Tuning in to a radio phone-in show on Wednesday evening, as they inched through the decaying urban sprawl where Whitney Houston was born and raised, the commuters of New Jersey were stirred by a vitriolic debate.
Earlier that day, state governor Chris Christie had issued a special decree, ordering the Stars and Stripes flag to be lowered on public buildings for the singer’s funeral — an honour usually afforded only to fallen servicemen and great civic figures — and the battle lines were drawn.
‘She was just a drug addict!’ stormed one former U.S. Navy sailor, to murmurs of agreement from programme host Steve Trevelise. ‘It’s a disgrace that our society celebrates people who take the wrong path. This is somebody who had it all and chose to throw it all away.’
Another caller countered that Houston’s personal life was irrelevant, and said she deserved to be remembered with a ticker-tape parade, and even a public holiday.
Then, almost inevitably given the divisions still simmering in Houston’s home town of Newark — scene of America’s bloodiest conflagration during the Black Rights uprisings of 1967 — the tone turned uglier, with a black woman insisted the anti-Whitney protests were racially motivated. Though Trevelise tried to play this down (pointing out that some black callers were also opposed to the governor’s flag-lowering order), he concluded that Houston’s passing was ‘the most polarising celebrity death I’ve seen’.
Doubtless a discreet veil will be drawn over this disharmony today at 5pm British time when Houston is laid to rest in a service that will be beamed live to millions around the world. She was, before her abject decline, the glittering crown-princess in a soul and gospel music dynasty that included her mother, Cissy (a backing singer to Elvis Presley, among many others) her cousin, Dionne Warwick, and godmother, Aretha Franklin. The ceremony is being billed as America’s biggest ‘black royal funeral’.
Houston’s body will be paraded through tearful streets in a golden hearse, and 1,500 invited guests, including many celebrities, will file into the New Hope Baptist church, where she sang in the choir as a child. Its redbrick walls will echo to requiems from Franklin and Stevie Wonder.
After the towering eulogies, the woman whose voice, with its three-and-a-half octave range, has been described as the greatest of all time, will be laid to rest in a cemetery 13 miles away, alongside John Houston — the father who guided her career, but with whom she fell out so irreconcilably as her life disintegrated that she did not even attend his funeral in 2003.
And then . . . what? Will there be a reception afterwards? If so, where? After all, when she died in the bath of a Beverly Hills hotel last Saturday this once most bankable of all female superstars is said to have been almost penniless, and the last of her mansions, a glass-and-chrome residence in New Jersey, has gone on sale at a knock-down price of just over £1 million (crassly, the estate agent is marketing it as the scene of ‘the activity that brought down this incredible music diva’).
Then, there is the nightmare of whom to invite. Can the family momentarily put aside their loathing for her ex-husband, R & B singer Bobby Brown — the man they blame for her untimely death at 48 — if only for the sake of the couple’s 18-year-old daughter, Bobbi-Kristina, who is feared to be near-suicidal with grief and has suffered a nervous breakdown?
Will they invite Houston’s former personal factotum, Robyn Crawford, rumoured to have been her secret lesbian lover for many years — a claim given credence this week by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who claimed Houston attended an Aids event in London, in 1991, with a gay partner. Though he declined to identify her, the organiser — respected gay rights and equality consultant Vernal Scott — has told the Mail that Tatchell was referring to Crawford.
Feisty Crawford and Bobby Brown — who is a volatile product of the Boston ghetto — apparently once fought for Houston’s affections. So were they to meet again in the febrile ambience of her funeral, one shudders to imagine what might happen.
And we should look out for Houston’s ‘wicked step-mother’, Barbara, though it seems unlikely that she will be welcome, for she married John Houston, amid much familial rancour, just months after he and Cissy were divorced in 1992.
At the time she was a single mother in her mid-20s, and he was 71, and their relationship began when she worked as his cleaner. After his death, eight years ago, Barbara sued Whitney for the right to remain in the plush apartment the singer had bought for her father — a case finally resolved, in a defeat for Barbara, only a few weeks ago.
All very unedifying — though perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised given the slow-motion train crash Houston’s life became. The great irony — and perhaps the greatest tragedy — is that at the peak of her fame in the Eighties and early Nineties, Houston was held up as the ultimate female role-model.
