Saturday, May 18, 2024

Flashback: Young Whitney Reflects on Fame and Sexuality


c2012, Roger Friedman

From an updated story I published in 1992: This Sunday, 1500 of Whitney Houston’s closest friends will gather in New Jersey for her wedding to singer Bobby Brown.  The ceremony will most likely be at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, followed by a reception at Whitney’s house near Bernardsville.  Rev. Marvin Winans, brother of singers BeBe and Cece, will perform the service.  Stevie Wonder will sing, possibly his old hit “You and I” or maybe something new that he’s written for the occasion.

“Every important black person in show business will be there,” says a black journalist who’s on the Whitney watch twenty four hours a day.  Freddie Jackson is bringing Toukie Smith.  Ashford and Simpson will be there.  Dionne Warwick of course.  The ubiquitous Winans, too. (Last month, Whitney and Bobby took a pre-wedding honeymoon cruise with them.)  Aretha Franklin, who is notorious for not boarding airplanes, could very well show up in her fully-equipped Winnebago.  Randall Cunningham, who Whitney once dated, is even coming.  LaToya Jackson was invited, but can’t make it.  But you can bet Arista Records president and Houston mentor Clive Davis can and will.  In a way, he’s paying for the whole thing.
The timing is perfect.  Whitney’s birthday is this week also. (Four years ago, she threw herself a huge bash at the house.)  And Bobby’s new single is being released this week, so at least there’s a media tie-in.

Two summers ago, Whitney, who had grown up with parents who separated when she was a teenager, told me: “For a long time I said I don’t want to get married. I don’t want kids.  I just don’t want to be bothered with it.  But now I do.  I want to get married and have kids.  The kind of guy I want to marry is like me…you know…got to have a great sense of humor.  Boy do I love to laugh!”

It’s a good thing Whitney’s got a sense of humor. Bobby is in his early twenties; Whitney’s near 30. She has no children and has never been married, but her intended has not one but three illegitimate children, according to sources, with possibly a fourth due soon.  (The New York Post recently joked that Whitney’s best friend, Robyn Crawford, could be doing a lot of babysitting after the wedding.  Our thought was: So many ring bearers!) Last year, Whitney had a big hit with “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Bobby’s new single, which is being released even as the couple exchanges “I do’s” and Stevie Wonder serenades them, is called “Humpin’ Around.”

This is not a reference to the joys of camel riding.

Says one observer, “Bobby is a live wire.”  And a quiet one. Despite the fact that Whitney announced the engagement on her ABC special this past spring, the prospective groom has remained silent. The guest list, in fact, has only 300 of his friends and family.  Don’t forget: Bobby’s big hit was called “My Prerogative.” Let’s hope he doesn’t exercise it Sunday.

A lot of people are probably surprised that Whitney’s getting married at all.  For years, rumors circulated about her sexual inclinations and her relationship with Crawford.  Five years ago, she told Time, “I am not gay,” after the release of her second album.
“Am I that frickin’ famous?” she asked me when the subject was brought up.  She courts this question winningly.  She has heard it before.
It seems, I tell her, that people want to speculate about whom she’s slept with.
“That’s unbelievable. When I first heard about this, it hurt me because it was something being said about me.  I felt,  How could you say this about me?  I cried.  It was not the fact of whether I was gay or not.  But because they say this and they don’t know me.  I think it’s because they know Robyn and I are very good friends.  They see us together.  But Robyn and I have been friends since we were kids.  For so many years.  But maybe it’s because they don’t know who I’m sleeping with so they decide I’m gay!”
Whitney was nice enough to show me around her estate, an hermetically sealed, glass and chrome modular event if ever there was one.  It is gated to protect Whitney from everything — and everyone — outside.  It is the only house on the street with a gate.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked.
“You smoke?”  What about The Voice?
“Aretha smokes Kools,” she says.  “Dionne.  My mom.” When she invokes the divas, it seems indisputable.
We arrive at our destination, an oasis in Whitney Houston’s backyard: a swimming pool the size of a small manmade lake.
“They said, Whitney do you want a nice oval pool?  I said, Listen, I want to swim.  I don’t to play.  I want an Olympic size swimming pool with my initials on the bottom of it.”

We lean in a little closer.  Sure enough, a huge intertwined “WH” is painted on the blue bottom.
If this is what you get before you’re thirty, I wonder, what’s left?  “If you start tripping on it and believing the hype you become a monster.  And I don’t want to become a monster.  I want to be a nice person. I’m a ball,” she laughs, looking at the pool. “I’m a crazy person.”
Whitney’s house is not the house of a crazy person, however.  It is to nearby Bernardsville, New Jersey what the Marriott Marquis would be to Montauk.  It is organized and sterile.  When I visited it, the “artwork” and tchotchkes had to do with Whitney’s career; if she’s made the multi-millions she’s supposed to have, it hasn’t been spent on Picasso.  The rooms are pale pastels, the kitchen is white.  If there is an eccentric bone in this woman’s body, it is not expressed here where a Range Rover and a stretch Mercedes are the dominant cars in the driveway.

