Long Way Down
Whitney’s Road to Ruin
Her pop songs made her a superstar. But she realized she wanted something else. Jacob Bernstein reports.
Just days before her death, Whitney Houston had been talking with her mentor Clive Davis about how she needed to take better care of herself. She was saying that she was ready to go again, that she wanted to be the kind of singer she once was. And he was telling her how crucial it was that she quit smoking, how it was destroying her once formidable pipes.
Still, it was kind and friendly, as their relationship usually was.
“He was the Jewish uncle in a sea of lunatics,” says one source, a musical label executive.
“Her father figure,” says another, a confidante in the entertainment business.
That she loved him, and that he loved her, was undeniable. But their relationship was also complicated, perhaps more complicated than either cared to admit. He discovered her when she was just a teenager, and though she immediately became his favorite singer, his pride and joy, she grew resentful of what Time magazine described as her “prom queen of soul” image, the angelic black girl packaged and sold for the consumption of white people. An image he of course helped to mastermind.
He, meanwhile, grew tired of the lying, the dissembling, which she did constantly.
He gave her everything: enormous amounts of money, endless emotional support.
It was never enough.
“You can’t imagine how many times he tried to get her to go to rehab,” says the music label executive.
“He was certainly not kidding himself about the nature of her issues,” says the other source. “But you can’t help someone who won’t help herself.”
Whitney Houston was born in Newark, N.J., the daughter of Cissy Houston, a well-known gospel and R&B backup singer. As a teenager, Houston assisted Chaka Khan on “Papillon (Hot Butterfly)” and “I’m Every Woman” (which she later went on to cover.) Soon after, she was discovered by Davis, whose most prodigious ability at Arista Records was taking great soul singers and marketing them to a broader (read: whiter) audience. That’s what he’d recently done with her godmother, Aretha Franklin after she moved over from Atlantic.
“The Greatest Love of All,” “How Will I Know,” and “Saving All My Love For You,” Houston’s first three big songs, brought her success on a massive scale. But they weren’t what she saw herself as being about. Over the next decade and a half, she became increasingly obsessed with shredding her image. Being a frustrated celebrity didn’t cause her to become a drug addict, but it did play into her sense of isolation, the perennial chip on her famous shoulders, and a belief that no one understood who she actually was, including many of the people making heaps of money off her.
“She wanted to be more than a voice. She wanted to be flesh and blood and real,” says Debra Martin Chase, Houston’s producing partner on The Preacher’s Wife and Sparkle, the film Houston recently completed that’s scheduled to be released in August. “She was put on a pedestal as a teenager and packaged and tressed and coiffed and told what to do and where to go and how she should be. She didn’t have the same experiences other people had. She didn’t get to hang out and go to parties and have bad relationships. She didn’t have time to figure out who she wanted to be on her own.”
Concurs Lois Smith, who worked as Houston’s publicist for much of the '90s: “Once you’re exposed to all that goes with this life, this fame, it’s hard to deal with. I think she would have been happier singing in a church. That music was extremely important to her, and I’m not sure those No. 1 hits she had for Clive were what she had in mind. But it was hard for me to figure out, because I’m white, and the ones who were the closest to her were all black. We got along great, but there was always that separation.”
Houston pretended not to let her wholesome image bother her, but clearly it did. Any way you cut it, being called ‘White-ney' (as her detractors referred to her) could not have felt good. “I am not always in a sequined gown. I am nobody’s angel. I can get down-and-dirty. I can get raunchy,” she said in a 1993 interview with Rolling Stone.
Some saw her marriage to Bobby Brown was an act of defiance, a way to break from her black-Barbie narrative. And he could certainly understand her struggle, having been the black-sheep of a teen-pop group, a bad-boy outcast who wanted nothing more than to re-write the script. “This was a woman who loved Bobby Brown and wanted to be with him,” says the music-label executive. “He was the most compelling reality show in the history of television, a train wreck of epic proportions, and he was what she most wanted. She wasn’t like Diana Ross or Beyoncé. She was ghetto-y and street-trashy. It was always amazing how she pulled herself together. You’d see her at a party and she looked amazing. And then this other side came out of her that was crack-cheap.”
