As close friends and family begin to absorb the news of the death of Whitney Houston, many are taking time to reflect on the last few years of a career and life they had a chance to share with the superstar—and its abrupt end.
While Houston had recently stepped away from the spotlight she dominated for so many years, her longtime hairstylist and good friend Ellin LaVar says the star remained firmly focused on two important goals in her life: keeping her marriage to Bobby Brown together (before the divorce) and bonding more with her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who is now 19.
Close friends and family say she had been so blindly committed to her marriage to the New Edition singer that she left the familiar, comfortable surroundings of her native New Jersey to move to Atlanta, where most of Brown’s extended family lived. The two divorced in 2007.
“Her thought was Bobby had lived in New Jersey for all those years for her, and now she would move for him,” says LaVar. “She believed her marriage was for a lifetime, and she was going to do what it took to keep it together.”
LaVar, who began her friendship with Houston shortly after the singer’s self-titled debut album was released, in 1985, says that major move for love’s sake would ultimately prove to be a decision Houston deeply regretted.
“We were like sisters for years. We grew up together in this business, and I was there for everything in her life. I told her she was pregnant before she knew it, because her hair texture changed,” remembers Lavar. “But when she moved to Atlanta, so much changed for her. I couldn't reach her anymore. But I kept trying."
LaVar says that during one of their last phone conversations, several months ago, Houston expressed a desire to move back to her hometown so she could be close to her mother, friends, and other family members once again.
“I think she knew she needed our support to get better,” says LaVar. “People don’t care about you in this business, and she knew that. I watched her struggle so long with her addiction. We cried together about it many times, and I told her I didn’t understand why this was happening, because she was such a good and smart girl. I just wanted to be there for her and not watch this happen from afar.”
Still, friends and family admit they do know in part why Houston so was unable to fight the lure of substance abuse that haunted her for most of her career: pressure to perform and succeed at all times. “She had so much on her early on,” says LaVar. “She took care of so many people in her family, his family (Bobby), and the people who worked for her. That was a lot to handle and think about. She was so very young when she started and became so big. We learned the movie industry on a major film like The Bodyguard. We had no idea what we were doing, and this was a huge deal. But we had to learn it, and we did. She brought so many people along for her ride. That’s a heavy burden on anyone, and it took its toll on her.”
LaVar and others point to the reality show that featured Houston and Brown as a tragic turning point in Houston’s already turmoil-filled life.
Being Bobby Brown ran on the Bravo network for one season, in 2005, and showed a chaotic and mostly dysfunctional relationship between the two singers. It also portrayed Houston as a foul-mouthed, angry, and confrontational woman with countless unhealthy vices, including chain-smoking.
“I remember Bobby Brown calling me and saying, ‘You and Clive [Davis] and everyone has to help me get Whitney to do this show,’” says Clarence Avant, who represented Brown for a short period and is also the former head of Motown Records. “He said, ‘They won’t give me the show without her.’ She did it, and I saw that show one time and was like, ‘What a mistake.’ It was heartbreaking to watch. I told him, ‘No matter how much they offered for another season, don’t do it.’”
LaVar adds that Being Bobby Brown further proved to what desperate lengths Houston would resort to keep her toxic marriage afloat.
“Whitney was a straight Jersey girl,” she says. “She wasn’t into being on TV and being seen all the time. She was private and liked her business private. Other people told her business—she didn’t. This is a girl who loved to vacuum to calm her nerves and relax. I watched her vacuum all the time. She didn’t want those cameras in her house or to be shown like that. But she went along for Bobby, and it cost her, I think. I think she felt that way too because she didn’t like the way she came off at all.”
After the marriage to Brown ended, in 2007, friends say it became just Houston and her “baby girl,” Bobbi Kristina, leaning on each other for support.
Though there was talk of Houston having a 23-year-old adopted son, friends say he is a friend of Bobbi Kristina’s whom Houston had agreed to mentor. He lived in Atlanta with mother and daughter.
“Honestly, Whitney in many ways depended on Bobbi Kristina more than Bobbi Kristina did on her,” says a family member. “That was her friend, confidante, and her protector. No matter what she did or how drunk she got or how much her voice cracked at times, Bobbi Kristina still loved her so much and never gave up on her.”
