The rise and fall of Whit­ney Hous­ton

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CHARMED LIFE -

There is a scene at the be­gin­ning of Whit­ney: Can I Be Me, Nick Broom­field and Rudi Dolezal’s new doc­u­men­tary about Whit­ney Hous­ton, that sum­marises all that was bril­liant and beau­ti­ful, and all that was tragic and de­struc­tive in her life. It shows Hous­ton on­stage in Frank­furt, Ger­many, in 1999, one con­cert on what the film de­scribes as the singer’s last suc­cess­ful world tour, and a turn­ing point in her life.

Hous­ton is seen singing the con­clud­ing verse of her sig­na­ture song, I Will Al­ways Love You – ‘I hope life treats you kindly, and I hope you have all you’ve dreamed of, and I wish you joy and hap­pi­ness, but above all this, I wish you love, sweet love…’ It is the pre­lude, of course, to the song’s soar­ing cli­max. But at that mo­ment, she pauses. The cam­era holds her face in tight fo­cus. She blows out her cheeks, smiles and pumps her shoul­ders, draw­ing in breath, as if sum­mon­ing the en­ergy and in­spi­ra­tion for the fi­nal as­cent. You can hear the au­di­ence cheer­ing, urg­ing her to break the ten­sion, des­per­ate for cathar­sis. She wipes the beads of per­spi­ra­tion from her face with a towel, then flicks her wrist, cue­ing the drum­mer to hit a sin­gle, gun­shot beat, be­fore her voice be­gins its ex­tra­or­di­nary jour­ney up­wards and out­wards on the sin­gle word ‘I…’ It soars, dips and swoops in a daz­zling dis­play of melisma and vo­cal gym­nas­tics – ‘will al­ways love you…’ An an­gel re­born as a diva.

This is the voice – and the song – that made Hous­ton one of the most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful fe­male singers of all time. But one also no­tices the dark lines un­der her eyes, and the stoned, far­away look within them.

By 1999, Hous­ton was al­ready in the thrall of the drug prob­lems that would ul­ti­mately de­stroy her ca­reer, and lead to her un­timely death in 2012, at the age of 48.

‘Whit­ney was cre­ated by God, and Whit­ney’ s gift came from him,’ her friend and back­ing singer Shar­lotte Gib­son tells Broom­field, in what could stand as the singer’s epi­taph, ‘so the only one who could mess it up was her.’

But as Can I Be Me il­lus­trates vividly, there were many on the way who failed to pre­vent it.

In a ca­reer span­ning 40 years, B room field has made doc­u­men­taries about a range of sub­jects, from the Hol­ly­wood madam Heidi Fleiss and the Repub­li­can politi­cian Sarah Palin, to the rap stars Big­gie and Tu­pac, and the se­rial killer Lon­nie Franklin Jr, known as‘ the Grim Sleeper ’. B room field is best known for his con­fronta­tional style of re­port­ing, of­ten putting him­self cen­tre stage in his pur­suit of the story. But

Can I Be Me is more con­ven­tional in struc­ture, the story told through the voices of friends, mu­si­cians and as­so­ci­ates of Hous­ton, along with ju­di­ciously edited ar­chive ma­te­rial and – the film’s real coup – re­mark­ably can­did footage of her 1999 tour, shot by Aus­trian doc­u­men­tary maker Dolezal.

Broom­field says his ap­proach has al­ways been to make films on sub­jects he knows lit­tle about, ‘but I’m in­ter­ested in find­ing out more’, and Can I Be Me is no ex­cep­tion.

‘I prob­a­bly knew no more than most peo­ple – that Whit­ney was an un­be­liev­ably tal­ented and ex­traor­di­nar­ily beau­ti­ful singer who ended up hav­ing a tragic end. And I guess I just re­ally won­dered what had hap­pened.’

The thrust of the film is that Hous­ton was some­one who, al­most from the out­set, had lit­tle say in her own life, driven by an am­bi­tious and con­trol­ling mother, moulded by a record busi­ness driven by the bot­tom line, dragged down by a self­de­struc­tive hus­band and bur­dened by a ret­inue of fam­ily, friends and de­pen­dents.

