The story told by Robyn Crawford in the pages of A Song For You, an account of her decades-long relationship with Whitney Houston is tender, moving and painful to read, the history of a friendship that is also a love story. More acutely, it is the story of two women who, for the entirety of Houston’s life, concealed the sexual origins of that relationship, amid intense and often prurient speculation. Meanwhile, Crawford was harangued, marginalised, and allegedly threatened with violence by the singer’s family. “I found comfort in my silence,” says Crawford, whose decision to write the book was in part a rebuke to the tabloidisation of her friend’s legacy. But it’s the silence that lingers. Reading her book, one gets the chilling sense not only of how alien things were in the very recent past, but of a story that shouldn’t be repeated in the future.
To break any silence is difficult – never mind one enforced over decades, at the risk of huge commercial damage to a brand as valuable as Houston’s. Even seven years after the singer’s death, Crawford clearly continues to struggle. In her publisher’s New York office, the 55-year-old is softly spoken and elegant, choosing her words with the care of someone still half stuck in the mindset of shielding her friend.
Crawford and Houston were teenagers when they met at a community centre in East Orange, New Jersey, the singer the younger by three years. “There was an instant connection,” Crawford says. She was a basketball star, home from college; Houston was still in high school. “And we clicked,” she says. “She told me she was a singer and that she went to Mount St Dominic Academy, and I told her I was playing basketball and in college. We were two friends – it wasn’t like we met at a club. It was something that happened in the flow of a friendship.”
By “something that happened”, Crawford is referring to the years immediately after meeting when the two women were sexually involved. If she is coy about this, it’s with good reason. The warping effect of denial isn’t easily shrugged off and there is an overwhelming sense, both in the book and in person, of someone running a gamut of internal barriers. Both Houston and Crawford had been raised in God-fearing households, at a time when, she says, “you were either this, or you were that”. Officially, they were just friends, but even privately they resisted acknowledging what was really going on. “We never talked labels, like lesbian and gay,” Crawford writes. “We just lived our lives, and I hoped it could go on that way for ever.”
The friendship would, in fact, last two decades, but the sexual relationship was short-lived. In 1980, when they met, it was already clear Houston was heading for stardom: her cousin, Dionne Warwick, was a veteran star; her mother, Cissy, a successful backing singer; and Whitney had caught the eye of record executives in New York. It was also clear that her relationship with Crawford was going to be a problem. At the age of 19, Houston signed her first contract with Arista Records president Clive Davis. In an extraordinary scene in the book, she then went to Crawford’s house, handed her a Bible and told her they had to quit having sex, “because it would make our journey even more difficult”. She also told Crawford that, “if they found out – because her career was taking off – they’d use it against us”.
This is all said in a tone of quiet reflection, but in the book the pain is acute. Crawford went along with Houston’s wishes, and continued to in the years that followed. As soon as Houston could afford to, she hired Crawford as her assistant and the women moved into an apartment together in Woodbridge, New Jersey. The singer’s management team was small in those days – even in the mid-1980s, when Houston’s first two albums became two of the biggest-selling debuts of all time, with some 40m copies sold worldwide (the eponymous Whitney Houston, with its huge hits How Will I Know and Saving All My Love For You; and its follow-up, Whitney, featuring I Wanna Dance With Somebody, So Emotional and Didn’t We Almost Have It All). At that time, Houston had a single manager, Crawford recalls, “and he couldn’t get her clothing out, get it pressed, get up early and send it downstairs like I could. I did all those things.”
She was glad to do them, she says. Care-taking came naturally; she’d grown up in a family where her father had violently abused her mother and where, from a young age, Crawford had taken on the role of protector. And she loved Houston, to whom she still refers by her nickname, Nippy. “It was about being partners on a journey that she knew she was going on,” she says. “This wasn’t someone who was pushed into show business. Nippy was someone who really chose it. She was very clear-headed about it, and I was very solid. I was made for that role.”
