WHOLLY WHITNEY! As God her witness, Mrs. Bobby Brown testifies about her new movie, her ‘ol man, and her true voice. By Danyel Smith
Whitney Houston is home on a Friday night. Outside, purple grey skies are pouring down rain. She’s sitting across from me in white stretch pants, which don’t have to stretch because she’s so slim. She looks pretty–un-made-up, hair slightly a mess, her ten thousand teeth occasionally organizing themselves into a huge smile.
“I have tried his love,” says Houston, 32, looking me in my eyes, softly testifying, “I know his love is real.” One of her legs is crossed under her; she’s comfortable.
She seems quite upbeat actually, considering the gossip mill is churning out tidbits–again–about her and Bobby Brown breaking up. Two days before a headline in a New York tabloid asked dumbly, “Is Brown Bagging Marriage?” The column quoted Houston’s husband of three years saying their marriage was over. But rumors of Whitney and Bobby’s impending split have been circulating since their vows were exchanged. New Jersey middle-class Catholic schoolgirl turned model turned pop star marries Boston project manchild /hip-hop crooner. “I get tired of being talked about,” Houston says wearily, “I really get tired of just constantly, in one form or another, hearing my name.”
But now, Houston’s not talking about Bobby Brown. That will come later—through her talks about the importance of her new film, Waiting to Exhale, through her talk about her daughter, her will, her self. This talk of deep unconditional love is not about her relationship with her husband.
“I’m happy just knowing that I have God in my life. I was raised on the Word, raised to practice it. It’s about believing when you ain’t got nothing to believe in.” For Whitney, it’s mostly about the Supreme Being to whom she is devoted. It’s all about him for her, so much so you want her ease up a bit. But as she says, it’s her God.
But Bobby is hers too. In a different way. Some said Whitney married Bobby to squash rumors of her alleged sexual relationship with her longtime friend Robyn Crawford. Other said she married to gain some “down-ness.” Brown, according to gossip, did it for the money (Brown’s got three platinum albums, but Houston’s worth at least $60 million; she and Brown have a complicated, ironclad prenuptial agreement), and to give his scruffy bad-boy image some polish. The possibility that it might be love was only given passing consideration. When Michael Jackson eloped with Lisa Marie Presley, busybodies whispered that the world hadn’t seen such an odd couple since Whitney and Bobby. Houston crossed class lines when she married Bobby Brown—and people remain uncomfortable with it.
Less than a year after their 1992 wedding, their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, was born. The child is Whitney’s first, Bobby’s fourth (for both, this is their first marriage). “My husband never thought I was so sexy as when I weighed 182 pounds,” says Houston with a proud smile. There was a lovey-dovey single, 1993’s “Something in Common,” the video for which featured the new family, complete with house and swimming pool, and lots of hugging and kissing. We’re for real, the video screamed.
But Brown’s macho-man antics continued. He and Houston recently presented, the Best Video of the Year Award on the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards—but a few weeks later, Bobby was reportedly at a New York nightclub, telling acquaintances he had moved out of their New Jersey home and showing off his left-hand sans wedding band. Five months before that, while Houston was in Singapore, Brown was at a nightclub at Florida’s Disney World. He was arrested for fighting with a man over a woman he was allegedly trying to pick up. He peed in the back of the police car and scratched the word FUCK into the car seat.
“Bobby and I are having marital problems,” Houston acknowledges without anxiety, “and that’s all I want to say about it.” She’s sitting not too far from an antique slot machine, and near it, there’s a framed photo of her and Brown looking very ’80s—Bobby with tracks cut into his hair, Whitney in a longish auburn Afro. Doing what appears to be the electric slide, they look incredibly happy. “We will work our problems out,” she says simply. “Not we and the world.”
Raised a Baptist, Whitney Houston sang publicly for the first time in the name of the Lord. She goes back to him for everything and because of everything. “Let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in your sight, Lord, teach me how to pray” is what she sang, as an introduction to the congregation going into “Our Father.” She was about seven.
“I live by his graceful eye,” she says matter-of-factly. “It’s by his mercy that I’m here. I am not perfect. I am not beyond anybody else. I am a child of God.” All thanks are to him, all credit goes to him. At first, to her, it’s not even worth delving into the idea that she’s sold more records than she can count. “That don’t mean nothing,” she says with a dismissive wave of the hand. But then she backs up. “That’s kind of shallow to say, ‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ because it does mean something. Nobody just said ‘Whitney here’s your No. 1 record,’ and then, ‘Here’s another, here’s another.'”