‘When I first started the film,’ Broom­field says, ‘I thought per­haps she was go­ing to turn out to be deeply un­sym­pa­thetic; there was so much around about her be­ing this diva, dif­fi­cult, bad-tem­pered, can­celled every­thing… all that stuff. But when I started talk­ing to peo­ple who were very close to her–her band mem­bers, her hair­dresser, her body­guard – a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture emerged of some­body who was end­lessly gen­er­ous, but was so overused by those around her. It was like she was owned by all th­ese peo­ple.’

‘You gotta know who you are be­fore you step into this busi­ness,’ Hous­ton is seen say­ing in an in­ter view con­ducted in 1995, ‘be­cause if you’re try­ing to find it you’ll prob­a­bly wind up be­ing some­body else that you prob­a­bly don’t even like.’

Hous­ton was born in Ne­wark, New Jersey, a ra­cial tin­der­box of a cit y t hat in 1967 – when she was three – ex­pe­ri­enced one of the worst out­breaks of ri­ot­ing and loot­ing in modern Amer­i­can his­tor y, re­sult­ing in the deaths of 26 peo­ple.

Her mother, Cissy, was a gospel and ses­sion singer who, as a mem­ber of The Sweet In­spi­ra­tions, sang back­ing vo­cals on hits by Aret ha Franklin and dozens of other ar tists. As a child, Hous­ton – known to all by the nick­name ‘Nippy’ – sang in her mother’s New Hope Bap­tist Church, mod­el­ling her tech­nique on Cissy’s – a fact t hat Cissy was at pains to re­mind who­ever asked. ‘I made her what she was,’ she would tell Oprah Win­frey in an in­ter­view fol­low­ing her daugh­ter’s death. ‘She had been watch­ing me in ses­sions and on­stage for years, pick­ing up pac­ing, breath­ing and mi­cro­phone tech­niques, and then adding her own lit­tle nu­ances, too.

‘I made her what she was,’ Sissy told Oprah Win­frey

‘My son Michael used to joke with me about Nippy’s tech­nique. “Ma,” he’d say, “Nippy should be in jail for steal­ing all your riffs and every­thing. You should sue her.”’ In the end, it would be Hous­ton’s father, John, who be­came her busi­ness man­ager, who would do that.

At t he age of 19, Hous­ton was sig ned to Arista Records, be­com­ing the per­sonal project of the com­pany’s founder, Clive Davis, the canny pro­ducer and ex­ec­u­tive who had built the ca­reers of Simon & Gar­funkel, Aero­smith, Barry Manilow and count­less oth­ers. Davis set out to make Hous­ton a pop su­per­star by de­lib­er­ately di­lut­ing the gospel and rhythm and blues in­flu­ences in her mu­sic and ‘cross­ing her over’ to a white au­di­ence. The ‘white­wash­ing’ (in that ugly term) of black mu­si­cians is a fa­mil­iar stor y in the mu­sic busi­ness. Black ar tists from Nat King Cole to Diana Ross had been moulded and groomed to ap­peal to a broader, white au­di­ence, but none quite so care­fully, and cal­cu­lat­edly, as Whit­ney Hous­ton.

Ac­cord­ing to Broom­field, Davis and his team met ever y week for two years plan­ning her first al­bum. Hous­ton rarely joined them. Songs deemed too ‘black’-sound­ing were re­jected. She was mar­keted as a sweet, smil­ing in­no­cent, a part of mu­si­cal roy­alty – Dionne War­wick was her cousin – her early life in Ne­wark air­brushed out of the pic­ture.

‘Whit­ney loved sing ing,’ Broom­field says, ‘and she was a great tal­ent; but I don’t think she ever wanted the fame she got. She was just a very un­pre­ten­tious per­son who ba­si­cally liked to hang out in her jeans with friends and have a good time. The am­bi­tious per­son was her mother. Whit­ney had the ca­reer that her mother had al­ways wanted for her­self.’

Re­leased in 1985, Whit­ney Hous­ton be­came the best­selling de­but al­bum by a woman in his­tory, sell­ing more than 25 mil­lion copies world­wide. Her sec­ond stu­dio al­bum, Whit­ney (1987), be­came the first al­bum by a woman to de­but at num­ber one on the Amer­i­can al­bums chart.

