Robyn Crawford On Friendship And Love With Whitney Houston
After more than 30 years of silence, Robyn Crawford is speaking publicly about her lifelong relationship with Whitney Houston.By Abby WestNov 12, 2019, 12:53 PM
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She's now a married mother living in the suburbs with her wife and 10-year-old twins, but her stories and lessons from traveling the world with Whitney and going through life's ups and downs together are enduring and fascinating.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
AW: Happy to. From the moment Whitney Houston arrived on the scene, you were her right-hand woman, her best friend. A role that began when you were teenagers in New Jersey, not too far from where we are right now, I think.
As her career grew, yours did too. Sort of leaning on your music knowledge, as well as your love for Whitney, you began to take on many different de facto managerial roles as well as your trusted confidant role. Throughout it all, there was much speculation about the nature of your relationship with Whitney, but you never commented one way or another, until now. At the end of your memoir you say, "I hope there will be no more questions," and that in writing this book you have honored Whitney, Kristina, your brother, and your mother. But you had to know, even though you shared so much, you're going to have to answer more questions.
RC: I'm willing to.
AW: What was it like to make the decision to go public, after years of people hounding you for your story and scrutinizing your relationship with Whitney?
RC: Yeah. Good question, Abby. I never envisioned myself speaking publicly about my life, about Whitney, and what that journey was like. I had comfort in my silence. I had lived an amazing journey with someone I met along the way, and I held that close to my heart. It was a beautiful friendship. It still is. Over the years, Whitney has stayed in the spotlight, in the news. There was always someone saying something, whether it be about her career or her personal life. It's like they're talking about this thing or this product, when really Whitney was a real person. I came to feeling like it was my duty to share who that person was, and I know that person well because she revealed herself to me early on before all of the fame.
So here I am in 2019, going to give people a glimpse of who she is. Lift her legacy, so she can hold it high, and in that, honor our friendship, and let people know how beautiful and important it is to have a friend.
[Whitney] was a natural collaborator. She had that spirit. She loved bonding with people, with others.
AW: That's a big part of it, that female friendship. That friendship in general. That having someone to lean on and trust throughout something that's an unknown. Her growth, no one predicted that.
RC: Absolutely. I mean that was the mission of her quest. She picked what she wanted to do in life, and boy, did she do it. She knew that at age 16. Where she was headed, the gift that she had, and what she was going to do with it, which is touch people around the world.
AW: The moments when you would talk about, I think when you first heard her sing at church, and how that affected the congregation and you knew she could sing, but to paraphrase, she could saaaang.
RC: Right, well she told me she was a singer. She spoke with such certainty and conviction. It wasn't like "I'm going to do this," or "I want to be that." It was, "I'm a singer. I'm going to sign a recording contract. Then I'm going to get some producers," and those are the necessary steps. "And I want you right here. Stick with me. I'll take you all around the world." Whitney wasn't the type of person to talk about what she had done. She might say, "Oh I was in the studio with Chaka, I had a great time." If you ask her questions, she'll share, but it wasn't like, "Wait until you hear me on the radio." She didn't sing showing off what she had, exercising so you could witness it.
But the day I saw her in church after she invited me to see the junior mass choir, which was a big thing back in those days. Choirs would visit each other's church and they throw down, for real, for real.
RC: Yeah. Exactly. Boy, I was blown away by the poise, the power. It was like the energy was surging through the church. I knew right then and there that this girl, without any hit records, that this girl had "it," for real.
AW: Do you think the fact that she grew up in a musical family, a family in the industry, with her mom Cissy Houston and with her cousin Dionne Warwick, do you think that played into her sense of confidence in how to go about it?
RC: She took a little bit from all of them. Obviously, her mother, she was under her tutelage, and learned how to blend brilliantly. A lot of people can sing solo, but you put them up with a bunch of folks together, collectively, and you've got to stay on your part.
AW: They got overpowered.
