By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Random House
After four decades of speculation that they were romantically involved, Robyn Crawford has spoken her truth: She loved Whitney Houston. In her heartfelt autobiography released late last year, A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston, Crawford shares that their love was real but stifled, a romance that, at first intimate and sexual, wavered as Whitney rose to fame in the ’80s.
Whitney and Crawford became friends as teenagers, during the summer of 1980 while both working at the East Orange Community Development Center in New Jersey. Their relationship deepened into romantic love, and finally, with Crawford as Whitney’s assistant, a trusted professional alliance.
A loving, dignified tribute buoyed by Crawford’s generosity of spirit through her many grievances, including the loss of Whitney, the autobiography is the first time Crawford has disclosed the extent of their relationship. It reveals in intimate, evocative detail many lesser-known facets about how Whitney operated and their supportive, tumultuous shared experiences on tour and at home: the rise, the fall, the fallout. The tragedy of Whitney’s death.
Crawford, as depicted in the book, is no saint, either. She’s remarkably forthcoming about the drugs she and Whitney did when they were teenagers. But beyond their longtime relationship is the life story of Crawford, whose tabloid-spun persona was limited to her association with Whitney.
Now, Crawford takes her story back, her remarkably candid tell-all illustrating her loyalty to the troubled icon but also serving as a deeply moving rumination on loss: in addition to Whitney, Crawford lost her brother and mother, both to AIDS-related illness. As much as Crawford expands the narrative of Whitney Houston’s life beyond its tragic end, she also lovingly memorializes her mother – the book’s real hero, she tells me.
From New Jersey, where she lives with her wife Lisa Hintelmann and their twins, Crawford spoke about Whitney’s relationship with her LGBTQ fans, how she doesn’t think the legendary singer was experiencing self-hate related to her sexuality, and the influence of Whitney’s song “The Greatest Love of All” on Crawford’s daughter.
I’m happy that we know your story, not just the story the media’s been telling us all these years.
I had a life too, right, Chris?
You did, and so much of it is in the book, it seems. But as a longtime Whitney fan who grew up with Whitney’s music, the book made me sad. It made me sad for what we lost, when it seems it didn’t have to be that way. As you were writing this, what emotions were you wrestling with? What was that process like?
Shoot. There were many different emotions. Sometimes I felt sad, sometimes I laughed. It was like an emotional rollercoaster. I was reliving the ’80s and the ’90s like I was there. I was in it. I just… I felt like I could keep writing. I couldn’t see an end.
Because there were so many more stories?
Yeah. It was huge: the experiences on aircrafts, and feeling like the plane was gonna drop out of the sky. The first award show and what that was like. And when it was just us, and not so many people, what that was like. I wrote a lot. I had a very good editor in Jill Schwartzman, but there was so much more of the journey that’s not on the pages.
How did you manage to stay silent on your relationship with Whitney for so long? Was it challenging not to speak out sooner?
I mean, no. I cherish those years. We had a bond of trust and loyalty from the get-go, from the very beginning. And we made a pact to support each other. I felt good about what I had experienced and the love that I had for Whitney and that we shared. It was always there.
I guess what I’m asking is, because we never heard your side of the story until very recently, and knowing there was so much tabloid talk about the kind of relationship you had with Whitney, was it challenging for you to keep that inside all these years?
Honestly, I didn’t read a lot of the stuff. People called me and said, “Robyn, did you hear this? Did you see this?” I did not see the documentaries (two documentaries on Whitney’s life were released in the last few years: Whitney, in 2018, and Whitney: Can I Be Me, in 2017), I haven’t even seen Sparkle (Whitney starred in the 2012 remake of the 1976 drama-musical). I had twins and that kept me busy.
I’m guilty of staying focused on where I am, and I did get angry when I heard stuff. Like when Whitney passed, I really was angry and frustrated every time I heard something that was said (about us), but I didn’t know what to say or who to say it to. Once you start talking, you’re just out there, and that wasn’t a comfortable feeling.
So during that period, were you tracking your experiences in a journal? Or did the writing for this book happen all at once?
