"It was the best therapy to deal with the pain and loss," BeBe Winans says of writing The Whitney I Knew, the Grammy-winning gospel singer's inside account of the deep friendship he shared with the late Whitney Houston. Winans, who spoke and performed at Houston's funeral in February, had a tight-knit bond with the singer ever since the two met backstage at a concert in the Eighties. The book offers readers a glimpse of a free-spirited Houston beyond fame's glare.
"She wanted to be crazy," Winans tells Rolling Stone. "She loved going to movies and talking in them. She would just comment on everything. Loved to laugh, loved to be just silly, like a kid." Houston was also generous, says Winans: she gave him $50,000 towards the down payment on his first house and regularly assisted fans in financial distress. "It was a joy for her to help people," he explains.
In this excerpt from the chapter "Whitney's Weight of Fame," Winans explores his close friend's aversion to public notoriety, the pressures of celebrity and how Houston was often falsely protrayed by the media. To illustrate the scrutiny Houston was under, Winans recalls an ill-fated first encounter between the singer and an up-and-coming singer at the time, Mariah Carey.
Close your eyes. Imagine yourself walking down the street. Any moment a person with a camera could appear – skeet-skeet, skeet-skeet – capturing your image for the world to see in the tabloids the next day. There you are, plastered on cheap paper for everyone at the grocery store to gawk at as they pay for their fruit and toothpaste. Imagine how you would think about your day. How it would change your routine to have to prepare yourself for the possibility of being stopped by anyone and everyone, just so they can have a picture of you.
Now imagine that you're intensely relational – a real people person. You love connecting deeply with others. You love your friends. And not just with a "you're a great person" type of warm fuzziness, but a savage love that wants and pursues friendships – that longs to be inside the hearts and minds of others.
Keep your eyes closed and continue imagining. Not only do you love people with every ounce of your being, not only do you thrive on personal loyalty and get lost in the security of your friendships and family, but you're stalked by the international media. Suddenly, it's hard to keep friendships private and family loyal.
In fact, it's hard to keep anything private. You're cut off from a normal life. Why? Because you pursued fame? No. Because you possess a gift.
This gift was given to you by God, and you know it. You sense it when you use it. You communicate to people on a beautiful and mysterious level when you sing, and you love to sing. And suddenly millions of people the world over love to hear you sing. They love your gift. Oprah calls you "The Voice" and will say after your death: "We got to hear a part of God every time she sang." The first time Tony Bennett hears you sing, he phones your mentor, Clive Davis, and says, "You finally found the greatest singer I've ever heard." Music critic Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times calls you a "national treasure" and writes that yours is one of those voices that "stands like monuments upon the landscape of 20th-century pop, defining the architecture" of your era. New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica calls your gift not just "rare" but "impossible to mimic." Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson tells Newsday that you have taught her "the difference between being able to sing and knowing how to sing." Lionel Richie states to CNN that you knew how to "turn a . . . melody into magical, magical notes." Fellow songstress Mariah Carey deems yours "one of the greatest voices to ever grace the earth." And Celine Dion – a peer if ever you had one – describes your voice as "perfect."
You are honored by your industry, your peers, your fans – and even MTV (they put you third on their list of the 22 Greatest Voices) and Rolling Stone (which says that your true greatness was in your "ability to connect with a song and drive home its drama and emotion with incredible precision"). What's more, you become the most awarded female artist to ever walk Planet Earth, with hit songs in nearly every Billboard genre and sales of more than 170 million albums, songs, and videos.
Companies clamor to bottle up your gift so they can make a buck. Oh, and they'll give you some of that money too. That's the game. It's played with exorbitant amounts of cash, which makes things easy for you – or so it would seem. You ride jets all over the world. You own several homes in the best cities. You can literally have whatever you want. Nothing is off limits. The world is for sale, and you're buying. That's the perception and the reality.
It all seems so surreal, like you're watching it happen from the outside, looking in. And it's all because, when you step up to the microphone, you light up an arena. But the tension and mystery of your fame runs even deeper. You love to share your gift – and it's not about the money or the trappings of fame. It's in your blood. Your mama sang, your family sang. It's what you do. It's what you've always done.
