[From Q Magazine]

Appetite For Destruction

Rupert Howe

September 2003

She's not right and she's certainly not OK. A decade of partying and bizarre antics has made Whitney Houston's career a rolling freak show. Believe it or not, things just got weirder.....

On 27th May 2003 Whitney Houston was back in front of the camera, smiling her widest and most photogenic smile. Perhaps because she was in Jerusalem, wearing a bright red robe and being introduced along with ever-present husband Bobby Brown, to the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  The official line was that Houston and husband were in Israel on what they called a "spiritual visit", visiting holy sites at Jerusalem and Galilee and spending a few days with the Black Hebrews, a 2000-strong group of Black Americans who believe themselves to be one of the lost tribes of the Israelites.. Others believe them to be a strange vegan cult led by a man who was once a bus driver in Chicago.

Naturally, there was no mention of political matters during the Israel trip, not any comment on the recent troubles in Palestine. When asked at the Sharon meeting how she liked Israel, a country she had never previously visited Houston said: "It's home. It's a friendship I've never had with any other country."

Business however, was discussed. Houston also spoke to the Israeli tourism minister, who indicated she could be returning to Israel later in the year to record a Christmas special for cable channel HBO, possibly with Stevie Wonder.

Even by the standards of Whitney Houston's tangled life, the Israel trip - and the accompanying pictures of Whitney sightseeing in Jerusalem, Whitney shopping for souvenirs, Whitney bathing in the River Jordan - seemed thoroughly weird. Just what was going on with Whitney Houston? That question has been asked pretty consistently for over a decade, and we still seem no nearer an answer.

The Israel visit did at least make Whitney Houston news again. Helpful when you consider that the singer is in the middle of a comeback - one of those comebacks stars make when they haven't been away, just making the kind of headlines their record companies wish they hadn't.  So far it's working. Well, sort of. Her latest album, the actually-quite-ordinary Just Whitney, came out last December and has proved a moderate success- by Whitney standards, anyway. A TOP 10 hit in the US, here it didn't even make TOP 75. Perhaps because most people outside the US didn't get to see last December's TV special with Dianne Sawyer during which Houston admitted, "I partied" - with the help of unspecified quantities of booze cocaine and pills. This was the interview that was supposed to clear away all the rumours, which in summary are: that the once unimpeachable Whitney Houston is a drug addicted closet lesbian who lives in fear of a violent husband. Yes she said, I have taken drugs. As for the rest? All fiction. What she could not dispel was the sense of a woman who remains uncomfortable with her public image and who finds it difficult (impossible?) to relax when talking about herself.

She also came across as patronising and hopelessly out of touch with the world around her. After Sawyer mentioned rumours suggesting Whitney had gone into rehab for crack, she responded: "First of all, let's get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let's get that straight. OK? We don't do crack. We don't do that. Crack is wack."

Later, she referred to herself and Bobby Brown as "rock'n'rollers, man" - which might be her was of saying that black artists who admit to taking drugs are usually viewed as delinquents , whereas white rock artists have the potential to be hailed as countercultural icons. Or simply her way of admitting she loved every minute of it. Mostly though it just sounded embarrassing.

Rock'n'roll might not be the obvious term to describe Houston. Yet she does suffer from the contradictions and insecurities common to performers who started their careers young. In 1985, when Houston released her first album (the one called simply Whitney Houston), she looked as if she still sang in a church choir at the weekends.

In keeping with her pristine image, her voice was clear and powerful, almost strident at times, and perfectly matched to the power ballads and disco-lite ordered up for her by Arista Records' Clive Davis who had signed Whitney at 19 after hearing her sing at a showcase in New York. Perhaps one of the reasons her late problems seemed so surprising was that, under Davis's Svengali - like guidance, the robotic perfection of her recording and apparent lack of any personal life rendered her almost inhuman.

"I spent all my 20s making music, doing gigs and videos and movies," she says. "By the time I got to be 28, I was like, Whooooo. I was ready to par-tay.. Do my thing. I was like, Oh, yeah, I'm bad, I'm crazy. I did that and had fun. I know what that's all about. I can definitely tell Krissy (her daughter Bobbi Kristina), This is what you don't do."