No, I did not keep a journal. I did have notes and books along the way when I was touring. I kept those books and they were incomplete, but there were some things I had written down. But no – all of that came from inside, from what I felt.
The book is so vivid, in a way that I’m just like, there’s no way I would remember all of that. But I also didn’t tour with Whitney Houston. Ha!
(Laughs.) And you didn’t live with her either, right? My wife often says, “Robyn has an unbelievable memory,” and you know, I do. Those were great times. I didn’t talk about my mother and my experience with my brother to really anyone that I’ve worked with, people that were around me, and I didn’t talk to people at Nippy, Inc (Whitney Houston’s New Jersey-based management company once run by her father, John Houston). They knew what was going on, but I kept it all with me. And that’s where it’s been.
Did it feel like a burden to have to keep your sexuality on the down-low because Whitney couldn’t be out about your relationship?
I’ve been saying this: That we never looked at our friendship and our experiences as anything other than, this is me. You were you. And when I say it was open and honest, I mean, we could say anything to each other or just look at each other and we just knew exactly… we were communicating. But the ’80s were the time where you were either this or that, and my world at that age was so much bigger as far as adventurous. I had a boyfriend growing up, and I talk about him in the book, and I loved him. We were like brother and sister, that close. He respected me.
With Whitney, she was perfect in every way. Someone that I met and everything we were doing together was beautiful; it really was. We were having a good time. And I never felt like… I mean, I knew musically and show business-wise, that was a world that we wanted to learn more about and be prepared and ready for, and with that thought, I could see more of, “Boy, if people find out we’re doing this…” because that’s just how it was. And obviously her mother (Cissy Houston) made her feelings clear about our closeness. She didn’t even know how deep we were; she just made it clear that she didn’t like how close we were.
Whitney didn’t seem to mind when you were romantically involved with a man, but when she learned that you were linked with other women, she became jealous and furious. Did you ever question that logic?
Whitney didn’t explain things. She just would let me know if she didn’t like something and she didn’t have a problem asking me to tell this person to leave. I think she felt a certain possessiveness, and it wasn’t like Whitney had a lot of friends. Her life was so like… it was just really me. She was a very private person who didn’t have a lot of friends, who didn’t want a lot of friends. She could’ve had them if she wanted to. She didn’t like to do a whole lot, she was a homebody. So I look at it like that: She was possessive. Because, really, all she had to do was say, “OK, it’s me and you” (laughs) and it would’ve been, “OK.” But that’s not what she wanted. She didn’t want it like that. And who wants to be with someone or wants to harbor those kinds of feelings when they don’t want that? You better get yourself together. And our love was bigger than that.
Do you think that if she were a part of today’s music landscape, with so many out artists, life might’ve been different for Whitney?
Well, you’ve heard Whitney speak and how she always said “I’m not gay” and she was tired of answering that question.
She was, but I wonder if that was her self-hate and internalized homophobia speaking.
(Mumbles in disagreement.) There was nothing partial about Whitney in her thoughts of people; she just resented folks trying to put her in a box with categories. She pushed back on that with music. She hated that. She was the type of person that loved people for who they were, she had no problem. We had lots of gay people around us, whether it be makeup, hair people, you name it. They were beautiful people, and they were close to us. I mean, (her makeup artist) Kevyn Aucoin…
You recount her 2000 Out Magazine interview with Barry Walters in the book. After being asked about the lesbian rumors, Whitney said, “I ain’t suckin’ no dick. I ain’t gettin’ on my knees. Something must be wrong: I can’t just really sing. I can’t just be a really talented, gifted person. She’s gotta be gay.” You say in the book her response was “uncalled for and wrong.” But you never felt her own struggles with her sexuality caused her to spew anti-queer vitriol?
You are absolutely right. And no, I do not believe that she was internalizing and projecting – no. Absolutely not.
I think that’s important to clarify.
She was asked that question from the beginning of her career. I mean, that rumor followed her forever. And she rejected it. She rejected all labels. Even calling her a “diva” and the way she felt about her colleagues, the female so-called rivals. Every single last one of them, including Mariah, will tell you that Whitney treated them with the utmost respect and love and admiration. They will tell you.
