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THE PASSENGERS SPILLING OUT OF the limo just before midnight on Nov. 17 at Bar None, the trendy Miami hot spot co-owned by director Oliver Stone, were capable of raising eyebrows even in celebrity-jaded South Beach. There, in a slinky black dress that showed off her model-thin body, was superstar Whitney Houston—very publicly back together with soul singer Bobby Brown, the husband from whom she had split just two months before. As the recoupled couple and their entourage were ushered to the upstairs VIP room Houston flashed her brilliant smile as broadly as if she had just won an addition to her collection of five Grammys

Inside the VIP room, the singer, 32, and her friends began sipping Cristal champagne. Brown, 26, a recent guest at the Betty Ford Center where, he has said, he was successfully treated for alcohol abuse—"The bottle's out of my life now, so everything is all good," he recently told TIME magazine—drank two Bud Lights. The couple went back downstairs and worked out for a while on the dance floor, then returned to the lounge, where a young woman approached Brown and asked for his autograph. He declined, but his wife was not so restrained. "Please leave him alone," Houston demanded, clearly annoyed.

Pop diva Houston, star of her second movie, Waiting to Exhale, due Dec. 22, just can't seem to get a breather. Stories about the trials and tribulations of her 3½-year-old marriage to Brown have become as familiar as the strains of "I Will Always Love You," Houston's monster single from her first film, The Bodyguard. In the three years since that blockbuster movie secured Houston's superstar status, her once-perfect Prom Queen of Soul facade has begun to crack as her marriage has become increasingly strained and she seems, at times, to be losing touch with her audience. It's no surprise that fans wonder what is going on with the international star who finished 23rd on Forbes's list of the world's top-earning entertainers last year, with a '93-'94 income of $33 million. Considering her secretive life in Mendham, N.J., a sedate enclave of FORTUNE 500 corporate headquarters where she lives in an ultramodern glass-and-chrome compound with tight security the answers don't come easily.

Onstage, Houston seems as talented as ever. But catch her on a bad night and you may be costarring in Waiting for Whitney. Her most recent tour offered many examples of a changed Houston, a once-humble choir girl from Newark, N.J., who, insulated from the world by money and fame, now sometimes comes off as a prima donna. At a Las Vegas concert last year, the singer testily told her audience, "Stuff happens," to explain why they were kept waiting more than an hour for her show to start At a White House dinner last fall honoring South African President Nelson Mandela Houston the featured performer breezed into the East Room with Brown nearly 2 hours late "I just got off tour," she explained to the 200 dignitaries even though she had played her final date four days earlier in New York City.

In August 1994 the singer interrupted an Anaheim, Calif., show to ask tearfully that a spotlight be turned on O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown's two children, Sydney and Justin, who were in the audience—a request one newspaper critic found "weird" and "mortifying." And throughout her lengthy tour, Houston included an even weirder bit where she would bring Brown onstage, leap into his arms and wrap her legs around his waist. "I am a woman in love," she'd declare, "and the man I'm in love with is very much in love with me." Bobby having served his purpose, would then walk off silently, and sullenly, into the wings.

Most of Houston's recent problems trace back to Brown, whom she married in front of 800 guests at her reported $11 million New Jersey mansion on July 18, 1992. Although both Brown and Whitney insist he's no longer a womanizer—"Bobby is a family man," Houston said in May—the singer, who fathered three children by two different women before marrying Houston, currently faces a paternity suit involving a little girl born since the wedding. Pamela Howell, an Atlanta magazine contributing writer who tried to interview Brown after a local music awards show last year found her encounter with the singer unexpectedly challenging: "He started hugging and kissing me," she says "He had me in a headlock at one point He never answered one of my questions He just wanted to grone me. He acted' like a thug." More recently—less than two weeks after the Bar None appearance with his wife in fact—Brown was spotted making out with an unidentified woman at a New York City birthday party for hip-hop impresario Sean "Puffy" Combs.

