I going? It frightened me. It frightens me."
At one point, her mother stepped in. " 'We will quit this business if that's what it takes,' " Whitney remembers Cissy saying. " 'We'll give a press conference, and we'll resign if that's what it takes to snatch you back.' "
Whitney rebelled. "No," she remembers telling her mother. "I will take Krissy, and we will go away to Brazil."
"Then God woke me up."
The Resurrection of Whitney
Other celebrities go to Betty Ford. Whitney went to Pebbles. Pebbles was the Barbie-doll-beautiful R&B singer who hit it big in the late eighties, married uberproducer L.A. Reid and founded TLC before the whole thing imploded. All at once, the marriage ended, the group turned on her, her music career was waning, and she found herself at one of the lowest points in her life. Her friend Whitney helped her to pick herself up back then, and now Pebbles, who goes by her married name, Perri Reid, is an ordained minister in Atlanta who has put aside the entertainment business. She says God speaks to her and guides her. On a recent night, Sister Perri was in a humble ware-house quoting Ezekiel, spraying holy oil and laying hands on a hundred or so people who fell to the floor at her touch.
Nearly two years ago, something told Whitney to go to Atlanta and visit Perri. "Listen," Whitney told her, "you got to help me. I'm losing it here."
Perri said, "I know what to do."
Whitney brought Bobby and Krissy with her, and they stayed in Perri's mansion with the big white columns and the angel statue out front for what turned out to be six or seven months, with Whitney sometimes showing up at Perri's little church looking for blessings like everyone else.
"She took me under her wing," Whitney says. "I stayed in one room, and she took me through a transition of deliverance and prayer, constant in my case. You need somebody to give you tough love, people to remind you that you are a child of God and you don't belong to the devil."
In her church, Sister Perri is a no-nonsense, chignon-wearing taskmaster, and at home, she laid down the rules and got right to work on Whitney. " 'This is a battle; " Whitney remember Perri telling her. " 'This is a tough one. I know it is. But we're going to make it. ' "
The two of them came into the business back in the eighties around the same time as Sade and Anita Baker, women whose careers and lives went in different directions, some of them cutting back on the gigging so they could focus on family. "It's what they wanted to do," Whitney says.
"Do you look at that and say, 'What would have happened if I'd done that?' "I ask.
"I could not have stopped," she says. "Not at the height I was at. If I'd stopped at, say, the second album, what would have happened? I couldn't be like the others, because my career was larger; I gad to keep going. If every time you come out with a record, you make it a best-seller in two weeks, you don't stop, You're on a roll and you've got to keep rolling."
"On the other hand, there's a price you pay," I say.
"Right," she says. "I know what it's about. I'm fine with that."
There's a knock on the door. The publicist comes in to say we're out of time and to take her from the bubble of unreality known as interview. I ask Whitney where she sees herself years down the road. "I'm going to be on a porch somewhere rocking with my husband and my grandchildren," she answers. "That's what I see. I don't see me in the studio making records. Or movies. I see me being myself, relaxing without anybody watching me, looking at me, seeing what I'm doing."
Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson is on leave from The New York Times. She is completing a book about the migration of Blacks from the South to the North.
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