Central air-conditioning is key to survival in such an antiseptic environment and Whitney has plenty to spare.  In the backyard, the only noise comes from whirring Carrier R2D2’s busy replenishing and refreshing the oxygen.  On our walk that afternoon, after she showed me the pool and the guard dogs, Whitney said that she’d been dating “the brother of a big star” but would not divulge his name.  But on the eve of her wedding, it’s probably safe to reveal that Jermaine Jackson, Michael’s younger but surgically unaltered brother, was the culprit.
In fact, Whitney has a had thing for the Jackson family for some time.  According to sources, “she chased Michael heavy and hard.  She gave that one her all.  He wasn’t even thinking of it.”

But if Whitney has dated, it’s probably the best kept secret in a world where secrets do not last long.  A friend of hers tells me later she did in fact see a lot of Eddie Murphy a while ago, but that Murphy’s roving eye and his natural instinct to party did them in.
“I’d rather have a friend, somebody that likes and loves me for me.  I’d rather have the companionship,” she says regarding her friendship with Crawford, “someone I can trust.  A lot of people like me ’cause I’m Whitney Houston, ’cause I have a big house. But intimacy is different…”
Her family is unfazed by all the talk.  Her cousin, Dionne Warwick, says, “Whitney’s sex life is nobody’s business at all.   The business that her fans should care about is that she showed up on time, she gave them a great show, they buy her records, they support her.  And that should really be the end of it.
“Why would people want to be mean, vindictive, I don’t understand it.  As for Whitney’s sexual practices, I don’t really care.  That’s her business.”
It is not the first time someone in the extended family has dealt with gossip. “I’ve heard all kinds of rumors,” Dionne Warwick advises me. “That I wore long gowns [her 60s onstage trademark] because I was on the needle and I was sticking it in my legs.  That’s the kind of viciousness people associate with.  I used to laugh.  I used to say great, If that’s what I gotta be, okay.  Then all of a sudden they started seeing me in cocktail dresses and there was no evidence of what they were talking about.  That’s what people are about.
“Once,” she says, shaking her head, “I heard I slept with Anita Baker!”  With this, she breaks into peels of laughter. “Heh heh heh.”
“Well that could have been fun,” I say, feeling a little uneasy.
“You’re crazy!”  Whitney laughs, almost shrieks.
“At least,” I say cheaply, attempting a pun on one of Baker’s songs, “she’d be giving you the best that she got.”
“And honey,” Houston laughs, making her own pun, “I’d be so emotional!”

Whitney Houston has learned from her mother that it isn’t easy being a soul diva. Emily “Cissy” Drinkard Houston grew up in Newark “basically in the same house” Cissy says, with her own nieces Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick.  “My mother died when I was nine,” she remembers, “and after some time I went to live with Dionne’s mother.”  Dionne says, “She was literally considered our sister as opposed to our aunt.  We never had that kind of formality or distance from each other.”

Cissy, her brothers and sisters — Lee, Larry, Nick, Annie, and Rebie — performed regularly as the Drinkards.  If, on occasion, one was ill, DeeDee or Dionne sang with them.  Cissy had a son, Gary, from her first marriage, when she was twenty years old.  Three years later, in 1960, she married John Houston. They had a son together, Michael, in 1962.  The Houstons lived on Wainwright Street in East Orange, New Jersey in a “great house” Whitney remembers fondly.  “A small house,” she modifies when the reality of her own contemp-mod manse sinks in.
Meanwhile, both Dionne and Cissy were finding acceptance on their own terms: Dionne was working her way through Tin Pan Alley with her own group, the Gospelaires, while Cissy was gigging in clubs, making a career as an indispensable back-up singer.  For both women, getting work became easier and easier.
Dionne says, “We opened up a gospelized harmony going on behind people who had never heard anything like that before.  It was fun for us because it was natural.  We had no idea that we were creating what would become the criteria.”

Ironically, while Dionne (who eventually hooked up with songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David) and Aretha were turning into superstars, Cissy Houston continued to pay her dues.  Whitney says: “My mother wasn’t a soul star so to speak, but my mother was making money, doing backgrounds, feeding her kids, paying the rent, taking care of business.”   Wasn’t there a time, I ask, when she noticed Aretha and Dionne had gold records and Cissy didn’t?  “My mom had gold records all over her walls [from her session work],” Whitney snaps defensively. “So I saw them.”
For her part, Cissy Houston is ambivalent. “I would have been a real big star.  But maybe it wasn’t for me.  Maybe it was for Whitney.”

