She grew up with gospel music and can sing like an angel. At age 22, Whitney Houston’s first album sold 22 million copies. But this multi-talented, multi-octave singer has been through some highs and lows in the years since, both personally and professionally. And some of the lows have been very public: missed concert dates, forgotten lyrics, a run-in with the law. For many of her fans, it’s been puzzling and painful to watch. Now, at age 40 she’s embarked on a spiritual journey, one that has taken her to far away places and may be taking her to a new place in her life. Where is Whitney headed?
We met her when she was 20. She just turned 40. In the last two decades we’ve seen her meteoric rise to the top. We also saw her seemingly self destructive plunge to the bottom. She is now more frequently seen in gossip columns than concert halls. Her image selling tabloids, not CDs: drama, dirt and drugs. There is the good Whitney, the bad Whitney, and the question: 40 years old — it’s not right, but is she OK?
“Dateline” looks back at Whitney Houston’s turbulent career and show you the star like you’ve never seen her. She was barely more than 20 when her first album became the best selling female debut album in history. And since then, she’s had eight consecutive multi-platinum albums, over 100 million sold. Whitney’s songs would become the soundtrack of a generation.
By 1992 she became a bankable movie actress, starring in “The Bodyguard.” The movie’s soundtrack became the most successful ever released.
She smiled at us from one magazine cover to the next, but gradually, year after year, her public image cracked. By the end of the 90s, her career plunged, too, with fewer concerts, fewer CDs sold and no new movies.
So this past May, Whitney packed up her troubles, her husband, her daughter, and we saw, 30 suitcases, and went halfway around the world. Was she just escaping her life. Or was she finally ready to confront it? She flew from the desert city of lights Las Vegas to the desert town of Dimona.
Her hosts are the “African Hebrew Israelites.” This community prides itself on clean, healthy living, even reforming addicts, by mixing spirituality with mandatory exercise and a strict vegan diet.
So was Whitney here for religion or rehab? Whitney’s hosts are extremely protective of their guest. This makes it even more of a mystery, though it seems the spirit of the Holy Land has set in rather quickly.
Hoda Kotb: “I mean was this visit really just a circus?”
Guy Pines, Anchor, Israeli Television: [laughter] “It was a circus, yeah.”
Their hosts are taking Whitney and Bobby to tour the desert by bus, heading to spiritual moments, tense moments, strange moments, and the occasional mandatory stop of any scenic route.
Kirk Whalum: “There’s a madness that people would never believe that happens to an individual who gets that famous.”
Sax player Whalum was there, in the background, watching the daily grind of success slowly chip away at the icon.
Whalum: “It’s just like you’re spinning around. And there’s nothing to hold on to.”
But many believe that the man she ultimately grabbed on to did not anchor Whitney — he sank her. Like her, he launched his career in his teens, and by the time they met he was well on his way to having four hits in the top five. They had stardom in common. But she was buttoned up in sequin gowns, he, well, he liked taking his clothes off on stage. There seemed to be no connection and definitely no future.
In 1993, Bobbi Kristina, Whitney and Bobby’s only child was born. Is it a match made in heaven? It’s certainly paparazzi paradise.
Toure, Rolling Stone: “The continuing circus with Bobby, while not meant for that purpose, has definitely given her an edginess.”
She’s there for the perp walks, the court appearances.
Toure: “It just kept people interested in her when they may have said, ‘OK, we’ve heard enough. Oh wait a minute!’”
She’s seen sending him off to jail, and in 2000, waiting for him as he comes out.
Toure: “Oh, wait a minute, she’s outside the prison, waiting for Bobby. Oh, wait a minute. Here they’re making out on stage at some show.”
And those pictures are from just last month — Whitney coming to Bobby’s most recent court hearing. The couple, so solid, so volatile had several awkward moments during their visit. But none more public than a recent pose. The spiritual journey of Whitney Houston takes her to the home of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. She fidgets to find her place. And then, cameras ablaze, she decides to make a statement: not so much about the Mideast conflict as about the peace process in her own household.
Pines: “He gives her his hand, she like pulls Bobby’s hand, very very strongly and she doesn’t want to give the prime minister her hand and she makes Bobby shake his hand. If I had a dollar for every time I said ‘strange’ in this interview, I’d be a rich man by now.”
In a little town in the middle of the desert in Israel, a family watches out the window one of the world’s most famous singers performing a concert — only she’s singing to herself in the backyard.
She is on a spiritual retreat. The highlight of her trip is yet to come, but low moments like these, suggest a star on her own planet.
