HFPA member PHILIP BERK interviewed Whitney Houston 16 years ago for Waiting to Exhale. This is what he wrote
Photo: Theo Kingma
"She's charming, she’s witty, she’s bright, she’s smart, she’s funny, and she’s grounded.” That’s Angela Bassett’s assessment of Whitney Houston at an interview for Waiting to Exhale, Fox’s Christmas attraction, in which the two of them play African American women in unresolved relationships.
As usual, just as the interviews are about to begin, Whitney is in the news. This time a friend of her husband (Bobby Brown) has accused her of having a relationship with another woman that resulted in the breakdown of their marriage and the disintegration of his life. (He’s drying out at the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs.)
So what else is new!
Three years ago, just as The Bodyguard was about to open, one of the nation’s most respected newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, published a story in which Whitney was asked to respond to rumors that she is gay, that her lovers have included some of Hollywood’s best known actresses, and that she lived with her executive assistant Robyn Crawford for many years.
Instead of walking away from the interview, she responded, “When you reach a certain height, you will always be criticized.”
As for her relationship with Crawford, she acknowledged, “She was the sister I never had. Robyn is my best friend, someone who knows me better than any woman has known me. By the time I met Bobby, Robyn and I had had enough time together. We knew our relationship had changed from friendship to more of an employer-employee arrangement. After a while I wanted a man, and he was the first man I considered a friend. Women are supposed to have husbands. We are validated by that, and we validate ourselves that way. Robyn no longer lives with me, but in her place which is about 30 minutes from me.”
So how is the weathering the latest storm?
Amazingly, well. Take it from me, she’s everything Angela said she was.
Leery (of the press) she may well be, but her true nature -- to be trusting, giving, and kind -- comes out in the interview.
Ironically, Waiting to Exhale sends out a message that most African American men are dogs and the few good ones are unavailable.
How difficult is it for an African American woman to find the perfect man? I ask her.
“There’s no guarantee that you’re going to get this perfect man in the perfect relationship. There is no such thing. It’s like the lyric of my song Exhale, ‘Everyone falls in love sometimes, sometimes it’s wrong, sometimes it’s right. For every win someone must fail, but there comes a point where you exhale.’ What that says is, ‘What we want as women and what men want from us is to exhale sometimes. Just sit down and go ‘Whew, that was nice. That wasn’t too hard.’ Not a lot of blues, we don’t want a lot of blues.”
Is she singing the blues?
“My mother didn’t bring me up to believe I had to get married, had to marry the right man, get a house with a picket fence, have kids and take care of him for the rest of his life. My mother taught me to take care of you first. That’s what’s important because there are no guarantees.”
In the film, the wife gets a financial settlement but loses her man. Is that a solution?
“Did you see what he tried to do (to her)? Did you see how manipulative he was. This woman helped this man for eleven years. She gave her life to this man. She helped build his business. It wasn’t like he came in and said, ‘Here baby, this is all yours.’ She was with him, by his side, the whole time. Then one day he walks in and says, ‘Huh, forget you. This is how I feel. This is what I’m going to do. I don’t care about you and the kids.’ Of course, I’m going to be very happy when she gets the settlement. as a matter of fact we should have kicked his tail in the courtroom.”
Doesn’t it send a message that women are in it only for the money?
“That’s bull. I work for my own money. Shoot!’
Would she, like the character in the movie, burn her husband’s expensive clothes?
“I would not. I contributed to buying them.”
Well, that’s one thing Bobby won’t have to worry about!
Unaware that she has been criticized for neglecting her two year old daughter, I conjectured that she must be a wonderful mother.
“Oh thank you,” she responded visibly moved, “but you probably have to ask Bobby Kris.”
What does she teach her daughter?
“I try to raise her as best I can with good solid values like my mother raised me. I try to give Bobby-Kris God fearing statutes. My mother is a very important influence in my daughter’s life. She raised me and taught me things that carry me through my life. I only hope I can be half the mother my mother was. I try to teach her to be truthful. Even today, it’s really funny. She’ll say, ‘ Yesterday I went to the aquarium.’ and I say, ‘What did you see?’ and she said, ‘I saw a shark and he bit me.’ Did the shark really bite you and she said ‘Yea.’ I said, ‘Now you tell me the truth. Did the shark really bite you?’ and she said, ‘No, mommy, no.’ Even that little piece right there, I want her to be true. I want her to be true to herself. It’s all right to play, but you can’t fool yourself.”
