WHITNEY HOUSTON Shocking new details about the troubled singer’s life.
A heavenly voice, a haunted life, the superstar’s family and friends reveal new details about her traumas, triumphs and tragic end
On the set of a photo shoot in the early 2000s, staring hard at the woman in the mirror, Whitney Houston was trying to get in touch with a realer, simpler, perhaps happier version of herself. “Nippy, are you in there?” she said, using the nickname her family gave her when she was a child. “Whitney calling Nippy, Whitney calling Nippy. She won’t answer,” Whitney said, turning to the camera. “She’s really being non-cooperative today,” She offered a halfsmile that quickly fell away.
It’s one of the many poignant scenes in the controversial new documentary Whitney (out on July 26). In the six years since she was found dead in Los Angeles at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Feb. 11, 2012, questions still swirl about who Whitney Houston—the beloved once-in-a-generation voice behind record-breaking hits like “I Will Always Love You” and “Greatest Love of All”—really was and why she couldn’t escape the addiction that killed her.
In Whitney, directed by Kevin Macdonald, the pop superstar’s family and friends (including her mother Cissy and brothers Gary and Michael) pull back the curtain, revealing surprising secrets. Some claim to know the root of her pain. Her longtime assistant, Mary Jones, says Whitney told her that her cousin Dee Dee Warwick (the sister of singer Dionne Warwick) molested her when she was a child. Whitney’s eldest brother Gary reveals he too was molested by Dee Dee, who died in 2008. But Whitney’s mother Cissy Houston, who was also interviewed for the documentary, is firing back at the allegations. “We cannot overstate the shock and horror we feel and the difficulty we have believing that my niece Dee Dee Warrick ... molested two of my three children,” Cissy tells WHO in a statement on behalf of herself and Dionne, revealing they first learned of the claims two days before the film’s May 16 premiere in Cannes. They are charges, she says, “neither Whitney nor Dee Dee are here to deny, refute or affirm ... How can that be fair to my daughter ... to our family?” But to others who knew the singer, the revelation provides yet another missing piece to a very complicated puzzle.
Whitney grew up in Newark and East Orange, New Jersey, where she moved parishioners to tears when she sang at the New Hope Baptist Church. “She had a Cinderella kind of warmth, this magical way about herself even as a little girl,” says brother Gary Houston. Adds Ellen White, the family friend the Houstons called Aunt Bae, “We’d be playing pincole when Nippy was 5, 6, 7 years old. She’s be down in the basement with her mother’s wig and the mop as a mic, singing at the top of her lungs. I always felt that Nippy could sing, but I never anticipated, never fathomed Nippy would be Whitney Houston.”
Yet mother Cissy’s career as a backup singer for stars such as Elvis and Aretha Franklin often took her away from home and, as Gary explains in the film, he, Michael and Whitney would be cared for by others: “We had a good, tight-knit family, but there were always a lot of secrets in our lives.”
Whitney’s personal assistant Mary Jones says that Whitney told her she was molested by her cousin Dee Dee Warrick, who was 21 years older than her. “I think she was ashamed,” Jones says in the film. “She used to say, ‘I wonder if I did something to make her think I wanted her,’ and I’d say, ‘Stop it. Stop it. A predator is a predator.’” Gary claims in the documentary that Dee Dee molested him between the ages of 7 and 9 but he never heard it was happening to Whitney until now, and Jones says her intention “was never to embarrass anyone in the family but rather bring to light that Whitney was subjected to something painful and troubling as a child. And it’s something that happens to other innocent kids and goes unspoken too much.”
Ellin Lavar, hairstylist and friend, says such incidents would make sense and that when she had confided in Whitney things
“She said, ‘I wish I could go back to just singing” —Rickey Minor
that happened to her, “I would come in and she would just hug me and bury her head in may chest and cry.”
By 1983, Whitney, then 19, had signed with Clive Davis, then head of Arista Records. With her 1985 debut album Whitney and seven consecutive No. 1 singles in the US, fame came fast and she brought her brothers along the ride to stardom.
