“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.
Let’s say you’re a major act like Whitney was, and a concert promoter in London agrees to pay you $2 million to come to his venue. That promoter must then pay for event insurance and marketing and must also pay to fly you and your entire band to the venue. Maybe the promoter struck a deal with Coca-Cola, who agrees to sponsor the event (this means they will pay the promoter a huge sum of cash) with the contractual understanding that they can sell Coke at the venue exclusively.
If you fail to perform, more than an “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to make the event” will be demanded of you. The promoter, now with millions of dollars fronted to make this concert happen, is about to be sued by Coke and other vendors. Not to mention the money he paid to get everyone to the venue. The dominoes fall, and in this fictitious scenario, you would be the one to take the fall.
This is a very simplified picture of what happens, but hopefully it paints a little of the scene for you.
When entertainers sign the dotted line, they are promised huge sums of money. But the Bible says that to whom much is given, much is required. And that principle holds true in this situation. The per- former will receive millions, but they are also on the hook for millions if they fail to deliver.
The pressure to perform and be on top of your game can overwhelm even the most grounded celebrities. It’s more than any one person can deal with.
Another diva (and sister in the Lord) who knew what it was like to be a longstanding premiere act atop the music world was Donna Summer. In a 1978 Rolling Stone cover story, Summer admitted to Mikal Gilmore: “Sometimes it gets to the point where you’ve been pushed for so long by this . . . monstrous force, this whole production of people and props that you’re responsible for, by audiences and everything that rules you, until you take it upon yourself to be a machine. And at some point a machine breaks down. I feel like I want to cry most of the time and just get rid of it, but sometimes I get so pent up, I can’t. And that’s when I get afraid.”
That’s why Whitney loved her friends. That’s why she wanted family around her constantly. That’s why she’d call me from London and ask me to hop on a plane just to hang out with her. That’s why, when I did hop that plane to be with her, she lovingly coerced me to continue on to Paris. That’s why she and her assistant, Robin Crawford, coaxed me into buying some ridiculously expensive leather jacket that was way too lavish for me. She loved deeply and wanted to be loved deeply in return, and when she was, she felt safe and at home.
We all feel that way, right?
In order to keep some semblance of normalcy, Whitney held on to the little things of life. Little things that you and I take for granted – like driving a car – helped her keep life in perspective.
To Whitney, getting behind the wheel was one way to feel like a real person again. She loved to drive. The problem was, she was a horrible driver! It makes me laugh even now to think of how she’d want to drive us around when I would show up in Atlanta. I’d tell her, “Girl, I don’t want to die today. So I’m driving.”
No way. She’d have none of it. She wanted to drive, and when she wanted to do something – look out! One time we drove around for 45 minutes because she couldn’t find her house!
Driving the two of us around? Pure gold to Whitney. She could talk to me on those rides around town. She could laugh like she so loved to do. She could let it all hang out.
Not all celebrities pursue the “glamour” that comes with the occupation. If it meant being normal for an hour, Whitney would rather get lost on a mini-road trip in downtown Atlanta than be flown to some exotic concert destination. She liked going to her friends’ homes to hang out – as she sometimes did with Pauletta and Denzel Washington. She adored going to the mall, but after about five minutes, there’d be a train of people behind her. She also loved going to movies. But that, like everything else, came at a price: the price of privacy.
She didn’t want to give up her public life, but it was taken from her by a force beyond her control. Some stars, like Whitney, would sing background vocals the rest of their lives if they could. If it were possible to perform and use their gift in some kind of anonymity, they’d do it in a heartbeat.
Whitney saw that desire for “normal” in my sister, CeCe, who she nicknamed “the reluctant star.” We already had named CeCe “Betty Crocker,” because while my sister loves to sing, if she had her way, she’d sit at home and sing while folding laundry.
At some point, I realized that, buried in that little “reluctant star” moniker that Whitney gave to CeCe, was a window into Whitney’s own heart. And I think she’d admit this today if she were still with us.
Singing was Whitney’s escape. On one occasion in 2002, I asked Whitney and Bobby (Brown), my brother Marvin, Gloria Estefan, and Stevie Wonder to join me at the Atlantis Hotel in the Bahamas to in- augurate the opening of a new wing of the resort. Everyone agreed, and everyone showed up as part of the audience. They weren’t there to sing; they were there to be with friends and to enjoy the evening. But then I asked each of them to the stage. And that’s when the magic happened.
There we were, on an outdoor stage under a tent in the Bahamian night, singing our hearts out. No one getting paid, no egos. Just a bunch of “family,” making music and having the time of our lives. Stevie played and led us; Whitney, Marvin, and I sang backup. This was Whitney at her raw best. We sang songs we didn’t even know, telling each other the lyrics right before we had to sing them!
There was very little fanfare, yet you could taste the energy in the air. You could feel the intimacy on the stage. When Marvin would take the lead, Whitney would lean over and whisper in my ear about anything and everything – hilarious, crazy stuff about her and Bobby, or silly stuff about us all being on stage together and not knowing the lyrics to the songs we were singing, or pointing out things about people in the audience. She was like a little kid on the playground. But that’s what made her so lovable, and that’s why people were drawn to her.