I remember gay fans were especially happy to see them present together at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1998.
Whitney called Mariah her “little lamb.” That’s how she spoke about her. Whitney was not anything that she was branded for. She wasn’t black enough; she was cool as can be. And she was not raw, or edgy, or ghetto either. All the stigmas and labels that people say you are, she was none of those things. She refused to take on what others wanted to saddle her with.
Did Whitney know she was loved by her LGBTQ fans?
Yes, absolutely. Her mother had a huge gay following and they were always there. And, yes, Whitney knew that the LGBTQ community had love for her, without a doubt. And she loved them.
Having been with her for so long, do you remember the moment where it first dawned on her that, “The LGBTQ community, they’re really showing up for me”?
The one experience where the whole world was there was Gay Pride down on the pier (in New York in 1999). I write about it and I remember that night: We had been touring and touring and touring and, finally, there was a date, and she was on the books for it. I mean, dance music, club music, that was what Arista (Whitney’s label at the time) did more than anything. The clubs. And they remixed every record that you could name. “The Greatest Love of All” has a remix. And (music executive) Hosh Gureli was at the helm of that (album), and we went to the Paradise Garage (also known as the “Gay-rage,” a now-defunct discotheque frequented by LGBTQ clubgoers) with (DJ) Jellybean Benitez.
The clubs were big back then. Studio 54. We went through there. She didn’t perform at Studio 54, but we went through there and we talked about Sylvester and just how he could sing, and how beautiful he was. I mean, there was none of that (internalized homophobia) from Whitney. I put my hand on the Bible and am very comfortable making that clear.
Do you still listen to Whitney?
I do, I do. I do listen to The Preacher’s Wife and “Dancin’ on the Smooth Edge.” I do. I had not listened to a lot of her music after she passed. But one day I was talking about friends with my daughter, because my daughter is loaded with empathy and did not have any friends, and I told her, “Don’t give your friendship away. You make them earn it.” I played “The Greatest Love of All” for her one time, and I came into her room and she had printed out the lyrics and had them on her wall.
That’s sweet. So many of Whitney’s songs, after reading your book, have taken on a different life for me. For instance, knowing you were on set during the filming of The Bodyguard, I can’t help but hear Whitney singing “I Will Always Love You,” a song about a love that could never be, to you. Did you ever think of that song in the context of your relationship?
I didn’t. I’m being honest, I didn’t. But you know what, when I hang up from you, I’m going to listen to it that way. I’m going to listen to it with that in mind. But “A Song For You” is one that I really felt, when I listened to the last album, she was talking to me.
What made you think that?
Because I write in the book about a moment where music held us together. We talked about it a lot, and I played that (“A Song From You”) from The Temptations album, and then she performed it one time, and then she recorded it the last go ’round (for the album I Look to You, in 2009). I know that was her idea. She never told me, and I’ve never spoken to anyone about that – and it may not have been her idea to do the club mix on it – but I know she wanted to record that song.
That is the most covered song ever, and when you listen to each cover, they all bring a different interpretation to the song. And Whitney uses the word “friend” I don’t know how many times. So that really captured me. And you know, I’ve been in the studio with her so many times that the way she approached it, I was right there. It was like I was in the studio with her listening to it.
Clearly, that song meant a lot to you – enough to make it the title of your book.
Music is in the book. My brother was big into music; my mother and my father had a love for music. So “A Song for You” encompasses all of them. But I dedicate the title of the book to Whitney in my heart.
Did you hear Kygo’s version of “Higher Love” that was released last year?
I didn’t hear the full version, but I did click on my Apple iTunes and listened to part of it, yes.
Why didn’t you listen to the full song?
Maybe because I would’ve rather heard “I’m Knockin’,” which was the track that Whitney had on that Baby Tonight album. When I heard “Higher Love,” I knew that it came from the Japan album of Baby Tonight. It wasn’t something new that they found in a vault.
Were you in the studio when she recorded it?
I was. So I knew where it came from. What I did watch was the video. I watched the video and I did not like the video. Sorry, but I didn’t.
What didn’t you like about the video?
It was missing her.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.