As Can I Be Me makes clear, Hous­ton would pave the way for a new gen­er­a­tion of pop di­vas, from Mariah Carey to Bey­oncé – none of whom could hold a can­dle to her vo­cal bril­liance. But many in the black com­mu­nity saw her suc­cess as a be­trayal of her roots. In 1989, at an awards cer­e­mony for the black mu­sic tele­vi­sion show Soul Train, Hous­ton was booed – an in­ci­dent that the sax player Kirk Whalum, who toured with her for seven years, de­scribes as ‘dev­as­tat­ing. I don’t think she ever re­cov­ered. It was one of those boxes that was checked when ul­ti­mately she per­ished, and it was a big one.’

It seems a cu­ri­ous twist of fate that it was on that same night that Hous­ton met the R&B singer Bobby Brown for the first time. It seemed, on the face of it, an im­prob­a­ble match: Hous­ton was the care­fully groomed pop an­gel; Brown a preen­ing self-styled bad boy who had once been ar­rested and fined un­der an anti-lewd­ness or­di­nance for his sug­ges­tive bump­ing and grind­ing on­stage, and who at the age of 20 was al­ready the father of two chil­dren by two dif­fer­ent women.

He had grown up in the tough Roxbury projects of Bos­ton, but there had been plenty of Bobby Browns in the neigh­bour­hood where Hous­ton grew up, play­ers with swag. That was the ap­peal.

‘He was every­thing con­trary to what her mother told her she should look for,’ says one friend in the film. ‘She said no, and Whit­ney dug her heels in and said, I’m go­ing to do what I want to do, not what you want me to do – as I have done all my life.’

When Brown and Hous­ton mar­ried in 1992, Van­ity Fair de­scribed them as ‘the in­verse of Fred As­taire and Ginger Rogers’; like Rogers to As­taire, Brown gave a sex­ual charge to the pure im­age of Hous­ton, while she g raced him with ‘a ve­neer of class’. The ve­neer would quickly wear thin.

The com­mon as­sump­tion is that Brown was the prin­ci­pal cul­prit in Hous­ton’s story, and that it was he who in­tro­duced her to drugs. But as the film shows, the seeds of her ad­dic­tion were sown long be­fore their mar­riage. Ca­sual drug use was a part of the world in which Hous­ton grew up, and her brother Michael would later ad­mit that it was he who in­tro­duced her to co­caine. Brown’s poi­son of choice was al­co­hol.

In 1992, Hous­ton starred in The Body­guard. The sound­track would pro­vide her with the big­gest hit of her ca­reer, I Will

Al­ways Love You, which sold more than 12 mil­lion copies. Her daugh­ter, Bobbi Kristina, was born the fol­low­ing year. But her birth did noth­ing to al lay Hous­ton’s grow­ing de­pen­dence on drugs. On a world tour to pro­mote the Body guard al­bum, Hous­ton and Brown fell into a spi­ral of code­pen­dence, spend­ing days and nights in ho­tel rooms get­ting smashed.

Hous­ton was now at the apex of a net­work of fam­ily, friends, and fam­i­lies of friends, many of whom worked for her and de­pended on her.

‘She was pay­ing all the bills for every­body,’ Broom­field says. ‘Buy­ing them cars, houses, med­i­cal bills, school fees.’ He es­ti­mates that in the years of her great­est suc­cess, Hous­ton ran through some $230 mil­lion. ‘It’s true that some of that went on drugs, but nowhere near that much. The big money went on sup­port­ing other peo­ple’s life­styles. And if you’re sup­port­ing 50 or 60 peo­ple, that’s a lot of money.’

Those who were in the best po­si­tion to help her were also those who had the great­est in­vest­ment in keep­ing her prob­lems out of the pub­lic eye, and the show on the road.

David Roberts worked as Hous­ton’s per­sonal body­guard from 1988 un­til 1995. (Tim­ing notwith­stand­ing, Roberts, a Welsh­man who had worked as a Scot­land Yard royal-pro­tec­tion of­fi­cer, was not the in­spi­ra­tion for The Body­guard; the script was orig­i­nally writ­ten in 1976, with Diana Ross in mind.) When he first met Hous­ton, he tells me, she was the an­tithe­sis of ‘the stereo­typ­i­cal sex, drugs and rock’n’roll sit­u­a­tion that pre­vailed in those days. That was not this woman at all.

