Inside the Lifetime Whitney Houston Movie’s Lesbian Lover Storyline

Before Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston was in a rumored relationship with friend Robyn Crawford. Yolonda Ross, who plays Crawford in ‘Whitney,’ breaks down the supposed love story.

Jack Zema/Lifetime

When Lifetime announced that it was commissioning a made-for-TV biopic on the world’s most beloved, most tragic pop supernova, Whitney Houston, there were many questions. Many very pressing questions.

Who will play Whitney? How much will they show of her drug addiction? Will she proclaim that “crack is whack”? Will there be “doodie bubbles”? And will it tackle Whitney’s childhood best friend turned rumored lesbian lover?

Wait—what? You weren’t aware of Houston’s whispered about love affair with her friend and former personal assistant Robyn Crawford? Well, join the club. And then watch Whitney when it airs on Lifetime on January 17.

“It’s interesting how that, which was a thing that was actually written in the press at one time, was squashed and brushed away when all the other stuff happened in her life later,” says Yolonda Ross, the actress (Antwone Fisher, upcoming Lila and Eve) who portrays Robyn Crawford in the Lifetime film.

It is truly astonishing that, in a culture that thrives on such scandal, a story like this about one of the most famous celebrities and biggest sources of tabloid fodder of all time managed to bubble under the surface for decades. But rumors of a romantic relationship between Houston and Crawford were, at one time, actually documented.

In fact, as Tricia Romano detailed in The Daily Beast at the time of Houston’s death, the rumors were so loud in the late ‘80s that Houston was forced to address them in interviews. She told TIME magazine in 1987 that Crawford was the “sister I never had.”

Pressed for further comment, Houston’s explanation of her relationship with Crawford was actually remarkably forward-thinking for the time: “People see Robyn with me, and they draw their own conclusions. Anyway, whose business is it if you’re gay or like dogs? What others do shouldn’t matter. Let people talk. It doesn’t bother me because I know I’m not gay. I don’t care.”

Still, gossip writers insist that the rumors were true. “Anybody who works in the recording industry knows about Whitney and Robyn’s relationship; they barely did anything to hide it during recording sessions,” wrote blogger Daryl Deino in 2009. Gay activist Peter Tatchell has theorized that Houston broke up with Crawford and married Bobby Brown in order to quell the gay rumors, even insisting that it was the heartbreak over ending the relationship with Crawford that sent Houston to addiction—not Brown’s influence.

Over the years, Crawford has been largely silent, speaking out only for an as-told-to obituary to Houston published in Esquire. She said, “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. I was never going to betray her.”

Lifetime’s Whitney movie doesn’t overtly portray Houston and Crawford’s as a romantic one, but it certainly hints at it—and that innuendo is certainly one of the juiciest elements of the film. Ross, who claims to have heard those rumors back when they were going on in the ‘80s and ‘90s, said that playing that mystery was part of the challenge of filming Whitney.

And while the telepic doesn’t premiere for a few more weeks, there’s really no better way to spend the slog of time leading up to the holidays than dishing about Whitney Houston’s rumored lesbian love story. And who better to do that with than the actress who is playing the object of said (alleged) lesbian affection in the flick?

I have to confess, I had no idea that Whitney had a rumored gay lover before reading about your role in this movie. No clue!

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Really?! That’s funny. I was here in New York before she was with Bobby. So I knew of Robyn. It’s funny how many people don’t know of her because they’re younger or people who didn’t get on to Whitney until she was already with Bobby. But I already knew of her and of the whole situation. When you look back at it, it’s interesting how that part, which was a thing that was actually written in the press at one time, was squashed and brushed away when all the other stuff happened in her life later.

It is wild that something that would seem to be so scandalous would just disappear from the press. I mean, I was asking my colleagues if they knew about Robyn and no one had a clue, but then digging through the Internet, you see it was well documented at the time.

It’s an interesting part of her life. Whether they were together or not, they were people who were so important to each other.

It’s interesting that you said “whether they were together or not,” because while Whitney certainly leads you to believe there was a romantic relationship between Robyn and Whitney, it doesn’t say for certain whether there was.

I think it’s always a fine line to walk when you’re playing someone who’s a real character. It’s the same thing I did when I was in Antwone Fisher. That was a real person I was playing in that movie, too, and I wanted to know some things about that person, but not everything about that person so that you’re not mimicking in that way. But in this case, there wasn’t a lot out there about Robyn for me to even get into. It was, more or less, taking what’s on the page and making that real—making what I feel this relationship is or would be real. I personally knew of fights that went on between Bobby and Robyn during that time. You would hear about them. And you also knew that Cissy didn’t like him. That kind of stuff was out there, so it’s keeping all that in mind but still playing what’s in front of you in the script. You can’t add to something that is not documented, not written in.