For years, Houston and Crawford effectively functioned as a couple, living together, occasionally (and chastely) sharing a bed, and remaining emotionally close. “You had cats!” I say: if that’s not a lesbian couple, I don’t know what is. Crawford smiles and insists that, “living together was like [living with] any other roommate”. They would stay up late talking about music and hatching plans. But when Houston started dating Jermaine Jackson in the mid-1980s, then Eddie Murphy, and rap star Bobby Brown, whom she married, Crawford admits it was tremendously difficult. “The physical part of our friendship was no longer, but the intimacy… our friendship was intimate on all levels, that’s how deep it was, and I wanted her to call me and say, ‘Guess what, this is happening [with Jermaine].’ And she wasn’t doing that, and that hurt more than anything. It didn’t feel like she was cheating on me – it felt more like she was leaving me out.” When the brief relationship with Jackson ended, Crawford was there.
This would be the pattern of their lives together for the next 10 years: Crawford as the person to whom Houston would turn as the pressures of fame intensified. “I need someone that I know loves me for me,” Houston once said of Crawford and as the star’s celebrity increased, Crawford became one of the very few people she could trust. It is a strength of her book that it evokes with such clarity a different era of stardom – one in which singers like Houston, Michael Jackson and Madonna dominated fewer media outlets, and at a higher voltage, than stars in today’s atomised media. It was also a time when mainstream stars had to be even more unimpeachably heterosexual, and Crawford’s visibility – she was always by Houston’s side – became the subject of increasingly frenzied speculation. Every time Houston did an interview, she was asked who she was dating; and in 1987, a serious profile in Time magazine made reference to the rumours, much to Houston’s horror. The singer’s lawyer even rang Crawford, once, to ask, “Did you two ever have sexual relations?” (She replied, “Look, I don’t have to tell you anything,” a response that infuriated Houston when she found out. “All you had to do was say no!” she yelled, and hung up on Crawford.)
It’s a stretch to recast the silence brought on by homophobic bullying as noble, but there is something very moving about the way Crawford came to regard her secret history with Houston: as their only private space in a life dominated by public interest. “It was a story that was mine,” she says. “She knew I had it, she knew I held it, she knew I would take care of it. And so I didn’t feel an urgency to just talk. And believe me, people knocked on the door.”
People within Houston’s inner circle, meanwhile, became increasingly hostile. When Houston’s mother, Cissy, called their friendship unnatural and “insisted that I no longer walk next to Whitney in public”, Houston went along with it, while telling Crawford in private, “Robyn, you know I love you immensely.” When Houston married Bobby Brown, he would occasionally yell at Crawford, and Houston would back him up. In 1988, when Crawford suggested to Cissy that the singer needed help for her drug addiction, she was given short shrift. Houston’s father banned Crawford from business meetings and, in 1997, after years of touring with Houston, Crawford was shut out of a 10-date Pacific Rim tour.
Eventually she quit, 20 years after she and Houston first met. By the time of the singer’s death in 2012, Crawford was living in rural New Jersey with her wife, Lisa, and two children, and hadn’t spoken to Houston in several years. “But I was always there for her,” she says. “I kept feeling she was going to come, and I told Lisa, ‘When Whitney comes to our door, that door has to open.’”
It is a distorting effect of fame that minor episodes can assume a much larger prominence than they deserve. Had Houston not been in the spotlight, her teenage romance with Crawford would probably have fizzled out anyway, leaving them free to continue on comfortably as friends. Instead, their relationship became the elephant in the room. In stark media terms, the only reason any of this is a story – why we’re here today – is because two women slept together and one became famous. And yet, as Crawford points out, the emotions were real. “That energy we had, that real love, people could feel it, but they didn’t know what it was.”
After Houston’s death, Crawford found herself questioning whether she should finally speak out. “That was the first time my silence was shaken.” Houston was found face down in the bath in a hotel room in Beverly Hills. The coroner ruled her death to be accidental drowning, brought on in part by cocaine and heart disease. “I felt like I should do something, but I didn’t know what that was,” Crawford says. “But the anger was there.” By 2012, she had effectively moved on, going back to her basketball roots to become a personal trainer. “Whitney’s world”, as she puts it, couldn’t have been further away, and even after the singer’s death, Crawford felt the best approach was to lie low. “But then Krissie happened.”
