Houston says love is the drug

The diva is staging the comeback of her life, but will fans always love her?

Topics: Oprah Winfrey, Broadsheet, Whitney Houston,

The icons of the ’80s are dropping like flies, but Whitney Houston is proving that divas die hard. The once and future pop superstar has of late been on a relentless promotional circuit to promote her first new album in seven years, appearing dewy and gorgeous on magazine covers and debuting, with seemingly effortless grace, straight at the top of the Billboard 100. Eat her dust, Miley Cyrus.

But the last few weeks of media glad-handing have just been a warm-up to the big event — a sit-down extravaganza with fellow powerhouse Oprah Winfrey. Part 1 of the interview kicked off Oprah’s season premiere Monday; the conclusion airs today.

In her first televised interview since the notorious “crack is whack”  conversation with Diane Sawyer in 2002, Houston proved she’s still probably only a part-time resident of planet Earth, but she is no longer the “doodie bubble” lunatic of “Being Bobby Brown” nor the bewigged Skeletor we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years.

Dripping with enough jewels to bail out a large North American nation, Houston was forthright as Winfrey lobbed softballs, but she seemed to be on her own personal two-second delay, as if the universe had to bounce the signal to where she was sitting. When Oprah asked, “When did the drugs start?” Houston paused, sighed deeply, and said, “All right …” before narrowing it down to both prior to and after making “The Bodyguard.” Though it’s not exactly a bombshell to learn that for a while Houston was doing “heavy drugs…every day,” it’s nevertheless not an everyday thing to hear explicit descriptions of how to lace up your weed with cocaine straight from a star’s mouth. (Before their vices killed them, ever hear Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley ‘fess up to a hardcore substance abuse problem?)

Whitney Houston’s a big girl, and the only person responsible for the rough patches in her life is Whitney Houston. It’s nevertheless chilling to watch one of the most successful entertainers in the universe describe a descent into hell that was fueled largely by “crazy love.” Speaking of her ex-husband, former New Edition bad boy Bobby Brown, Houston said, “He was my drug. I didn’t do anything without him. We were partners, and that’s what my high was.” This is the man who was arrested in 2003 for allegedly hitting her,  a man she says emotionally abused her, cheated on her, and spit on her. But though she posits that Brown’s issues may have been fueled by his discomfort with her greater fame, Houston doesn’t play the victim in her own saga. She cops to hitting Brown with a telephone receiver, and drawls, “I will fight you back with anything I can find.”

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The road back from the bottom is a rocky one. Houston croaked her way through her “Good Morning America” appearance earlier this month,  and the album has been garnering mixed reviews. And the public squeamishness about her drug abuse, especially while she was raising her now 16-year-old daughter Bobbi Christina, won’t magically disappear with a power ballad or two. Yet Houston’s got a better shot than most — you don’t get 170 million album and single sales, as well as a nice sideline as a movie star, without a legion of “I Will Always Love You” karaoke fans rooting for you.

On yesterday’s “Oprah,” Houston credited her mom, gospel legend Cissy Houston, with saving her life, saying her mother told her, “I want you back. I want to see that glow in your eyes, that light in your eyes.”

She will never be the bubbly girl who shimmied through “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” That person is as gone as the era of acid-washed jeans. Houston’s got too much hard living under her diamond-studded belt now, and it’s evident in her strained voice and her not-quite-there demeanor. Anyone with any experience of addiction — whether it’s cocaine or love — knows it’s not something that can ever be cured. It can only be worked on, one day at a time. Yet if you last long enough, with time and pain and mistakes come a few perks.  In the previews for today’s “Oprah,” the 46-year-old from the Newark projects looks fan-freaking-tastic, belting out “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” to a near ecstatic throng.  She looks like a survivor. And there’s a welcome glimmer of light in those crazy eyes.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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