Michael recalls in the film: “I remember her putting me and my brother on the payroll when we didn’t even work for her at the time. I was using drugs deeply then ... a lot of parties, a lot of chicks, a lot of drugs. You’re Whitney’s brother, so the doors were open. Whitney and I were very close ... we graduated from marijuana together. The age was probably around 16.”
Family friend Keith Kelley admits in the film that her gave her “a bag of weed and a little toke of cocaine” as a birthday gift. Explains friend and music director Rickey Minor, “When you come from nothing, there’s a tendency to want to be the saviour. All your success and hard work is sprinkled over your family. But you can’t have a successful business that way. She said. ‘I’m a cash cow. I wish I could go back to singing just to sing.’”
As a young star, Whitney publicly dated men, though several people in her circle also confirm longstanding rumours that her relationship with her female best friend Robyn Crawford was also at one time romantic. (Crawford has previously denied the claims and did not participate in the documentary). “I hope the film expresses what I think is the truth, that they were
romantically involved,” says Whitney director Macdonald. “Robyn loved Whitney,” says agent Nicole David. “She was also very young and probably not equipped to withstand the slings and arrows. Do I believe it was a sexual relationship as well? I believe it was.”
In the early days, a family source says, “Robyn felt like Nippy was maybe enjoying drugs too much and so she went to Cissy, knowing that Cissy didn’t feel Robyn was a suitable companion for her daughter, and said, ‘I think Nippy is overdoing it, that concerns me.’ It took a lot of courage. She cared a great deal for Nippy.” (Cissy has said she does not know if Whitney and Robyn were romantically involved.)
But Whitney went on to marry R&B star Bobby Brown in 1992, the same year she made her acting debut in the megahit The Bodyguard. Months later, they welcomed daughter Bobbi Kristina. “We from the hood,” says brother Michael in the film. “And Bobby was a black boy from the hood. He was the type my mother always kept away from her.”
Friend Lavar says: “Part of me felt like she got married to please people ... The problem with Whitney and Bobby was they exacerbated each other’s addiction. She did more cocaine, he drank more. But when they got together, they both started doing more cocaine and drinking. It just manifested itself in a really bad way.” In turn, it affected Whitney’s parenting. Bobbi Kristina “was exposed to a lot,” Lavar adds. “Even when Whitney had her housewarming, someone came up to me, ‘Oh, you want some cocaine?’ Her daughter was there for all that. You could see that she was lonely.”
A few years before her divorce from Brown in 2007, Whitney’s friends and family tried multiple interventions. “If you loved her and knew she needed help,” says sisterin-law Pat Houston, “you just needed to snatch her up ... I saw her in a lot of pain.”
In the end, the star’s addiction, pain and insecurities were too much to overcome, and she died in 2012 at the age of 48. “I still go through grieving,” concedes brother Gary. “It’s hard for me to put into words how much I miss her. For three decades, I was able to travel the world with my sister. I’m grateful. I wish she was here to speak for herself.”
Houston at home in East Orange, New Jersey, ca. 1982, and right, in 1995. “If I could,” says Clive Davis, “I would tell her, ‘I, along with millions of others, deeply feel the pain that took your life, but your greatness with forever inspire.’”
“Her voice was like no other,” says music mogul Clive Davis. “It could soar with the greatest of all time.”
Whitney (middle) posed with (from left) brother Gary, mum Cissy, dad John and brother Michael circa 1979.
Houston’s assistant Mary Jones says that Whitney once told her she’d been molested by her cousin Dee Dee Warrick (right).
ROCKY ROMANCE Whitney Houston wed Bobby Brown in 1992 (right) and gave birth to Bobbi Kristinless than a year later. But their erratic behaviour and his run-ins with the law became tabloid fodder. Says friend Ellen Lavar, “It was a co-dependency.”
Houston posed with (from left): Michael, Robyn Crawford, Gary and Ellen White.”robyn was her protector,” says Lavar.
Wed in 1992 (above), Houston greeted Brown after his 2000 release from prison for parole violations (left).