Three years after Houston’s death, her only daughter, Bobbi Kristina, died from a combination of drowning and drug intoxication at the age of 22; before she died, she spent months in a coma. “That’s when I really tuned into Whitney,” Crawford says. “The tone of everything was negative – you could feel it. I didn’t have Whitney Houston on my resumé but at work, sometimes, people would say, ‘You used to work with Whitney, how was that?’ Like it was a joke. That must’ve been something.” She looks pained. “And that was not it. I felt compelled to stand up at that point, not only to lift her legacy, but to honour our friendship, because friends aren’t something that you should just toss away. You are lucky to say you have a friend, and one you have through your life. I tell my kids all the time [when they overuse the word friend]: that’s an associate, that’s a fair-weather friend right there.”
Viewed from the outside, the confusing thing about all this is that, for much of the time, the relationship appeared to be starkly uneven. Houston could be loyal: when, in the early days of their friendship, Crawford was employed at a car dealership and couldn’t sell a single car, Houston dropped in and bought one from her, without so much as taking it for a test-drive. Houston opened up the world for Crawford, exposing her to all the glamour, travel and interest that kind of fame can deliver. But the singer could also be capricious and spiteful. Once, while Crawford was on tour with Houston in London, she went on a date with one of her dancers. When Houston found out they’d kissed, she slapped Crawford in the face.
“She did later tell me that she was feeling vulnerable,” she says. “She probably was feeling defeated. I think she slapped my face because she felt that I had done something, and she wanted me to know that I’d earned that slap. But she gave me a hug right after. Because she loved me.”
Surely it was because she was jealous? “I would say Whitney was possessive. The jealousy I’ve witnessed was volatile – that which my mother experienced with my father, and quite frankly, the way I saw Bobby treat Whitney – that’s jealousy. Hers was possessiveness: you’re mine.”
Crawford’s acceptance of Houston’s rotten behaviour can at times be infuriating. For years, Houston was actively homophobic, publicly comparing homosexuality to bestiality, then privately blasting Crawford for not denying the rumours about their relationship strenuously enough – behaviour Crawford disliked, but went along with. After Crawford quit her job with Houston, she was offered a lucrative marketing job at Arista Records, until the offer was suddenly and inexplicably withdrawn. Months later, Crawford ran into LA Reid, the then head of Arista, who told her it was Houston who had nixed the job, because “she wasn’t comfortable with me bringing you in”. It reads as a tremendous betrayal, all the more so because, in the book, Crawford recounts how at the time she defended Houston’s behaviour to her wife. “She’s not in her right mind,” she told Lisa. “It’s the people around her.”
In 1995, in an even more jaw-dropping episode, Crawford learned of a story running in the National Enquirer in which it was alleged that Houston’s father had hired a thug to “break her [Crawford’s] kneecaps”. Houston was riding high on recent award wins, including three Grammys, eight American Music Awards and 11 Billboard Awards, and her song, I Will Always Love You, the title track from The Bodyguard, spending 14 weeks at number one. Rather than considering her own position, Crawford’s first thought on hearing about the Enquirer story was for Houston. “They weren’t thinking about how that was making Whitney feel,” she says. “They weren’t respecting her. It wasn’t like she told them to go do anything to me.” It’s an extraordinary response to an alleged threat of physical violence: that no one was thinking of Houston.
Wasn’t there a power imbalance in the relationship, I ask. Crawford looks puzzled.
“What do you mean, exactly?”
I mean that, for all that Whitney needed you, wasn’t everything on her terms? “We worked side by side. I was there, I knew what my role was. I went through her modelling years with her. I had a driving licence, she didn’t, so I’d drive her. I was watching her rise. Everything that she had told me she was going to do, I could see it happening. So if you’re asking me, from the beginning was there an imbalance, we always had balance. We worked well together. But then the more people came into it, and the bigger she got – you know, she’s not black enough, they’re always together, what’s going on there, she’s not dating anyone – all of that got bigger and bigger, and she rose. It was always there. We couldn’t escape it.”
She adds, “If Whitney partnered with you, she didn’t try to do your job, she worked with you as a partner. In the end, it was tragic. But the difference with me is: I said thank you. And I think that’s what the others should say, too.”