RC: Exactly. Well, she was a natural collaborator. She had that spirit. She loved bonding with people, with others. Anyone that's ever been behind the mic with Whitney Houston knows that she was all about, "Okay. Let's do this," and you could feel it. No doubt. But she took a little bit from Dionne, her stage performance with the hands, the little fingers going, tapping the mic. Dionne does that. She was a student, and a very good student of the game.
People have their own feelings and thoughts and what they believe. I just hope that they read [my book] with an open mind.
AW: Yeah. I think that's what the best musical performers are. They're not just in the silo.
RC: Yeah. Athletes too. Those young ones. You got to be a student.
AW: That's true. Absolutely. You should know, as a basketball star yourself there. You talked about bringing her story to light, humanizing her. This also sets you up for more scrutiny. How did you prepare for that level of exposure?
RC: I don't think you ever can be prepared. You don't know what's going to come your way. Whitney never said when she finished doing her best in a recording studio, "It's going to be a hit," or, "This is definitely going to number one." I wrote from my heart. I lived it. I went back to the '80s. I just came back, I would say, about four months ago.
AW: Oh, we're going to talk about that, yeah.
RC: Look. People have their own feelings and thoughts and what they believe. I just hope that they read it with an open mind.
AW: Or listen.
RC: Yeah. Oh yeah, and listen to my words, and feel it. Close their eyes and feel it. I take them to the studio. I take them on the tour bus. I take them with us. I was there. They can ride if they choose to.
AW: You shared insight from so many public moments. That's one of the things I loved, the tracksuit change for the 1991 Super Bowl. That stuck with me, because that's a super public moment. That's an iconic moment. Her national anthem set a bar that still stands. I don't know that I ever thought about why she was wearing a tracksuit. I mean it made sense. It looked windy up there. But the whole story behind how that came to be ... Those moments are fascinating for fans. Do you see part of this as giving fans one more moment or touchpoint with her as well?
RC: Those who were not there witnessing that moment in the stadium, or that caught it on television, well, Whitney took it to the point where they were able to buy the record. Purchase it as well. We were so busy. Whitney's career just kept going. We never stopped. During that year, I think that was '91 or '92, we were touring. [The Super Bowl] was just one date on the schedule in the midst of everything else that she had obligated to do. But it's strange. That day she did her own makeup and her own hair.
AW: Wow. For the Super Bowl?
RC: For the Super Bowl. That goes out to quadrillions around the world. I don't know why, but it's the truth. She was backed by an orchestra, they were all in black tie, and Whitney is always, "Okay, they're black tie ... " somehow she was wearing a black dress. It was breezy. Super breezy, because we're further north in Florida, which is not Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which is what we were accustomed to. After rehearsal she said, "Listen, I'm going to freeze. I'm going to be freezing out there," and she said, "What am I going to do?" I said, "Why don't you wear the tracksuit that's in your suitcase?" I remember when we were leaving our previous destination for the private jet, Silvia, her personal assistant, had packed some clothing for her, and a tracksuit was one of them. Whitney didn't even know it was in there. I take it, take her to her room, pull it out, she says, "Huh. It's good. It's good." She was right at home because that was her. Dressed down. Comfy. She had a pep step. Hopped up on that little podium, and she was ready to go. She was calm, cool, collected. And the rest was history.
AW: That's one of my favorite stories. I love that one. With this book, you demystified years of "Are they?" "Aren't they?" rumors and innuendos, by revealing the depth of your connection to Whitney. At one time a physical one, always an emotionally connected one, from the time you were teenagers. Why do you think people were so intent on finding out as much as they could about your relationship? Do you think it was purely prurient?
