Facing the Music
Exactly which times these are for Houston is not quite clear. Yes, the six-time Grammy winner, now 39, is still vocally in top form and has a new record, Just Whitney, her first studio release since 1998. And yes, she finally addressed years of rumors about her rampant drug use in a blockbuster Dec. 4 interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC's Prime Time Live, in which she admitted abusing pills, alcohol and cocaine while claiming to now be clean and sober. Even so, Houston, we still have a few problems. The first single on Just Whitney fizzled, while her jittery and at times incoherent performance on Prime Time was, as weird celebrity moments go, just a notch below Michael Jackson's notorious baby dangling. "The interview could have been a smart move, but she came across as erratic and nervous," says former Sony music executive Brian Kaplan, now president of his own public relations firm. "It almost seemed as if she was covering something up."
The interview with Sawyer was intended to give a timely image boost to Houston, who despite five top-selling albums has had a long run of bad publicity: a last-minute pullout from a 1997 Rosie O'Donnell Show taping, a slew of canceled concerts in 1999, an arrest the following year for carrying 15.2 grams of marijuana in her purse (the charges were later dropped) and a disastrous firing from the 2000 Oscar telecast after flubbing her songs in rehearsal. And then there were the misadventures of husband Bobby Brown, 35, the troubled singer who spent 26 days in prison in 2000 for a parole violation stemming from a drunk driving charge and just last month was busted in Atlanta for having marijuana in his car (he goes on trial in January). "My business is sex, drugs, rock and roll, you know?" Houston explained to Sawyer when asked about her self-destructive behavior. "I mean, my friends, we have a good time." Answering "uh-hmm" when asked whether she abused alcohol, marijuana, cocaine or pills, Houston added, "I don't like to think of myself as addicted. I like to think...I had a bad habit, which can be broken."
Her friends say Houston has indeed kicked her worst habits. "This is a new beginning for her," says Roxana Floyd, 42, her longtime makeup artist. "She's really in a great place." As for her gaunt appearance, Houston denies she has an eating disorder. "I've always been a thin girl; I'm not going to be fat," she told Sawyer. "If I have a day that is nerve-wracking...or something's going down, I won't eat."
Don't expect to see her chowing down anytime soon. This August her father, John Houston, 82, a music management company executive, sued his daughter for $100 million he claims she owes him for salvaging her career following her drug arrest and helping her land a new $100 million recording contract with Arista (her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, 69, runs the New Hope Baptist Church choir in Newark, N.J., where Houston was raised). The lawsuit "has devastated Whitney," says someone close to the singer. "She loves her father, and she is crying about it."
Houston's safest harbor through it all has been her often tumultuous marriage I to Brown, the R&B singer she wed in 1992. Together they're raising daughter Bobbi Kristina, 9, in Atlanta (they recently bought a new home there) and Williams Island, Fla., where they own a 4,700-sq.-ft. condo. "I was awed by his love for her," says music producer Kevin Briggs, who worked with Houston on her CD this summer. "He came to the studio every day to take care of her. I saw a really strong, loving marriage."
Houston's career may prove less durable. "She's heading toward Michael Jackson territory, where personal problems overshadow the music," says one veteran industry observer, who believes her spacey interview with Sawyer will "continue to fuel rumors about her and drugs." Then again, one does not become a true diva without a little toughness to fall back on. "She's such a survivor," says her good friend, the singer Luther Vandross. "Most women today are simply pretenders to her throne. There is only one Whitney."
Sharon Krum and Frank Swertlow in New York City, Deborah Geering in Atlanta and Linda Marx in Miami