‘She was sweet, she was ar­tic­u­late, she was shy; she made an ef­fort to keep out of the spot­light as best she could, ex­cept when it came to ap­peas­ing those who de­manded it of her.’ The ar­rival of Brown, Roberts be­lieves, changed that. ‘If he had never been on the scene, I have ev­ery con­fi­dence you would be speak­ing to her now, not to me. When he came on the scene he re­ally had noth­ing to of­fer: he was liv­ing on his rep­u­ta­tion as “Bad Bobby Brown”, or what­ever it was, and that man­i­fested it­self at all t imes. He would drink him­self into a state of be­ing sick ev­ery two days, and to make him feel com­fort­able she tried to main­tain some­thing sim­i­lar, to make him feel at home when with her.’

Broom­field takes a more forg iv ing at­ti­tude to Brown. ‘I don’t think he was an evil per­son,’ he says. ‘I think he deeply loved Whit­ney and she deeply loved him. You un­der­stand in a heart­beat what they saw in each other. She could be her­self, he could be him­self. They adored each other, but they couldn’t get well around each other.’

For Roberts, the break­ing point came in 1995, when Hous­ton over­dosed while film­ing Wait­ing To Ex­hale in Ari­zona, caus­ing film­ing to be aban­doned for a week. Hous­ton’s throat doc­tor was sum­moned to ex a mine her a nd t hen inv ited Roberts to take a sight­see­ing flight over the Grand Canyon.

‘We got in a four-seater and for two hours he lam­basted me over what I had al­lowed her to be­come… He left me in no doubt that some­one had to do some­thing. The time frame was eight months, to have an op­er­a­tion to re­move nod­ules or what­ever it was, oth­er­wise her singing ca­reer would be over.’

Rober t s prepa red a n ex ten­sive re­por t, chron­i­cling t he heavy drug use of Hous­ton, Brown and eight of her in­ner cir­cle when on tour, rec­om­mend­ing a com­plete over­haul of her staff and not­ing that those around her ‘are seem­ingly more con­cerned with the ca­reer of a su­per­star and her com­mer­cial global rep­u­ta­tion and money-earn­ing po­ten­tial, than we are about her wel­fare and per­sonal well-be­ing.’ He sub­mit­ted his re­port to Hous­ton’s at­tor­neys. ‘As a re­sult, I was sum­moned to a meet­ing and told they were very grate­ful for all the ser­vices I had pro­vided over the last seven-and-a-half years, but Miss Hous­ton wasn’t go­ing to be trav­el­ling in­ter­na­tion­ally any more and there­fore did not re­quire any­one of my skill set, but be as­sured that should she change her mind and travel again it would be to me she would come. That, of course, was a kiss-off. I knew that it was never go­ing to hap­pen, and in­deed it didn’t.’

Watch­ing the film, one senses that if there was one per­son who might have saved Hous­ton from her­self, and from those around her, it was her close friend Robyn Craw­ford. The pair met as teenagers when both were work­ing at a com­mu­nity cen­tre in New Jersey. Hous­ton was al­ready per for ming i n shows wit h her mot her. ‘St ick wit h me,’ Craw­ford would later re­mem­ber Hous­ton telling her, ‘and I’ll take you around the world.’

They be­came in­sep­a­ra­ble. As Hous­ton’s star rose, Craw­ford worked as her as­sis­tant and then cre­ative di­rec­tor. Such was their closeness that there were ru­mours the pair were lovers. Hous­ton, says one friend in the film, was likely bi­sex­ual, but at that time for a black woman – let alone a star of her stature – to have ac­knowl­edged a les­bian af­fair would have been ‘a no-no’.

Brow n deeply re­sented Craw­ford’s pres­ence, and the two fought fre­quently. ‘Robyn was a big strong woman and quite clearly ca­pa­ble of tak­ing care of her­self,’ Broom­field s ays . ‘ She wiped t he f loor wit h Bobby a few times – lit­er­ally beat­ing him up – and David Rober ts, who had no time for Bobby Brown, just stood by a nd watched wit h great glee.’ Craw­ford’s name was con­spic­u­ously ab­sent from the list of bad in­flu­ences in Roberts’s re­port. He says she at­tempted to rein in Hous­ton’s drink­ing and drug tak­ing. ‘But any in­flu­ence she did try to ex­er­cise was ridiculed by Bobby Brown. He poi­soned Whit­ney to­tally to­wards Robyn Craw­ford.’