RC: I don't know. It was the time. It had a lot to do with the time. In the '80s, Whitney Houston was at the forefront of everything. Outing [was too]. You either were straight, or you weren't. You either sung pop music, R&B, or a gospel singer. She did them all. She was all of those things. She did not operate from a box. She was a free spirit, as was I. We did not work from a label sensibility. Whitney always said, "I don't sing black. I don't sing white. I sing." She meant that, and it's true. We didn't look at our intimacy as something that made us gay. It didn't feel like that. We were friends, and that friendship was like a river. The focus was the dream that she saw for herself, and me, part of that dream.
We just jumped in feet-first. At one point, it was physical, and we weren't ashamed about it. It was naked. It was bare. We were intimate on every level, that's how it felt. I can't answer why it became such a thing, but we chose to sacrifice that for the dream, and the way women in the business were seen there. The machine was huge. Big record stores like Tower. All the meet-and-greets with radio stations. Frankie Crocker, Scott Shannon, everything was huge. It was part of promoting your product, and she was 100% into doing that, although she didn't enjoy it. Most artists don't really want to talk. They want to do what they do best.
But her conversations, she was often scrutinized. Like, "Who are you dating?" We're there to talk about a hit record, and her next record, or her tour. You didn't get the opportunity to see two female superstars on the same ticket. They were more rivals instead [of] colleagues and comrades. That's really what Whitney's spirit is. She was all for them. It was a different time.
AW: Definitely more black and white back then. But do you think it would be much different today?
RC: Well, shoot. It is very different today. It's funny, based upon my experiences back when, I asked someone, "From a sexual standpoint, what would I be?" If I was going to choose to label myself, I would be pansexual, they said. That's someone that really goes with the feeling, their heart. And I'd say they really had that right.
AW: The fact that there's more acceptance of the fluidity of sexuality would make it different today.
RC: I've heard that. I don't like to look at myself as fluidity. I wouldn't know what to tell my children. "Oh yeah. I'm fluidity." Our young people have social media today, where they really share themselves. They're very open. If we came up that way, I'm sure we would've used it to our ability, and creativity. All your ideas. We didn't have that. We didn't operate from that standpoint. We were raised differently.
AW: Don't put your business out on the street.
RC: Well, yes. You use it to spread goodness, just like a microphone. You use it to clear up things, and spread some love with it.
AW: Some of the more salacious/surprising revelations that you share are about how early Whitney's drug use began, how enduring her addiction was, and the realities of her strained relationship with her mother, Cissy, and her volatile relationship with Bobby. But you share so many of your own mistakes too, your past drug use and some emotional, bad decisions with the entire world, and theoretically, with your children. Why was it so important for you to be so honest?
RC: That was the only way I could approach writing a book and sharing my story. I raised my children to be able to talk to me. To be able to come to me. In one point, the book is a cautionary tale of what can happen if you use drugs. We live in a world today where drugs that are supposed to help us have really failed us. Two years ago, we lost over 16 million people. It's a serious thing, and I know a lot more about my body now. It's funny, one of the things about that time, is I don't why I would even think of putting anything that wasn't already there in my body. I wouldn't take an aspirin. I was that kind of child. Just had no need to do it, but I really wasn't mentally connected to why I was that kind of person. It was just natural.
But now, in my story, there are a lot of other people like me, and there're a lot of people like Whitney. It was important because we were so close, from teenagers through adulthood. I want them to be able to see us as an example of what you need and what you don't. If you need help, you have to yell it loud. If you have feelings that you want to share, you have to go to find that individual who will listen. Yeah, I've made some mistakes, and I learned from them too.
AW: Yeah. That's a lot to put all of that into the world, as a cautionary tale, and pray that it's received the way it's intended.
RC: You never know, do you? My children understand. They have not read the book. They are huge readers and listeners. I have audio and then I have the book, for those who love holding it. When they're old enough to read it from front to back, or listen to it, I may be able to pick out a chapter or two that they can share. Like "Oh Say, Can You See"? That would be great.
AW: Now this book also causes you to dig through your memories. Part of it--I want to come back to in a little bit about--how you did that, just the mechanics of the detail and whatnot. I know you were also a chronicler along the way, journaled or wrote things down a lot.
