Falling Star...

[From Newark Star-Ledger]

Falling star: Whitney Houston had it all -- the voice, the looks, the fans. What happened?

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Star-Ledger Staff

From world-class diva to scandal-ridden drug user, Whitney Houston's life has been filled with more highs and lows than one of her famous power-ballads.

Just when it seemed the notes couldn't get much lower, Houston entered a drug rehabilitation center on Monday.

Houston's publicist, Nancy Seltzer, offered no details about the location of the center or what prompted Houston to seek help.

But years of marital strife, legal entanglements, career setbacks, and bad publicity have apparently taken their toll on the 40-year-old star, whose husband, R&B singer Bobby Brown, was sentenced last month to 60 days in a Georgia jail for parole violations.

In December, Houston called police, claiming Brown beat her at their home in Georgia. But she sat by his side in court the next day, her face bruised and her lip cut, as he was charged with misdemeanor battery.

Last month, two Houston employees filed suit against her in Morristown, claiming they were unfairly dismissed after Brown sexually harassed one of them at the couple's Mendham Township estate over a period of years.

For those who have followed Houston's descent, from "prom queen of soul" to battered, drug-abusing wife, news of rehab is a hopeful sign. On Tuesday, scores of encouraging messages were posted on Houston's fan Web sites.

"Go Whitney!! Here you are taking a brave step...She is really taking full control of her life, and it won't be easy, but if she knows she has people behind her, then she can do anything," wrote "Nippy4eva" on Whitney-Fan.com. ("Nippy" is Houston's childhood nickname.)

In New Jersey, friends like John Scher, her former tour manager, are also wishing her well.

'I hope she gets the help and peace of mind she needs," said Scher, a South Orange resident. "As a society, we've only been given a few people with talent like that."

Houston's family members, including her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, and cousin, Dionne Warwick, have not commented.

Why Houston is getting help now, after years of turmoil and erratic behavior, is no mystery to James Robert Parish, author of "Whitney Houston: The Unauthorized Biography," published last year.

"I think things have gotten so out of control," he said. "When your career is active, and you're surrounded by handlers, they're keeping you busy and that helps keep you out of trouble. But when your career has tapered off, you find yourself with time for things to happen and time to think about what you should be doing."

What went wrong?

According to Parish, this is the first time the singer has publicly sought help for her problem, which first surfaced in 2000, when she was charged in Hawaii for possession of marijuana -- although rumors swirled for years before that.

Houston admitted to Diane Sawyer in a 2002 "Dateline" interview that she once abused drugs, but claimed to have overcome addiction on her own through prayer. (Ironically, the very day of the interview, Brown was pulled over in Georgia and arrested for drug possession.)

"A few years back, Whitney went to two private rehabs that classify themselves as health spas, but neither of them really helped," said Parish.

Since the late 1990s, Houston's career has been in decline, and her relationship with Brown -- arrested eight times since 1989, on charges ranging from driving while intoxicated to sexual battery -- has been a tabloid perennial.

At her peak, Houston's music broke sales records. The album from her 1992 film "The Bodyguard," still the highest-selling soundtrack ever, sold 34 million copies.

In contrast, her last major release, 2002's "Just Whitney" sold just 1 million.

In recent appearances, she has sometimes seemed unrecognizable from the poised and meticulously groomed beauty of her heyday. Just last fall, Houston, without makeup, appeared exhausted and disoriented in footage from an NBC "Dateline" program titled "Diva in the Desert." The program focused on Houston and Brown's spiritual retreat to Israel with the Black Hebrew sect.

The show asked the same question Houston fans have been asking for years: What happened?

Houston was born in Newark and reared in East Orange, the daughter of acclaimed gospel/soul singer Cissy Houston, who sang back-up for everyone from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley. Her dad, the late John Houston, was a truck driver who later managed both Cissy's and Whitney's careers.

As a child, Whitney sang in the gospel choir of Newark's New Hope Baptist Church, where her mother is still choir director. As a teen, she attended Mount St. Dominic Academy in Caldwell, but at night, she sang in her mother's nightclub act and performed back-up on mom's albums.

She did some modeling in the early 1980s and was discovered by music impresario Clive Davis, who helmed the careers of both Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. Houston's 1985 debut on Arista records, "Whitney Houston," went on to sell 22 million, the highest-selling debut for a solo female artist.

