With more than 140 million albums sold worldwide, icon Whitney Houston is the most awarded woman in music history. Her powerful presence filled the screen in The Bodyguard, which made more than $400 million worldwide. The film's soundtrack remains the best-selling of all time. But behind her megastar success, Whitney hid the intense personal pain of her tumultuous 14-year marriage to R&B star Bobby Brown and a battle with drug abuse.
Whitney retreated from the spotlight after a controversial 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer.
In 2003, she faced more media attention after calling 911 to report that her husband hit her. The police report said Whitney had a bruised cheek and a cut inside her upper lip. Still, she refused to press charges. He was not convicted and has publicly denied ever hitting her.
The couple went public once again in 2005 on Bravo's reality show Being Bobby Brown.
Whitney has stayed silent about it all—until now. Back with her first album in seven years, I Look to You, she's sitting down with Oprah and opening up like never before about her past, present and bright future.
Oprah: The very first time I had you on my show, however many years ago, I thought, "You are 'the voice.'" ... There was a time, I read, where you were actually thinking in this past seven years—because you haven't done an album since 2002—that you were thinking of, I read, going to an island and having a fruit stand?
Whitney: Yeah. ... Growing organic fruit with my daughter on a little island on the beach and everything, living the simple life. You have to understand, I have been all around the world ... and I'd done it all at that point in time, or I thought. However, I wasn't remembering the gift that God had given me. I had totally put all that aside. And my daughter was growing up before my eyes, and I just wanted to grab hold of that. ...
At that time in my life, I was going through such trauma. ... I thought that was enough for me. I had the money. I had the cars. I had the house. Had the husband. Had the kid. And none of it was really that fulfilling. For a time, I was happy. I was happy, but I needed that joy. I needed my joy back. I needed that peace that passes all understanding.
Oprah: There's a wonderful quote by the L.A. Times. They said, "The pain, and frankly, disgust that so many pop fans felt during Houston's decline was caused not so much by her personal distress as by her seemingly careless treatment of the national treasure that happened to reside within her." ... You were not like any of the others. You really were given the voice. You were given that treasure. And people felt, how could you not know that that was to be treasured?
Whitney: I knew in the days when I was a teenager singing for God. I was so sure. When I became "Whitney Houston" and all this other stuff that happened, my life became the world's. My privacy. My business. Who I was with. Who I married. And I was, like, that's not fair. I wanted to go to the park. I wanted to walk down the street with my husband, hand in hand, without somebody looking at us or having the media always in my business. ... I just wanted to be normal.
Oprah: It's so interesting that you would say that because for years I have thought that, in many ways, the Whitney Houston that we have seen has been a creation of the media. That obviously your voice and your talent is what it is. But the gowns, the hair, that first video, all of that stuff was a creation.
Whitney: Yes. ... I love to get dressed up and I love to do makeup and hair and stuff, but that was my performance. That was my entertainment.
Oprah: And then when you were expected to be that all the time?
Whitney: That was too much. ... Too much to try to live up to. Too much to try to be, you know? And I wanted out at some point.
Oprah: Was marrying Bobby a way to be out?
Whitney: [Nods.] In a sense, because he allowed me to be me. He was fun. Passionate. Loving. It was crazy. We were crazy love.
Oprah: But there were so many people who felt because the image had been painted. There you are in the gowns and the this and the red carpet. ... Was that strategic on your part?
Whitney: The princess marries the bad boy. ... It really wasn't. I was at the Soul Train awards show. He came on thestage singing My Prerogative. He was fly. He could move, man.
Oprah: Were you first interested in him or he interested in you?
Whitney: He was interested in me.
Oprah: Really. What did he say?
Whitney: Bobby was more like: "Hey, check this out, I want to ask you something, you know? If I was to ask you to go out with me, would you say yeah?" I said: "Yeah, I would. I certainly would." And then from that moment on, we clicked. We were friends. Three years we went out before we got married. Three years we dated. Jet-setted all over the world doing what we wanted to do.
Oprah: And the fact that everybody thought, "What is the princess doing with this guy?"
Whitney: They don't have any idea about that sweet, gentle tenderness about him that nobody knew. He was a very quiet person. When that entertainer came out onstage, he did that thing. But at home, he was very much the father. He was very much the man. He was very much in control. I liked that because I was in control of all my stuff, and here he comes along and everybody was like, "Wow, she's got somebody now." When he said something, I listened. I was very interested in having someone have that control over me. It was refreshing.
Oprah: It was refreshing because in every other aspect of your life—
Whitney: I was in control.
Oprah: Well, one of the things that I recall in an interview that you did with Diane Sawyer in 2002, the world was shocked when she asked you about addiction and you said if there was an addiction, it was an addiction to making love.