That puritanical aside can be read either as sensitivity to making the wrong kind of public statement or a reassertion of the "old" Whitney-the God -fearing daughter of '60s session singer Cissy Houston, who sang solo in church as soon as her mother realised she had a voice.

After all, the now-standard biography of Whitney Houston states that it was only after her 1992 marriage to R&B bad boy Bobby Brown, once of new jack swing heart-throbs New Edition that she started to go off the rails. Yet it has become increasingly clear that Whitney's image in the late '80s and early '90s was just that: an image. An airbrushed fantasy-figure who looked more like a magazine cover girl (which she had been as a teenager) than a singer, tricked out in blonde wigs and pale make-up.

According to Kenneth Reynolds, who worked with Clive Davis at Arista, Davis groomed her to look more generic from the outset: "The early version of Saving All My Love sounded like the new Aretha Franklin. But Clive didn't like it - No, it's too black. Clive also complained that the cover of Whitney's first album made her look 'too ethnic'."

It's the contrast between Davis's marketing genius and her messy relationship with Bobby Brown that continues to fascinate. When they met back in the early '90s, it was suggested that a relationship with Brown would make Houston appeal more to a black audience, after she'd been booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards. It might also help her break out of the prom-queen packaging Davis had wrapped around her.

"I was supposed to marry the white guy", she says. "I was a black woman-princess-queen kind of figure, all that madness. But I can wear a gown as well as I can wear jeans and boots or sneakers. I think that they just had me a little wrong."

R&B producer Teddy Riley, who has worked with Bobby Brown feels the same way, if not for different reasons. "Bobby and I were both from the 'hood and have a bit of craziness," he says. "When I first met Whitney I could see she has a little craziness in her too."

Mutual craziness or not, Houston's support for Bobby Brown has been unwavering over the years, even during the difficult times - such as in 1996 when he wrapped her Porsche Carrera around a traffic sign outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Or in June 1997 when it was reported that Brown had been slapping Houston during an argument at a mall ( Houston later dismissed the claim as a case of mistaken identity). Or a month later, when Houston was taken to hospital in Italy with a deep cut to her face. She later said she had "hit a rock while diving". During last year's televised interview, Houston told Sawyer: "No, he's never hit me. I've hit him, in anger."

As teen stars guided by the music industry father figures (in Browns case New Edition producer Maurice Starr) there has been plenty for each of them to rebel against. At their first meeting- an awards ceremony, naturally - they almost rebelled against each other, Houston flirted with Brown: he more or less ignored her.

"I was like, Oooo, this guy doesn't like me," she says. "Well, I always get curious when somebody doesn't like me. I want to know why. So I said, I'm going to invite Bobby to a party. And I did. And he called back and said, I'd love to come, which was a surprise. He was the first male I met in the business that I could talk to and be real with."

Prior to their marriage in 1992 - a lavish affair attended by doves, swans, close friends, relatives and Donald Trump - Houston's relationships were something of a mystery. As far as anyone knew, she had none. At least not with the opposite sex. It was around this time that rumours first began to circulate about her close ties with her friend and advisor, Robyn Crawford. Rumours that Houston has consistently - and wearily - denied. Even back in 1993 she was saying "I'm so fucking tired of that question and I'm tired of answering it."

These days it doesn't get asked so much. Besides, Crawford left Houston's management company in 2000. But it was true that, growing up, Houston mistrusted men. She had two older brothers, and the way they talked so casually about having sex with their girlfriends made her uncomfortable. " I knew all the raps," she said. " I knew all the shit that guys could lay on you from A-Z. I got to hear how guys talk about girls."

In a way her eye was too keen. She saw and understood too much, perhaps even more than she wanted to. And as with her childhood, so with her career. Having topped the charts and toured the world, by 1993 it seemed as if she were already tired, uncomfortable, too much in the know, and looking for a way out.

"You know what I feel? I feel old", she told Rolling Stone. "For the most part, from the time I was 11 years old, I've been working, I did the nightclubs, I did the modelling, all that tuff.... You know what's fun to me? Being with my husband. Being with my family, going out, and laughing, having a good time. That's my fun. But the fun in the business, the excitement, like at the beginning? Gone."