Here’s seven in a row, I say, like I need to remind her how she ruled the mid-’80s.
“Right. I was determined. But I didn’t know I was going to get all that. That just happened to be– people get joy from what I do. This is the gravy. My aunts told me, ‘You put him before you, all things are possible.’ I have tried the ways of my Savior.”
But what she has not tried to be—and what some black people and most pop critics want her to be—is a “soul singer.” You hear not shouting from Whitney. There is little flailing about. Whitney was 22 when she scored her first No. 1 hit, “Saving All My Love for You.” And with chart-toppers like 1988’s “So Emotional” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” she proved what she mostly is: profoundly and mega-successfully pop, as in popular. Whitney appeals to almost everybody. Even after participating in the selling of more than 70 million units worldwide, to some people, she is still “just” a beautiful woman with an astounding voice–still not enough, apparently, to be cool.
Jerry Wexler, legendary music man and cofounder of Atlantic Records, is famous for having produced Aretha Franklin’s and Ray Charles’s best sessions. He’s also the man who helped formalize the Sweet Inspirations–the group that includes Whitney’s mother, Cissy Houston—who backed up Elvis Presley, among others. He says he’s getting down to brass tacks when he makes the following observations from his Long Island home in Easthampton: “Whitney’s enunciation and diction are perfectly in step with all the great pop singers. Aretha Franklin and Cissy Houston have R&B bases, but Whitney is pop based—with just enough soul to make it interesting and exotic.”
To get a handle on what Wexler’s not quite saying, think of pop as the code word for “white” and soul as the code word for “black.” Truth is, some people are suspicious of African-American women like Whitney, who display a refinement not qualified by adjectives like “fierce” or “fly.” If she doesn’t symbolize for blacks and whites what whites supposedly are not, folks want to complain that she isn’t “real.” It’s like, there must be some sort of wildness in there somewhere.
“Being a sister ain’t being wild,” Houston says. “It ain’t running your voice till you can run it no more.”
Wexler says Houston has a little “lamination” over her soul.” Her voice is purity and drama and it comes from the wellspring of her being. But Whitney doesn’t have the shaking, trembling emotion , the sublimated sex of that gospel feeling. Whitney, like [her cousin] Dionne [Warwick] is more of a cultivated work. I’m suggesting Aretha isn’t cultivated, but she’s informed by a different passion. Aretha’s and Cissy’s church influences are there right out in front.”
And Whitney’s church influences aren’t. But it’s not like she went to the corner and had her pipes white-washed. Houston says she’s giving what she’s got. “Do folks think there’s more to me than what God gave me?” she asks, leaning forward in her chair, getting a little fired up. “Do they have a book on Whitney Houston that says, ‘She’s got some more! I know it’s in there!’ ” She remembers being nervous about singing once in a show, and her mother gave her some advice: ” ‘Just go out there,’ my mom told me. ‘Go out there, flat-footed, and just sing. Sing.’ That’s what I did.” And it’s what she does still.
Then she slips into a voice that sounds like she’s explaining Legos to Bobbi Kristina. “Soul is singing from where people can feel it. Soul is not what people think it is. Soul is in the essence of you being. And that’s what I’m giving.”
Houston: I’m a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother. How do you balance this all? How do you do this all? There’s no on to tell you. My strength, I think, is just doing all those things. Being all those things.
VIBE: Singer… actress. You must be tired sometimes.
Houston: Oh, girl, please. Sometimes I feel like saying, “Whitney’s just left the building.” [Laughter] And she’s not coming back. [More laughs] Ever.
“Bobby and I are having problems. We will work them out. Not we and the world.”
People felt Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” One of six songs she contributed to the soundtrack for 1992’s The Bodyguard, the single remained the No. 1 pop hit for 14 weeks. It swept every award shows and became the most inescapable song of the year. Whitney made her acting debut in the film, and her performance was panned—but fans paid over $289 million to see her and Kevin Costner have awkward banter, fall in a vague sort of love, and break up for no apparent reason. It was worth, though, to see Whitney—glam in a silk scarf and shades—running out to the tarmac to give Costner that good-bye kiss. And to hear her sing that song.
She has said that she knew she kind of “hit it” the moment she walked out of the studio, but the reason “I Will Always Love You” sold as many copies as it did is because Whitney gave up some new Whitney. She already had 18 million records behind her, between Whitney Houston (1985), Whitney (1987) and I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990), but there was a newness about “I Will Always Love You” (and to a lesser degree, her cover of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman”). At 29, the woman was coming into her own.