The 19-year-old also wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps with a singing career, and the two were said to be working on several tracks together in the studio. Houston had been working for the last two years with producer Ne-Yo on a new album as well.
“She was sounding good and we had some good stuff on there,” says Ne-Yo. “Because of her schedule, it was hard to put together quickly, but it was going to happen. People would have been happy with it.”
Many are now worried about Bobbi Kristina’s well-being and mental health after she was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Sunday morning following “an anxiety attack” at the same hotel where her mother had passed away hours before.
Beverly Hills police confirmed that Bobbi Kristina was taken to Cedars-Sinai early Sunday morning. “It wasn’t along the lines of yesterday. It was for ‘precautionary measures,’” says Beverly Hills Police Sgt. Brian Weir. “I think she is going to be fine.”
Others aren’t so sure. Family members are concerned that the loss of her beloved mother—“her world,” say some—may be too much for the teenager to handle.
“It was just the two of them after the divorce,” says LaVar. “They depended on each other, and it was so natural for Bobbi Kristina to take care of her mother in any way she could. She wanted her to be OK more than anything.”
Friends say Bobbi Kristina tried to stay as close to her mother as possible wherever they happened to be. She would often guide the superstar away from situations that would cause embarrassment and push aside people she deemed to have an agenda not in her mother’s best interest.
At a Grammy press junket on Thursday, Bobbi Kristina removed her mother after Houston’s behavior and conversation turned erratic. Hotel employees say Houston was sweating profusely and had been seen earlier skipping around the hotel. “Her daughter just pushed her past the reporters who were asking questions,” says a hotel employee. “She was like, ‘Mama, let’s go. Let’s go.’ She just took charge.” But Bobbi Kristina wasn’t as successful at keeping her mother away from Los Angeles nightclubs, where she’d chain-smoke and drink the night away.
Over the years the 19-year-old had become all too familiar with her role as caregiver for her mother and her father. Both singers spoke publicly about their drug use over the years with Diane Sawyer and Oprah Winfrey, describing addictions that would make any parent unfit.
“Even as a child, she felt responsible for Whitney in so many ways,” says a close friend of the singer’s. “And for Bobby as well, but Whitney was her heart. That’s a lot of pressure on a child, but she also knew her mother needed her more. How does a young girl handle losing all of that at once?”
Bobbi Kristina did her best to keep her mother out of harm’s way, but some of Houston’s friends aren’t sure others around her were recently. A former security guard for Houston says there used to be a “no baths” rule for the superstar. “Everyone was clear, particularly the women in the room with her, that Houston couldn’t take baths, only showers, and couldn’t be in the bathroom for long periods of times,” said the source. “After 15 minutes, someone would check on her to be sure she was OK. When someone is that fragile—you can’t leave them alone like that. But she had new people around her.”
While Bobbi Kristina may have appeared to be the “grown-up” in the mother-daughter relationship, Houston was fiercely devoted to her daughter and had become more so in recent years. Houston reportedly told those close to her that she wanted to be fully present in Bobbi Kristina’s life from here on.
That desire also stemmed from Houston’s belief that because of her hectic career, she’d missed many of the key moments in her daughter’s early life. There was also concern over racy pictures the teenager posted of herself on Facebook and blogs.
Last year it was even suggested that Bobbi Kristina had entered rehab for drugs as well. Family members deny that Bobbi Kristina had or has a drug problem.
“Again we’ve been kept away from not just from Whitney but Bobbi Kristina as well,” says LaVar. “We couldn’t talk to her or gauge how she was doing or what she was doing. That really hurt, because it’s so easy to get lost out there in that industry. It happened to Whitney.”
Avant can’t forget the last advice he gave Houston when he saw her in the Bahamas in 2009. The singer was divorced and discussing plans for a comeback, despite the negative impact of her marriage.
“I told her. ‘Don’t blame Bobby. This isn’t about Bobby. This is about you,’” says Avant. “I wanted her to understand that and to do something about it. I told her bluntly, ‘You have to get it together if you want to get better and get back on top. Blaming someone else makes it easy not to fix the problem.’ I wanted her to fix the problem. She didn’t, and I’ve lost a good friend.”
—With reporting by Christine Pelisek