Today the early '90s remain the high point of her career - sales wise, anyway- her appearance alongside Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard (and accompanying karaoke favourite I Will Always Love You) summing up her mainstream appeal: Polished and professional, but also mannered and soulless. Her subsequent films - Waiting To Exhale (1995) and The Preachers Wife (1996)- showed a no-less clichéd, but more human side and had a fraction of the impact at the box office.

Returning to the studio in 1998, My Love Is Your Love finally showed that there was more to the fabled larynx than clinical ballads- most notably on the Rodney Jerkins- produced single It's Not Right But It's Okay. The elusive beat and slinky production matched her voice better than anything written for her since the '80s.

While her music showed signs of rejuvenation, lurid reports of her and Browns behaviour were reaching the media with increasing frequency. In January 2000 officials at Keahole-Kona airport in Hawaii found 15g of cannabis and three half smoked joints in Houston's bag. Rather than wait to be arrested, she left the bag and boarded her plane. Later charged with possession, she pleaded no contest and escaped with community orders and a small fine.

A month later, however she was in the news again, turning up for a photo shoot with US magazine Jane only to wander around the studio looking "extremely unfocused" and playing "imaginary piano". Asked about her behaviour at the subsequent interview, she snapped: "People pick on me, but they don't know me. You could analyse me all fucking day and I'm the same person. What do I care?"

In March, Houston was due to perform at the Oscars. But at rehearsals with musical director Burt Bacharach, Houston's efforts started bad and got rapidly worse. She began singing Someone To Watch Over Me instead of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, then forgot the words to Alfie and The Way We Were. She looked distracted and the legendary voice was unable to hit the high notes. She found it impossible to sing and walk down some steps at the same time. Her publicist said afterward "She's not good on stairs."

Bacharach, however was less forgiving, commenting archly: "I feel badly for her chronic condition."

At this point in her life, discussion of the "chronic condition" had almost entirely taken over from discussion of her career. The US tabloids had more of less made up their mind that Whitney Houston was a drug user and borderline addict, even though as late as 2001 she was denying she had a drug problem. "They think there's more to know, " she claimed "Ain't nothing up my sleeve."

Somehow, she still managed to broker a record breaking $100 million dollar/six album deal with Arista that summer, although so far only one album has been released: Just Whitney. By turns apologetic regarding past misdemeanours and resentful of media intrusion, the lyrics for tracks such as the recent single Try It On My Own sound like a typical 12 step "empowerment", all about moving on and consigning the past to the past: "I'm not the foolish girl you used to know", "I've learned from my mistakes which way to go".

Yet Houston hasn't done a 12 step programme. She did God instead, under the guidance of Perri "Pebbles" Reid, '80s R&B singer, ex-wife of Arista boss LA Reid, and one time manager of TLC. Reid is now known as Sister Perri, and has her own church, Women Of God Changing Lives Through Christ.

For seven months last year, Brown, Houston, and their daughter stayed at Perri's white colonnaded mansion in Atlanta. "She took me under her wing", says Houston. "She took me through a transition of deliverance and prayer....You need somebody to give you tough love, people to remind you that you are a child of God and you don't belong to the Devil."

Curiously, though, she hasn't actually said she won't do drugs again: "I'm not going to tell you that," she told Sawyer. "I'm not the strongest every day, but I'm not the weakest. And I won't break."

That's about as close as Whitney gets to confessional: appealing to higher authorities, placing herself with God, and all the doubters with the Devil. At least Brown is unrepentant. He told Diane Sawyer he still smoked marijuana (for medical reasons, obviously, and not every day, just, every other day) and in January this year he missed a Georgia court hearing so he could appear at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles.

He has also been talking about a feature film called Beffy and Charlie, about a pair of musicians-cum-gangsters. He and Houston will "be singing, robbing, stealing- a lot of things people might not want to see us do."

By comparison, Houston's message grows more confused with each public appearance she makes. On the one hand she's unrepentant about the partying. On the other, she wants to make a public show of contrition, in her latest interviews talking as if she's metamorphosed into a humble woman of God who wishes for nothing more than to give up show business in favour of baking cookies and sitting "on a porch somewhere rocking with my husband and my grandchildren".

If only. Just spare a thought for Houston's 10-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina, the mother of those gambolling future grandchildren: "She's a diva in training," says Houston. "If there's ever going to be another me, it's her.."



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