‘Robyn was t he an­gel on Whit­ney’s shoul­der for many, many years,’ Broom­field says. ‘But she was un­der so much pres­sure from so many dif­fer­ent sources. Cissy clearly hated her, be­cause Robyn was in such a pow­er­ful po­si­tion for so long. Whit­ney made Robyn the per­son who de­cided who got through to her or not. If Whit­ney didn’t want to talk to her mother – and she usu­ally didn’t – or any­body else, Robyn would be blamed for it. No­body wanted to blame Whit­ney for any­thing, be­cause they were all de­pen­dent on her. In the end, it all just got too dif­fi­cult for Robyn.’ Craw­ford left in 2000. She and Hous­ton never spoke again. The film chron­i­cles the last years of Hous­ton’s life as a sad and pro­tracted saga of in­creas­ingly way­ward be­hav­iour, can­celled con­cert ap­pear­ances, tawdry fam­ily trou­bles and failed at­tempts at re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

In 2000, she was in­vited to sing Over the Rain­bow at the

Asked about her ‘big­gest devil’, Hous­ton said, ‘That would be me’

Os­cars, but was dropped from the show af­ter for­get­ting the words, then singing an­other song en­tirely, dur­ing re­hearsals.

Two years later she was sued by her father’s man­age­ment com­pany, John Hous­ton En­ter­tain­ment, for al­leged non-pay­ment for help ne­go­ti­at­ing a new $100 mil­lion record­ing con­tract with Arista. The suit was filed by John Hous­ton’s busi­ness part­ner, Kevin Skin­ner, a con­victed drug dealer who had once been John’s driver, and who later claimed to have sold Whit­ney drugs. Can I Be Me shows footage of John Hous­ton ly­ing in a hos­pi­tal bed, two months be­fore his death, ad­dress­ing his daugh­ter: ‘You get your act to­gether honey, and you pay me the money you owe me.’ (The law­suit was dis­missed in 2004, and Skin­ner was awarded noth­ing.)

‘The bad part about it is that it’s about money, and that re­ally sucks,’ Hous­ton told Diane Sawyer in an in­ter view, shor tly be­fore her father’s death. ‘That hurts more than any­thing.’

In the same in­ter view, dis­cussing Hous­ton’s use over the years of al­co­hol, mar­i­juana, co­caine and pills, Sawyer asked, ‘If you had to name the devil, for you, the big­gest devil among them…?’ Hous­ton gave a rue­ful smile. ‘That would be me.’

In 2007 Hous­ton and Brown di­vorced. In 2009 she set off on her first world tour in 10 years. Hous­ton had been us­ing crack co­caine, and her voice was so im­paired that even when her band low­ered the key in which her songs were sung she could not hit the high notes. ‘It was dis­as­trous,’ Broom­field says. ‘Clive Davis didn’t want her to do it; he knew her voice had gone. But she in­sisted, be­cause oth­ers were push­ing her so hard be­cause their life­style was be­ing threat­ened.’

On 9 Fe­bru­ary, 2012, Hous­ton met with Davis prior to a pre-grammy Awards party that Davis was host­ing at The Bev­erly Hil­ton Ho­tel in Los An­ge­les, and t hat evening gave what would be her last ever ap­pear­ance, join­ing the singer Kelly Price on­stage to sing Je­sus Loves Me. Two days later, on the night of the party, Hous­ton was found dead in the bath in her room at the Bev­erly Hil­ton. The coro­ner’s re­port ruled that she had ac­ci­den­tally drowned, with heart dis­ease and co­caine use listed as con­tribut­ing fac­tors.