In 1998 Houston released My Love Is Your Love, and chocked it full of edgy collaborations with R&B producers like Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Missy Elliott, and Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill of the Fugees. The album, by far her most interesting artistically, got solid reviews. But it underperformed commercially, at least compared with the soundtrack of her blockbuster movie The Bodyguard, which contained her chart-busting rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” On songs like “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay,” she sang of a tempestuous relationship that strongly resembled the one she had with Brown. On “In My Business,” she railed against the media and everything they said about her husband. (Indeed, the inconsistency between singing a song that seemed to defend Brown, while singing another calling her man out as a two-timing thug, was perhaps illustrative of how conflicted she was about the man she’d married.)
“My Love Is Your Love was the turning point,” says Chase. “It was where she found her voice. It was the album she was more connected to personally.”
Unfortunately, the release of My Love Is Your Love coincided with an increasingly tumultuous life offstage. Stories began to circulate about Houston showing up hours late for video shoots, or missing them entirely. An appearance on the Rosie O’Donnell Show was canceled just moments before it was to occur. “She would fall out of a gig and say she couldn’t sing in the dry weather because it closes up her throat,” recalls Smith. “There was a lot of that.”
Still, Arista gave Houston a $100 million contract in 2001—at the time, the most lucrative deal ever done with a female artist—just as she seemed to be hitting rock bottom. She’d recently been caught in an airport smuggling dope, although charges were later dropped. Soon after that, she failed to show up for Davis’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Just weeks later, she got fired from an Academy Awards show by musical director Burt Bacharach.
Then came the disastrous interview with Diane Sawyer for ABC News in 2002, the one where Houston conceded that she liked “to party” but said she wouldn’t smoke crack because “crack is whack,” a drug for “poor people.”
Another source in the music business describes Davis's and Houston’s relationship this way: “He was very protective of her. He was trying to stay relevant and it was hard to believe she wasn’t his best asset. There’re a lot of reinventions. It’s an industry of people who all believe in comebacks—Mariah Carey being the best example. Everyone wants to believe in redemption, and so when word went out that she’s clean, everyone wanted to believe it.”
It was the flashing promise of sobriety that became a source of unrealistic expectations in 2009, according to one music-business source who worked with Houston for many years. At that time, the label trotted Houston out for yet another comeback album, I Look to You. “Everyone was trying to keep her together, but she wasn’t really sober,” this person says. Aside from brief periods of abstinence, this person says, “she hadn’t really been sober in many, many years.”
As part of the press tour, Houston went on Good Morning America, where she performed a mini-concert in Central Park. It was horrible to watch, Houston failing to hit the notes throughout her set, and Robin Roberts and Diane Sawyer standing at the other end of the stage looking uncomfortable.
The only saving grace was that Houston looked fantastic, which was one of the things that made addressing her addiction so tricky for friends and colleagues. “Every time I saw her, she looked great,” says Marvet Britto, a PR maven and brand expert in the hip-hop and R&B world and a friend of Houston’s for two decades. “She always looked amazing. That’s why it’s hard to judge just by looking at someone what’s really going on.”
Also, Houston’s handlers were smart enough to make sure the Good Morning America appearance wasn’t done live, enabling ABC to go back and clean up her vocal track so that when the show finally aired, it would be less embarrassing.
In 2010, while Houston was in the middle of yet another nasty relapse, according to the music-business source, plans were announced for her to go on tour in support of I Look to You. “The tour in Europe was done purely for money,” says the source. “She had no business being on the road singing, but she was being forced to go out because the family needed money.”
Reports were breaking that Houston was broke. “It wasn’t broke like food stamps and welfare,” the source says, “but she’d plowed through a lot of money. She had a crazy number of people on the payroll.”