She was also seen as a unifying force, the trailblazer for the colour-blind, classless society that then seemed to be evolving on both sides of the Atlantic. Her appeal transcended not just musical tastes but ethnicity and age, and she was hailed as the first ‘crossover’ pop-star.
When she starred opposite Kevin Costner (who will deliver a eulogy today) in the $400-million-grossing movie The Bodyguard, their mixed-race screen affair was heralded as a ground-breaking cinematic event that would change perceptions for ever.
This, then, is the hinterland against which Houston’s squalid showbiz death must be measured. She has not only squandered her unique gifts but betrayed the dreams of millions. But did Brown really destroy her, or did she destroy herself. And if so, why?
During the early Nineties, when people started to recoil at her saccharine-sweet image, Houston attempted to enhance her ‘street-cred’ by recalling her tough upbringing. ‘I’m nobody’s angel,’ she proclaimed. ‘I can get down and dirty.’
In truth, however, her mother’s lucrative singing career and her father’s keen business nose afforded her a comfortable upbringing. Soon after the riots of 1967, the family fled burnt-out Newark for nearby East Orange; now plagued by drugs and crime but then a thriving, middle-class town.
Houston attended the best school and hoped to become a teacher or a vet, singing purely for joy with her mother in the gospel choir before her celestial voice came to the notice of recording executives. She also landed a modelling contract with a top New York agency, when she was 16.
Her formative years seem to have been so perfect. Those who knew her then say she was remarkably modest. She worked prodigiously, obeyed her parents, dressed demurely, and was always impeccably behaved.
Was it all a façade? Certainly that is the view of Robyn Crawford, who became inseparable from the 16-year-old Houston when they did summer work together at a community centre.
‘When my mother first met her, she laughed and said, “You look like an angel but I know you’re not”. And she wasn’t,’ Crawford recalled wistfully this week, speaking about their close relationship for the first time.
‘People thought they had to protect her. She hated that. She was always the one doing the driving. Nobody kept Whitney from doing anything. She did what she wanted to do.’
Whether this extended to having a lesbian relationship, Crawford did not say — she has never commented on the rumours, which began after she was employed by Houston (rising to become her omnipotent ‘creative director’) and were aired most compellingly in Kevin Ammons’s biography of Houston, Good Girl, Bad Girl.
Ammons is the boyfriend of Houston’s long-time publicist, Regina Brown, whose silence Whitney is said to have bought with fabulous gifts, including a gold Mercedes, diamond-jewellery and rent-free apartment.
He also claimed Cissy Houston was distraught by the relationship, and urged her daughter to end it.
If Houston was secretly gay, or at least bisexual, and felt forced to live a lie, this might — as Tatchell suggests — have led her to take refuge in the drink and drugs that killed her.
Yet Houston’s British former bodyguard David Roberts, who shadowed her between 1987 and 1995, when her popularity was at its height, dismisses this, saying he saw absolutely no evidence of a romance between the two women, even though he travelled the world with them for eight years.
‘If you’re looking for the day Whitney’s demise began, it’s simple,’ he told me emphatically from his Florida home. ‘Just check the date on her marriage certificate.’
Houston and Brown certainly made an unlikely pair, for he really is a product of the ghetto. At ten he was reportedly selling drugs in Boston’s tough Roxbury neighbourhood, and at 16 was slung out of the band New Edition for performing lewd antics on stage.
His success as a solo artist has been marred by drug abuse and convictions for drunken driving and failing to pay child support (he has five children by three women), and when his brother-in-law was shot dead in his car during a gangland feud, Brown was there beside him.
He first met Houston at a soul awards event in 1989. She was supposedly then dating Eddie Murphy, but when Brown sent her 400 red roses and asked her to dinner she promptly ditched Murphy. Three years later she and Brown were married.
The date Roberts pinpointed was July 18, 1992, and though Houston always denied her husband was a malign influence, Roberts says he watched her alarming descent begin soon afterwards.
Such is the bodyguard’s contempt for Bobby Brown that he threatened — in all seriousness — to use him as a human shield if anyone shot at Houston, and he now refers to him simply as ‘the Brown character’.