It first became noticeable in the late 90s. A string of appearances and disappearances raised the possibility that Whitney Houston may have a problem.
James Robert Parish: “She would cancel concerts. She would be late on stage.”
Biographer Parrish can list one public appearance cancelled after the next, throat problems, exhaustion, city after city, shorter and shorter notice. So, what exactly was the problem? Well, Whitney wasn’t going to offer a simple answer, as New York radio personality Wendy Williams found out earlier this year.
Kotb: “That was the most erratic, weird interview I’d ever heard.”
Wendy Williams: “I was shocked that Whitney actually called... Isn’t that the first thing everybody wonders when they see Whitney? I wonder if she’s high. Whitney’s got a new album out. She’s going to be at the Megastore signing it. I wonder if she’s high. Whitney’s going to be on ‘Oprah.’ Ooh, let me turn it on. I wonder if she’s high. It’s hard to pay attention to what Whitney wants us to focus on because we — well all right, me — I’m so focused on, is she high.”
By the late 90s, the tabloids were having a field day accusing her of marijuana and cocaine use. But starting in March 2000, a series of events took the rumor-mill to the mainstream press. It began when Whitney was rehearsing to sing at the Oscars.
Williams: “She showed up at Oscars and I forget the song that she was supposed to be doing, but she forgot it, too. She did not know the words.”
Nick Maier, National Enquirer: “Whitney Houston is supposed to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ at the Oscars. She gets up there and obviously she was somewhere over the rainbow because she couldn’t remember the words to the song or even what song to sing.”
Parish: “She just seemed to be playing imaginary piano while she was waiting around and just nobody could really make contact with her.”
Maier: “Bobby Brown, her husband, was sitting in the front row drunk with a coat over his head.”
By the time the show was on, Whitney was out. She was replaced. But it was another concert, in August 2001, that suggested she was nose-diving. It was the Michael Jackson tribute concert. She did show up — or at least a fraction of her did.
Parish: “She had gotten so emaciated that literally the bones in her chest were sticking out her ribcage.”
She looked so bad reportedly even Michael Jackson told her he was concerned.
Parish: “Towards the end of the summer, there was a notice on the Internet that flew around, ‘Whitney has died.’”
She wasn’t dead, but these reports, she would later claim, forced her to reexamine her life.
Last year, she admitted publicly to drug use, insisting it was in the past. She said she was so thin due to stress, that she was never an addict. But the string of bad news did not come to an end.
Late last year, her new CD came out. Called “Just Whitney,” it was just awful, according to critics. And the buying public agreed, making it her worse selling album ever. In show biz they’ll tell you when all else fails, it’s time for a road trip. Perhaps that’s what brought her to Israel, so far away. But back in New Jersey there were still some unresolved problems.
In life, you may be able to change where you’re going, but it’s very hard to erase where you’ve been. Whitney may be in Israel on a fresh new start, but back home, one man is trying to make her confront her past. His name is Kevin Skinner.
He used to be partners with Whitney’s father, John Houston. And he says that in 2000, the star asked them to help her troubled career. It was shortly after, reports circulated Whitney got a new $100 million recording contract.
But talking exclusively to “Dateline,” her father’s partner, Skinner, says salvaging Whitney’s career wasn’t about getting her on stage as much as getting her off drugs.
Kevin Skinner: “Do I think she’s an addict? It’s my personal opinion, yes.”
Kotb: “Have you ever seen her do drugs with your own eyes?”
Skinner: “I don’t want to say that on camera.”
Kotb: “Did you see her do it, ever?”
Skinner: “Have I ever seen Whitney Houston use? Yes, I have.”
Skinner says he was personally involved in clearing up the only public incident that firmly links the star to drugs. On January 11, 2000, Whitney was at an airport in Hawaii on her way home, when a security check uncovered marijuana in her bag. According to police reports she was asked to wait for the police, but the star boarded her scheduled flight and took off.
Skinner: “She thought she was going to get arrested at the airport. ‘Kevin, am I going to jail? Am I going to jail?’”
In letters to Whitney, her father and his partner contend they worked with authorities in Hawaii and New Jersey to keep the singer from getting a criminal record. She pled no contest to a misdemeanor drug offense and eventually charges were dropped. But Kevin says he became routinely involved in trying to keep Whitney away from drugs.
Kotb: “How does somebody who’s a big superstar like Whitney Houston, everybody knows Whitney, how does she get drugs?”