But it's not just that you sing. It's that you sing from a place deep within. The world burgeons with great singers, but only a few voices make people stop and listen and cry. You're one of them. Not by choice, but by Design. And it just so happens that you find incredible joy when you lose yourself in a song. You tell Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone that when you'd watch your mother sing in church, you'd get "that feeling, that soul, that thing . . . like electricity rolling through you" – the same thing you experienced when the Holy Spirit would be on the move in a worship service. "It's incredible," you said. "That's what I wanted."
The world watches you get lost when you sing – they get lost with you. That's what makes you special. That's what separates your voice from all the others.
Is it worth the pressure and everything you give up when you use it? Sometimes.
Achieving fame doesn't happen on a whim. Sure, we live in an age where YouTube creates overnight success stories. But more often than not, those flames burn out as quickly as they flared up. True fame, on the other hand, is birthed. It begins with a gift. In Whitney's case, it was the gift of a voice and the infusion of a soul that loved deeply all the time. And when those two components mix, you have something uncommon. That's the Whitney I knew.
She lived in the tension of wanting to love those she was close to – to be gregarious and spontaneous because that's who she was – and dealing with the tremendous pressure and demands of her fame. It was a fame birthed from her incredible gift, a gift everyone wanted – the kind of gift that gave us that "Star-Spangled" moment.
Hers was a tangible gift that audibly and even visibly set her apart. That's what Whitney possessed. There was no gimmick to her, only giftedness. But with that giftedness came great promise and great responsibility, the weight of which can be too much for even the most pure in heart.
The world saw Whitney in the tabloids just like it sees Madonna or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Our mistake is that we make our assumptions about the kind of people they are based on the manipulative lenses of photographers scrambling to land their photo on the front page of TMZ. We watch Being Bobby Brown and think that the scenes caught on tape constitute Whitney as a person, a mom, and a wife. True, the reality show was not Whitney's (or Bobby's) shining moment. But are we really that eager to remember someone for their worst moments when they've given us so many of their best?
The truth is, those images never constituted Whitney's reality. Her life was not lived at the reality-show/tabloid level. And yet, because that's all so many people saw, it's all they allowed themselves to believe. The public formed their opinion of her through writers and photographers who never met her. To me, that's a tragedy.
Imagine yourself in this situation. You can't escape the expectations of the mob. And it kills you.
It's like what one writer wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle when remembering Whitney as a role model: "I'm not talking about the Whitney who succumbed to drug abuse and erratic behavior. Lord knows that the crown – six Grammys, 22 American Music Awards, well over 100 million albums sold, 'Most Successful Female Solo Artist of All Time' – must have been heavy to bear." Absolutely, it was heavy to bear. And when the expectations of the mob join with the pressures of stratospheric fame, you can begin to doubt your own identity, which can ignite a desire to get it back no matter the cost.
Sometimes we think we own those in the public eye. We buy an album and, back in the day, we'd haul it around in our Walkmans or keep it spinning on our record players. Now we can literally carry songs in our back pockets, keeping little pieces of our favorite artists with us at all times. Some people think this entitles them to a part of that celebrity's life.
Luther Vandross once told me of a time when he was riding an escalator up and a lady who was headed on the down escalator recognized him. She made a big fuss when Luther didn't stop and sign something for her, blurting out, "I'm never going to buy another one of your albums again!"
Though Luther couldn't stop – he was on an escalator! – when he reached the top, he immediately hopped the down escalator. Upon catching up to the woman, he asked, "How many of my records do you own?" The lady quickly rattled off several titles. Luther then reached in his pocket and paid her a couple hundred dollars and said, "There, that should cover it. I never want you to buy my records again. You don't own me!"
I think Whitney felt all the time like Luther did that day. She couldn't go into a restaurant and enjoy a meal without someone coming up and saying, "I don't mean to bother you . . ." Don't mean to bother you? Whitney was gracious to people, but she still was never able to eat a meal uninterrupted when in public.
Whitney bore that weight. And yes, she embraced it at some point, but it never becomes less of a burden just because you acknowledge it as your reality. It's always with you. It was always with her.
When you and I see a famous person like Whitney flying all around the world, singing in front of hundreds of thousands of people, we marvel, "That must be the life." In some ways, it is an incredible opportunity, but not without its share of darkness. When you and I are sick, we can call in to work and take a sick day. But when 20,000 fans become angry and demand their money back, and the concert promoter then wants to turn around and sue you for millions of dollars if you fail to deliver the goods, you must learn to cope. Let me break this down for you so you can understand how the pressure links back to the talent – the performer.
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