London Evening Standard...

Is the party over for Whitney?
by Emily Sheffield

You can imagine the scene: Liza Minnelli and Broadway producer David Gest are finalising the last-minute details of their sumptuous wedding. The guest list is full of Hollywood's finest: Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor are best man and maid of honour and Gest has secured a rare performance from Whitney Houston. She is set to sing her hit, The Greatest Love of All, as Minnelli sweeps down the aisle in a full-length, white mink coat.

The phone rings. Gest answers and a heated discussion ensues; Minnelli (according to newspaper reports) dissolves into "floods" of tears. Houston, the star attraction, has cancelled; the soul diva is too busy recording her long-awaited album in Florida to make the two-day trip to New York.

Gest did not publicly condemn Houston's behaviour, but the couple no longer speak to her. Bitchy asides appeared in Liz Smith's New York Post column (Minnelli's confidante and a guest at their wedding) about Houston's demands - a designer dress, a make-up artist, security and a private jet. Natalie Cole was brought in as a substitute.

For seasoned observers, however, the cancellation was no great surprise, for the singer who once had the world at her feet has sunk into despair. Not that her record company would agree - Arista signed a recordbreaking album deal with Houston last year for a reported $72 million. Word is that this could be as foolish as EMI's ill-fated union with Mariah Carey, for Whitney has not, it is claimed, recorded a single track.

A glittering performance could have proved that Houston was still worth every dollar and banished allegations of drug abuse and domestic violence. During the past six months, reports of cocaine binges, overdoses and failed attempts to kick her alleged habit have filled the American press: Globe magazine claimed that Houston, now 39, has been sinking into "cocaine stupors", quoting a "close friend" as saying: "She's falling apart and sinking fast. When she's out cold, they can barely wake her. No one dares call emergency because they're afraid it will turn into another celebrity overdose scandal."

Rewind 10 years and Houston was on top of the world - not trying to escape from it. She was the most successful soul singer of all time. In 1992, her first film, The Bodyguard, with Kevin Costner, grossed L89 million while the accompanying album earned L11.5 million.

That year she married Brown, five years her junior, in an extravagant ceremony complete with doves, swans and a L28,000 dress. Their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, arrived soon after. On the surface, her life seemed to be unwinding like a fairytale. So what turned America's golden girl into a gaunt recluse?

Her parents blame her husband. "Get rid of that bum before there's a tragedy," warned her father, John Houston, last August after Brown was rushed to hospital for a suspected drug overdose. (The official line was "heat exhaustion"). "Stick with him and you're going to die," her father added. "You must dump him. We're really scared that next time you'll be the victim."

Rumours that their marriage was on the rocks began in 1994 after an alleged hotel brawl between the couple. Houston also suffered a series of miscarriages. In 1997, they separated for a month and, during a reconciliatory holiday in Capri, Houston was seen with a bandaged head after she "hit a rock".

Fans were stunned when she started dating Brown in 1987. Houston began her career in a gospel choir in New Jersey (where her mother, Cissy, is still a minister). He was a ghetto kid, nicknamed "the sperm donor" for his capacity to father illegitimate children, and had been in and out of the Betty Ford Clinic and the courts. Cynics said it was a match of convenience. "You're supposed to party in your twenties," argued Houston. "I was on tour and making records. Bobby taught me how to have fun." Too much fun.

Two years ago, she was dumped from the Academy Awards for forgetting the lyrics to one of her own songs in rehearsal. Then, last September, she struggled to control her voice at Michael Jackson's 30th anniversary concert in New York. She pulled out of a second scheduled show and has not been seen in public since.

She was reported to have been seen at a celebrity clinic in Arizona, though Nancy Seltzer, her spokeswoman, said she was visiting a spa. Friends such as Angie Stone and Smokey Robinson say they are "praying" for Houston, with Robinson begging her on a radio show "to get it together".

After fans at begged Arista to support her, its CEO, Antonio Reid, persuaded Houston to stay in Atlanta with her friend and mentor, Perri Reid Nixon. According to the website, the singer was making progress and recording new material until Brown whisked her to the nearby Carlton-Ritz Hotel, where she remained for days.

If Houston insists on upsetting more work colleagues and friends with such behaviour, she will soon be left with no one else to turn to - and no career to fall back on.



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