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Monday, March 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

What happened to Whitney?

By Carrie Stetler
Newhouse News Service

JOSHUA PREZANT / AP, 2000
Whitney Houston's relationship with her husband, bad-boy entertainer Bobby Brown, has provided plenty of tabloid fodder.
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From world-class diva to scandal-ridden drug user, Whitney Houston has seen her life filled with more highs and lows than one of her famous power-ballads.

Just when it seemed the notes couldn't get much lower, Houston entered a drug rehabilitation center Monday.

Houston's publicist, Nancy Seltzer, offered no details about the location of the center or what prompted Houston to seek help.

But years of marital strife, legal entanglements, career setbacks and bad publicity have apparently taken their toll on the 40-year-old star, whose husband, R&B singer Bobby Brown, was sentenced last month to 60 days in a Georgia jail for parole violations.

In December, Houston called police, claiming Brown beat her at their home in Georgia. But she sat by his side in court the next day, her face bruised and her lip cut, as he was charged with misdemeanor battery.

Last month, two Houston employees filed suit against her in Morristown, N.J., claiming they were unfairly dismissed after Brown sexually harassed one of them at the couple's estate over a period of years.

For those who have followed Houston's descent, from "prom queen of soul" to battered, drug-abusing wife, news of rehab is a hopeful sign. Scores of encouraging messages have been posted on Houston's fan Web sites.

Houston's family members, including her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, and cousin Dionne Warwick have not commented.

Why Houston is getting help now, after years of turmoil and erratic behavior, is no mystery to James Robert Parish, author of "Whitney Houston: The Unauthorized Biography," published last year.

"I think things have gotten so out of control," he said. "When your career is active, and you're surrounded by handlers, they're keeping you busy and that helps keep you out of trouble. But when your career has tapered off, you find yourself with time for things to happen and time to think about what you should be doing."

Brushes with the law
 
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According to Parish, this is the first time the singer has publicly sought help for her problem, which first surfaced in 2000, when she was charged in Hawaii for possession of marijuana — although rumors swirled for years before that.

Houston admitted to Diane Sawyer in a 2002 "Dateline" interview that she once abused drugs but claimed to have overcome addiction on her own through prayer. (Ironically, the very day of the interview, Brown was pulled over in Georgia and arrested for drug possession.)

"A few years back, Whitney went to two private rehabs that classify themselves as health spas, but neither of them really helped," said Parish.

Since the late 1990s, Houston's career has been in decline, and her relationship with Brown — arrested eight times since 1989, on charges ranging from driving while intoxicated to sexual battery — has been a tabloid perennial.

At her peak, Houston's music broke sales records. The album from her 1992 film, "The Bodyguard," still the highest-selling soundtrack ever, sold 34 million copies.

In contrast, her last major release, 2002's "Just Whitney," sold just 1 million.

What went wrong?

In recent appearances, she has sometimes seemed unrecognizable from the poised and meticulously groomed beauty of her heyday. Just last fall, Houston, without makeup, appeared exhausted and disoriented in footage from an NBC "Dateline" program titled "Diva in the Desert." The program focused on Houston and Brown's spiritual retreat to Israel with the Black Hebrew sect.

The show asked the same question Houston fans have been asking for years: What happened?

Houston was born in Newark, N.J., and reared in East Orange, the daughter of acclaimed gospel/soul singer Cissy Houston, who sang backup for everyone from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley. Her dad, the late John Houston, was a truck driver who later managed both Cissy's and Whitney's careers.

As a child, Whitney sang in the gospel choir of Newark's New Hope Baptist Church, where her mother is still choir director. As a teen, she attended a Catholic school, but at night she sang in her mother's nightclub act and performed backup on mom's albums.

She did some modeling in the early 1980s and was discovered by music impresario Clive Davis, who helmed the careers of both Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. Houston's 1985 debut on Arista records, "Whitney Houston," sold 22 million, the highest-selling debut for a solo female artist.

She was groomed for crossover superstardom, and her glamorous image — she often performed in evening gowns — harked back to the Motown era. According to Parish, that may have been part of the problem.

"Clive Davis molded her image. He felt that in the 1980s, you had to be one thing in public, a white-bread version of Whitney Houston, with really no ethnic characteristics, and that never sat well with her," he said.

There were also demons from childhood, said Parish. Cissy Houston, while always supportive of Whitney, was bitter that her own career never took off, according to Parish. Houston's father, who took care of Whitney and her two older brothers while Cissy worked, moved away in the late 1970s, although he and Cissy didn't divorce until the 1990s.

"There were mixed messages during her childhood, and all these conflicts between daughter and mother, husband and wife," said Parish.

When Houston married Bobby Brown in 1992, the public wondered what she saw in him. A former member of the R&B group New Edition, Brown was a chart-topping bad-boy artist, arrested for "simulating sexual intercourse" onstage in Georgia in 1989.

Cynics gossiped that the marriage was intended to quell rumors that Houston was linked romantically with her longtime friend Robyn Crawford, who lived with Houston until her relationship with Brown.

But Houston had reasons of her own. "I guess she saw excitement in Bobby because she was forced into that mold of pop princess. Bobby represented the rebel that was always in Whitney," according to gossip maven Wendy Williams, who interviewed a combative Houston in 2002. Houston and Brown have a daughter, Bobbi Kristina, 11.

The couple's drug habit, and their feeling that they were being persecuted in the media, deepened their bond, Williams speculated. "It's the secret of their usage, the Jekyll and Hyde thing," she said.

Acting a possibility

When she emerges from rehab, the future of Houston's singing career is uncertain. Her record label, Arista, is folding, although there is speculation that she will sign with Clive Davis' J Records.

For the past few years, Houston's once-powerful voice has been raspy and uneven in performances, although she can still display flashes of brilliance.

Parish believes that no matter what happens, Houston remains viable as an actress.

"People are so focused on her voice, they forget that she has a wonderful reservoir of acting ability," he said.

At this point, Houston isn't saying when she'll emerge from rehab, or where she'll eventually settle. She and Brown have been living mostly in Georgia since Brown's legal problems there.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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