The realist in John Houston sees it differently. “Cissy had it all.  She could have done it.  But she had a desire to raise her children.  And you can’t do both.”  But Cissy will have none of it.  No regrets.  “I knew that I could sing better or as well as anyone else.  That was the satisfaction I got.”
From 1961-67 she sang with the Drinkard Singers (her family name, the group comprised her relatives) mostly gospel, some back-up — especially for Aretha Franklin.  In 1968 Cissy and her group, the Sweet Inspirations,  had some minor but spectacular hits, and gave Aretha the ammunition to make Respect her middle name. (Check out her most amazing performance on Aretha’s “Ain’t No Way.”)  In the early Seventies, Cissy herself backed up Linda Ronstadt on “Heart Like a Wheel”¯and Bette Midler’s on “Do You Wanna Dance?” but she could not make it as a solo artist.
By the time Whitney was four, she was already traveling with her mother.  “The greatest sessions I remember were Aretha’s,” she says.  “They were so full of energy.  And so real.  It was like one or two takes with her.  She’d just sing it live.   This is like 1968.  “This is the House That Jack Built” — great songs, you know.   At those times you had the band there in the room with you and the backup singers.  And you did it all in one day.  It was just a happy feeling.  And the Sweets were so into it.”

Even with her unique status as a witness to soul history, Whitney was not allowed to become a famous brat.
“My mother would say, This is where you sit and don’t move.  [In the control room] sometimes they would let me sit up on the [mixing] board and let me watch everything.  My mother had it always in control.  She was the kind of mother who didn’t play.  She was very strict.  And you conducted yourself accordingly.  She sort of said, Where you tear your ass is where you get it torn.  And she meant it too.  She’d beat your brains out if you didn’t listen.”
And listen she did.  When she was seven, Whitney was singing in the church choir where her family had already created legend.  At 11, she got her first solo.  “She said Mom, I got a song to sing for you,” Cissy recalls.  “And I was on the road then with Dionne. I couldn’t be there when she sang it.  I said to her father, You be sure to be there to hear her.  And he did and he said she did a real good job.  So next time I made sure I was there.  And it was just terrific.”
“I can remember seeing my father standing in the back of the church walking back and forth like this,” Whitney remembers, imitating John Houston gaping.  “Even the people in the church were that way.  In a Baptist or Pentecostal church when the spirit gets so heavy you let go, people were just jumping up and shouting and praising the lord.  Even I didn’t know what was going on.”
Dionne Warwick was not surprised the first time she heard Whitney sing.  “Never.  I come from a singing family.  Every single person in my family sings.”  She sighs.  “It was probably inevitable.”

Whitney toured with her mother as a teenager and was featured in Cissy Houston’s act in mother and daughter duets and as a back-up.  She made her Carnegie Hall debut at age 15 in that act, but her parents held her back from a singing career so she could finish her education. “I couldn’t do anything until I finished high school!” Whitney laughs.  “I couldn’t sing!  She [Cissy] wouldn’t let me do anything.”
As a substitute, they permitted her to be a junior model after mother and her beautiful daughter ran into fate one day on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.  “We were walking down the street one day and this guy said Hey, you should model.”  It was a photographer from the Click modeling agency and they were indeed looking for fresh faces.   TK did not know who Cissy Houston was, but Cissy saw the practical side to assuaging her daughter’s ambitious nature. “My mother said `Let’s see, let’s go upstairs.  We could make some money.  We went and they signed me the next day.  I was 16.  I went to an all girls academy and the teachers didn’t mind as long as I kept up my work.”

For Whitney, life as a teen model was a far cry from the life of say, Elle McPherson or Cindy Crawford.  After all, she’d been hanging with Aretha Franklin for years.  “It was a job,” she says plainly, “and I made good money and I helped pay bills.”
Her pictures appeared in Glamour, Seventeen, and Mademoiselle, but her heart was still set on singing.  And the solo that she sang in her mother’s act, regularly, was called “The Greatest Love of All.”  It was the theme song from “The Greatest,” a flop film biography about and starring Muhammad Ali. George Benson recorded the song, written by veteran composers Michael Masser and Linda Creed, but it had had been a minor hit.  In Cissy’s show, Whitney made it something of an anthem.
Masser remembers their meeting well.  “I walked into Sweetwater’s where I being introduced to Whitney and there was this young, incredible voice singing “The Greatest Love of All.”  I didn’t believe it, I thought it was in my mind.   My understanding from Cissy is that it was the first song Whitney had ever learned.”  Then in 1984 her 21 year old daughter went gold, platinum, all of it.  “Whitney Houston” gave the world a bunch of hits, like “You Give Good Love” and “The Greatest Love Of All.”  The follow-up album, “Whitney”, two and a half years later, entered the charts at #1.  More hit singles: “Didn’t We Almost Have it All,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me.”  Last year, she hit it big again with “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and a version of the national anthem that actually went Top 40.  She assures me that such things do not go to her head, that she is no Diana Ross, for example.