Her brother Michael was actually arrested in 2005 for possession of cocaine and marijuana, the same drugs his sister loved to mix. Her half-brother Gary, a singer who never achieved much success, changed his last name from Garland to Houston after Whitney became a superstar. Both spent years collecting checks from their famous sister, as did numerous other family members.
Even Dionne Warwick, by far Houston’s most successful relative, has had numerous scrapes. In 2002, she was caught in an airport smuggling marijuana. Currently, she owes $2 million in back taxes, according to the New York Daily News.
Speaking about Houston’s 2010 tour, the music-industry source says: “The first performance [in Brisbane, Australia] was a disaster. People were asking for refunds because she wasn’t even singing. She was talking through the songs. It was a mess. And in the digital age, once it’s up on the Internet you can’t take it back.” Eventually, promoters were forced to cancel a slew of dates, and Houston returned to relative seclusion.
In recent weeks, there were reports she was back with Ray-J, the party-boy brother of R&B singer Brandy, whom she’s dated on and off since 2006. “I’d see her on the blogs with the people she was hanging around in the end, going to nightclubs with Ray-J, and I’d just go, ‘What?!’” says an estranged friend. “She should have been around positive people. It was such a difference in age. What could he be teaching her, given her drug issues? What kind of knowledge does he have? How could he be bettering her? It’s not that he’s a bad person, but he’s a little young to be hanging with Whitney Houston.”
Some wonder if part of what tortured Houston for so long was a sexuality she hadn’t dealt with. Before she’d met Brown, her close relationship with her former assistant Robyn Crawford had sparked reports that Houston was playing for the other team. Though she publicly denied being a lesbian, even some of her business associates were not so convinced. “I think that’s part of her torture. I think she lived her life in the closet, and that was part of the demons,” says the music-industry source who worked with her for many years. (Houston repeatedly denied being a lesbian when asked about it in interviews. After Houston’s death, Crawford told Esquire: “I have never spoken about her until now. And she knew I wouldn’t. She was a loyal friend, and she knew I was never going to be disloyal to her.”)
But Houston’s estranged friend is unconvinced by the lesbian rumors, as well as the dominant media narrative of Houston as an unwitting victim of her ex-husband. “They were like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It was a real love-hate relationship. I hate when people blame Bobby for her drug use. He had his drug use and she had hers. They got divorced years ago and she had all the opportunities in the world to get herself together and didn’t. I actually think part of the reason they broke up was that he was trying to get clean.” Chase agrees with at least part of that assessment. “They were two adults. Nobody forced anybody to do anything.”
If Houston was difficult to reach, that’s because she’d amassed an army of people to tell her what she wanted to hear. She could be extremely belligerent, like the time she wagged her finger in Kathy Griffin’s face and told her to stop talking smack about her. Griffin later said it was the only time she ever saw a finger sweating. Another time, she gave Rosie O’Donnell the finger. Two nights before her death, Houston reportedly got in a brawl at an L.A. nightclub with a reality-TV personality, and she left with blood dripping down her leg, her daughter Bobbi Kristina in tow.
“I think she was constantly trying to be more ghetto than she was,” says another music-industry source. “In some way, it was a compensatory response to having been this black girl—perhaps the first black girl—who from the get-go was designed for the consumption of white people. She was made and sold to be this pop thing, and I think it ate away at her. It was true in her choice of Bobby Brown. She chose to go with someone who also was trying to be a G and to have this street cred. They were making a distinct grab for something.”
In the end, she seemed to have finally gotten her street cred, at the worst possible cost.
On Saturday, at the age of 48, Houston was found dead in her hotel room at the Beverly Hilton.
Davis, although broken-hearted, kept going, as he always had, decked out in his fancy tuxedo at his lustrous Grammy Party, the one Houston would have been at that evening had she not died in her bathtub upstairs surrounded by prescription drugs and alcohol.
“Whitney would have wanted the music to go on,” he told the crowd, which included a slew of celebrities who’d basically replaced his former protege as she descended into the abyss of drug addiction.