dream hampton takes a look at the legacy, the life and the loss of Whitney Houston

dream hampton

by dream hampton, February 12, 2012


let her speed talk her way through the interview, never interrupting Whitney or even posing a loving challenge to the singer’s obvious lies. Wendy Williams, a popular New York radio host in the 90's and early 2000s, took to the air after Whitney's late 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer and openly wept about the singer's behavior, remembering her own days as a manipulative coke addict and expressing her disbelief at the Sawyer performance. Her on-air excoriation earned her a call from a very not-sober Whitney herself, which Wendy recorded, and made the daily intro to her show. Williams may have been well intentioned in exposing Whitney as an active addict, but in the end Whitney was a celebrity, and her addiction was to be exploited. 

I recently interviewed Whitney on-air for BET from the set of the “Sparkle” remake in Detroit. Her longtime publicist came to me, as longtime publicists of troubled superstars are paid to do, and whispered strict parameters meant to prohibit challenging questions. Still, Houston was in a film about a young singing family of women whose lives are ruined by drugs as they try to make it in the music industry. Of course I went there. Whitney was playing the mother role to Jordin Sparks and I wanted to know if she  remembered any early advice from her own mother as she began her career. Whitney smiled, rolled her eyes and remembered a Cissy Houston who would have locked her in her room if she weren't an adult: "She really, really, did not want me to be in the entertainment business, she was worried about me. She knew what the fame game is all about." 

Addiction is not a fame problem. Addiction is a medical condition. Fame may make it less treatable---there are limitless soft places to land that prevent the proverbial "rock bottom" and paid entourages who will make attempts to block a star from an interviewer's challenging questions. Few are the friends who would fight back the dealers who arrive on set, or in the hallways of the studio. Even then, no one can save an addict but herself. Addiction can't be prayed or wished away. Recovery requires great vigilance. Former cocaine addicts are unconvincing as "casual" drinkers and those who love them must also carefully monitor their use of prescription drugs. Addicts need strong, supportive, sober friends who circle them and then rejoin that circle when the addict relapses. 

Modern stars are simultaneously coddled and mocked for their addiction. Our collective voyeurism, schadenfreude and hypocritical rush to judgment would suggest that our own families are junkie free. In a country where addiction is criminalized rather than being treated as the national epidemic that it is, we were both too quick to accept Whitney's post-divorce narrative of recovery and far too willing to gaze upon her many public car wrecks. It is especially heartbreaking when our most widely beloved artists, those whose work gives our lives such rich meaning, are lost in and to the loneliness of addiction. We all wished to see Whitney whole again, but not 48 hours before she died in a Beverly Hills hotel room, she staggered-bloodied and photographed-from a Hollywood club. 

Cynics will remind you that as Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy celebration took place without his beloved muse, the entire room had been anticipating her early death for a decade. But that doesn't make her death any less jarring. Tonight’s award ceremony has been recalibrated to celebrate Whitney and we wait, cross-toed, for a tribute that's worthy of our icon.

Whitney Houston was a featherweight, grand beauty, a whale of a singer and a fragile, tortured superstar who is finally free of her addiction. Her body of work is an eternal testimony to her dignity, grace and her out-of- this-world ability. Her life, which only those closest to her will ever truly know in full, tells a more complicated story.

dream hampton has written about culture for 20 years. She's a mother, an activist and an award-winning filmmaker. She lives in Detroit. Follow her on Twitter @dreamhampton.

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