You won’t find a video of this performance on YouTube – it’s only available through this book. In the hands of family. And that’s exactly how Whitney would have it. For her, that night was like being back at church, singing for the joy of singing.
There was that burst of energy we saw in her iconic pregame performance at the 1991 Super Bowl, but here she was giving the same passion and energy to a crowd of a few hundred (at most). I think it was those times of intimate singing with those she loved that invigorated her spirit. Those times when she was able to sidestep fame and walk in a different direction for a time, letting that heavy weight fall from her back and spreading her wings a bit wider.
Nights of pure singing and laughter and relationship like the one we experienced in the Bahamas watered her soul. But when you’re Whitney Houston, those nights are rare.
Whitney’s reality at the height of her career was intense. Her fame limited what she could share with people and with whom she could share it. She couldn’t tell just anyone that she’d had a miscarriage, for example, for fear that word would leak to the public. If one person outside her trusted inner circle found out, then suddenly the world would know. And if the public was going to be told, she intended to be the person to do it. But it was difficult for her. She couldn’t grieve like a normal person, and that makes it tough to process the pain. In times of deep loss, she would find herself trapped in a dark place, with grief a lonely friend.
Could Whitney rock a stage to the ground? Yes.
Was Whitney at home singing backup for CeCe and me or singing with her friends at some random stage in the Bahamas? Yes.
That’s the Whitney I knew. She didn’t possess a hunger for fame and notoriety; she possessed a hunger for seeing others thrive and find success.
Whitney loved talented people. With Anita Baker’s 1986 single, “Caught up in the Rapture,” she remarked to me, “Did you hear this girl, Anita? Oh! Love her.” That was true Whitney. That was part of the joy of Whitney: she just loved hearing and finding new talent. For her entire career, she was constantly encouraging other singers – the new arrivals to the frontlines of fame. So many women, from Alicia Keys and Brandy to Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland and Rihanna, have credited her as far more than mere influence and inspiration. They were recipients of her personal encouragement, away from the cameras.
From sending cards and flowers to keeping moments light with her humor, Whitney individually reached out to so many of the rising stars who she inspired. Monica, who’d been befriended by Whitney at age 14, remembered some of those personal touches that were representative of Whitney’s ways. She told E! Online that just before Whitney’s death, Whitney had visited Monica and Brandy’s rehearsal for their upcoming tour, and when Whitney heard how Monica ended one particular song, she joked, “You killin’ that run at the end . . . You know I know you stole that from me, right?” Monica also recalled in a Vibe interview what many of Whitney’s friends would echo: “I went through a lot of very tumultuous mo- ments and [Whitney] would show up, not just with a phone call, but physically . . . That’s something that I’ve carried with me . . . [She] never turned her back on the people she cared about.”
And contrary to popular thought, she loved to hear Mariah Carey sing. When Mariah burst onto the scene, Whitney called me and asked, “Did you hear that new girl, Mariah? Good Lord, she can sing!”
To give you an idea of how the media twists reality, allow me to expound on the Mariah Carey situation. Now, this story would probably embarrass Whitney a little, but I have to tell it. I think she’d understand that it’s all in good fun.
When Mariah debuted, I’m sure people in the media couldn’t wait to compare her to Whitney. I had heard of Mariah early on because my good friend, Rhett Lawrence, produced her first big single. I was at his house in California when he was raving about this new singer.
Well, as we all know, when Mariah came on the scene, she hit hard. And instantly the media created a “hate” between Whitney and Mariah. They were both going to be at the American Music Awards, and people were expecting some kind of fireworks because supposedly there was this massive tension between them. Again, this was a fabrication. They didn’t hate each other; they didn’t even know each other.
I could convince Whitney to do anything – pranks or whatever. We’d be hanging out and I’d tell her to do something, and she’d say, “You are not my father. Why do you think you my father? You think I’ll just do whatever you tell me?” To which I’d reply, “Shut up, I am your father” – all in good fun, of course.
Well, we were at the American Music Awards, and I had persuaded Whitney that after her performance and her category were over, we would go to dinner. I’d also informed her that when we exited our seats, she would be the last one out, and that we were going to pass Mariah Carey on the way out.
“Here’s what you do,” I said. “You gonna stop and you gonna put out your hand and you gonna speak to her.”
“I’m not gonna speak to her,” Whitney replied.
“Yes, you are. You’re going to be bigger than this whole situation.” “I’m not . . .” “Yes, you are.”
Her category finished and our little foursome started marching out to go to dinner – CeCe in front of me, Whitney’s assistant, Robin, in front of her, and Whitney at the end of the line – just like I said. And Whitney did exactly as I told her to do. I didn’t stop to listen to or watch their interaction; I just kept moving. The three of us piled into the car, and then Whitney blew in like a storm and slammed the door behind her. She was clearly upset and embarrassed.
“I’m going to kick your tail!” she said to me. “What happened?” “I’ll never listen to you again.” “Tell me what happened!”