Roberts admired and liked Houston, and claims Brown subjected her to years of ‘emotional abuse’, driven, he surmises, by his resentment of her vastly greater fame. ‘He brought her down to his level, and it couldn’t be much lower,’ he says. He recalls how Brown turned up on the maternity ward stinking drunk shortly before a terrified Whitney was due to give birth to Bobbi Kristina by Caesarean section in 1993.
Two years later, he says, he took Houston aside and warned her that her husband was ‘leading her down a road to destruction’. He also raised his concerns with her company executives — who thanked him, then dispensed with his services.
Quite how the couple managed to raise their daughter, as they sank into co-dependent drug addiction, is anyone’s guess, but Houston’s mental and physical deterioration was most apparent and by the time they divorced, 14 years later, she was pitiful to behold.
Brown’s sister, Tina, sold sordid photographs revealing how Whitney had turned the bathroom in her mansion into a crack-house, where she and Brown smoked Havana cigars slit open and laced with marijuana and cocaine rocks, which they called ‘blunts’.
Her teeth had fallen out due to her use of crack, and she constantly lost her $6,000 dentures. She was incontinent and wore a nappy. She was so paranoid she bored a hole in the wall to spy on callers.
As a baby, Bobbi Kristina was nursed by a family friend known as ‘Aunt Bae’, and though Houston won custody of her then 14-year-old daughter after the divorce, she was frequently farmed out to Cissy.
And though Bobbi Kristina aspires to be the family’s next diva, it’s small wonder she has followed her mother in all the wrong ways.
In 2008, she reportedly attempted to stab Houston and slash her own wrists with a razor blade and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Then, last year, a U.S. tabloid published photographs of her snorting cocaine, and she was charged with possessing alcohol as a minor.
Houston’s response was to march her to a rehab clinic in Malibu and, to set what she thought was the right example, she booked herself into another nearby.
While she actually got the treatment she needed at these Malibu style facilities, she still suffered a relapse when she got out.
During her final decade, Houston surely clocked up more hours in rehab than Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor combined. She invariably waltzed out after a few days, however, and at least twice, in 1999 and 2005, her mother grew so desperate she staged legal ‘interventions’ forcing her to complete a recovery programme.
Accompanied by a sheriff, Cissy arrived at Houston’s mansion in Georgia with a court order, requiring her daughter to be treated at Eric Clapton’s world-renowned Crossroads treatment centre in Antigua. She complied, but soon returned to marijuana, cocaine and booze.
Whitney, it seemed, was a dead woman walking.
And yet . . . sources close to her insist there is something odd about the timing of her death. After many false dawns, she had of late made genuine efforts to get clean. A starring film role even promised an unlikely career revival.
For all her deficiencies, moreover, she was far from stupid. So why would she mix the cocktail of tranquillisers on which she relied to relax with champagne and neat vodka, with such abandon that, according to one well-placed source, her daughter begged her to stop?
This is one of the questions for the LA Coroner’s investigators as they try to discover why she died in the bath at the Beverly Hilton Hotel last Saturday. But there might be a straightforward answer.
Just two days earlier, the same source told the Mail that Houston had visited a throat specialist and received deeply depressing news. He told her that her vocal cords had been damaged by years of heavy drug smoking and alcohol abuse, and were beyond repair.
Did his prognosis send her into such despair that she sought oblivion, if only temporarily? If so, it might explain why, at 4am last Saturday, around 12 hours before her death, she was seen to stagger on to the balcony of her suite and twice cry out in desperation: ‘I can’t do this s*** no more!’
Even when the truth about Whitney Houston’s death emerges, however, one suspects she will continue to polarise opinion.
Her most blindly loyal fans will side with Governor Christie, who has attempted to justify his order to lower the flag with a Twitter message stating that her ‘cultural contributions’ merit the honour, and her ‘struggles’ with substance abuse are a different matter.
But judging by that furious radio debate, a great many more folk will ask what sort of country America has become, when the Stars and Stripes are brought low for a woman whose sublime gift gave her the power to change the world for the better — a power she so shamefully tossed away.
# Source: The Daily Mail, By David Jones