The voice and the victim: Whitney Houston’s family speaks out in new film on the latest twist in her tale
Just when you think you know as much of Whitney Houston’s story as you ever will, along comes a new documentary with a devastating claim; that Whitney and her half-brother Gary were sexually abused as children by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick (who died a decade ago.) The story first came out in May after the film, Whitney, premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
"I think they are remarkable women, one of the hardest things I've ever had to do was to tell them about the content of the film."
Gary’s wife, Pat Houston (also Whitney’s manager since 2001) was the one tasked with telling Whitney’s mother, Cissy Houston, and Dee Dee’s sister, Dionne Warwick, what the world was about to find out. “I told them,” says Pat who is one of the executive producers on director Kevin Macdonald’s film. “I phoned them to tell them what was in it. No one wants to hear that a family member has been involved in situations like this.”
“Although I honour my mother-in-law (Cissy Houston) and Dionne (Warwick) with everything that I have, I think they are remarkable women, one of the hardest things I've ever had to do was to tell them about the content of the film. And then I became a little selfish at one point because I felt that Whitney and Gary never said anything to their mother or anyone and I had to be the person to bring that news to them.”
Pat discloses that both Cissy and Dionne found the call “very overwhelming.”
Whitney had not chosen to make the news public herself during her lifetime, and we will never know how she would feel now that it is, or be able to question the accused. In this current wave of #MeToo, does her sister-in-law think Whitney may have wanted to speak out more?
“She would've been very supportive with Gary,” considers Pat Houston. “I'm not sure if she would have come out herself and spoken about it alone as far as she was concerned but I know she would have supported Gary and possibly had spoken out about her experience as well. Possibly.”
At this time though, while this latest addition to Whitney’s story continues to make headlines, it was Gary’s decision to make it public. “I've been married to Gary (Houston) for 24 years we've been together for 26,” says Pat. “I've seen his struggles, along with Whitney's. I've seen their failures, their ups and downs. Many things have happened. They are great people and I can tell when my husband wanted to speak out and he did. He spoke very openly about what happened to him and you can't put limitations on a voice when they are speaking out about things like that and I didn't try because I know what I've lived with and what he's had to deal with and I pay more attention to that than anything else. It's really about the struggles that he and Whitney had, not anyone else.”
“Whitney had such a gift, and she wasn't competitive in that nature she just did what she did best and that's sing. She loved singing, she loved giving her fans the best. Who wouldn't want to be like her? The only difference is her spot is taken.”
Whitney is the first feature to be authorised by the family and the Whitney Houston estate, of which Pat Houston is also the executor. They did not lend their support to Nick Broomfield’s documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me, which was released last year.
The idea for this one began almost a decade ago, when Whitney did her final, lengthy and revealing interview with Oprah Winfrey. Whitney producer Lisa Erspamer was working as the co-executive producer on Oprah’s TV show at the time and had built up a relationship with the Houston family. “For Oprah and me it was important to us that it was a real interview,” says Lisa of the 2009 recording. “A real sit down where we could sort of try to give people more information as to why her life had maybe been so complicated. That interview, I was very curious why her life had been so complicated, so I started thinking about it then and we started talking about it years later.”
More than 70 people were interviewed for this documentary, including Cissy Houston, and Whitney’s ex-husband Bobby Brown. Neither choose to reveal much on screen which in itself ends up being more telling than perhaps if they had opened the verbal floodgates. At the time Electra spoke to Lisa and Pat, they said Bobby Brown had not seen the documentary but felt that he would someday.
“I think people felt good about doing it,” adds Lisa, “because it’s authorised by the family. Everybody showed up for it and basically I think everyone tried to tell as much of their truth as they possibly could.” The only notable absentee is Whitney’s close friend and employee, Robyn Crawford. “We asked her to do an interview and she said ‘no’,” says Lisa Erspamer, who adds that Robyn is writing her own book.
“At the end of the day it really felt like the core of this film really came about the family and it was about Whitney and her life and obviously Robyn is featured and she is talked about. She didn't want to do an interview, so we respected that.”
"The one thing about Whitney is she knew her struggles and her troubles but she always tried to place Krissy in a situation so she would be safe, but unfortunately kids want their parents.”
Whilst there is much to celebrate from Whitney Houston’s life, the world knows it came to an abrupt end in 2012 when she was found dead in the bathtub of her hotel room in Los Angeles. The drowning was recorded an accident, but a heart condition and drugs had been a contributing factor.
There was further tragedy for her family when Whitney’s only child (from her marriage to Bobby Brown), Bobbi Kristina, was put into a medically induced coma in January 2015 after being found face down in the bath at home. She died six months later.
At various points Whitney took young Bobbi Kristina out on tour with her, but other times her daughter remained at home, regularly in the care of family friend Ellen White (known affectionately as Aunt Bae) who speaks emotionally about that for this film. It’s a sensitive and loaded subject, but Pat Houston says she did talk to Whitney about how much parenting Whitney was able to personally provide.
“Yes, we certainly had conversations because Krissy has lived in our home before. But the one thing about Whitney is she knew her struggles and her troubles but she always tried to place Krissy in a situation so she would be safe, but unfortunately kids want their parents.”
“Kristina can't be held responsible for the life that she had,” continues Pat. “Did she (Whitney) love her child? Yes, she did. It was just a little too late to try and step up. Once you reach a certain age and a kid has been out there watching and seeing everything, it's very difficult to reel them in.”
Being a working parent and juggling childcare is not a new dilemma, and it’s complicated to judge anyone on the choices they make trying to balance earning money and being at home. Whitney’s mother Cissy was often away, singing, and it became Whitney’s lifestyle as an adult too. “It was the career that she chose,” says Pat Houston, “and with any career if you have a career that causes you to be on the road a lot it's not the same as an ordinary woman that would be walking to an office every day. I know, because I experienced that.”
“I'm a mother. I had to travel on the road all the time but I also know that I had to balance that and create a home for our daughter to make sure that she was OK even when Gary and I were away.” Leaving Whitney’s extracurricular activities and earning potential aside for a moment, Pat suggests the idea of being able to have it all as a working parent, is not always an easy one to achieve.
“It's very difficult when you choose that type of lifestyle,” she says, “so I would tell any young person out there, choose your career wisely if you want a family. This family is no different than any other family anywhere. It's just how you balance your life.”
Whitney, as you’d imagine, is an emotional watch. Alongside the personal dramas and tragedies, it also aims to contextualise Whitney’s impact on black culture which in itself was complex, while allowing her vocal talent to shine through. As a teenager I count myself lucky to have seen her perform live, even if I remember it as an erratic show where Whitney left the stage unexpectedly due to being unwell. Thirty years ago, she became the first woman to have an album debut on America’s Billboard chart at number one. She also retains the record for being the only solo artist to have seven consecutive number one singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Pat Houston feels Whitney’s talent was always there.
“Whitney had such a gift,” she says, “and she wasn't competitive in that nature she just did what she did best and that's sing. She loved singing, she loved giving her fans the best. Who wouldn't want to be like her? The only difference is her spot is taken.”
“So, Beyoncé and Jennifer (Hudson) and Christina Aguilera in their own right they are amazing. There is never going to be another Beyoncé in my opinion. Stepping away from music, there is never going to be another Michael Jordan or another Muhammad Ali. They were the greatest. So, Whitney was the greatest. And you have to just recognise that and just keep it moving.“
By Natalie Jamieson @nat_jamieson
Whitney is released in UK cinemas on Friday 6 July 2018