IT MIGHT be the greatest myth in modern pop music: Whitney Houston was America's sweetheart until Bobby Brown corrupted her - a tragedy that ended in her drug-intoxicated drowning in 2012.
But in Whitney: Can I Be Me, the Showtime documentary film directed by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal which airs later this week, that narrative is exposed as a construct put together by her record label and very much maintained by her protective family.
"It's a fairy tale," Dolezal told The Post.
"The idea that Whitney was a great girl until Bobby came along is simply not true. Whitney took drugs and smoked weed a long time before she could even spell 'Bobby Brown'."
The documentary - comprised of previously unseen 1999 tour footage shot by Dolezal and newer interviews with Whitney's friends and family - goes into detail about the singer's rise to fame, the rumours about her sexuality, and her slow, narcotic downfall. But the film also makes an effort to peel back the flawless image of the singer that was built up primarily during the 1980s.
Whitney was born in 1963 to parents John, a theatrical management executive, and gospel singer Cissy, who also sang backup for her niece Dionne Warwick. The youngest of three kids, she was raised in and around Newark, New Jersey. The city had been torn apart during the race riots of 1967, sliding into a long decay of crime, poverty and segregation.
"She was from the 'hood," explained Dolezal. In the film, her friends remember a Whitney who could be classy, singing in church on Sunday with her mum, but also one who knew her way around the streets.
"They [Whitney and her two brothers] did drugs," recalls Ellin LaVar, Whitney's longtime friend and stylist, in the documentary.
"It was the thing you do. You go out, you party, you drink, you do a little drugs. Everybody did it. And her brothers gave it to her. It was just something you do to have fun."
In a 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Michael Houston confessed to getting his sister started on cocaine in her late teens. "At the time, the '80s, it was acceptable ... [drugs] wasn't a bad word like it is now."
Whitney became a part of the entertainment industry early on, performing onstage with Cissy during the 1970s and taking on the occasional modelling gig. As word of her vocal abilities spread, Arista Records president Clive Davis went to see her perform in Manhattan in 1983 and immediately signed her. Davis unveiled his new princess' talents during a famous appearance on The Merv Griffin Show just weeks later.
At the time, radio was still heavily segregated, and African-American artists were largely ignored by MTV. So the label made a concerted effort to make Whitney more "palatable" to white audiences.
Asked by Broomfield in the film about how Whitney was marketed to white America, Arista's former vice president of R&B promotion Tony Anderson flatly replied, "put the past behind [her] and don't focus on it. And that's what we did".
Any music that sounded too funky, too R&B or just too black was rejected for Whitney by the label. Her first No. 1, 1985's Saving All My Love For You, is about as syrupy as they come; the guitar riff from 1987's So Emotional could have been lifted straight from a Van Halen track.
The tactic worked. The singer's first two albums, Whitney Houston (1985) and Whitney (1987), both went to the top of the album charts. She racked up seven No. 1 singles in a row and won her first Grammy - for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, not R&B.
In 1986, Whitney graced the cover of People Magazine, which crowned her "America's Top New Star," while a Time article in 1987 pegged her "The Prom Queen of Soul." In that story - which ran alongside a photo of a 23-year-old Whitney cuddling a teddy bear - Cissy recalled her daughter's teenage rebellion as simply "staying out late, not washing the dishes". The drug experimentation was all but wiped away.
But the goody-goody image began to backfire. In 1989, the singer was booed at the Soul Train Awards - a move felt by her inner circle to be a backlash against the whitewashing of her image and music.
"It was emotionally devastating - I don't think she ever recovered from it," Kirk Whalum, her saxophonist, says in the film.
But that night, something happened that would change her life: She met Bobby Brown.
"Someone [was] hitting me on the back of the head, and I turned around and it was Whitney Houston," Brown told MTV in 2009.
"She was trying to get my attention, because I was fly."
"When they met, Bobby was the bigger star. A lot of women wanted to f**k him, full stop," said Dolezal.
The pair's chemistry was immediate, in no small part because Bobby represented a part of Whitney's life that had been brushed under the carpet for years.
"Bobby was street, Bobby was 'hood, Bobby had swag," Doug Daniel, then a member of Arista's R&B promotion team, says in the film. "They came from a similar culture."
The arrival of Bobby wasn't the destructive moment it has long been framed as, but it did create tension. Since Whitney's childhood, the singer's closest friend had been Robyn Crawford, whom she had known since her adolescence in New Jersey. In the 1987 Time article, Whitney referred to Crawford as the "sister I never had," and she was installed as the singer's assistant early on.
"Everyone always thought that Robyn was [Whitney's] boss or manager," recalled Dolezal, who first interviewed her for Austrian TV in 1985. "Whitney trusted her with everything - the way she looked, the lighting, the way she was sitting, everything. [Crawford] gave her security."
By the end of the '80s, rumours had begun swirling in the tabloids and the music industry that Crawford and Houston's relationship may have been more than platonic. Their obvious closeness, coupled with the fact that they lived together, added fuel to the fire.
"I don't think she was gay - I think she was bisexual," LaVar states in the film. In a 2016 interview with Us Weekly, Brown appeared to confirm that Crawford and Whitney's relationship had been physical but didn't specify whether this was before his wedding to Whitney in 1992 or after.
The suggestion that Houston was romantically involved with a woman rankled Cissy, who said in her 2013 book, Remembering Whitney, that she "didn't want Robyn around my daughter". Asked by Oprah if she would have been bothered if her daughter had been gay, Cissy replied, "Absolutely".
When Brown entered Whitney's life, it helped dispel rumours about her sexuality but created other problems behind the scenes.
"It was obvious that there was tension between Bobby and Robyn," said Dolezal.
In the film, Whitney's former head of security David Roberts recalled that the two competed for her attention - and got into physical altercations. "There were numerous fights between Robyn and Bobby ... serious fights. There were times when he wasn't always the winner!"
Although Dolezal never saw violence, he did capture the tension while filming backstage on Whitney's 1999 tour. In the doc, Brown is seen putting his arm around Crawford in a show of unity. But Crawford looks painfully uncomfortable, avoiding his eyes and pulling away.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, Crawford was no longer part of the tour, Dolezal recalled. "Everybody ... was sad when Robyn left, because she was a very positive force."
Brown has indicated that it was Cissy who forced her out of Whitney's entourage. But Dolezal has a different opinion.
"In retrospect, I think [Crawford] left because she said to herself, 'Whitney has a child [daughter Bobbi Kristina was six years old at the time], this child needs a family, and the family needs to be the father and a mother, and so now I'm going to make space.' As hard as that probably was for her, she made that sacrifice because it was how much she loved Whitney."
Over the years, Crawford had attempted to rein in Whitney's drug usage. As Cissy recalled in her book, Crawford had sounded the alarm about Whitney's taste for cocaine as far back as 1987. But with Crawford out of the picture, Whitney's descent only seemed to speed up. In early 2000, she was fired from a planned Oscars performance just hours before the broadcast, after allegedly turning up to the rehearsal high.
For her last decade, Whitney was known more for her drug problems than her music. In 2006, the National Enquirer published allegations of crack use and photos of drug paraphernalia in the Atlanta house she shared with Brown. Whitney filed for divorce the same year.
The only time Crawford has spoken about Whitney's death was to Esquire in 2012, when she attempted to dispel the idea that Whitney - a mythological princess to begin with - had been led astray by Brown's influence.
"People thought they had to protect her," said Crawford. "She hated that. And that's what people don't understand ... She did what she wanted to do."
This article was originally published on the New York Post
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