02.23.12 6:53 AM ET
Whitney Houston’s Final Romance: Was Ray J Using Her for Reality TV?
Before her death, the diva was linked to 31-year-old Ray J, best known for a Kardashian sex tape. Ramin Setoodeh on the reality-TV show he had been shopping with footage of the couple.
Of all the details connected with Whitney Houston’s final days, this ranks among the most peculiar: she supposedly got into a fight with another woman—over Ray J.
Brandy’s little brother might not be a household name, but he starred opposite Kim Kardashian in the leaked sex tape that launched her career. He also was Houston’s last public boyfriend.
Just two days before she died, Houston reportedly got into a shouting match with Stacy Francis, a contestant on the U.S. version of The X Factor who tried to talk to Ray J at a nightclub.
“Whitney told me she had known Ray since he was 10 years old,” Francis tells The Daily Beast. “She cared about him. I think we should all respect that.” Francis wouldn’t discuss what happened that night, but she says Ray J is a pal of hers and they never dated.
Despite his reputation as a ladies’ man, Ray J still charmed Houston. According to friends, they had been casually seeing each other since her split with Bobby Brown in 2007. On paper they might seem like a strange couple. She was a 48-year-old diva and single mother. He’s the 31-year-old star of VH1’s For the Love of Ray J, a dating show that was a cross between The Bachelor and Flavor of Love.
Houston didn’t mind the R & B singer canoodling with a houseful of women, because Ray J claimed it was just for the cameras. “Ray was grounded in what was entertainment and what was reality,” says a source. “He was able to separate.”
Their families had been close for some time. Brandy, a breakout singing sensation of the 1990s (“I Wanna Be Down”), grew up worshiping Houston. She listened to the diva’s albums nonstop and watched The Bodyguard repeatedly. She finally got to work with her idol in a 1997 made-for-TV movie version of Cinderella in which Houston played the fairy godmother.
Ray J—William Ray Norwood Jr.—grew up with aspirations of becoming a minister, but settled on a career as a child actor when he was cast in The Sinbad Show at 12. He tried to distinguish himself from his sister, but continually fell in her shadow. One of his most prominent roles was as a supporting character in Brandy’s TV series Moesha. “Initially, he was always labeled as Brandy’s little brother,” says a source who knows Ray J well. “That was a pain in his you know what.”
But he was able to set himself apart with a different kind of reputation. As he entered puberty, he started surrounding himself with women. “When he was younger—13, 14, 15, 16—he was always with older women,” the source says. “The women have always liked Ray J, and Ray J has always liked the women.” He spent his 20s flitting from one beautiful woman to the next, often to the benefit of his own career.
In his book, Death of the Cheating Man: What Every Woman Must Know About Men Who Stray, released on Valentine’s Day, Ray J chronicles how Kardashian left her first husband for him in 2004. And then there is that infamous sex tape, the subject of endless conspiracy theories. His inner circle has asked the same questions the rest of us have: Do you ever wonder why the lighting was so good? Or why he was shot so generously? Then again, his entire family was mortified, says a source close to them. “I know his mom and dad and sister,” says Francis. “They are a tight family … Ray unfortunately catches a bad rap. He’s a ladies’ man, but so what? There are a lot of men in the industry that are ladies’ men. I really feel bad for him.”
If there are any holdouts for Ray J’s love, they haven’t read the 2006 book Confessions of a Video Vixen. In it, author Karrine Steffans details her passionate relationship with Ray J. “When Ray and I made love, we would go for hours on end, each hour more satisfying than the last,” Steffans wrote. “His kisses were long and his lips were full and light as they met mine … he would kiss all around my lower regions and make my body quiver. It was with Ray that I discovered my ability to orgasm without penetration or copulation.”
At the time of Houston’s divorce, Steffans tells The Daily Beast, “Bobby was crashing at my house, because he didn’t have a place to go. And Ray J called and wanted to give Bobby a message. He said something that was braggadocious, kind of in a taunting kind of way: ‘I’ve got your woman.’ It fuelled a not-so-good thing between him and Bob.”
Ray J might have appealed to Houston because he’s the anti–Bobby Brown. He’s a nurturing and protective boyfriend, and he seemed to have Houston’s best interest at heart, friends say. “Being in love with Ray J is easy,” Steffans says. “I found him very kind.” Friends say they believe Ray J and Houston loved each other, even if they didn’t have a traditional committed relationship. “He encouraged her to be all she could be, to be the Whitney that we loved,” says a source.
But others are less kind about his motives. One source points to how—just like Brown—Ray J was trying to pitch a reality TV series with him and Houston. “He was just using her like many people did, to get a deal,” the source says.
In an exclusive statement to The Daily Beast, Ray J’s publicist Courtney Barnes says: “It was his show, and they shot footage of the two of them together that appeared in the sizzle reel, which was being used to pitch the show.”
Those who know Ray J say he’s always been a hard worker when it comes to his career. He’s released five albums on independent music labels and promoted them heavily, even when it wasn’t easy. “He’s extremely dedicated to his craft,” says Paula Tuggey, a music executive who has worked on his recent albums. “I can book him from 7 a.m. until midnight. He’ll do anything that he can to get his music out there to be heard.”
On the night of Houston’s death, Ray J was in San Diego.
Steffans says she reached out to him out of concern. “I don’t think Ray is OK,” she says. “I don’t think any of us would be OK. I think Ray is going to be traumatized forever.”
“He hasn’t talked to anybody yet. He’s not ready yet,” his publicist says. Asked if he’s still shopping the reality show that includes footage of Houston, his publicist emailed back, “I don’t know.”