There’s not denying that Houston’s personal life was at a crossroads around the time she recorded one of the biggest-selling songs in music history. Whatever Houston’s prematrimonial days were like, something happened when she got to know Bobby Brown. She reconsidered her other relationship(s) and fell in love with, married, and had a child with a man many thought—and continue to think—was absolutely wrong for her. Even if you’re an utter cynic and think the marriage was false and the baby a prop, Whitney was making decisions, taking risks, maybe feeling the power of her money and her career. She was being grown. She had something to sing about.
And she sang. Aside from the Kenny G-like alto sax solo in the bridge, “I Will Always Love You” is perfection. She sings the word bittersweet bittersweetly. And there is a plaintiveness about her delivery—her phrasings evidence of a tense, elegant restraint, like she could scream but chooses not to. Parton’s song is full of the kind of noble sentiments that, delivered with Houston’s usual bombast—as in her 1986 version of George Benson’s “Greatest Love of All”—would have become just another big, melodramatic Whitney ballad. Instead the girl sings, for the first time, like she knows what love is. Not just sex, not just comfort, not just longing, not some urgent combination of the three—but love.
The song conveys the profound happiness of realizing you have the guts to believe that your relationship will never end. It’s a turning point in a person’s life, and Whitney sang it. And she really does believe that love is a possibility for two working people at this point in history. She feels like Waiting to Exhale (for which she recorded two new songs, the sublime single “Exhale” and “Count on Me,” a duet with CeCe Winans) addresses many of the ways women are feeling about modern relationships. Exhale, based on Terry McMillan’s best-seller, is the story of four African-American women coming to terms with themselves and their relationships. Women tired of holding their breath, waiting for their lives to start.
Directed by Forest Whitaker, costarring Angela Bassett and Lela Rochon, the film, according to Houston, is an important movie for sisters, “but for Caucasian sisters as well.” McMillan wanted Whitney to play the resilient Savannah Jackson from the beginning. “Whitney represents something wholesome and down-home,” says the author from her home in Danville, Calif. “Little-town girl makes it big. There’s an innocence to Whitney, a vulnerability. Sometimes people think it’s false but it isn’t. She takes a lot of criticism with grace and finesse. I’ve watched her.”
Whitney says she is very much Savannah. “Her character is a lot like mine. Savannah’s very serious, a hard worker. Rachel in The Bodyguard—now, her world and my world are a lot alike. I understand all that madness and craziness. But just Rachel herself, how she is—nothing like me at all. I was more of an actress in Bodyguard than I am in Exhale.”
She says she and Savannah have another thing in common: “I believe in relationships. And Exhale does too. But Exhale also says, ‘Fuck that. It ain’t like that.’ What your mama taught you, and what her mother may have taught her, is now different. Women are more independent. We had to be. It’s not just about the men going out and being the greatest anymore. Let’s do our thing, together.” She says “together” as if speaking to men everywhere. “I can’t sit home and cook and watch stories all day like I want to.” She can, of course, but she wants—and has—a different kind of life.
I tell her that lifestyle would be nice though—only half-joking. “It would be very nice,” she says, laughing with me. “But it’s not like that.” Her house is quiet except for Bobbi Kristina and her six-year-old cousin Blaire, who chitchat on and on. “I pray that love is real,” Houston tells me, gesturing towards her daughter, a sesame gold toddler in pale yellow play clothes. “I look at her and go, Oh no. This shit’s got to work. Just look at her.” Whitney goes into a quite mini-mantra: “This has got to be worth fighting for. It’s got to be worth fighting for. It’s got to be worth fighting for.”
“He’s a good man. He takes care of me. Disrespect him and you’ve got a problem.”
Whitney Houston lives in Mendham, N.J. It’s an affluent township right outside a quaint colonial city called Morristown. Mendham has few sidewalks, and the street names aren’t painted on metal signs and attached to tall poles. They’re etched into short granite pillars stuck into the ground.
We’re in the babyproof family room. There are pictures on the walls of Houston and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and L.A. Reid, of her and Michael Jackson. On her sofa, there’s a stuffed panda dressed like a clown. Near it, a tiny red bike with training wheels. It’s Fisher Price city basically—all kinds of stuff for Bobbi Kris, as Whitney calls her, and Bobbi Kris’s cousins and friends. There’s also a photo of Whitney in what must have been 1964 or ’65, back when her dad started calling her Nippie. A full-faced toddler, her hands are clasped in her lap. She’s looking up expectantly.
