Whitney keeps woes to herself

Singer: Houston's erratic behavior feeds whispered rumors that something is very wrong in her life.

April 19, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

What's wrong with pop singer Whitney Houston?

There have been hints; there are rumors. Within the music industry, there are whispers about the "D" word -- and we don't mean "diva."

Yet even though everybody "knows" what's going on, nobody is talking -- at least, not on the record. "People are so savvy about reading the news and reading behind the news," says Roy Trakin, senior editor at the music industry trade magazine Hits. "It almost seems as if we've come to a tacit agreement about what `erratic behavior' means and what it's a cue-word for. It's kind of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink kind of thing."

What has been reported -- at length and in detail -- is Houston's increasingly strange conduct.

Last summer, Houston went out on tour and wound up canceling five of 24 scheduled shows, including one in Washington, allegedly due to throat problems. One concert, in Concord, Calif., was scrubbed minutes before show time.

In January, the singer was stopped by security guards at the Keahole-Kona International Airport in Hawaii when 15.2 grams of marijuana were found in one of her bags. Houston left the bag at the security gate, and was airborne by the time police arrived. (Hawaiian prosecutors announced Friday they are not pursuing charges.)

A month later, at the Grammy telecast in Los Angeles, the 36-year-old singer appeared to space out during her performance, momentarily forgetting the lyrics to her own song. Then in March, she pulled a no-show for a high-profile appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame banquet, where she was scheduled to induct Arista Records chief Clive Davis, who signed the singer when Houston was 19.

Houston's bizarre behavior seemed even more extreme during rehearsals for the Academy Awards broadcast three weeks later. Slated to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Houston reportedly missed her cues and fumbled the melody. She wound up being dropped from the show 48 hours before air time (Faith Hill was brought in as a last-minute replacement).

A spokeswoman for the Academy Awards also ascribed the situation to "throat problems," but other sources claimed that Houston had been cut by music director Burt Bacharach, who was appalled by the singer's lack of focus and unprofessional behavior.

"Whitney's chronic condition is very sad," was Bacharach's oblique comment to People magazine.

But what, exactly, that condition might be remains a matter of speculation.

Houston did an interview with a reporter for the current issue of the women's magazine Jane during which her conversation was described as disjointed and littered with profanity. Later, editor Jane Pratt told People magazine that when Houston turned up for a photo shoot, "Everyone there thought she was high on something."

Houston, of course, has repeatedly denied having a drug problem, going so far as to tell one interviewer, "I am not a drug addict." Nor has anyone come forward to allege -- on record -- that the singer has a substance abuse problem.

Houston's publicist, Nancy Seltzer, when contacted for this story, said only that, "Whitney Houston is in fine health."

So why do people assume otherwise?

"[When] you have somebody who's a superstar, and who's behaving in a way that's causing varying levels of concern, people are trying to fill in that blank," says Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who has interviewed Houston twice. "People are reaching for the drug part here because it's the easiest explanation.

"But I haven't heard anything from anyone who has said, `Oh, yeah. I absolutely know that's true.' "

Nor is the word from those who have had direct contact with Houston anywhere near as dire as what appears in the gossip press. For instance, Elysa Gardner, who interviewed Houston during her 1999 tour, had heard all sorts of stories about the singer's seemingly bizarre behavior.

"I'd heard from various people in the media, who had occasion to see her in a working environment, that she could be erratic, that she was easily distracted, that she sweated a lot -- all the symptoms you would associate with some kind of chemical problem," says Gardner, currently a music writer for USA Today. "To be honest with you, I didn't see any of that. I saw somebody who just looked tired and over-worked, and I felt for her."

Nonetheless, there are those who believe that where there's smoke, there's fire.

When Houston canceled 20 percent of her tour last summer, the word most often applied to her was "fragile," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert industry trade publication Pollstar. "Obviously now, with all the other headlines, people are making other possible conclusions," he adds.

(A spokeswoman for IMP Productions, which produced Houston's Washington show, declined comment on why that show was canceled.)

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