American singer Whitney Houston’s heavenly voice and image touched many souls during her career. But who was behind the voice and image? What was behind her passionate rise to fame and terrible decline and self-neglect, found in a hotel bath, alone on the eve of the Grammy awards?
Perhaps she is best remembered in her star role in The Bodyguard (1992), where she sang her greatest hit, I Will Always Love You – a cover of a Dolly Parton song. She sang it in an unforgettably touching, harrowing, angelic voice. And perhaps the melancholia in her voice holds some clues to her human story.
Many of us grew up around the time she rose to her super-star status remembering to this day amazing hits like Saving All My Love for You, How Will I Know, You Give Good Love, and The Greatest Love of All. Remembering her both as a singer and a person adds all the more humanity to such a tragic life and talent cut so short by sorrow and drugs.
Whitney Houston's career was legendary – a recording artist, actress, producer, and model. In 2009, the Guinness World Records cited her as the most-awarded female act of all time. She won a total of 415 awards during her lifetime including two Emmy Awards and six Grammy Awards. Her albums and movie soundtracks have all attained diamond, multi-platinum, platinum or gold certification. She sold over 170 million albums, singles and videos worldwide.
Her angelic voice was matched by her image as a young, beautiful African-American, extremely successful, fresh, sweet and energetic, yet angelic – it lacked exuberant sexuality. It was the perfect image for mid 80s to 90s prudish, conservative America that venerated individual success.
She was born to a religious family with her career started and nurtured by her mother with whom she sang gospel songs in the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark. Her first solo performance Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah was in the same church at age 11. At 14, she became a backup singer to Michael Zager Band, a year later to Chaka Khan, and also begun a modelling career.
At 16, working in a summer job close to her home in East Orange, New Jersey, she met Robyn Crawford and they became inseparable. In her obituary to Houston, Crawford wrote: ‘Once she committed to something, she finished it. Not long after I met her, she said, “Stick with me, and I'll take you around the world.” She always knew where she was headed. And we went around the world. I was her assistant and then her executive assistant and then her creative director.’
Crawford left college to work for her friend, living and sharing a flat together. Houston rewarded her in part by dedicating music to her several times. Her album Whitney Houston in 1985 was an instant success with sales of more than 14 million over two years. In 1987, speaking to Time magazine, Houston described Crawford as the ‘sister I never had’.
During the 80s, Houston reportedly dated American football star Randall Cunningham and actor Eddie Murphy. She then met R&B singer Bobby Brown and after a three-year courtship, the two were married on 18 July 18 1992. A little less than a year later, Houston gave birth to their daughter Bobbi Kristina Houston Brown, her only child, and his fourth.
But many have suggested her marriage to Brown went beyond being unsuccessful to actually being a cause for her later problems. There are even suggestions they were both pressurised into the marriage to clean up their images, Brown himself said their marriage was a sham.
And here lies the reporting problem. At Gay Star News we initially did not report rumors that Houston was ‘gay’ when they broke. We avoided this because the reports were speculative, the sources limited and because there was no reasonable justification for outing Houston when she was alive and, therefore, it seems equally unethical to do so now she is dead.
However other media have run the story, in a less than sympathetic and balanced manner, and that should be addressed.
Veteran gay and human rights activist Peter Tatchell reports meeting Houston and her female partner in 1991, who we will not name, and seeing them ‘so loved up and joyful together’. Kevin Ammons' 1998 biography of Houston, Good Girl, Bad Girl, also suggested that Whitney had a loving same-sex relationship while the Daily Beast asserts it was commonly known she was in a lesbian couple. Blogger Daryl Eino wrote in 2009: ‘Anybody who works in the recording industry knows about [the] relationship; they barely did anything to hide it during recording sessions.’
Shortly before her marriage to Brown, rumors apparently circulated that she had an affair with actress Kelly McGills, who came out herself as a lesbian in 2009. Her marriage to Bobby Brown, complete with a lavish wedding at her New Jersey estate, put an end to those rumors. Brown later claimed that it was only to kill those rumors that she married him.
However both Houston and her other, principle, alleged female partner denied rumors they were gay at the time. In a celebrity world dominated by unsubstantiated gossip, and with possible misinterpretation at the heart of what Tatchell – a broadly reliable source – saw, we should view these reports with suspicion or, at least, an open mind. And it is to make that point, primarily, in the face of them going unchallenged in other media that GSN has decided to repeat them at all.
We also note that Houston was reliably linked with male partners. And while some may question whether her marriage with Brown was a true love match, she did marry and have a child. All that indicates that the word used in other reports, ‘gay’, should very likely be replaced, as a minimum, with ‘bisexual’, even if those reports are otherwise true. It certainly seems strange to us that in the rather childish discourse we often have about sexuality the complexities to human relationships are too often forgotten. Most surprising still that such oversimplified labelling should happen, sometimes, within the LGBT community. Surely we should be more aware of the possibility of complexity than anyone?
Houston’s success and pressure to keep her fresh, energetic, beautiful, prudish, angelic image seems to have been immense. Houston was committed ‘to deliver everytime’ according to Crawford. Whether hidden sexuality or a broken heart was piled on to that pressure or not, it seems to have been a huge problem.
While many attributed her decline to her ex-husband’s introducing her to drugs, it seems that this is part of the story. After all, many people, including famous stars like Marianne Faithfull, come out the other end, and live to tell why drugs were so attractive to them in the first place. In Houston’s case, there is a possible tragic question. Did the need to hide a part of her self, to deliver an all-American ‘sweetheart’, break her own heart and lead her to seek escape in drugs, perhaps contributing to her eventual death?
As Crawford put it: ‘She looked like an angel… and she wasn't. But she looked like one.’
There is, perhaps, a small degree of legitimate public interest in all this. The pressure to conform to society’s expectations pushes many over the edge – think of the now widely-reported suicides of LGBT kids as one example. And in a world where many increasingly use celebrity to hold up a mirror to themselves, you can see why some will want to pry into Houston’s private life.
But it is important not to confuse that kind of gossipy titillation with real journalism. The true story of whether Houston’s significant female relationship was a friendship or a lesbian partnership may well have gone with her to her grave. And if we have any respect for her at all, as a human being, we should respect her right to keep that private. We repeat, GSN would have preferred Houston’s privacy to have been maintained, but now the reports are out we feel we do have a duty to question their veracity and the motivation for releasing them in the first instance.
We can say one other thing, a properly relevant thing to the LGBT community. Tatchell also reports that his meeting with Houston and her female friend was at the Reach Out and Touch HIV rally in London in 1991. He says: ‘Whitney spoke very movingly in support of people with HIV, at a time when many other stars kept their distance.’
Many stars gain the title ‘gay icon’ with little justification. But Houston’s support at the height of the AIDS crisis is one of the ways she has earned that title. Whether she was ‘one of us’ is no business but her own, what matters is she was our friend and ally.
Rest in peace Whitney.