She was groomed for crossover superstardom, and her glamorous image -- she often performed in evening gowns -- harked back to the Motown era. According to Parish, that may have been part of the problem.

"Clive Davis molded her image. He felt that in the 1980s, you had to be one thing in public, a white-bread version of Whitney Houston, with really no ethnic characteristics, and that never sat well with her," he said.

There were also demons from childhood, said Parish. Cissy Houston, while always supportive of Whitney, was bitter that her own career never took off, according to Parish. Houston's father, who took care of Whitney and her two older brothers while Cissy worked, moved to Fort Lee in the late 1970s, although he and Cissy didn't divorce until the 1990s.

"There were mixed messages during her childhood, and all these conflicts between daughter and mother, husband and wife," said Parish.

When Houston married Bobby Brown in 1992, the public wondered what she saw in him. A former member of the R&B group New Edition, Brown was a chart-topping bad- boy artist, arrested for "simulating sexual intercourse" onstage in Georgia in 1989.

Cynics gossiped that the marriage was intended to quell rumors that Houston was linked romantically with her long-time friend Robyn Crawford, who lived with Houston in Mendham Township until her relationship with Brown.

But Houston had reasons of her own. "I guess she saw excitement in Bobby because she was forced into that mold of pop princess. Bobby represented the rebel that was always in Whitney," according to gossip maven Wendy Williams, who interviewed a combative Houston in 2002. ("She didn't seem in her right mind at all," Williams says of the interview.) Houston and Brown have a daughter, Bobbi Kristina, 11.

The couple's drug habit, and their feeling that they were being persecuted in the media, deepened their bond, Williams speculated. "It's the secret of their usage, the Jekyll and Hyde thing," she said.

Kevin Skinner, a former family friend who, along with her late father, sued Houston in 2002, believes she's in rehab now because Brown is in jail. "Her co-dependent is gone, so she can make some decisions," he said.

Skinner is a convicted Newark drug dealer who claimed on "Dateline" to have once supplied Houston with drugs. He says the singer owes him a fee for helping her out of her legal troubles in Hawaii and negotiating her $100 million contract with Arista Records in 2001. The suit, filed on behalf of her father's company, John Houston Entertainment, accused Houston of breach of contract.

These days, Skinner claims to be writing a tell-all book called "The Rise and Fall of Daddy's Little Girl." He initially said it would be published this month by Simon and Schuster, but when the company said it had no knowledge of the book, he said he may self-publish.

It wouldn't be the first time a Houston insider has written about her. Kevin Ammons, a former member of her entourage, wrote "Good Girl, Bad Girl," published in 1996. Ammons, who claimed Houston reneged on promises to help him with his singing career, filled his book with details of Houston's drug use and her relationship with Robyn Crawford.

When she emerges from rehab, the future of Houston's singing career is uncertain. Her record label, Arista, is folding, although there is speculation that she will sign with Clive Davis' J Records.

For the past few years, Houston's once-powerful voice has been raspy and uneven in performances, although she can still display flashes of brilliance.

A fan who saw her most recent performance in Russia last month described how her voice cracked through the first few songs. "But then something magic happened...her voice suddenly flew like back in the day and she could hit all the notes without avoiding them or rearranging the song," wrote "Janis" on Whitney-fan.com.

(Although Houston reportedly announced that she was pregnant in Russia, a spokesman from Houston's management company, the Newark-based Nippy Inc., denied it. "She's not pregnant," the spokesman said. "She never said that.")

Parish believes that no matter what happens to her pop career, Houston remains viable as an actress.

"It's like with Judy Garland, people are so focused on her voice, they forget that she has a wonderful reservoir of acting ability," he said.

At this point, Houston isn't saying when she'll emerge from rehab, or where she'll eventually settle. She and Brown have been living mostly in Georgia since Brown's legal problems there.

In the past few years, Houston hasn't been seen much at her old Morris County haunts, like the Chester Dairy Queen or Dantes restaurant in Mendham. But she did stop at Mendham's Black Horse Pub shortly before the holidays, said manager Michael Hoarty.

As always, she was gracious, said Hoarty, and nothing seemed wrong.

"She was just very pleasant," he said.




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