Whitney’s close friend knew the perfect gift for her birthday. It wasn’t jewellery. It wasn’t nice clothes.
It wasn’t even an LP of her favourite musician. It was a bag of weed and a line of coke.
Her brothers Michael and Gary were there “to watch over her” but they didn’t stop it – after all, Michael claims he’d been smoking cannabis with his sister since they were 16.
Today Whitney’s tragic fall from grace has gone down in the dark annals of music history – a cautionary tale of the girl who had it all, only to let it go up in smoke.
But there has been one lifetime confidante who was determined to make the world see the truth about the singer – her film agent Nicole David, the woman who made Whitney a megastar with The Bodyguard.
Nicole, now 77, was the driving force behind new film Whitney, which includes claims by her brother Gary Garland-Houston that he and the singer had been repeatedly sexually abused by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick between the ages of seven and nine.
Whitney’s mother Cissy Houston and Dee Dee’s sister Dionne Warwick have this week disputed Gary’s claims, calling them “unfathomable”.
But speaking from her home in Los Angeles, Nicole believes it finally explains why Whitney was so haunted by demons, despite her angelic voice.
“I wasn’t shocked. It kind of made everything make sense,” says Nicole. On the decision to make Gary’s claims public, she adds: “I was a little worried, but not very. Because this wasn’t about me – this was about Whitney. Even if it makes people nervous.”
Nicole had been by Whitney’s side since 1986 as she went from a bestselling artist to a whole new level of fame after starring opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard in 1992, followed by an Oscar-nominated performance in 1995’s Waiting to Exhale.
Nicole had tried time and time again to help Whitney – and was the one begging for her to go into rehab instead of doing that now infamous car-crash “crack is whack” Diane Sawyer interview in 2002.
The last time she saw her was on the set of Whitney’s film Sparkle, and she finally saw a flash of the superstar’s early self. “I thought she might be happy doing it and she was”, Nicole says. But weeks later, in February, 2012, Whitney was found dead, aged 48, in a Beverly Hilton bathtub.
For years, many blamed Whitney’s rapper ex-husband Bobby Brown for destroying America’s sweetheart.
But it is family friend and tour employee Keith Kelly who admits buying her cannabis and cocaine for her birthday in the film. And it was Gary, now 60, and Michael, 56, who first took drugs with her.
Michael, a year Whitney’s senior, even admits: “We graduated from marijuana together. If anything was going to be done, I was going to be the one to show her. The ages were probably about 16.”
Today, however, Nicole is quick to warn against blaming the brothers – saying instead she wishes Cissy and Whitney’s father, the late John Houston, had had the ability to see something was wrong.
She says: “I don’t blame the brothers. Yes, I wish they hadn’t gotten her drugs. Yes, I wish when they had the best voice of our time as a sister, that they did not mess around. But they were kids. I wish their parents had done things differently.”
She adds: “I blame – well, I don’t blame anyone any more, I used to blame everybody – but I wish their parents had been more sophisticated and had more knowledge about what was going on and had been able to make a difference.”
And while she clearly has little time for Bobby, 49, who was married to her between 1992 and 2007, she says: “He wasn’t helpful in getting her well. But he certainly was not the cause of her being a drug addict at all. He wasn’t a man, he was a boy. I think that they were codependent. He was really young and not prepared for the life he walked into.” Nicole had only learned of Gary’s allegations when he decided to break his silence while making the film last year. He alleged that a female family member had abused him and Whitney.
Whitney’s personal assistant Mary Jones added that the singer had told her it was Dee Dee. “She had tears in her eyes,” she said.
Dee Dee had been a singer like her sister Dionne, before her troubled life led to her dying aged 68 in 2008.
Dionne and Whitney’s mother Cissy are adamant Gary’s claims are untrue saying: “Dee Dee may have had her personal challenges, but the idea that she would have molested my children is overwhelming and, for us, unfathomable.”
They added that Whitney’s brother Michael had not heard of the allegations before.
But whatever the truth, Nicole believes there was always something haunting Whitney from an early age.
She says: “Even when I met Whitney for the very first time – before I heard her sing – there was a tremendous amount of sadness in those eyes… under her little tough veneer and humour.”
Whitney – nicknamed Nippy – had been brought up in Newark, New Jersey, in a time scarred by the race riots. Her parents spotted her potential at a young age and she began singing solo in church aged 11, joining her mum in clubs aged 14 and was doing backing vocals for Chaka Khan aged 15.
By 23, she had sold 30 million copies of her debut album The Greatest Love. She went on to become the first African American to perform in South Africa after Apartheid and held the world record for the most awarded female act of all time.
It was a real family affair, her dad was her manager and everyone was on the payroll. But all the while, she was falling further and further into her drug spiral that would see her 2009 World Tour branded a disaster, ruin her famous voice and ultimately lead to her death.
Nicole believes even another platinum album or an Oscar would have done nothing to ease her pain.
She says: “She spent years with everybody loving her and she got applause like nobody else. When I went to the Oscars with her, I nearly got trampled by people trying to get to her. So she knew the power of being a star. Yet I don’t think all that glory made her happy.”
Now after a lifetime of friendship, Nicole, hopes people will begin to remember Whitney for being the amazing singer she knew so well – and not the tragic star that hit the headlines so many times for all the wrong reasons.
She says: “I wish everything else fades away – and her voice, her talent and her beauty be remembered.”
- Whitney is in cinemas now
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