Slow suicide is the term I've used for years to describe those individuals who are incredibly unhappy in their own lives, in their own skin, and do things to destroy that life, to destroy that skin. Whatever the race or culture of that person is immaterial; it doesn't matter if they are famous and wealthy, or unknown and poor. What matters is the source of their pain, and the ways they've chosen to deal with that pain. Or not.
I have often wondered if Whitney Houston was ever happy – as a world-class singer, as a daughter, as a wife, as a mother. She is gone now, her death a sad and jolting concluding scene to a long-running drama that we witnessed – at times, with tremendous pride and at times, with alarming discomfort – because she was by far the most gifted and the most visible singer of her generation, of the past 25 years. And because she battled various forms of drug addiction on an Olympian stage, and was in a wild and notoriously dysfunctional and abusive marriage with R&B singer Bobby Brown for 15 years.
My heart aches for Whitney Houston, even if many of us, through the years, could see such a moment coming. There was too much photographic evidence of her fluctuating weight, of her caramel-brown face drenched in sweat when not performing. But when you die in a Beverly Hills hotel room, at age 48, alone, on the eve of the Grammy Awards, discovered by your bodyguard, after 170m records sold, too-many-to-count Grammy, Billboard, and Emmy awards, and the biggest US single of all time ("I Will Always Love You"), we have to wonder, if we are sincere with ourselves: did we collectively participate in the slow and catastrophic plunge of Whitney Houston?
For sure, the social media networks are abuzz with genuine tributes to her, from celebrities, from those who actually knew her, from profoundly heart-broken fans. But I also think about how Whitney Houston had declined from American musical royalty to the oft-ridiculed and washed-up singer and drug fiend. There were interventions by her mother, the gospel singer Cissy Houston, and others. But there were also shameful, high-voltage spotlights, like her awkward interview with Diane Sawyer where she declared, when asked about her alleged drug use, "crack is wack." We also cannot forget Bobby Brown's car crash of a TV show, "Being Bobby Brown", which felt like we were watching a buffoonish caricature of love and marriage.
Yet, we absorbed these moments anyhow, because in this age of reality television, celebrity confessionals, YouTube and TMZ, the tribulations of mega-stars like Whitney Houston not only provide raw amusement for us, but allow us to mask in cowardly fashion our own sins and failings while mocking these clearly flawed human beings. That, indeed, is the great conundrum of the entertainment industry. On the one hand, it affords opportunities to be whatever we want to be, and more. On the flip side, the industry is a space where far too many individuals never fully grow up or evolve, never fully find out who they really are beneath the hype and hysteria.For example, Houston was dogged for years by rumors of lesbianism because of her extremely close relationship with then-best friend Robyn Crawford (after Houston's marriage to Brown, Crawford mysteriously faded from view, and I do wonder what she has to say about Whitney's death), and even of an alleged affair with Tom Cruise's "Top Gun" co-star Kelly McGillis. Who knows what is legit and what is fairy tale, but what if part of Houston's drug dependency and acting out had to do with her living a make-believe existence crafted by others, simply to protect her image and superstardom? What if some of those nearest to her participated in a kind of collusion because they knew that homophobia in America would derail their breadwinner named Whitney Houston? Or because they were homophobic themselves?
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