Bobby Brown is fast asleep. Tracey Baker-Simmons and Wanda Shelley, the founding partners of B2 Entertainment, are trying everything to wake him up. As executive producers of Being Bobby Brown - a reality show that debuted on Bravo this summer - they're experienced at handing this sort of thing.
Shelley, who left a corporate pharmaceuticals job to form B2 with her homegirl Baker-Simmons, takes hold of Brown's hand, shakes it, then tries to pull him up from the couch without success. Speaking in a sweet-but-firm Chattanooga drawl, Baker-Simmons - who's produced music videos from Immature and Brandy, as well as hip hop flavored Sprite ads - explains to Brown that a writer from Vibe has flown in from New York to watch some tape with him, maybe even conduct an interview. Unimpressed, he mumbles something, rolls over, and continues snoring.
Not half an hour ago, a Brown caravan pulled up outside B2 Entertainment's headquarters, a brick house in the prosperous Buckhead section of Atlanta. Brown, his older brother and longtime manager Tommy; his gray-haired, gravelly voiced father, whom everybody calls Pops; and two pairs of energetic nieces and nephews come spilling out of the shiny black vehicles. They come to check out a rough cut from Being Bobby Brown's first season.
Inside the B2 offices is anything but soporific, what with Tommy straining to hear (and be heard) on his cell phone, Pops pleading with his tiniest granddaughter to stop spinning in circles, and two older nephews beseeching a busy editing tech to locate - among the hundreds of hours of footage - a certain driveway basketball game. Amid all the hubbab, Brown hoists his unlaces Timberlands onto the leather couch in the editing room, streches out, and nods off to sleep, perchance to dream.
This big splashy restaurant in suburban Alpharetta Ga., is not even 10 minutes from the Brown's home. On August 22, 2003, Bobby was arrested here at Atlantic Seafood Company for an old probation violation. A few weeks later, Baker-Simmons came to this bar and started quizzing the bartender about the restaurant's famous customers. "She drinks apple martinis," he told her. "He drinks Budweiser - and he's very mellow." That's it? Baker-Simmons wondered. No Drama? "Not really," he replied.
She Began putting the characters together in her head. "People think he's some criminal, and they're just a couple of drug addicts," says Baker-Simmons, who insists that, behind all the media hype, Brown and Houston are more or less "traditional African-American parents" working on their marriage and raising their kids. "I mean, people like Ozzy Osborne now. He bit the head off of a bat. So I thought, you know, maybe there's something here for Bobby Brown." Within six months, the reality series Being Bobby Brown was in production.
After so many negative experiences with the media - as well as real-life problems of the sort that are better resolved in private - it may seem strange that Brown would agree to let camera crews follow his family's every move. There are the numerous arrests, including charges of wife abuse, and DUIs, as well as reports of drug abuse. Most recently, there has been more talk of infidelity via video girl groupie-turned-tell-all author Karrine Steffan's (aka Super Head) book, Confessions of a Video Vixen, in which she outlines her previous affair with Brown. "Our relationship didn't last long because in addition to his high-profile marriage to Whitney Houston, I also realized that there was a serious problem," she writes. "I never witnessed him using drugs, but...I remember talking to him while he sat on the toilet, nodding off, continually during the conversation."
In spite of (or perhaps because of) all this unwanted attention, he made the decision to go ahead with the reality show while he was still in jail for violating his probation. Keeping it real is seldom a priority for so-called reality television, but Being Bobby Brown is realer than most - sometimes painfully so.
The first day of shooting was March 25, 2004, the day Brown was released from a Massachusetts jail after paying $63,500 in back child support to Kim Ward. Brown had two children with Ward before he married Houston. Nothing, he said, could be worse than people thinking he neglected his kids. "Cameras got there right after I got out of jail," Brown explains. He wanted to show that he and his family would move past that moment.
And in fact, he did. "I love my dad more than anything," Brown's 15-year-old daughter LaPrincia said to the cameras while sitting on her frilly white bedspread. "When I read about my dad in the paper, I just really think it's funny." Though LaPrincia lives with her mother, Brown still finds time to be a father to his daughter. "The stuff that they say is, like, totally wrong about him."
"I used to get so mad at some of the things I would read," says Brown, a lively and charming contrast to the man catching z's earlier. "My wife would be like, 'Don't worry about it.' But to me, this is gonna be in the archives. There's gonna be records of things that Bobby Brown did," he adds. "To me, this show was just a way of maintaining my sanity."
Now that the first season is a wrap, Baker-Simmons, Shelley, and the recurring cast - Bobby, Whitney, Pops, and Tommy, plus his then-8-year-old-son, McKinley - have gathered here of all places to talk about the show.