“What happens to people when they get to a certain stage and hear the patter of little footsteps [behind them],” she says, speculating on Ross’s actions.  “I think Diana likes the attention. I don’t need attention that bad.”
Whitney, I suggest, could have been a prima donna at Arista Records’ nationally televised 15th Anniversary show in 1989.  “Sure.  If I wanted to.”  Instead, she sang two numbers and closed the show with her cousin Dionne in a duet. “I’m the biggest thing on Arista.  But that’s not what it’s all about.  It’s not about me.  It was me and Dionne and all the rest of them.  I think I was featured enough.”
Dionne Warwick says of the family’s lack of ego, “We have an innate ability to come back to Earth.  We won’t let anybody stray that far.  There’s always that Come back little sheba.  It’s not to say that we don’t get occasionally involved in what we are, reading the reviews, but we always get back to reality.”
Whitney, however, is not that accessible. Her friend, Michael Masser, says, “She is very brilliant and she is different than other people. I think Whitney will be like a Marlene Deitrich, there will always be a mystique about her.”
Not so, volunteers her mother.  “She wanted to be a doctor, a pediatrician or a veterinarian.  I was happy about that. As much as she likes to talk when she’s around us, she could have been a lawyer.”
Later that afternoon, when we go downstairs to her game room (outfitted with a billiard table, a couple of pinball machines, and an authentic but unstocked Wurlitzer jukebox) Whitney speculates on the rumors of reclusiveness.
“I don’t hang out.  I’m not a hanger outer.  I’d rather do my own thing.  I go out with my friends.  I’m not a prisoner of my own fame,” she abjures.  It may be, in fact, that the tabloid hounds don’t know where to find her. Or don’t care.   So here’s the scoop. “I go to Jezebel’s [a fashionable restaurant for upwardly mobile blacks in New York’s theatre district].  The Pink Tea Cup in Greenwich Village.  Sylvia’s in Harlem — I go there all the time.”
Walking through the house, Whitney shows me a pair of cool, dark rooms.  One is a recording studio that she is just learning to use.  The other contains all her awards: gold and platinum records, citations.

“What’s in there?” I ask.
She shrugs, turning on some lights.
“An Emmy for the Grammy Awards, MTV, Soul Train, Entertainment Tonight. People’s Choice…The people have been good to me.”  The case is chockablock with tiny glistening monuments and she is clearly as unfamiliar with them as the stranger in the room. “The first three years went by so quickly and I had to stop and catch up with everything Whitney Houston had become. Because during that time I was touring and doing the next album.  My mom and dad took care of everything.”
Upstairs, in the vaulted dining room,  Whitney hops up on a marble table and lets out an uninhibited, glass-shattering note that is part war cry, part delight at the sound of her own voice.  Girls, they like to have fun.
This fall, Whitney tests her career again. She’s made her first movie as Kevin Costner’s co-star.  “The Bodyguard” will open this fall or Christmas but she has no plans to take acting lessons. “There’s room for a coach,” she says, but “no acting lesson.  I am an actress.  I’m an actress already.  When I’m singing and I’m in that mode I am an actress.  I’m making the song and what the story is come to life and I am that person.”
“But with a budget of 60 million, when they yell Action! won’t you be scared?”
“Shit yeah.  You know I was scared when I first started doing records, but I did them.  To venture into something that’s brand new, it’s scary.  But I’m not into the whole thing of having to go to acting class to be a good actress.  A lot of actresses have proven that wrong.  It’s really about making the character believable.  I think I can do that.  If I can’t, I won’t ever do it again.”

There’s one other thing Whitney’s thinking of doing: when I remind her that Aretha plays the piano and wrote some of her own biggest hits like “Daydreaming” and “Rock Steady,” that Cissy and John arranged wrote many of the Sweet Inspirations songs, she accedes that the time may have come to expand her musical horizons.  “My grandmother played the piano,” she says.  “I play the piano a little.  I want to play the drums.”  She motions with her arms strongly, like Don Henley hitting the pigskins hard.  With the exception of Karen Carpenter, it is, in purely sexist terms, a manly instrument to choose to learn from scratch.   Whitney keeps her sense of humor about it.  “I’m going to sit down and just do it,” she says, grinning.  “If they think I’m gay now, heh heh heh…”

As for the wedding: if you’re wondering what to buy the couple that might just have everything, please don’t send a gift (yes, drumsticks are out). But donations to the Whitney Houston Foundation will be warmly accepted.

c2012 Roger Friedman

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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