On the day My Love Is Your Love was released, Arista arranged a record-signing session at the Virgin Megastore in New York's Times Square. Lines began to form around the block. Only one thing was missing: Whitney Houston. After some frantic searching, her handlers finally found her – in the bookstore two levels down, reading a book of dirty sex jokes and letting loose with her full-throated laugh.
Houston began acting out in other, more dramatic ways as word of her turbulent marriage and drug use with Brown made the rounds. On tour to promote the album, in 1999, she canceled five shows – including one in her hometown of Newark, 15 minutes before showtime. With a sold-out arena waiting, promoter John Scher was called backstage by Houston's father, John, who was then managing her. "He closed the door and looked at me very upset and said, 'She's not gonna make it,'" Scher recalls. "He was welling up with tears." The official reason was throat ailments, although Scher was never told the precise reason for the cancellations. "That was a tough tour," says Scher. "She had issues, and during that tour they sometimes got the best of her."
The girl who had once been so prompt to teen-modeling sessions was now showing up for a photo shoot six hours late. In 2000, Houston was fired from a planned Oscars performance after wobbly rehearsals in which she reportedly kept breaking into "The Way We Were" instead of the song the orchestra was playing, "Over the Rainbow." That same year, she was a no-show at Davis' induction at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Performing at Michael Jackson's huge New York concert the following year, she looked distressingly thin.
"We were lacing our marijuana with base," Houston told Winfrey in 2009. "We were buying kilos and ounces and ounces . . . I didn't think about the singing part anymore." Asked if she missed it, she replied, "No." When Houston opened her mouth to sing, out came a deeper, sometimes hoarser tone that seemed incapable of hitting the once-easy high notes. "The voice is a muscle, and you're always taught to go to the gym and warm up and stretch first before you lift hundred-pound weights," says Foster. "She was lifting hundred-pound weights right out of the gate and probably did some damage to her voice."
Just Whitney . . . , released in 2002, made her sound behind the curve, overtaken by younger R&B acts like Alicia Keys and Destiny's Child. The album came and went with minimal impact. The most depressing part of its promotion arrived when Houston was interviewed by Diane Sawyer. Asked whether she was doing hard drugs, Houston famously snapped, "First of all, let's get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let's get that straight. OK? We don't do crack. We don't do that. Crack is whack."
Houston's self-destructive behavior during this time still surprises those who worked with her. "There was zero indication there would ever be a problem," says Arista's Lott of her early days with the label. To make matters worse, Houston suffered two significant losses early in the decade: In 2000, Davis was ousted as head of Arista. In 2003, her father died after a battle with heart disease and diabetes; she entered rehab for the first time the following year. "If Clive hadn't left Arista and John hadn't passed away, it's possible things would have turned out differently," says a source.
For many fans and friends, her wild, disheveled appearances in Brown's 2005 reality show, Being Bobby Brown, were the dismaying capper. "We all watched that, and we were like, 'Oh, no,'" says songwriter Diane Warren. For years, Houston kept up a stoic front about Brown. "She was working hard to keep herself together, and I think she felt that if she admitted any feeling of sadness or weakness she would crumble," Crawford told Esquire in her only public statement on Houston's death. In 2006, after years of turmoil, Houston and Brown separated, officially divorcing the following year.
In 2007, Davis had risen to a new position overseeing the RCA Music Group, which included Arista, and he began plotting Houston's comeback by gathering new material. Warren wrote one song, "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," expressly for Houston. "She got rid of Bobby Brown, she got help, she was strong," Warren says. "She was taking on the world again. When she heard it, she was like, 'You wrote my life story. You really got inside my heart.'" Warren watched Houston summon up her old vocal prowess at the sessions for the song. "Some people were saying, 'She's not gonna hit those notes anymore, she doesn't have it, her voice is damaged,'" Warren says. "But I sat there, and she nailed it."
I Look to You, the album that would be Houston's last, wasn't the triumphant comeback she and the label had hoped. Although it sold an impressive 300,000 copies in its first week, proving the loyalty of her fan base, it didn't generate any major hits, and newer pop acts like Lady Gaga and even Miley Cyrus far outsold her.
In 2010, Houston launched a comeback tour of Australia, Asia and Europe, her first since 1999. But several shows into the tour, in Brisbane, Australia, she looked and sounded winded, had coughing fits and couldn't remember the names of her backup musicians. During "I Will Always Love You," she paused before the song's climactic power note to take a drink, then finally sang it softly. TV-news cameras caught fans walking out in disgust, and the reviews were brutal.
According to Australian promoter Andrew McManus, Houston and her team made a mistake having her sing and dance along with her dancers. "Whitney tried to dance, but by the third song she was duffed," McManus says. At a meeting the next day, it was decided that Houston would focus on singing onstage. McManus says Houston wasn't doing drugs or drinking on the tour, beyond some champagne in her dressing room, and in later shows, Houston did rise to the challenge. "She had lost the top range of her voice, and some of the audiences were not very kind," says Aretha Franklin. "But night after night, she stood there like a champion and gave her very best."
After she hit one especially strong note in the last Australian show, in Melbourne, she saucily told the audience, "See, I'm not so bad!" Promoter Scher says there were some "initial conversations" about a U.S. tour, but he never heard anything more. In the spring of 2011, Houston was once again back in rehab for drugs and alcohol.
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