She still has it all: the voice, the style, the diva-next-door smile. But this year the singer once called the Prom Queen of Soul was sporting visible cracks in her crown. On a sold-out summer tour of U.S. cities, Whitney Houston, 31, canceled often (due, she said, to throat problems), showed up late and bungled her attempts at stage patter. In South Africa, where she gave three concerts in November, she praised the controversial Winnie Mandela, and when the audience responded with stony silence, snapped: "I don't care how you feel."
Her personal life might have been the problem. She had a miscarriage in July, even as the tabloids continued to report that her marriage to singer Bobby Brown (with whom she has a daughter, Bobbi Kristina, 20 months) is a sham. And the whispers that she is gay grew bolder. "I told her to ignore it, not dignify it," says Houston's cousin Dionne Warwick. Yet dignify it she did. In what became a tour ritual, Brown was trotted out for an onstage smooch. "The man I'm in love with," Houston told audiences, "is very much in love with me."
Not that it matters, of course, once the music starts. At Houston's Johannesburg concert, 73,000 fans demanded—and got—90 minutes of encores delivered by a glittering pro. That was after she had played prima donna by nixing interviews during her stay. "Who Does Whitney Houston Think She Is?" asked one black-run newspaper.
Maybe next year she'll figure it out.
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