Inexplicably, Houston seems tolerant of this kind of thing. Although in mid-September she announced through her publicist that she and Brown were "having marital difficulties," soon afterward she told VIBE magazine, "I've got a good man. He takes care of me don't have to be scared of anything because I know he will kick every ass...disrespect him and you've got a problem." And you won't be alone. Brown just can't seem to get over the combativeness he learned in Boston's drug-wracked Roxbury neighborhood where he told PEOPLE in 1989, "it was rough as far as growing up in the streets and having to fight someone for the stupidest reasons."

In August, while hosting a late-night party in his suite at a West Hollywood hotel, the singer was charged with kicking a security guard who had asked him to keep down the noise. In addition, Brown and two friends face charges of aggravated battery and disorderly conduct stemming from an April incident at Walt Disney World's Mannequins nightclub. A Chicago conventioneer reportedly was beaten by the threesome after trying to speak to a woman with whom they had been talking, and Orlando, Fla., sheriff's deputies say Brown subsequently urinated in their squad car and used a pen to carve obscenities into the seat covers. (Brown is scheduled to be arraigned on the Los Angeles misdemeanor assault charges Dec. 29 and has a Jan. 16 court appearance in Orlando.)

On Sept. 28, Brown narrowly escaped death in Roxbury, when a fusillade of bullets cut down his younger sister Carol's fiance outside a bar they had just left. Steven "Shot" Sealy, 28—who had begun working as Brown's bodyguard after serving a two-year sentence on weapons charges—died from gunshot wounds in the passenger seat of a $295,000 cream-colored Bentley registered to Houston as Brown wailed, "They shot my boy!"

All of this comes at a time of intense pressure for Houston, who is trying to follow up 1992's phenomenally successful Bodyguard—which grossed more than $400 million worldwide—with Exhale, in which she plays a character experiencing some uncomfortable parallels to her own man troubles. (Houston portrays a successful businesswoman who clings to a doomed relationship, in this case with a married man who keeps stringing her along.) After two miscarriages, she yearns for a second child. And in an eerie echo of her Bodyguard role, she has been harassed by two disturbed fans.

Since May, Houston has had a restraining order against Steve Marriott, 38, a sometime carpenter who besieged her with flowers and phone calls. He eventually served two months on weapons charges after police found an arsenal including two rifles, several knives and a crossbow in his truck. Previously, Houston obtained a restraining order against Charles Russell Gilberg, 39, of Newark, N.J. He had terrified the singer when he wrote letters vowing to come see her and Brown's little girl Bobbi Kristina, now 2, whom he deludedly believed to be his own daughter.

It isn't easy being Whitney. But that only makes her decision to stand by her volatile husband all the more confounding. Widespread gossip claims that Houston doesn't particularly care whom she's married to, because the marriage is a sham. According to these stories, which have been circulating in and out of the music business for several years, the singer is a lesbian whose only interest in men is to provide her with children—and a cover for her relationship with her real significant other, longtime best friend, executive assistant and maid of honor at her wedding, Robyn Crawford.

Houston has acknowledged the gossip about the pair, who met as teenage counselors at a New Jersey camp and were later roommates. "Even when we were kids growing up," she told Playboy in 1991, "people thought we were gay. I think it had a lot to do with Robyn's being athletic." But Houston has denied that the two were, to use her word, "lesbos," speculating that "most men who say that want to jump into my pants."

Houston and Brown have always seemed—superficially at least—the most unlikely of couples, from the time they started dating two years after meeting at the Soul Train Awards in L.A. in April 1989. He was R&B's raunchy bad boy, who had been arrested and charged with indecency for simulating sex onstage. She was the daughter of a gospel singer, Cissy, and a music manager, John. Despite her talent and remarkable beauty, she had a knack for fading into the wallpaper wherever she went. According to a former employee at Houston's label Arista Records, "We used to joke that you could invite Whitney to a party, put her in the room, and there she'd stay for the rest of the evening She'd be like a piece of wood." Says Jamie Foster Brown, publisher of Sister 2 Sister magazine and a friend of Bobby's for a dozen years (but no relation): "There were bets being made at the wedding as to how long this would last."