Whitney: Yes. We did a lot of that. Lots.
Oprah: When did it start to go wrong? Can there be too much passion?
Whitney: Yeah, it can clash. ... After The Bodyguard. 1993, 1994, 1995 were filled with The Bodyguard years. That album lasted me. It went for a long ways. I was on a whirlwind by that point in time. I was going everywhere. That record was so huge. So I had my baby.
I had my baby in my hands, and I had the man of my life that I loved so very much who I was crazy for with me. And he had just put everything aside of his own, and just said: "I'll go with you. Don't worry about it. Go do this thing." I think somewhere inside something happens to a man when a woman has that much control or has that much fame. ... If he doesn't have his own.
Oprah: Was he jealous of you?
Whitney: He's not going to like this, but yes.
Oprah: Then did you try to overcompensate?
Whitney: I tried to play down all the time. I did. I tried to play: "I'm Mrs. Brown, everybody. Don't call me Ms. Houston."
Oprah: You started to dim your own light?
Whitney: Yep. Sure did.
Oprah: Do you still worry about pleasing him?
Whitney: No. Not at all. There's things I could say. I won't. Trust me, there's some things I really could say that he would really be mad about.
He never liked the fact that people would say: "You're jealous of her. You're just jealous of her fame and her fortune and what she has" and everything, and he would get really pissed off. But it's not abnormal for a man to feel that way. Or to feel that he was lacking.
Oprah: Was that why you agreed to do [reality show] Being Bobby Brown?
Whitney: Yes, I did. I just wanted people to know that I was his wife.
Oprah: Did you realize what you were getting yourself into when you signed up for that?
Whitney: I did not. ... I knew when I signed my prenuptial, though. I knew what I was doing there. But, however, no, I didn't know. I was in love. I was crazy in love. It didn't matter to me.
Oprah: Did he come to you and say, "I'm going to be doing this show, and they're going to be putting cameras in our house"?
Whitney: Oh no, I didn't know. I really didn't know. Because to me, it was just like, "OK, I'm your wife. What do you want me to do?"
Oprah: Did you all watch the show?
Oprah: And what did you think?
Whitney: I didn't know quite what to think. I knew I was trying to be Mrs. Bobby Brown. That's what I was trying to do without overshadowing the whole situation, which was difficult.
Oprah: So you did that for him?
Whitney: Yeah, I did. I did it for him. I did it with him. How could you not do a reality show, and I'm your wife, and not have me in it?
Oprah: There were many critics of it, and I think one of them called it a train wreck. Do you think it highlighted the dysfunction between you?
Whitney: Yeah, I do. I sure do.
Oprah: A lot of people, I think, after seeing you on that show, started to really worry about you and what was really going on with you. What was going on with you at that time?
Whitney: There were a few things.
Oprah: Were you happy?
Whitney: No. ... I wasn't happy with the marriage. ... I was losing me into that by trying to be pleasing.
Oprah: Were you also trying to—because the world had said it wouldn't last six minutes—were you also trying to prove the world wrong?
Whitney: I was determined to prove them wrong. So determined. And after awhile, you start to lose what the real concept is of the love. And you want to make a statement.
I was trying to make a statement. Like: "You guys aren't gonna win. You're not going to do that. We got married. We were in love. We were crazy for each other. We're wanted to have a family. I'm just not going to let you do that to us. I'm just not." And so was he. He was determined. We fought for that. And then somehow it got really kind of messy and got lost up in there. And then we started doing other things that entered into the marriage that you just can't come out straight when you've got a lot of outside stuff going on.
Oprah: When did the drugs start?
Whitney: Before The Bodyguard it was very light. After The Bodyguard, I had Krissy, it started getting heavy.
Oprah: What was your drug of choice?
Whitney: Cocaine. And marijuana. That's it. But he liked to drink. I wasn't a drinker. The alcoholism, that's an ugly thing. Either you're going to be a really nice alcoholic or a really mean one. He was really mean.
Oprah: His personality would become altered when he drank?
Whitney: Oh, dramatically.
Oprah: Was he violent?
Whitney: He was afraid to do things with me because my family was very, very, like: "Okay, boy. Remember. We told you once." So it was like he would walk kind of away from it, but me, I would become a little girl. I would become this little girl, like, wouldn't say anything. ...
Emotionally, he was abusive. Physically, no way. Because first of all, I was raised with two boys, and I will fight you back. I will fight you back with anything I can find.
Oprah: So, he never touched you.
Oprah: Never laid his hands on you.
Whitney: He slapped me once, but he got hit over the head three times.
Oprah: By you?
