April 17, 2000 12:00 PM

By the time Whitney Houston showed up for her photo shoot for the May cover of Jane magazine, she had kept staffers at the New York City-based monthly cooling their heels for four hours. “She was acting really strange,” says the magazine’s editor, Jane Pratt, who was at the shoot. “She was singing to herself. Then she would pretend to play the piano, like an air piano. Her eyes were very heavy-lidded.” Houston blamed her tardiness on a visit to the dentist to deal with a cracked tooth, but, says Pratt, “novocaine doesn’t make you act that way. Everyone there thought she was on something.” Yet, “in the midst of all this really bizarre behavior,” Pratt says, Houston “gave one of the best cover shoots ever. She’s a consummate performer.”

That is, when she wants to be. Since Houston’s flameout at the Academy Awards on March 26, gossip has swirled about the velvet-throated pop diva. Long dogged by rumors that (a) her marriage to singer Bobby Brown, 33, is on the rocks, (b) Brown is abusive, (c) Brown is a womanizer, and (d) Houston is gay, the scuttlebutt du jour is that (e) Houston, 36, has a drug problem that is destroying her singing voice. Never mind that Houston has denied all of these rumors many times, including such explicit statements as “I’m not gay, I’m not lesbian” and “I’m not a drug addict.” Says someone close to Houston: “There are really serious concerns about her condition. It’s a total problem. Dionne [Warwick] and Natalie [Cole] were going to talk to Whitney about her problem. Natalie is really a voice of authority on this because of what she’s been through with drugs. But they didn’t talk to her. I don’t know why. It might have helped.” While Cole declined comment, Newsweek reported last week that Arista Records president Clive Davis, the impresario who signed Houston to Arista at age 19 and has steered her career ever since, approached Houston’s family “to do an intervention.” The outcome is unknown.

More clear is the impression that the last three months have been a nightmare for the silky beauty once saluted as the Prom Queen of Soul. Consider the Jane photo shoot and interview: She referred to a jeweler as “this Jew guy on Diamond Row in New York” and compared the President to a junkie in that “they’re just men, you dig?” (Her publicist, Nancy Seltzer, denies any odd behavior and claims the story was “not an accurate representation of the Whitney Houston I know.”) Other recent incidents have raised eyebrows as well. On Jan. 11, Houston was stopped at Hawaii’s Keahole-Kona International Airport by security officers who said they spotted 15.2 grams of marijuana in her pocketbook. Houston eluded detention by leaving her bag with the guards, boarding a plane and being airborne by the time police arrived. And on March 6 she failed to appear at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in New York City, where she was to serenade inductee Clive Davis. “There’s a lot of denial from the people around Whitney,” says a source close to the singer. “They just chalk up her behavior to being a diva.” Why is no one reading her the riot act? “She’s a financial source for all of them. They don’t want to cross her.” (Houston declined to be interviewed.)

With precision bad timing, Houston continued her downward spiral three weeks later before the Academy Awards. Scheduled to perform in a medley with Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Isaac Hayes, Queen Latifah and Dionne Warwick, Houston was removed from the lineup 48 hours before showtime. “The poor lady couldn’t sing,” says Oscar spokeswoman Jane LaBonte. “Her throat was in trouble.” Music director Burt Bacharach put it differently to PEOPLE: “Whitney’s chronic condition is very sad.”

But on Oscar night, as Faith Hill took the stage in Houston’s place (a coproducer of the show, Lili Fini Zanuck, quickly persuaded country’s It girl to pinch-hit), rumors swirled that pop’s lost-It girl had been fired for flubbing the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow.” “She just kind of moved her mouth a little bit,” says someone who attended rehearsals. Adds another onlooker: “She missed her entire cue.” Says Garth Brooks: “Um, I can only say this about Whitney: She came in, she rehearsed, she tried her best, but she was so sick, and we’ll just leave it at that.” One TV producer who has worked with Houston was less tactful. “When this Oscar thing happened, it did not surprise me,” he says. “She has a reputation for being a flake and no-showing, and it’s dangerous to book her because until she walks on that stage, there’s no guarantee she’s going to show up.”