But the truth is, Houston and Brown have more in common than perhaps first meets the eye. Both had known early and overwhelming success. After becoming a teen idol with the R&B group New Edition in the early '80s, Brown, at 19, had a No. 1 hit on his own with "My Prerogative"; Whitney hit it big with "Saving All My Love for You" at 22. He was reared in Roxbury's violent Orchard Park projects; she claims street credentials from her upbringing in Newark. "I'm nobody's angel, " Houston has said "I can get raunchy. " Amen agrees record producer Teddy Riley who worked on two of Brown's albums "Bobby and I were both born in the 'hood and have a little bit of craziness," he says. "When I first met [Whitney], I could see she has a little craziness in her too."

Houston herself has said that she was attracted to Brown precisely because he treated her as an equal and didn't put her on a pedestal. "Before I met my husband, I always got that 'How can I show her that I'm worthy to be with her?' attitude," she told McCall's last year. "When I met Bobby, it was simple. Bobby knew what I needed was love." Brown fulfilled Whitney's fantasy of a "cool down-to-earth, sexy man " says New Edition impresario Maurice Starr and Bobby played the part to the hilt When he proposed in the summer of 1991 he first offered Houston a very modest ring. Then, once she had said yes, he took her breath away by whipping out a 10-carat diamond. As she later said admiringly, "He played me like I was Atari." The game reference, friends say, is telling. "They're kids," Jamie Brown says flatly. "In the scheme of things, they've never been allowed to develop in terms of the character growth that a normal person would have."

For Brown, the challenge has been to avoid becoming Mr. Whitney Houston at a time when his career is stagnant—his last album, back in 1992, was considered a commercial disappointment—and his finances are foundering Houston's management company, Nippy, Inc., saved Brown from losing his $1.5 million Tudor-style mansion in Atlanta on which the IRS had tax liens of $1.3 million. (The firm bought it at auction.) The once-stylish home now lies abandoned, with doors hanging off their hinges, toilets overflowing and snakes slithering across the bottom of the swimming pool

Houston's career, meanwhile, has never been healthier. In January, just a few weeks after Waiting to Exhale's opening—the accompanying soundtrack album, including her current hit single, "Exhale," is already Top 5—she will report for work on another high-profile project, director Penny Marshall's The Preacher's Wife with Denzel Washington. The movie, about an angel (Washington) who helps a preacher (Courtney Vance) build a church is a remake of 1947's The Bishop's Wife which starred Cary Grant Loretta Young and David Niven. All Brown has on his calendar, by contrast, are court dates.

The couple still face an uncertain future. On Dec. 2, at a benefit honoring Houston for her achievements in music and film at New York's City Center, she arrived looking Oscar-ready in her regal black gown—but Brown was conspicuously absent. In her speech accepting her award, Houston didn't mention his name once. Instead, addressing little Bobbi Kristina, who was sitting wide-eyed in the front row, the superstar said, as she choked back tears, "You are my reason to be."

Still, Houston appears to be a firm believer in the idea that love can conquer all. On the Arizona set of Waiting to Exhale, where she and Brown would stroll arm in arm, "I got the feeling that she loved her husband," says costar Lela Rochon. "Even when he had trouble in [Orlando], it was never a threat of them splitting up." And the more people shake their heads and say Houston is crazy for living the way she does the more she wants to prove the world wrong. Why stay married to Bobby Brown? The answer, to her, is simple. "I love my sexy baby," she said recently. "This has got to be worth fighting for."

PAM LAMBERT
NANCY MATSUMOTO and MICHAEL ARKUSH in Los Angeles, MARIA SPEIDEL and NANCY JO SALES in New York City, TOM AUSTEN, GREG AUNAPU and MEG GRANT in Miami, JILL SIEDER and MARGARET MAREE in Atlanta, TOM DUFFY in Boston, and LINDA KRAMER in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Nancy Matsumoto,
  • Michael Arkush,
  • Maria Speidel,
  • Nancy Jo Sales,
  • Tom Austen,
  • Greg Aunapu,
  • Meg Grant,
  • Jill Sieder,
  • Margaret Maree,
  • Tom Duffy,
  • Linda Kramer.