Whitney Comes to Dublin...

Irish Times: Houston, she's had her problems

Will she, won’t she, appear on stage in Dublin tonight? The bookies are sceptical, but the once all-conquering Whitney Houston seems determined to put previous cancellations behind her, along with her marriage and her drug problems, writes FIONA MCCANN

IT’S NOT right, but it’s okay. Whitney Houston is back on tour after an 11-year break and reactions to the shows so far have been less than ecstatic. Reports had already filtered in about lacklustre performances in South Korea and Australia, before a series of show cancellations and a reported upper respiratory infection sent the rumour mill into overdrive.

When she finally took to the stage in Birmingham this week to open her European tour, reviews were mixed, with reports of lengthy costume changes, endless onstage chatter and, worst of all, a voice that was breathless and at times fell short of the high notes that had made Houston a household name.

Irish fans will still be hoping that her scheduled appearances at the O2 Arena (tonight, tomorrow and Tuesday) go ahead as planned, though Paddy Power is betting just 7/4 that Houston will call off one or all of her dates there. If she does make an appearance, Paddy Power is offering 2/1 that the audience will boo her off the stage.

What were the odds, back when her endlessly chart-topping I Will Always Love You was making musical history in record sales and Houston was being hailed worldwide, that things could change so drastically for this American idol? The cards had seemed stacked in her favour from the start.

Houston grew up the youngest child of singer Cissy Houston, and boasted Dionne Warwick as a cousin and Aretha Franklin as her godmother. Raised in Newark, New Jersey, Houston seemed set for a musical career when she earned her stripes in a New Jersey gospel choir, showcasing her already impressive voice in church at just 11 years old.

Her first professional gigs took place alongside her mother in New York clubs, where she was discovered by the head of Arista Records, Clive Davis, the man who was to shepherd her towards stardom. She hit our airwaves and Walkmans in the mid-1980s with Whitney Houston, which at the time was the bestselling debut album ever by a female artist, garnering her the first of many Grammy awards. Just 21 when the album was released, Houston became an instant household name with a string of hits, including Saving All My Love For You, How Will I Know and The Greatest Love of All , ensuring that every leg-warmered, bat-winged 1980s teenager was soon adorning their bedroom walls with posters of her.

Houston’s rise seemed unstoppable. She followed her eponymous debut album with another, er, eponymous album, this time titled Whitney. The sassy I Wanna Dance With Somebody , followed by Didn’t We Almost Have It All, So Emotional and Where Do Broken Hearts Go , established Houston as reigning pop princess.

The hits kept coming, and although her 1990 album, I’m Your Baby Tonight , didn’t reach the dizzying heights of previous releases, she sealed the deal as America’s darling at the 1991 Super Bowl when, to a country then at war in the Gulf, she gave The Star-Spangled Banner the full Whitney treatment. (Ten years later, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, her version of the US national anthem was re-released and became a Top 10 hit.)

MEANWHILE, THE YOUNG singing sensation was looking for love. After she had dated actor Eddie Murphy, her search seemed to have ended in 1989 when she met RB singer Bobby Brown. The couple dated for three years before marrying in front of 800 guests in the 1992 wedding of the year. Less than a year later, their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, was born, and it looked as if Houston might be getting her happy-ever-after.

Her career, too, took a new turn, as she made her acting debut opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard (1992). Though critics were lukewarm, this story of a celebrity singer who falls in love with her bodyguard proved a winner with audiences, while also managing to make a non-issue of inter-racial relationships.

Houston’s acting may not have set screens alight, but there was no denying the power of The Voice as she graced the film’s soundtrack with her spine-tingling version of I Will Always Love You , which broke chart-topping records.

Houston followed her first on-screen success with further films Waiting to Exhale (1995) and The Preacher’s Wife (1996) and a 1998 album, My Love is Your Love , all of which raked in more cash and kudos. By the late 1990s, however, the cracks were beginning to show. Bad boy Bobby Brown was regularly in the news, with a drink-driving conviction in 1996 followed by a stint behind bars four years later for violating parole. Rumours of drug use by the couple were fuelled by the discovery of marijuana in their luggage on their way back from a trip to Hawaii in 2000.

Though the case was later dismissed, Houston’s visible weight loss and missed performances led to increased speculation about the role drugs were playing in her life. When her long-time mentor and friend, Clive Davis, was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, Houston conspicuously failed to attend the event, and a scheduled appearance at the 2000 Oscars was also cancelled. In a 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC, Houston admitted that she had been fired from the gig. In the same interview, she confessed to some drug use, but categorically denied ever having used crack.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” Houston told the Primetime presenter. “Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack . . . crack is wack.”

Houston also put her weight loss, most notable when she appeared at a Michael Jackson tribute night looking skeletal, down to personal stress. She had also been dealing with a lawsuit filed by Kevin Skinner, an associate of her ailing father, John Houston. Skinner claimed to be acting on John Houston’s behalf and sued Whitney for $100 million for breach of contract. Skinner lost the suit, and John Houston died the following year. Although the singer did not attend her father’s public funeral, she has said that she and her father were reconciled before his death.

Things also seemed to have turned sour with her long-time collaborator, Clive Davis, and in 2002 she released her first album without him, Just Whitne y.

MEANWHILE, HOUSTON HAD been appearing in a less than flattering light on her husband’s reality TV programme, Being Bobby Brown , which screened in 2005. She later revealed that she had agreed to take part in the programme in order to support her husband, whose career had flagged as dramatically as his wife’s had soared.

The couple finally divorced in 2007, and Houston was granted custody of Bobbi Kristina. Later that year, recording began on a new album, I Look to You , with Clive Davis back on board. It was released last year and in a highly anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey to coincide with its launch, Houston laid bare her drug-fuelled existence with Brown, admitting that the couple smoked marijuana laced with cocaine. She also told Winfrey that Brown had spat on her, and described how she left him: “I remember I said, ‘I’m going out for some sugar and some milk, and I’ll be back’ . . . I never came back.”

It seems now that Brown is finally out of the picture and Whitney Houston is back singing solo. Today FM DJ Ian Dempsey, who first played Houston over the Irish airwaves back in the 1980s, likens the star’s public unravelling to that of others who hit the limelight, including Diana Ross. “Maybe it’s just something that needs to happen so you can start again,” he says. “You just hope that you’ve got the attributes to start again.”

Irish fans with tickets for her three Dublin shows will be hoping for a glimpse of the greatness that made Houston one of the most successful artists in pop music history. Whether or not she can pull it off, it looks like she is determined that, even if it’s not right but only okay, she’s going to turn up anyway. And while Dempsey is unimpressed with the new album – “the songs aren’t great” – he still sees tonight’s show as an opportunity to watch a musical legend in action.

“I think Irish people can look forward to a good gig,” he says. “She’s really a great ballad singer. I’d still go and see her.”


Who is she? Chart-topping American singer

Why is she in the news? She plays the first of three Irish shows in the O2 Arena tonight, as part of her first European tour in 11 years

Most likely to say : “I-I-I-I will always love you-u-u-u, Dublin”

Least likely to say: “Hello, Dublin, any crack?”

: 17 APRIL 2010


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