Still, it didn’t take long for Houston to devolve into celebrity-joke fodder. At an April 3 Broadway Cares benefit tribute to Elton John, actor Nathan Lane drew huge laughs when he quipped to his cohost, actress Christine Baranski, “Thanks so much for filling in at the last minute for Whitney Houston.” Seizing the moment, Baranski then pinched the end of her microphone and sniffed it, a pantomime strongly suggestive of snorting drugs.

The avalanche of bad press has diverted attention from the Grammy Houston took home on Feb. 23 for her dance hit single “It’s Not Right, but It’s Okay.” With her sixth Grammy and her first since 1993, Houston has maintained enviable sales despite her woes; her latest album, My Love Is Your Love, sold 9 million worldwide. From the podium she gushed to her hubby, “Honey, this one is for you, the original R&B king. I love you.” According to Jamie Foster Brown, a friend, not a relative, of the couple’s, “This meant a lot to Bobby.” Brown, whose last album, Forever, sold fewer than 53,000 copies, seemed unfazed that his wife had won for a song about a woman who dumps her philandering husband and proclaims, “Close the door behind you, leave your key/ I’d rather be alone than unhappy.”

Rumors of Bobby’s womanizing—and by extension Houston’s decline—have persisted almost from the day in July 1992 that Houston walked down the aisle in a $40,000 Marc Bouwer wedding gown and, before a star-studded crowd of 800 guests, exchanged vows with Brown on the grounds of her five-acre, $11 million New Jersey mansion. Brown brought to the marriage his three children—Landon, now 13; Laprincia, 10; and Bobby Jr., 8—by two former girlfriends. Eight months later, Houston delivered daughter Bobbi Kristina, now 7 and their only child to date. Like Whitney, says Foster Brown, “Bobby is a great parent. They spend a lot of time with the kids.”

By 1995, the year he was treated at the Betty Ford Center for alcohol abuse, Brown was facing a paternity suit involving a little girl born since the wedding, and drawing press attention for making out publicly with an unidentified woman. In 1998, Houston told Ebony magazine that she and Brown had separated for about a month the previous year and that she made Bobby “court me, call me, work his way back.” In a follow-up interview nine months later, she sounded more certain of the union: “They say nay, I say yeah. I’m still married and I’m still in love.”

Paralleling reports of Brown’s roving eye has been the persistent gossip that Houston is gay. She has repeatedly been linked to her longtime friend and executive assistant Robyn Crawford, whom she describes as “the sister I never had.” Both women strongly deny the rumor. “Some things still sting very badly,” she told New York’s Daily News last July. “Look, I’m not married and have some kind of double life with some man or woman. I couldn’t live that way. I was raised in the church and I care about morality.” At the time, Houston was on her first concert tour in five years. Asked by the Los Angeles Times what the biggest misconceptions were about her life, she answered, “That I’m gay, that my husband is a womanizer, that he’s a wife-beater.” To Redbook, she offered, “I do the hitting, he doesn’t.”

Undeniably, much of the controversy surrounding Houston has been self-inflicted. Beginning around 1994, she began to develop a reputation for canceling performances. She went into overdrive last summer when, during her tour in support of My Love Is Your Love, she canceled five of her 24 scheduled concerts. In Concord, Calif., where she pulled out just 15 minutes before curtain time at the 12,500-seat Chronicle Pavilion, officials are attempting to recoup from Houston’s management $104,000 worth of marketing and other expenses. “I have never had something like this happen,” says Pavilion director Mark Deven. He adds that he would “think long and hard” before extending another invitation to Houston. For her part, Houston has attributed her no-shows to chronic bronchitis.