RC: Yeah, I kept a lot of those years. They were beautiful, wonderful, awesome, once-in-a-lifetime years.
AW: I remember one of the passages you said that it was to help you, not keep her honest, but remind Whitney five years down the line that, "Oh you wanted to do this song, you wanted to do this a different way."
RC: We're talking about the notebook of songs. One of the things that really connected us was music. Whitney and I would take turns putting the album on a turntable, and playing it through. Sometimes when she would place her choice that she wanted to play, what she would do, I'd make a note how she would sing it. It seemed like the ones that meant the most to her, I would make a note. "Don't You Worry About a Thing" by Stevie Wonder. Chaka Khan and Rufus's "You Look Like a Friend of Mine." There are so many songs that she loved, that I would just make a note. Then, for example, when we were doing The Bodyguard, she was able to select a couple of songs, and "I'm Every Woman" was one of the songs from that notebook.
I just rolled off the Chaka tunes. "I'm Every Woman" was right there, and she was like, "Yeah. Yeah. 'I'm Every Woman', we're going to do that. Call Narada [Michael Walden]. Call Narada." I could see her right now on the phone saying to him saying, "Listen Narada, keeps Val's [Valerie Simpson] piano just like it is. Cut this just like it is. Don't change anything." That notebook. I've found pieces of paper of songs that I'd written. Sometimes I may not have had my notebook. We may have been on the road, and she'd have her headphones on, and I'd walk in. It could be a gospel song. Preacher's Wife's "I Love the Lord" was one of those that came from the notebook.
But I kept all my laminates, my passports, every place we went. It was very helpful and important for me to go back in my tour books and line it up, and who was there, refresh my memory. Then it all just came back to me like a waterfall. But I was in it. I was reliving those moments.
AW: That also meant that you were reliving a lot of your personal family's traumas throughout, especially in your earlier life. You had to go back into the world where your father was physically abusing your mother, and those were some violent scenes. What was it like for you to immerse yourself in that again? Not just the time with Whitney portion, but that family. You suffered great loss with your brother. And your mother. That's a lot.
RC: My agent David Kuhn and Becky Sweren were working with me [as I was writing]. They just asked me to write a couple of scenes. This was before we even approached a publisher. It was scenes like, "What was it like growing up for you?" And I could go right back there. The book opens with me and my family. I start from there, and it was very easy for me to see those [moments]. It just came right back to me, like I was there. I held onto those things. They've been with me all this time.
Thank God, my sister is here. She's got a very good memory as well. I remember her as a little girl back then, just looking at us. Looking for someone to just grab her when all the chaos and the noise is just absorbing the space. Yeah. I had a lot of good years as a child too. I really did. There are some bright moments, like the puppy my dad brought home in his American Airlines jacket pocket.
AW: Well, that sort of became a sad story.
RC: Yeah, it did. Death was something that ... I thought I was going to live forever. I really did. I thought I was just here, like everybody else and in my mind, I thought I would live forever. I still feel an everlasting love of spirit within myself. To wrap my head around the fact that the things you hold dear and that you aspire to just will go away, it took me a long time to get over that The Creator set it up that way.
AW: You just said earlier that you just came out of it four months ago. That you'd re-immersed yourself in it, then you had to come back out of it. Was there a residual ... I wouldn't want to overuse the word trauma, but was there residual immersion? What did it take to be like, "Well, I placed myself in there. I brought this new work to life, but now I have to move forward."?
RC: Well, during the process, I felt like I could write forever. Along the way I said to my wife, "Can I have a part one, part two?" And she said, "No, you can't have a part one, part two."
AW: That was an excellent Lisa [impression], by the way.
