“Watching Whitney Forced Me to Come to Terms with Who She Really Was”

Writer Alicia Cox Thomson has loved Whitney Houston since she was a kid, which made it hard to accept the singer’s flaws. But watching the new doc changed that

A family photo of Whitney Houston in a brown suede jacket

(Photograph: Courtesy D Films)

A flash of curls. A burst of neon leotard. A snippet of song. Whitney starts off strong by showcasing what made Whitney Houston a star—her singular voice. Hearing it amplified at full movie theatre volume, I’m awash in its clarity and power. I’m sitting in a dark Toronto theatre, at a private screening of what may be the most revealing look we’ll ever get at Whitney Houston’s life. As the opening notes of “How Will I Know?” start to play, I feel the same thrill I did 33 years ago, the first time I heard it. But, the thrill of hearing her sing is tinged with sadness at our loss. I can’t stop thinking about how we got here.

I’ve been a Whitney Houston superfan for as long as I can remember

It’s June 1987 in the far-flung suburbs of Toronto, and I’m holding something precious: a new record. Its protective plastic ripples under my fingers as I gaze at the cover. A beautiful Black woman smiles back; her curly brown hair, touched with gold, is untamed. A white tank top pops against her glowing skin and one raised hand shows the tips of long nails. Her name, so elegant and mature to my childhood self, bolts across the top left corner in spiky cursive: Whitney. I don’t know who wants to open it more, me or my dad.

I grew up in a house filled with music: soul, R&B, calypso, soca, reggae, disco, pop. My dad’s record collection spanned the long wall in our living room, flanking a silver sound system. Most of the artists we listened to were, like him, Black. But while I adored Janet and Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston was the first artist to convert me to superfan status, the type who writes away to become the president of her own Whitney Houston fan club. To me, she was perfect: beautiful, talented, classy, happy. In hindsight, my deep love was most certainly tied to our shared skin colour. How could it not be? She was a role model in my own image.

That’s why I remained a steadfast Houston fan throughout my childhood and early teen years. The Bodyguard, which I saw in the theatre three times, was the soundtrack to countless lip-synch-a-thons, not to mention my first French kiss. And even when my tastes expanded to rap, hip-hop, grunge and house and my love of Houston’s music diminished (save a few choice jams), my love for her as a woman, artist and role model never waned. By that point, Houston felt more like my famous auntie than the idol of my youth, so I ignored the gossip about her drug use and didn’t watch the “Crack is wack” interview; I preferred to remember her as she was.

Houston’s death hit me hard—and made me realize I couldn’t ignore her demons

A family photo of Whitney Houston singing with Cissy Houston

Whitney singing with her mom, Cissy Houston (Photograph: Courtesy D Films)

Almost 25 years after I unwrapped the plastic on Whitney—February 11, 2012—my husband and I are at a party when news spreads that Houston, 48, had been found dead in a bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Our host immediately put on “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and the houseful of ‘80s kids milled about in semi-shock. The first person I thought of, and texted, was my dad. He wrote back right away—Oh no Leashe!! So sad!!—and I felt badly for telling him about a tragedy like this over text. How could I have forgotten that for us, Houston wasn’t just one of the most famous singers on the planet; she felt like family.

I still own that Whitney album, and my husband and I have introduced our kids to our favourite songs. Watching them giggle-dance to “Love Is a Contact Sport” brings my childhood fandom full circle. So, when I was invited to attend a private screening of the new documentary Whitney, I sent an all-caps “YES!!!” After years of not really knowing how bad it was, I felt ready to come to terms with Houston’s addiction and understand what led to her premature demise.

Whitney showed the star I’ve always loved and the flawed woman she really was

Produced by her sister-in-law Pat Houston, who is married to Gary Garland, Houston’s half-brother, Whitney benefits from inside access to childhood footage (a video of Houston singing in her Newark church as a child, her voice incandescent, was the first scene to bring me to tears), as well as candid interviews with her family and friends. And while there’s lots of Houston at the peak of her star power, and several delightful interviews (she giggles gleefully as her mother Cissy Houston throws shade at “that bitch Janet Jackson” and joins in with her own diss of Paula Abdul: “Girl be singing off key on the record!” she says incredulously), there’s no shying away from Houston’s troubles.

There are headline-making revelations about Houston’s childhood—the doc claims she was molested by her cousin, Dee Dee Warwick—which are offered as part of the reason she was unhappy later. Director Kevin Macdonald also delves into her relationship with her assistant and best friend, Robyn Crawford. When Rickey Minor, Houston’s long-time musical director, claims that nowadays the singer would have been deemed sexually “fluid,” there’s a strong implication that the women were more than friends. Several family members denied a romantic relationship between the two women, while seeming to demonize Crawford as someone who had too much control.

The doc also takes an unflinching look at her family’s dynamic

But is that because they all wanted control for themselves? It’s a question that pervades the doc, from Cissy Houston’s careful grooming of her daughter to be a star from birth, to the family’s dependency on Houston for jobs and stability.

The documentary also argues that Houston’s role as the sole breadwinner supporting a large coterie of family and friends is a major reason why no one really tried to help her battle addiction. Her brother Michael Houston admits to introducing his sister to “weed and coke” in the ‘80s, (“I got coke in Japan! You know how hard it is to get drugs in Japan!”), dispelling the myth that former husband Bobby Brown was responsible for bringing drugs into her life.

Seeing all Houston’s flaws didn’t diminish my love for her, as I had feared

A family photo of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown

Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown (Photograph: Courtesy D Films)

Watching Whitney as a superfan was emotional. Over the course of two hours, I experienced highs (That voice! That face! She was so funny!) and lows (video of her and Bobby, obviously high, is hard to watch, as is hearing her drug-ravaged voice straining to get through “I Will Always Love You” on her failed 1999 comeback tour).

It’s said that you should never meet your idols for fear of disappointment, and I understand why. But while Macdonald and Pat Houston resurrected the singer I loved as a child, they also forced me to see her for who she really was: flawed, human, real. It was cathartic to spend time with that Whitney, warts and all.

And the music holds up, one hundred percent. If you’ve ever said “That’s my jam!” when “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” comes on, made out to “I Will Always Love You” in a dark school dance corner, or circled happy newlyweds while singing “My Love Is Your Love,” make time for the real Whitney. It’s the least we can do for all that she did for us.

Whitney opens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver July 13 and nationwide on July 20.

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