Inexplicably, Houston has pulled diva stunts even in situations that would have burnished her image. When she was invited to sing at a ’94 White House state dinner honoring then-South African President Nelson Mandela, she showed up nearly two hours late. When her admirable work on behalf of assorted charities—among them the United Negro College Fund, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and her own Whitney Houston Foundation for Children—was to be saluted in 1997 with a Triumphant Spirit Award, she failed to show at the Madison Square Garden event. “They said she was in Florida but they couldn’t find her,” says someone involved with the production. “Her mother ended up accepting the award on her behalf. It was terribly weird and devastating.” That was also the year drug rumors began to gather steam after Whitney, just 45 minutes before air-time, pulled out of an appearance on The Rosie O’Donnell Show to promote her forthcoming TV movie Cinderella. “I hope she’s very ill,” an unrosy O’Donnell cracked.

Few would have predicted such behavior back in the early ’80s, when Houston started out in Manhattan’s clubs singing backup for her mother, gospel great Cissy Houston, before her parents divorced. Though she seemed to the mike born—Dionne Warwick is a cousin; friend Aretha Franklin is known in the Houston family as Auntie Ree; Houston’s father, John, 79, was a music manager—the gangly Houston was a meek, unassuming presence onstage. Her mother, who has directed the New Hope Baptist Church choir in Newark, N.J., for more than 40 years, resisted Whitney’s career aspirations until she heard the youngest of her three children perform a psalm Cissy had set to music. “There was something in her voice that no one, not even I, could teach her,” Cissy, 66, told PEOPLE in ’98.

Cissy kept her only daughter on a tight rein until she was 18. Then it all happened very quickly. Her 1985 debut album, Whitney Houston, sold 13 million copies, one of the biggest-selling debuts by a solo artist, and helped earn Houston a Grammy. She had three albums under her belt by the time she became a screen star in 1992 with the release of her first film, The Bodyguard, opposite Kevin Costner, which grossed $400 million; its hit single, “I Will Always Love You,” topped the pop chart for 14 weeks. Two films followed, 1995’s moderately successful Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife, costarring Denzel Washington, which bombed at the box office the following year but gave Houston another victory: It became the best-selling soundtrack album in chart history. But some believe that her future as an entertainer is jeopardized by her precarious reputation. “She shows up on her own time, she’s rude, she doesn’t come to rehearsal,” says an L.A. producer who has worked with Houston. “It saddens me that a person who has everything in the world going for her is screwing it up.”

Not always. At the trendy Miyagi’s restaurant in West Hollywood, she recently dazzled diners with an impromptu karaoke performance. “She was really polite, a really nice customer,” says Patti Frasch, one of two waitresses who served Houston’s party of 20. Don Cornelius, producer of the annual Soul Train Music Awards, says that Houston has “never failed in at least a half dozen appearances.” He points out that a star of Houston’s caliber is “never more than a record away from being on top.” Indeed, her much-anticipated Whitney’s Greatest Hits will reach stores in May, and this week she is scheduled to tape a tribute to Arista Records’ Clive Davis for NBC. “We expect her to be there,” says Barry Adelman, the show’s coproducer.

Perhaps the person who will make Houston reevaluate her life is her daughter Bobbi Kristina, whom she calls Krissi. “Whitney’s a doting mother,” says pal Foster Brown. “When Bobbi Kris was younger, Whitney would have a bus just for her family to be with her.” Now when Houston and Brown are on the road, says Foster Brown, Krissi is attended by an aunt and a nanny. During last summer’s tour, Krissi joined Houston onstage. “You can always tell a singer by the way they hold a microphone, and she holds that mike with confidence,” a proud Houston told the Los Angeles Times. “She’s a little diva-in-training.” If that’s true, Houston will need to be in top shape if she hopes to give Krissi the same solid musical grounding that Whitney got from her own mother.

Jill Smolowe

Bob Meadows, Cynthia Wang and Sue Miller in New York City and Tom Cunneff, Michael Fleeman, Lyndon Stambler and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles

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