"Have you met my wife?" asks Brown, stepping aside to introduce the tall, demure, and absolutely stunning woman who's accompanying him to Atlantic Seafood Company on this August evening. Houston's hair is cut short, raspberry highlights framing that unforgettable face. "How do you do?" she says, offering her hand, and the whole introduction suddenly seems unnecessary, even ridiculous. This is Whitney Houston we're talking about, after all. But upon further reflection, the only correct answer to Brown's question is "No, I have not."
Nor, like most people, have I met Bobby Brown, who (today at least) turns out to be utterly unlike his well-known bad-boy image. Endearing, funny, and disarmingly unassuming, he's the sort of guy who's willing to talk with just about anybody, even people who think of nothing of interrupting a family meal to ask Brown and Houston for an autograph.
Brown pulls out his wife's chair and sits down next to her. While he is gallant and attentive throughout dinner, she seems restless. So from time to time he rests his hand on her shoulders and gives her neck a gentle squeeze. Houston wears a ring with an olive-size rock on her left hand. Her model physique is still very much intact after age 40. She looks much better than those emaciated pictures we've all seem broadcast and rebroadcast ad nauseum. But on this night, there is no sign of inner calm. Quiet moments are filled with activity, pounding the table with a drum roll or playing air piano.
"My wife will have the salmon with rice," Brown tells the waitress and orders himself an enormous sushi platter. "This just happens to be the place I got arrested," Brown says after politely sending his eel back to be grilled a bit more. He indicates a nearby row of booths and says, "I was sitting right back there."
"You sure were," Houston adds. "And the funny thing about it is that we knew we shouldn't have went out." At this remark, the whole table bursts out laughing.
But as they were sitting down to eat, a fellow diner was dropping a dime on the couple. "Four cops came and got me, guns drawn," Brown recalls. "They said, 'Mr. Brown, can you step outside?' I was like, Sir, I'm not gonna run. This is actually for a traffic ticket. You all don't need to approach me like that. But I was calm about it. I said, Can you give me one minute and let me just take my jewelry off and have my food wrapped up and give it to my wife?"
Alpharetta police Sergeant Chris Lagerbloom's account of the arrest was much the same. He told a reporter that Bobby Brown was "as calm and cordial and professional as you could be." Mr. Brown's wife, on the other hand, was not having it. "She was outwardly frustrated," said Sgt. Lagerbloom. "She was upset. She was yelling and creaming and pointing fingers at one of our officers."
"They walked me out," Brown says as the sliced eel returns, and suddenly Houston seems to be reliving the moment. "I'm goin', Come on baby!" she says. "Jump in the car! Fuck it! We'll make an escape!" Bobby was surrounded by police, but Whitney was undeterred. "I was like, No! We can do it! Let's run! I was fuckin' nutso," she recalls, laughing so hard she begins coughing. "Like, Yo! We can do this! Jump in the car!"
There are a million and one questions just begging to be asked, issues of perceptions and reality, courage and judgement, responsibility and even sobriety, Of one fact, however, there is no questionL Whitney is down for her man to the bitter end.
"The biggest misconception is that he has influenced her badly," says Bethann Hardison, who was Houston's point person at the Click modeling agency in the early 80's, before Houston became an international music superstar. "Everyone thinks he's the reason for all the problems, and this really pisses me off. Now, this is my girl, to me, she's like my child. But I know that she's no slouch. And I know that she got involved in things before he came into her life...I defend him to keep others from putting him do down."
When asked how he feels to be a black father figure on reality television, Brown reaches over and puts his hand on his father's shoulder. "This is a real black father figure," he says. "But we've never seen anything like that on TV."
Brown goes on, reflecting on fatherhood. "Yeah, I'm dedicated to my children. So I can call myself a black father. Very supportive of everything they do, no matter what it is. Even when they're wrong, for the most part, in my eyes, they're right because they gotta learn."
"He don't even discipline them," Houston interjects. Brown hears her but keeps going: "They only way to learn is to go through something. It's not for someone to tell you. You gotta go through the hard knocks..."
"Bobby lets the kids get away with murder," Whitney adds, playfully provoking him. "They're not scared of you. They love him."
"But we always seem to work it out," says Brown, reaching over to hold his wife's hand. Suddenly, Houston becomes uncomfortable with the presence of a reporter. Brown assures her that it's okay and she waves off offers to end the interview.
"Darling," she says, shaking her head. "I have been quoted, misquoted, misread, misled, the whole nine yards. What the fuck. All I want to do is fuckin' sing. That's all I wanna do. You know? And make people happy."
She lowers her head into her hands. Brown reaches over and puts his hand on her shoulders.
