Whitney Houston’s rise to music stardom began when she was in her early 20s with the release of her debut album in 1985. She went on to become one of the best-selling musical artists of all time.
But behind the scenes, her personal life was bedeviled by drugs, family and marital issues. Houston died of an accidental drowning involving drugs in a hotel bathtub at age 48.
“It’s about somebody who had it all — who had beauty, who had incredible talent, talent without compare, success, everything,” Macdonald says. “And somehow, through the character flaws or the experiences of her childhood, managed to throw it all away, and ended up in an almost unbearably sad situation.”
On the contrast between Houston’s glamorous public image and her difficult childhood
“I think that you would imagine having your cousin be Dionne Warwick, who was a huge star obviously in the ’60s and the ’70s, and your mother being one of the greatest backing singers of all time — who sang with everyone from Van Morrison to Elvis to Aretha Franklin — that she would grow up in very glamorous circumstances. But that’s not really the case. She grew up in a very rough part of Newark to begin with, and they moved to a slightly more salubrious area called East Orange, which was a kind of racially mixed, I guess lower-middle-class suburb. But throughout her early years, she suffered a lot from racially motivated bullying, effectively for not being black enough. And her mother and her sister-in-law recount in the documentary how she would be run home by all these kids from school who would be taunting her for ‘dressing like a little white girl,’ and that kind of theme of being a kind of outsider, even within your own racial group, was something I think that haunted her her whole life.
“I think she was groomed for stardom by her mother, and to a lesser extent her father. Her mother, as I said, had been this hugely successful background singer. But she had wanted to be a star in her own right, be a solo artist. But she was never able to break through. She released three or four albums, and none of them really worked. And she saw in Whitney somebody who could have the success that she didn’t. So she was, I wouldn’t go so far as to say a creation of her mother, but her mother was a Svengali in a way.”
On drug use in Houston’s family, and her own struggle with addiction
“I mean I think they came from a part of Newark which was hit pretty heavily by the crack cocaine epidemic. People used drugs all around them, and … in the film, you see a family friend of theirs called Keith Kelly, who recounts when he first gave Whitney cocaine when she was 16. And other people, not always in the film, but other people told me that she was regularly using by the time she was 17, 18. And so even at the point where she was America’s sweetheart, when she was this seemingly beautiful, innocent, fresh-faced singer, and was the kind of girl your mom maybe thought that you should go out with, she was actually using drugs very, very heavily. And that just got worse and worse through the ’90s and through the 2000s as people are probably aware.”
On Houston’s sexuality, which one person in the film describes as “fluid,” and her relationship with close companion Robyn Crawford
“It’s obviously presumptuous in some ways to talk about somebody’s sexuality who’s not here to describe themselves. But from what I can understand — and I will say I haven’t spoken to Robyn Crawford, she’s very much alive, she didn’t want to take part in the film. But my feeling is that Whitney loved who she loved. She didn’t differentiate whether you were male or female. It was just if she found herself attracted to you, then she may fall in love with you. But having said that, I don’t know of any other documented cases of lesbian relationships that she had, other than the one with Robyn Crawford, which went on for a number of years and I think was a kind of a key relationship for her, before she famously married Bobby Brown, the R&B singer.”
On claims in the documentary that Houston and her brother Gary were molested by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick
“Well, I’m pretty sure. I began to suspect that there was some trauma, some abuse in Whitney’s background, quite early on. Just from various things that Whitney said and from the way she behaved, it seemed to line up with some of the things that I knew about the effects of childhood trauma. And then when I was talking to Gary, her brother, about his own addiction — he struggled with drug addiction his whole life — and I was saying to him, ‘What is it with you that you feel … what is the thing underpinning this addiction that makes it hard for you to quit?’ And he said, ‘Well, the biggest thing is that I was abused by a female cousin when I was a boy.’ And it turned out to be Dee Dee Warwick. So I then went on to talk to Whitney’s sister-in-law and to her personal assistant, Mary Jones, about this, and they both said yes, Whitney had talked to them about it, and the assistant went into some detail about the conversations that she had had with Whitney about it.
“Now, I think that I don’t see any reason why Gary Houston would lie about his own experience of being abused. That would seem quite a far-fetched thing to imagine, that somebody would make that up. Plus, knowing Pat Houston and knowing Mary Jones, the assistant, these are very upstanding women. Why on earth would they make that up? I think that I might have thought twice about including the accusation and the name of the perpetrator, if it had only been hearsay. But because I had somebody who was Whitney’s brother, Gary Houston, actually saying to me, ‘This happened to me and this is who did it,’ that felt like that would stand up in a court of law as a pretty convincing piece of evidence.”
On Houston’s relationship with her daughter, Bobbi Kristina
“It’s the hard thing to understand about Whitney. When you’re trying to make a film, you’re trying to find a way to love your subject, and you want your audience to love your subject. But while making this movie, there was always one point where I found that my sympathy and my compassion failed, and that was when looking at the sequences to do with her daughter. And there’s no doubt that she was not a great mother — she was a bad mother, probably, I would go so far as to say, and I think that led directly to her daughter’s early demise. Her daughter died two years after Whitney did, under spookily strange circumstances, half drowning in a bathtub while under the influence of drugs.
“So yeah, that’s a real struggle, but it’s part of what makes Whitney so complex and interesting, and the thing I find with this film unlike anything else I’ve ever done is that people want to debate and discuss it. There are no hard-and-fast answers, but Whitney’s life story seems to be one that is so resonant for people. It’s a pure tragedy, in the Greek or the Shakespearean sense.”
You can watch Houston singing the national anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 below:
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.