RC: Yeah. It's true. That's how she was. I was like, "Why not?" I said that's how I feel. I could see and feel no end. I could just keep writing. I wrote a lot. Dutton, [my publisher], they were fantastic. They were patient. Really patient with me. I was very particular about words. "I know" instead of "I knew." I was in the moment. It can't be past tense. This is "I know." I didn't care if grammatically the sentence was "was." No, we're not doing that. But this was a free-flowing rollercoaster journey, which was sort of how it was in real life. It's never a rose garden. Thank goodness for deadlines, because I had to hand in this by this time. That has a way of cutting your power, like my mother used to say.
AW: How long did it take you all told?
RC: To finish? Two-and-a-half years.
AW: That's a long time to put yourself back in it.
RC: Mm-hmm. It was worth is. Well, for my kids, like my son Jeremy, he said, "I'll be so glad when mommy's done with this book, so she can play with me again." I was not playing.
AW: That doesn't break your heart at all. They have a way of doing that.
RC: Well, my kids were eight and nine. They come to you about everything. They just want to talk to you. I didn't have time to do that. It's mean, but I did not have time. Sometimes I would be snappy, because I'd be in a thought and here they come with a shoestring and some gooey stuff. I'm like, "I can't. When you see me like this, please ..." They were writing me notes, like, "Can I get a glass of water?" It's just wrong. But I'm back now. All of me.
AW: Did sitting in the recording booth to narrate sort of change your relationship to the work you'd just done? How did it affect you?
RC: It's funny you say that, because after I handed in my final on the book, I have not touched it.
AW: Just put it down.
RC: I graduated from that. I needed to be back here in 2019, and the only part of this process that I was excited about [was] the experience of being in the studio behind the mic narrating my book, honestly. I have not heard myself narrate the book, and I can't wait. That is what I want to experience. I could see myself just with my eyes closed listening, also critiquing, because emotionally I did my best, and I did, according to the director and the engineer, Tony and Laura. I loved them both. It was very strange being in the booth and looking in the console room, where I always was. It was very strange, but I loved that experience. Loved it.
AW: I've had the pleasure of listening, and you did a great job. You were emotive and clear. I was actually listening over the weekend, when my father was with me for the weekend, and he just sat there and closed his eyes and was listening. I wasn't quite sure if he was listening. I was working and doing other things, and listening at the same time. Then I paused the playback and he was like, "Are you going to put it back on?" I was like, "Oh so you're listening, dad?" I was like, "So what do you think?" He was like, "I think it's very good, and I want to keep hearing it."
RC: Oh, Papa. I love it.
AW: You have the rousing endorsement of my 79-year-old West Indian father.
RC: Oh, thank you. Thank you, sir. That just warms me.
AW: Seriously though, you did a great job, and it was very ... I keep saying clear, but your annunciation paired with the emotion. How did you prepare for that?
RC: You know what? I didn't. Well, my wife Lisa works at Audible, and she gave me pointers like, "If you get dry mouth, eat an apple. A green apple." I do not like green apples. But she says that this works. I never saw Whitney have an apple either. Even when Whitney did her pickup lines for a film, I never saw her with an apple. But I promised my wife, so I had to take a bite of that thing. But I had throat coat, honey, and a lozenger... I can't say that word that well.
RC: Lozenge, and which is a Whitney Houston regular, that was her thing. I said my prayers. I asked her for strength when I was in there. I got dry mouth a lot. But I had a great engineer in Tony, and I had an awesome director, and I didn't have many pickups. The process is wild too, because while I'm narrating, it's going out to another team of Dutton players who are listening to it, making notes if I mispronounce someone's name. But I only had a few pickups. I was done fairly quickly, like three days and two hours. It flowed. That story flowed.
AW: Were there any passages more challenging, emotionally challenging, than others?