Skinner: “She can get anything she wants.”
Kotb: “But everyone will say, ‘That’s Whitney Houston. Maybe I’ll tell my friends.’ Does she ever go out on her own and get them?”
Skinner: “And Bobby together.”
Kotb: “Would go where?”
Skinner: “To Newark.”
Skinner: “Clifton Avenue.”
Skinner knows the drug world well, maybe too well. “Dateline” learned that in 1988 he served time for selling cocaine.
Skinner: “I was a cocaine distributor years ago. Maybe ten, fifteen years ago. And that’s how I know Whitney.”
Kotb: “You sold drugs to Whitney Houston?”
Skinner: “Yeah. Years ago, yes. We used to engage in a lot of activity with drugs.”
But he says that is all more than a decade behind him now — thanks, in great part, to Whitney’s father.
Skinner: “He gave me a lot of self respect. He made a man out of me.”
So, he says, when Whitney’s father wanted to quell the drug rumors about his daughter, Skinner went back to the streets — to tell dealers to stop selling her drugs.
Kotb: “How did you know how to be the “clean up guy” in that drug world?
Skinner: “Because I was once a drug dealer. And knew all the people.”
Kotb: “You can navigate through that world?”
So, why is this man suddenly airing all this dirty laundry in public? This may explain it: a lawsuit. In September 2002, her father’s company filed a $100 million suit claiming Whitney didn’t pay him and his business partner, for their services. Yes, that is father suing daughter.
So what does the diva have to say about all this? In legal filings, she dismissed Kevin as a “hanger on,” arguing she had no business with him. And as for her father, her lawyers argue that what advice she took from him was as daddy. And perhaps father and daughter would have been able to resolve this matter. But this February, John Houston passed away. Whitney paid her final respects privately at his open casket but did not attend his funeral.
Isabel Wilkerson, Essence Magazine: “My sense is is that the last two years have probably been among the most difficult for her in maybe her entire life.”
Two years of fending off rumors and allegations of drug use, insisting she is not an addict. And according to news reports, she is taking control of her life. Not in rehab, but through her faith. So perhaps that’s why she decided to go to Israel.
Prince Asiel: “I wanted to make myself and the community, accessible to her, her husband and her family.”
Prince Asiel is the African Hebrew Israelites liaison in the States, and two years ago he approached the star.
Prince Asiel: “One of the things we decided to do is not let there be anymore Billie Holidays or John Coltranes. Meaning these great genius entertainers who have to go out because they’re isolated and the whole question of drug abuse comes up.”
Kotb: “Can you and this community really rehabilitate somebody who has a drug problem?”
Prince Asiel: “I would like to respond to that in the affirmative and in the absolute.”
And we’re going to share with you the ceremony the community prepared for her: a spiritual highlight that would cleanse the star and bring her to tears.
On August 9, Whitney turned 40. An hour after her birthday’s passed, Whitney finally arrives. Back in Israel, Whitney Houston was about to do something she had only done once before in her life. The first time was in New Jersey, this time, in the Jordan River. And this is the stuff of gospel music. The African Israelites took Whitney to be baptized. In the river where, tradition has it, John baptized Christ himself.
Prince Asiel: “A spiritually rooted person dipping in this historical body of water, it touches them to realize they are now standing in the water that Jesus stood in.”
Yes, she is on a cell phone. Prince Asiel, her African Israelite host, says she called her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston.
It has been a long journey for the Jersey girl from New Hope Baptist Church. And here she’s still growing up at 40.
Williams: “You know what my birthday wish is for Whitney Houston? That she drops every last person and leaves it a party of one, her, because she’s the only one who can clean herself up.”
Toure: “She could become a major artist again. Because the voice seems to still be there. She’s doing something that 99 percent of the globe cannot do. And we are marveling at that.”
Forty years old, she’s still one step from the edge. But also still just a step from greatness. And even if this trip didn’t solve all her problems, at least, she says, it inspired her. She’s heading back to the studio, to record her first Christmas album.
Whitney Houston: “You lose a little bit of love along the way. You kind of get hard a little bit, you know? You kind of get a little firm, a little stiff, you know so that you can take the blows, you know? Kinda bounce off and come back you know. If you don’t, they’ll just kill you. And you’ll just die. And that’s not me.”
Whitney Houston describes her life as one in transition. And some in the recording industry say her music may benefit. After 20-years as a pop star, they tell us they hope to see Whitney take her hard-earned life experience and pour it into a new sound, one more mature and spiritually based.