Robyn, who Whitney connected with as a teen, became a fixture in her life from nearly the moment they met.
“I was 16 and we were working at summer jobs and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really going to be a trip this summer — I don’t have any friends,” Whitney recalls in an interview that’s surfaced in the new documentary Whitney. “And then here comes Robyn with this beautiful, beautiful afro. She was tall and very statuesque and I was like, ‘Wow man.’ She stood up for me. I remember thinking I’ve known this person seems like all my life.”
In this week’s PEOPLE cover story, family and friends get candid about the true nature of the Whitney and Robyn’s relationship, with some affirming that while Whitney publicly dated men, the longstanding rumors that the two were romantically involved are true. (Crawford has not commented and did not participate in the film.)
For more on Whitney Houston’s shocking untold story, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
“I hope the film expresses what I think is the truth,” says director Kevin Macdonald, “that they were romantically involved. As a teen, Whitney ran from her mother’s house into the arms of Robyn.”
According to the documentary, Whitney left her mom Cissy Houston’s home and moved in with Robyn when she was 18, after being heartbroken by her parents’ divorce. This was around the time her modeling career was picking up and she was on the verge of landing a major record deal.
“Robyn loved Whitney,” says Whitney’s longtime agent Nicole David. “She was also very young and probably not equipped to withstand the slings and arrows. Do I believe it was a sexual relationship as well? I believe it was.”
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But as Whitney’s fame grew, it’s said their romance began to wane. “From what I gathered, by the time Whitney was becoming a star in the mid-’80s, it had already become a really close friendship,” says Macdonald.
But Whitney kept her close, and Robyn happily took on the role of protector and devoted employee.
“I have on several occasions rode in a limousine holding Whitney’s hand with Robyn sitting across from us,” recalls Whitney’s one-time boyfriend, restaurateur Brad Johnson. “She was protective, but I never felt any animosity towards me.”
Though there was animosity within the Houston family. The film sets up that be it homophobia, jealousy, or both, Whitney’s family wasn’t pleased with Robyn’s tight bond with and influence over Whitney.
“Robyn was a nobody, she was an opportunist,” Whitney’s eldest brother Gary declares angrily in the film, also alluding to intentions he and his father John once had to try and scare Robyn away. He adds, “I’ve never seen them do anything but I know that she was something that I didn’t want my sister to be involved with.”
But others who worked with Whitney saw Robyn as a huge asset. Though Whitney’s entourage was filled with her family, “As an agent I would go to Robyn and Robyn would help with meetings,” says David of Robyn, who for years oversaw creative details behind Whitney’s albums and image.
Says David, “Robyn, in my opinion, would go into the world with elegance when she represented Whitney.”
And by all accounts, she had Whitney’s overall best interests at heart. Says a family source: “In the early days Robyn felt like Nippy was maybe enjoying drugs too much, and so she went to Cissy, knowing that Cissy didn’t feel Robyn was a suitable companion for her daughter, and said, ‘I think Nippy is overdoing it, that concerns me.’ It took a lot of courage. She cared a great deal for Nippy.” (Whitney’s mother Cissy has said she does not know if their relationship was romantic.)
After Whitney married Bobby Brown in 1992, tensions flared between him and Robyn, who had been Whitney’s maid of honor. Whitney ultimately made the choice to part ways with her in the late ’90s, and her career began to decline shortly thereafter. As Whitney’s ex-sister-in-law Donna Houston shares in the film, “They didn’t talk for years.”