By the others, she doesn’t only mean the legions of fans; she means those who profited directly from Houston – the business associates and layers of family who, Crawford contends in the book, bled the singer so dry that she had no option but to keep going on tour, even as her drug abuse left her physically vulnerable. Cocaine had been part of the two women’s lives as teenagers, until Crawford’s mother had found out and yelled at her to quit. It took Crawford a while, but she did. At the time, Houston had vowed to quit, too. With awful poignancy, Houston once told her: “Cocaine can’t go where we’re going.”
There was nothing Crawford could do but plead with her to stop and report her drug use to her mother. “I can stop, but she can’t,” she said to Cissy, who as far as she knows did nothing. Crawford was equally powerless when it came to Houston’s relationships. After Jermaine Jackson, Houston was largely single until she married Bobby Brown, although famous men often asked her out. Robert de Niro bothered her for a while and she fell for Eddie Murphy, who messed her around and on her wedding day called to say, “Don’t marry Bobby, he’s no good.” This turned out to be true. In Crawford’s account, Houston returned from her honeymoon with a three-inch scar down one side of her face – the result, Houston told her, of a glass thrown during a fight. According to multiple witnesses, Brown allegedly continued to be violent towards Houston and her drug use accelerated. The couple divorced in 2007.
“A lot of the physical stuff that Bobby did was when I wasn’t there,” Crawford says. “But you never knew when he would misbehave. He would trash her path and I didn’t respect him for that.” For a long time, she couldn’t understand why Houston was so publicly forgiving towards Brown. “But now I do,” she says. It was a survival mechanism. “Because behind closed doors, she knew how he could behave. So if he’s out in the open creating a scene, you want to defuse it. And she didn’t like to embarrass people.”
It’s telling that the most touching part of Crawford’s story has nothing to do with Houston; instead, it’s the trajectory of her relationship with Lisa, her wife, an editor whose calm, healthy demeanour throws into definition the sheer dysfunction of the world Crawford was leaving. Their romance took off just as Crawford was exiting Houston’s orbit, and Lisa told her she needed to get help. “She encouraged me to go to therapy,” she says and laughs. “‘Either go to therapy, or this ain’t happening’ – that’s what she said. And it was clear I needed to help myself.”
Long after the two were married and had children, however, Crawford was still in danger of being sucked back in. People would try to talk to her about Houston, or she would read something in a magazine and suddenly, “I would be in that zone of looking out for her and trying to figure it all out. Lisa could see me drift into it. She would say, ‘You need to focus on you.’ She’d remind me that there I am, going back in.” Crawford refused to participate in Nick Broomfield’s 2017 documentary about Houston, Whitney: Can I Be Me, and says she hasn’t seen it.
The only thing she thinks about now with regret is a phone message Houston left not long before her death, that Crawford accidentally deleted after a few seconds, before she had a chance to hear it play out. “When I heard that tone, her voice was different. The way she said my name: “Robyn.” She says this very softly; it was the only part of the message she heard. At the time, Houston was booked to go on another international tour, which horrified Crawford. “Because I had heard she had gone to rehab. And the first thing out of my mouth was: ‘She can’t do that.’ I wish I’d found a way to get to her. But she was waiting for me, and I was waiting for her. Whitney had a lot of pride. She wasn’t a pitiful person.” She adds: “It wasn’t meant to be.”
Did she know how to grieve for Houston? “That was rough. I really felt my insides just fall. And I had a lot of emotions. I was angry, the way it happened. The stuff I was hearing; I had spoken to people who were there on the floor… ”
Part of Crawford’s purpose in writing the book – apart from to deliver a cautionary tale to her kids about drugs, and to arm them against all the gossip – was to redeem and celebrate something of the original energy between the two women, when “we were young, and fearless, and free”. On that day in 1983 when 19-year-old Houston visited Crawford and gave her a Bible, the two women inscribed the book with lines testifying to their feelings for each other. “Love unconditional,” they wrote and signed their names underneath. Crawford felt no shame, she says. “I loved her, and there was nothing I felt was wrong about loving her. And she was loving me for me. I didn’t have to do anything. That’s where friendship is supposed to be. We were connected.”
She smiles. “We weren’t ready for everything that came with it.”
• A Song For You: My Life With Whitney Houston by Robyn Crawford is published by Dutton at £20. To buy a copy for £17.60, go to guardianbookshop.com.
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