As a recording artist, Whitney has remained true to herself. She might have stayed in the soul-rhythm and blues-gospel market if it hadn’t been for Clive Davis, the president of Arista records, who saw her cross-over potential. After she made that move, she’s was criticized (by African Americans) for singing white not black.
How does she respond to those complaints?
“I have a gift, and it is to sing. Why isn’t that just accepted? Why does it have to be urban or white or this or that. How come it just can’t be, ‘Whitney Houston sings; do you like it?’ If you don’t, see ya!”
Yet, Waiting to Exhale, is exclusively about African-Americans?
“It gives us an opportunity to play roles we haven’t seen on the screen before, to portray women who are mothers, working women, decent women, women who go to church, women who try to take care of their families as best they can. I don’t think that’s ever been seen before.”
That should satisfy her urban critics.
Born 32 years ago in New Jersey into a show biz family, Whitney has two older brothers. Although her parents divorced when she was fifteen, she is close to both of them. Coming from a devoutly religious family, she sang in the church choir and emulated her mother, who was a well known gospel singer.
Asked if she could time-travel to another period in history, where would she go, she answered, “I’d like to go back to the period of Jesus. That’s something I’d like to experience with my own hands. I’d love to touch the blood of Jesus.”
And when questioned, Where does she get her inner strength? she replied, “I go to my God. I was raised in a household where my mother taught us that prayer changes things. I go to my savior. I ask my God for strength.”
Strength is what she needs to keep up with the negative publicity that always surrounds her.
Is it fair that African American men are portrayed so negatively in the film?
“Well, growing up with two brothers, that allowed me to see just how they think and how they really do women at times. I recall my brother having a girl in the front of the house, on the porch, waiting for him, and a girl upstairs in his room waiting for him, and he was playing both of them, baby. Back and forth, back and forth. I remember asking him, ‘Why do you do this? Why do you have her up here and her down here?’ and he said, ‘because they accept it. They go for it. She knows she’s down here, and she knows she’s up there, and they’re dealing with it. They like it like that. They want me that much.’
Has she ever been in a situation like that?
“Sometimes it gets a little woof woof,” she answered somewhat embarrassed.
Some of her Bodyguard reviews weren’t complimentary, so why did she choose to do another dramatic role?
“I chose Waiting to Exhale because I knew Angela Bassett was going to do it. That made me comfortable. The Bodyguard had its time and its place. It did its thing, it came and it’s done. I’m proud of that work. But this is something I’m really proud of because it makes a profound statement. It says something that hasn’t been said before. And I learned from Angela. I was in a scene with her, we were just rehearsing and she started to cry, and I said to her, ‘How do you do that? How do those tears...’ And she said, ‘I get it from you. I’m into your soul. I’m making up your own thing in here and I’m looking into your eyes and I can feel it. That’s how I do it.”
Does she like acting?
“I don’t like the waiting around. Anyone on the set will tell you I’m always moving around. When you cut a record, I’m usually able to say, ‘This is how I want it,’ or ‘No, you’re singing the wrong song, or don’t sing it.’ But with movies I’m sitting in a trailer. I’m not used to sitting around, having to hurry up and wait. You know the business.You have to find ways to occupy yourself. But crazy as it seems, I’m ready to do another.”
Which will be?
“It’s called The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel (Washington) and Courtney Vance. Penny Marshall is directing, and I’m starting it in January. It’s a very sweet film, a remake of The Bishop’s Wife with Loretta Young and Cary Grant. You know that one. Well, this is going to be African Americans. Chocolate city.”
Was racism a problem when she was growing up?
“I was raised in a Christian household. My mother and father did not raise me to believe in racism and bigotry or to be prejudiced.They raised me to judge for myself. How I wanted to be treated is how I should treat people. If they have a problem with me then it’s their problem, and they have to solve it themselves. I can’t get into ‘I don’t like you because you’re white, and you can’t like me because I’m black,’ because you don’t know me and I don’t know you. I may find out that I love you a whole bunch. I may find that I like you a whole lot. But if I put barriers up and say, ‘Well , because you brought us all over here in those little boats and stuffed us up in there,’ then yeah I might have an attitude with you. But that’s -- its gone. We have advanced. We have kicked those doors down.”
Which does she prefer, acting or singing?
“When I sing, I get an immediate reaction. With acting the only comfort is knowing that I’ve done well, I’ve given my heart, and when the director says ‘Great, That was great,’ or when Angela says, ‘Good scene,’ you can feel it. But as a performer on stage, when you open your mouth and let the glory of God come through you, there’s no feeling like it in the world. Film can’t compare to that for me!”