But because this movie doesn’t actually go out and say “they were lovers!”, how do you portray their relationship? Were you playing up or, on the flip side, shying away from portraying a romantic attraction?

No, I wasn’t shying away from it. She’s a beautiful woman. And from what I knew of Robyn then, I don’t think she was in the closet. It’s a love and it’s an admiration. So that was played there. How much of it is a love that’s between two lovers is a different story, because that, then, would have called for there to be different kinds of scenes in the movie. I played it as love and longing. Ultimately, what’s happening with them is that the person who Robyn loves is leaving. No matter if you’re lovers or a best friend, when someone you love leaves to get married, your relationship is going to change. That’s what I played. And that’s what it was.

There are people who wrote after Whitney died that as much as people blamed her marriage to Bobby as sending her addiction, it was actually leaving Robyn that could have set that in motion. That Robyn was her rock.

From what I heard on set and from people who knew the both of them and was in and around their lives at the time, you had to go through Robyn to get to Whitney. She really did take care of things. I can’t say it for sure, but she might have been the person who really kept her in line, to some degree. The partying was always there. It was there Whitney became iconic.

What was your favorite Robyn and Whitney scene from the movie?

There’s a scene on the airplane that was one of my favorites for a lot of reasons. It’s right after the first time Whitney goes out with Bobby on a date, and Robyn is dealing with that. She takes in the information, takes in Whitney’s giddiness, takes in her friend being made happy by somebody else. It’s all that after-the-fact stuff, looking at what someone does in that moment is always interesting.

And Whitney gives her a gift, too. That was one of the times where I felt like there was something more going on between them.

I thought it was like one of those guilty things, you know? [Laughs] Like when a guy cheats on his girl and says, “Oh, here’s a bracelet! Here’s a ring!” That kind of thing. It felt like that kind of moment, with Whitney trying to smooth things over. I think that’s a really interesting moment between the two of them.

The announcement that this movie was happening was an interesting experience for a Whitney Houston fan. First, there was the anticipation and excitement that there was going to be a movie. And then there was the crippling nerves that it would not be good, especially given the recent spate of really bad TV biopics. What did you think when it was first announced?

Um, when I first heard of it, it was somebody hitting me up on Twitter telling me I should be playing Whitney. I try to stay out of trades and all of this stuff, just as an actor to not get your head messed up. But then I was like, “Oh, there’s a Whitney movie? I gotta get in on that.” Then I spoke to my manager about it and he said that they were already interested in me for Robyn. So I was happy about that, and then the next thing, what you were talking about—as far as that feeling of “is this going to be alright?”—once I found out that Angela Bassett was on board I knew that it would be. She’s not going to let crap come out with her name on it. So yes, you want to be attached to that. Whitney? Angela? Yes, please.

After all that excitement you were just talking about—wanting to be a part of the movie and the faith you had in Angela Bassett—was it disheartening when Cissy Houston and the family spoke out against the movie?

No. I mean, they’ve been saying negative stuff kind of since forever about one thing or another. Everybody’s got their opinions on something. I think it’s unrealistic to think that a movie wasn’t going to be made about Whitney. I mean, it’s Whitney Houston. What I would be thankful for is knowing that it’s going to be done the right way, and not just any old body putting up a Whitney Houston movie. So a lot of care was taken with it, with the story and the performances. I don’t think it’s anything that people will down upon. We were really respectful in everything that I did.

When you think of her and her relationship to your life, what’s your favorite memory?

There’s a few. The first song I ever knew of her from the Whitney album… [starts humming and singing] What is that song!? [Hums more] “You Give Good Love!” That’s it. I remember hearing that and watching her sing it and then telling my BFF at school, “You know what? If I had a party, I wouldn’t invite her.” She’s so pretty that everyone would like her and want to be with her. Nobody would pay me attention.

So there was that, but from the point and for her whole life, she was such a beautiful brown-skinned woman. She was so poised and was breaking so many barriers. The essence of what Whitney is to me is a beautiful woman, not a beautiful black woman. She was Whitney. Race wasn’t attached to her with what she did and who she was. As an artist, that’s what I hope for as well. I want to be looked at for my craft, but not race. I’m very proud to be a brown-skinned woman, doing what it is that I do. But I don’t want my work labeled as “black.” “She does ‘black’ movies…” That kind of thing. However that should be worded, that’s what I admired about her. There was just a light in her. That’s what people were drawn to, that light in Whitney.