Just nine months af­ter Hous­ton’s death, her mother, Cissy, brother Gary and sis­ter-in-law Pat, Hous­ton’s for­mer man­ager, fea­tured in a real­ity TV show, The Hous­tons: On Our Own. Also tak­ing part was 19-year-old Bobbi Kristina, who was shown drink­ing and stum­bling in an ine­bri­ated fash­ion. Talk­ing about her niece, Pat said, ‘I can’t see [Bobbi Kristina] fall by the way­side. No way, no how. Not gonna hap­pen.’ In Jan­uary 2015, in cir­cum­stances trag­i­cally mir­ror­ing the death of her mother, Bobbi Kristina was found un­con­scious in the bath at her home. Doc­tors placed her in a med­i­cally in­duced coma, but she was found to have ir­re­versible brain dam­age. She died in July 2015 at the age of 22. An au­topsy cited the ‘un­der­ly­ing cause’ of death as ‘im­mer­sion as­so­ci­ated with drug in­tox­i­ca­tion’.

‘What up­set me so much in the mak­ing of the film,’ Broomf ield says, ‘is t hat we a ll rat her fell in love wit h Whit­ney. Be­cause she was such a kind per­son, be­cause she was so funny, be­cause she was such a sweet-hearted per­son ba­si­cally, but she had real feel­ings of low es­teem. It’s hard to t hink t hat some­one so beau­ti­ful, so tal­ented could be so un­cer­tain and in­se­cure and tough on her­self, but she re­ally was.’

Whit­ney: Can I Be Me was not, he goes on, an easy film to make. Davis de­clined to co­op­er­ate, as did Cissy, who is col­lab­o­rat­ing on a fam­ily-sanc­tioned film about her daugh­ter. Ac­cord­ing to Broom­field, Whit­ney Hous­ton’s es­tate, now run by Pat Hous­ton, was against the project, and those whom he in­ter­viewed felt pres­sure not to take part. The es­tate tried, un­suc­cess­fully, to pre­vent Rudi Dolezal us­ing the 1999 footage.

It was a rum­bling sense of anger against the peo­ple who had looked af­ter Hous­ton – or rather failed to do so – Broom­field says, that prompted those to whom he talked to speak to him.

‘When you in­ter view her friends you re­alise how much peo­ple loved her, and were so con­cerned that she be por­trayed cor­rectly. They felt she was so badly let down by peo­ple who were man­ag­ing her – not just Clive Davis, but Cissy and the whole fam­ily. They were not putting Whit­ney first.’

Af­ter her death, Broom­field says, Hous­ton’s clothes were sold off, and the house in Ne­wark where she was born was sold re­cently for just $100,000. ‘You would think any­body in their r ight mind could have bought t he house, t ur ned it i nto mu­seum, with all of Whit­ney’s clothes and awards. In­stead they sold every­thing off and did th­ese ter­ri­ble real­ity shows. I think the peo­ple close to her were re­ally up­set by that.’ Not even death could save her from in­dig­nity. Last month, Bobby Brown ap­peared on the tele­vi­sion show

Hol­ly­wood Medium, with Tyler Henry, a so-called ‘clair­voy­ant medium’ whose ‘gift’ seems to be par­tic­u­larly, and prof­itably, at­tuned to celebri­ties, liv­ing and de­ceased. In the course of the prog ramme, Henry claimed to have been con­tacted by Hous­ton f rom t he ot her side (‘ I have a woman com­ing through…’), telling Brown that while drugs may have been ‘ob­vi­ously cont r ibut ing fac­tors’, it was her hear t t hat had killed her – and adding that she had been with her daugh­ter at the time of Bobbi Kristina’s death: ‘I was there to hold her hand when she made her tran­si­tion.’ Bobby Brown dabbed a tear from his eye. ‘Oh wow,’ he said. Whit­ney: Can I Be Me is re­leased on Fri­day


whit­ney hous­ton at home in new Jersey with her mother, cissy, father, John, and broth­ers, michael (far left) and gary


vis­it­ing michael Jackson at nev­er­land with friends in­clud­ing robyn craw­ford (sec­ond from right)


With Bobby Brown and, pic­tured to her right, body­guard David Roberts


Star­ring op­po­site Kevin Cost­ner in The Body­guard


Pos­ing with her tro­phy haul at the amer­i­can mu­sic awards


Per­form­ing in New york with her daugh­ter, Bobbi Kristina


Dur­ing her My Love is Your Love world tour

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