Bobbi Kristina talks (“I’m two!”), goes up and down the stairs, and gets bossy with everyone. She can scream like crazy, this offspring of Whitney and Bobby, the couple that’s just too odd for folks to get over. “They had it already set up,” Houston says, picking up Bobbi Kris and sitting her on the table. “Who they thought I should be with, I mean.”
Who, I wonder–Costner?
“I’m not the one to be talking about black and white issues,” she says, “Because I don’t come with a lot of that. But we all know who runs this whole thing—we all know who’s in power, right? Well, when they saw me they saw me as their little princess and [figured] ‘She’s going to marry a white man,’ or whatever.” Houston says she’s tried to tell people who she is. “I come from Newark, born and raised in New Hope Baptist Church. All-girl school, mostly white girls, yeah—but this is what I am. This is what I’m used to. This is what I like. What you all may think it is, it ain’t. Whoever set this little story up before I got here, it’s changed. It’s different. I’m not Diana [Ross]. I’m not.”
She says, too, that she knew there would drama surrounding her and Brown’s marriage, but not the furor. “I didn’t know they would go as low as dogging my husband for some stuff he never did, the lies they told on him—like that he doesn’t take care of his kids—that make him look like a lowlife.” Whitney’s piqued. She’s protective of Brown. Like most women in love, what most people perceive as his weakness, Houston believes are Brown’s strengths.
“I’ve got a good man,” she says forcefully. “He takes care of me. I don’t have to be scared of anything because I know he will kick every ass—” she pauses and then, all intense, she says, “I’m telling you, disrespect him and you’ve got a problem. All they can catch him doing is tearing somebody’s ass up, or ripping out a door, because he’s pissed off at being disrespected. He doesn’t like to be disrespected. He has a temper from hell.” And that, for whatever reason, is okay with her.
“I love my sexy baby,” she says of Brown, smiling big. “And then some.” Whitney Houston’s been got. And it looks like that kind of love that no one else can tell you shit about—’cause you know. Because you’re up in it. “We got our thing. We do our thing.” And, she tells me, “You can make it work.”
We’ve been talking about how women of color are often too accepting of sexism so as not to take the spotlight off racism. About how we sometimes get caught up staring at the idea of subordination, toying with it, and wondering if that’s what it takes to maintain a relationship with a man. We talk about all that, and about how we’re still trying to be, like Des’ree says, bad, bold, wiser, tough, strong, together.
Houston cuts through my little rhetoric, though, right to the chase. “The independence of black women,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone, “is very difficult for black men.”
I ask her how much then, does it fall to us to compromise. She cuts me off, but doesn’t have an answer. “I ask myself that too,” she says. But then she tells me there are other places I can go to get my question addressed. “You have to talk to Diahann Carroll one day. Or Lena Horne. I’ve talked to those ladies. They give you the story: This is what you have to deal with if you want to do this. You got to put up and deal with this certain kind of thing because this is what happens.” And all Whitney’s enigmatic “thises” seem to stand for “Just let” and “Sssssshhhh” and “He needs to feel big so make yourself small is you want him to stay.“
“A friend of mine told me recently…” Whitney begins—and she’s imploring now. Serious. Bobbi Kris has long since gone back upstairs where Lori, Houston’s assistant, is taking care. “…Told me that when you feel your spirit being sucked dry, when you feel the spirit God gave you being taken away—that’s when it’s not right, and you have to let go. That’s when you have to let it go.“
She’s vague; she’s got to be. She can’t just be telling me all her business (like I told her mine). But it is lovely to fantasize about how things could be—no more competition, no more resentment, no more folks thinking that just because a woman is busy, and has her own ideas, and tries to make herself happy, that she can’t be a girlfriend or a wife. “I want things to change—like last week,” she says, smiling. We do a high-five—but just a little one, because it’s just a little victory, fantasizing.
And then there’s no more smile and Whitney is staring at me dead-on. She’s getting a little antsy, but she emphasizes what she wants to emphasize. Houston, the singer, the actress, the daughter, the mother, the wife—she knows who she is. Even if her life is a hurricane, her soul is serene. She exudes the kind of energy that says she has as much faith in herself as she has in the God she talks about so relentlessly. Houston knows who she is.
“You ask me, can relationships be?” She stands up. “Can they exist? Well, sometimes they just can’t,” she says. ” ‘Cause I’m going to be me. I’m going to do what I do. And if you love me, you’re not going to want to take that from me.”
Is she talking about Bobby Brown? I don’t know. My next line is a lame “I heard that.” Because no matter who else she’s speaking of, Whitney Houston is mostly speaking about herself. And I hear her.