RC: Oh yeah. My mother ... that was rough. My brother as well. I remember them. They were two of the bravest people, I tell you. They were so brave at a time where there was so much fear and shame with AIDS. My mother just kept championing me on to do my thing. My brother, who had written a script called Building, had it copy-written. Played multiple instruments, tenor sax, clarinet, cello, in orchestra. He even did a couple of plays. He loved the arts, and here I was living it. He just wanted me to do well. He wanted me to always look the part. "What's wrong with you?" I can hear him now. "Girl, you could better turn it up." He was so funny. He was so funny. Yeah, I miss them.
And of course the day that I heard that Whitney passed, and how my day started, that Saturday morning. [Such a] strange morning. But that was just like her. She'll let know. She will let you know.
AW: That was a message. Yeah.
RC: So yeah.
AW: One of the things that stood out to me was you never felt personally smaller than or less than Whitney, but your life was consumed by hers. What was that like for you to finally decide to sort of extricate yourself? What was that push-pull like for you, and to finally put yourself first, and move forward?
RC: First of all, let me say, she was quiet. As a person, she was quiet. She was a homebody. Super funny. She was worth giving of yourself, and giving your best. I would say, because I loved and enjoyed my job, there was never a dull moment. Never. She was so humble and gracious, and appreciated you. You wanted to give your all. When I say this train was moving and moving fast all the time, it was like a blur. But you lose your identity along the way when things are moving so fast. I didn't think about myself much at all. As a matter of fact, cutting my hair short was the best thing, because then I was ready early. I got dressed quickly. I always had what I call my "get 'em" gear. Always knew what I was going to wear. The hair was the issue back then. Black women and their hair. We went from Jheri curl to weave. I was cutting mine off at that time.
I just enjoyed being ready, being on, staying ahead, doing the dry runs so I would know what to expect. When I got there, I was already part of the whole thing. I already knew what was going to go down. I imagined if it was like this at 10:00, when I showed up, at 1:15 I know what it's going to be. I was always on for her. You had be ahead of it.
AW: Right. Then you had to put yourself first and move forward.
RC: I had to realize that in order to live a life, you have to make the hard decisions. Separate yourself from those that aren't good for you. Be real with yourself. Be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, "You know what Robyn...?."
AW: You can't take this.
RC: Mm-hmm. Yeah. You've got to choose. You've got to make the tough decisions.
AW: I love how thoughtfully you approached your relationship with Lisa, who you mentioned works at Audible, and I count as a friend. Full disclosure. And your approach to having and raising children. What, more than anything in the course of that lifetime with Whitney in the industry, moving at a blur, what helped prepare you to forge this new life?
RC: Well, I became a whole person. I went into therapy and I really dealt with the things that I have been running from. Loss. Not facing, not really fully, looking at my loved ones, and really completing that cycle. Honestly, I thought I was sharing my world with my kids. That is not what happens. It is a full-fledged, bum-rush takeover. Those kids take up ever inch, every thought. You can't go to the grocery store without figuring out, "Okay, where are they? Is everything cool?" It's them. You watch them grow and you instill the borders for them to balance themselves and go side-to-side. Give them some room to make the best decision. May not be the right one, but the best one. I say, "You got to make the best decision right here."
I think the best thing that I could do is do the difficult things, which is when they're coming to you for that thing that is quite boring, just listen to it. Just listen to it. Take the time. Give them some room. Give them some room, which is what my mother gave me. She gave me room to operate, and she knew me well, because she got to know me. My brother is different from me, my sister is different from me, and my mother took the time to get to know all of us. And I'm a piece of work, she said.
AW: You kept it interesting.
RC: I'm a piece of work.
AW: Robyn, I can't thank you enough for coming in to talk to us today. I can probably talk to you for another two hours ...
RC: It would take that, because I just be talking.
AW: ... but I couldn't quite condense it for what I needed to do and then put this out into the world. I'm really excited for the world to get your book and start to have that conversation with people being more informed than they have been in the past, and for you to share that part of yourself. Thank you.
RC: I can't wait to listen to it with my children. I'm going to just pick a chapter.