I was saddened if not 100% shocked by the news of Whitney Houston’s sudden death in her room at the Beverly Hilton last night. The last I had seen of her was a glimpse of her performing in Central Park on Good Morning America in 2009, where she appeared torn and frayed after yet another comeback album. (“I’m gonna try and do this,” she said, before making a hash of the number.) She had been seen previously, gaunt and unrecognizable, in the reality TV show, Being Bobby Brown, and I remember thinking there was no rung below the celebrity rehab show. But there’s always another rung.
I had interviewed Houston in 1995 for Harper’s Bazaar. She was finishing her soundtrack for the film version of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale and was gearing up for The Preacher’s Wife, a gospel remake of an old Cary Grant-Loretta Young vehicle, The Bishop’s Wife. I remember reading McMillan’s book (a best-seller with a huge following among African American women) and watching The Bodyguard in preparation for my interview with her. But the more salient stories on my mind had nothing to do with her projects.
For the rumors already abounded: She was smoking crack cocaine; her marriage to Brown was a sham; she was an unstable and unpredictable talent on the best of days. None of these were the kinds of things one could talk about, of course: I can’t remember if her publicist had expressly forbidden such forays but I was supposed to write a soft and supportive story – she would “wear clothes,” as they said in the fashion mags, and grace the cover. No dirty laundry need be aired.
I was newly sober myself, counting days as they say in AA. I had found a number of interesting meetings in LA, filled with movie stars and crack whores, sometimes in the same place, and I was literally taking things one day at a time while preparing to talk to this woman who was supposedly deep in denial about her own addictions. I was more nervous than usual before meeting her (and frankly I always felt sort of sick before interviewing any celebrity, even though that was how I earned my bread and butter then) – an ex publicist of hers had already told me stories, off the record, about what a handful Houston could be.
I was allowed to sit in at a recording studio where she was working with Babyface and Cece Winans, and I tried to act like a fly on the wall (albeit one with a notebook) while the three of them went over something she had already recorded. She was doing a bit of overdubbing while I hung out with Winans and “Face,” as his friends call him. It was only after she had run through a few octaves and returned to chat with her friends that things got weird.
The topic was a country singer who had just sung, and sort of mangled, “The Star Spangled Banner” on Monday Night Football that week. It was not a big diss, as I recall; not many people can sing that song, and quite a few, pros included, have publicly died trying. But Houston had famously knocked it out of the park at the 1991 Super Bowl, and in the wake of the first Gulf War her cover sold millions. Maybe she thought, in light of her success, that she would appear petty making fun of someone else’s effort.
Seeing me in the corner, jotting down notes while the three of them joked, Houston suddenly rushed over and proceeded to push me out the door. Literally. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave now,” she said and within minutes I was out on the street thinking I had been thrown out of better places than that, but not while sober. Her new publicist joined me before I could head back to my hotel, assuring me that the diva was just a little tightly wrapped right now and that I shouldn’t read anything into it.
The next day I had lunch with Houston at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She was on time and immediately apologized for her behavior the day before. I didn’t care; I knew it would make for interesting copy, which was always a challenge when writing what too often became puff pieces. I remember her being clear and present for the interview, defending Bobby Brown (who had just been accused, again, of punching out someone in a hotel) and extolling the virtues of Denzel Washington, who was going to play the Cary Grant role in The Preacher’s Wife. She seemed authentically curious about what I thought of McMillan’s book and if she looked a little pockmarked underneath the makeup, what business of it was mine? She had already made my job easier when she threw me out of the studio: She had given me my lede.