"Calm down, calm down," he says. "Take it, take it, take it..."£
"My mother told me to breathe," Houston says, lifting her eyes.
"Take a breath," Brown says. "Take the breath."
"Exhale, bitch," says Houston, commanding herself to relax. "Exhale."
A few months before this interview, Houston checked into a drug rehab facility. She would be back in rehab several months later, still searching for that elusive inner calm. She traces the troubles back to when she was working on her second motion picture, 1995's Waiting To Exhale. Houston remembers the shoot as a tough time. "It was shit going on," she recalls. "You know, I was a movie star. I really didn't want to be one. I was raising my daughter. I wasn't with my husband. I had to be in Phoenix. And it was like, Yo - fuck this. I don't wanna do this."
Brown listens attentively as she pours out her blues. He understands as well as anyone how success had strained their relationship. In 2007, he points out, they will mark their 15th wedding anniversary. "Still go the cake," Brown says of the top layer of their wedding cake that's been kept in the freezer at their New Jersey estate. Every time they pull out a popsicle, those two little figures of the bride and groom stare right back at them. "It don't look like me," Brown complains with a grin. "He got a dumby, not a gumby. It's all flat on one side."
The original plan was to take out the cake and cit it to celebrate their 10th anniversary, but that year they didn't feel much like celebrating. That was the year Brown was arrested for marijuana possession, Houston gave her infamous Diane Sawyer interview, and John Houston sued his daughter for $100 million. "It was like, Nah...," Brown recalls. "We ain't cutting that shit."
"Twelve-year-old cake?" says Tommy aghast. "Who gonna eat that?"
"It's still the same as it was," Houston says. "It's lasted a long time. Yeah, baby. Like us."
Brown's two hours late for his meeting with Jheryl Busby, the MCA executive who first signed him to a solo deal. There is talk of a new album to coincide with the TV show. Baker-Simmons and Shelley's camera crew is here to document the event, and when Brown and Houston finally arrive, everything seems to go well. Busby asks Brown if he's keeping his vocal chops tight. "I have the best vocal teacher in the world," Brown replies. "It happens to be my wife."
After the meeting, Mr Busby seems cautiously optimistic. "I think we can make a great product if we just take our time and do it," he says. "I heard and saw nothing today that would make me wanna walk away. I was a little worried when the meeting kept moving back and back and back," he adds with a smile. "Bobby's still somewhat unpredictable, which is good, which is what life is. So now we just have to make a great product. I think he wants it, too, and time will tell how bad he wants it."
Months from now, there will be no deal. Brown says he'll put out the record himself. After watching VH1's Behind The Music episode on New Edition, he toys with the idea of reuniting with the group - which is in the midst of a lucrative comeback tour - but that doesn't happen either.
After the lights are switched off and the cameras are packed away, the sound of music floats in from the lobby outside the restaurant. Someone is playing the grand piano, and the sound is uncommonly sweet. The guests continue chatting, unaware that the woman seated on the black piano bench with her hat pulled down low is Whitney Houston. She talks quietly to herself as she caresses the chords of a tender love song, summoning keyboard skills learned on the church organ back in Newark. She says she'd like to record a gospel album "because that's where I'm from," but she knows that "Clive ain't trying to hear it." But judging from this impromptu recital, Alicia Keys is not the only Clive Davis protégé who can throw down on the ivories. "I've got more to give," Houston says later. "They just don't know it yet. I like to hold a little back."
She is so absorbed in her playing that she doesn't begin to sing until the very last line, and only then do a few hotel guests start to take notice. It's a song about instant, abiding love that Roberta Flack made famous, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." And before the song is over, Houston finds her voice, which is quiet and delicate at first.
"Your faaace," she sings in rising tones, piano chords gathering strength for a final flourish. There's nothing tentative about her playing now, the music flowing freely through her. She adds an effortless little riff that could break your heart. She concludes, and the last chords reverberate in the air as Houston finally exhales. Your face. It's a moment of gentle magic that shames the banality of this hotel lobby.
"When you're happy, everything's better," Brown says later. "When you wake up in the morning, you just feel right cause you know there's this person right next to you who you adore, who knows everything about you."
And those close to them, like Hardison, believe that Bobby and Whitney are soul mates, despite all the difficulties they've faced as a couple. "I have such great respect for their relationship," she says. "There's a serious bond between them. They have their demons. Bobby is chemically imbalanced and Whitney is addictive. I really want them to come through the end of the tunnel completely unscathed and renewed. And to prove to the world that whatever you thought about them was not true. 'Cause they're a beacon of light. They're tough."
For Bobby Brown, their relationship is as natural as breathing. "She keeps me alive," he says, narrowing his eyes. "She keeps me alive." And there's no doubt that the reverse is also true.
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