“I did everything you said: I stopped. I put out my hand and said, ‘Hi Mariah, I’m Whitney.’ And when I stuck out my hand, she turned her head like she didn’t hear anything I said and looked up at the sky.”
“Oh no,” I said. “Tell me that’s not true.”
“Oh, it’s true. I was so embarrassed. There I stood, looking like an idiot. I’m never going to do what you tell me to do again.” Thank God the media didn’t see this. If they had, Whitney’s and Mariah’s brief exchange (or lack of it) would have been blown into epic proportions. They would have hated each other and not even known why – and all because it may have been so chaotic in that moment that Mariah didn’t even hear Whitney. Unbelievable. Well, my idea didn’t go very well, but we laughed at that whole awkward affair years later. And this incident didn’t end up stopping those two from getting together in the future . . . after some further persuasion. When Whitney was approached with the opportunity to record a duet with Mariah, I encouraged her to do it. She wouldn’t hear of it. “You crazy,” she responded. “You know what happened last time I tried to do something nice. You don’t know what you’re saying, boy. You’ve lost your mind.”
It wasn’t that she disliked Mariah; she just didn’t want to be embarrassed again. We talked a little more about it, but she finally said, “That ain’t going to happen, BeBe.” Then, only a few months later, she called me and sheepishly informed me of her latest news.
“Well,” she began, dragging it out a bit, “you said it a few months ago – that I should do a duet with Mariah.”
“No,” I interrupted, “don’t tell me you’re doing it!”
“Yeah, Babyface wrote the song, and it’s on.”
I could tell she was very happy about the whole thing.
“Wow,” I replied, “ain’t that something! That’s going to be incredible! But wait, you said you were never going to do something like that.” We both laughed and laughed. Oh, how Whitney loved to laugh. Finally the two superstars met – two musical powerhouses who knew who they were outside of the pop world. And when they performed that Oscar-winning song together (“When You Believe” from the Prince of Egypt soundtrack), it was the catalyst for a great friendship between them. When I looked at Mariah at Whitney’s funeral, all those memories came flooding back.
I share that story for two reasons. First, as an example of the gross exaggerations the media likes to spin on celebrities and also to communicate Whitney’s honest love for her peers. She loved other singers and was always up on who was new and fresh. Second, I wanted to depict the scene within the church the day of her funeral. Each person sitting in that sanctuary represented both the good and the bad of Whitney’s life.
When I say good and bad, I simply mean the wonderful make-up of this life in general. That’s what makes life so beautiful: the fun and the boring, the misunderstandings and the epiphanies. All of it mixes together on the canvas of our lives. When I saw Mariah at Whitney’s homegoing, I saw a specific brushstroke of Whitney’s life. That brushstroke touched other brushstrokes. Together the strokes formed a masterpiece.
All masterpieces have certain tensions or contrasts on display – that’s what makes the painting dynamic and memorable. Whitney’s life told a dramatic story filled with contrast and beauty, a life truly lived.
The seclusion of fame damages people the most. Fame causes its inhabitants to live afraid – to fear their reputation being marred – which makes seclusion seem the only real alternative. Look at how Michael Jackson faded into eerie reclusiveness, buying a monkey and other exotic animals as pets. For me, that seems far removed from reality and true human connection. But he also endured a level of celebrity that few people on earth can relate to.
One year Whitney threw an exclusive party – a BIG party. You may ask, who throws a party for their 26th birthday – complete with a who’s who of attendees, loads of food, a beautifully decorated tent, and excellent music? Well, she did, because she was on the road during her 25th birthday.
The invitation had a spectacular picture of Whitney on the cover. You had to be on a list, and there were different security checkpoints. CeCe and I just stayed on the sidelines of the party, watching her enjoy the evening and all the love as she mingled with everyone.
That was also the night we discovered that Michael Jackson had given Whitney a monkey as her birthday present. Everyone seemed amused, but I’m sure they were all thinking the same thing I was – This is crazy! Who gives monkeys to people for their birthdays?
The thought is funny and ridiculous at the same time. Of course Whitney didn’t need a monkey! It was all she could do to take care of her cat! But perhaps Michael was so far removed from people that he thought Whitney could use the companionship of a monkey.
Whitney couldn’t believe it. She read Michael’s card, looked at me, and said, “What am I going to do with a monkey?”
We both laughed.
“As soon as this party’s over, that monkey is getting dropped off at the zoo!” Did this gift make sense to Michael? I don’t know. Perhaps. The amount of fame that Whitney had garnered already as a 26- year-old had propelled her into a lonely way of life. But can you imagine thinking that another person would be so lonely that they’d need a pet monkey? This was someone’s reality?
This is what seclusion does to a person. Whitney didn’t struggle with the inclination toward extreme reclusivenes like Michael did, though I can see now how that gift from Michael was a foreshadowing of darker days ahead for Whitney.
Excerpted from The Whitney I Knew by BeBe Winans, © 2012. Published by Worthy Publishing, a division of Worthy Media, Inc., Brentwood, TN. Used by permission. Winans’ new album, America America, is out now. Tell us what you thought of this excerpt on Twitter: #TheWhitneyIKnew @WorthyPub