Whitney: Yeah. Because I was, like, "Okay, you're going too far."
Oprah: What's the worst thing he ever said to you that you can share?
Whitney: I just remember this moment. It was his birthday, and I gave him a party at a club in Atlanta, Buckhead. He drank a lot that night. He drank a lot. And for some reason, everything that I did I tried to do to make him happy—it would turn on me. It was weird. Today, I understand it because people that alcoholics love, they try to abuse.
So when we got back to the house—he's going to hate that I say this—but he spit on me. And my daughter was coming down the stairs, and she saw it. That was pretty intense. Because I didn't grow up with that, and I didn't understand why that occurred. But he had such a hate in his eyes for me.
Because I loved him so much. He cursed me all the way home in front of his parents, and then he spit on me.
Oprah: How did you feel?
Whitney: I was horrified. He spit on me, in my face.
Oprah: Was that a turning point for you, or did you wake up the next morning and push that down or place that someplace in your psyche?
Whitney: I was very hurt. Very angry. And I knew somebody, somewhere, something was going to blow. I called a friend. I said, "Come get me now because it's at a turning point now," and I was almost two feet out the door at that point in time. I was ready to go.
And I asked [my friend] to come get me, and [Bobby] pushed me against the wall ... I was on the phone and I went back in and I took the phone and I hit him over the head with it. He just fell out on the floor. It was just drama. My daughter came down the stairs. She's, like, "Daddy?"
Whitney: Yeah. "Mom, what did you—," [her daughter asked]. I said, "I told him not to do it." I kept saying, "I told him not to do this. I told him not to do this." It was just one of those moments. It was just hateful. Ugly.
Oprah: So we were talking about how [you did] light drugs before The Bodyguard and then after Bodyguard—
Whitney: Oh, got heavy. Because I knew then we were trying to hide pain. ...
Oprah: Because The Bodyguard which, to the world, was one of the biggest moments ever in the history of CDs, albums and catapulted you to a level of stardom—
Whitney: Right. And remember, I did Waiting to Exhale after that, and then that album was huge.
Oprah: And The Preacher's Wife after that.
Whitney: And Preacher's Wife. By The Preacher's Wife, [doing drugs] was an everyday thing. ... I would do my work, but after I did my work, for a whole year or two, it was everyday. ... I wasn't happy by that point in time. I was losing myself. My mom came and got me twice and she would talk to me, and it was like, "Okay, we don't know what's going on, but something's going on."
Oprah: Were you in denial about it?
Whitney: Not really. I just wouldn't talk.
Oprah: When did you know that that marriage was not gonna work?
Whitney: I just knew. I was like, "You don't smell right. You don't look right. Something's going on." And then all this other stuff started coming out about him being with this one or that one or being too promiscuous. Dragging dirt into my home.
Oprah: Did that hurt you? Were you offended by it?
Whitney: It disturbed me. I was disturbed.
Oprah: Did you believe it?
Whitney: Yeah. Because I checked. I didn't look for it, but I checked.
Oprah: So the fact that he would be out with other women and would bring that into your home—
Whitney: Yeah, with my credit card? Absolutely. I had a problem with that.
Oprah: So you knew it was over, but you were still defending against it.
Whitney: Yeah, but I started moving furniture out of the house. I was little by little starting to take pieces of myself out of the home. And I even asked him to leave. And he said, "No, you leave." I said, "It's my house." ... And that was the time where he slapped me. But he was on probation for traffic violations. And he'd forgotten.
Oprah: Forgotten that he can't slap somebody.
Whitney: Yeah, you can't slap somebody when you're on probation. You're in violation then. So it went to domestic violence court, and I just could not see me putting him in jail.
Oprah: So were you always appearing and making those court appearances because you felt you had to stand by your man?
Whitney: I had to. Yeah, I'm his wife.
Oprah: You know what I get now that I didn't get then as just an observer in the world? ... What I now get is that you took those vows seriously.
Whitney: Very, Oprah. To my heart.
Oprah: Tell me how bad did it get, the drugs?
Whitney: When you don't speak and you live in the same home and you're sitting right next to that person and you're not saying a word for a week? You're just sitting there? And you're just watching TV? That's bad. ...
Oprah: You're just watching TV and doing coke? Or are you smoking?
Whitney: We were lacing our marijuana with base. We weren't on crack. We weren't on no crack stuff. We weren't buying $20 jumbos. We were paying money. We were buying kilos and ounces and ounces. We would have our stash.
Oprah: But you were freebasing cocaine.
Whitney: Basically. ... We weren't doing pipe smoking. We didn't get that far.
Oprah: Did the drugs give you any sense of relief?
Whitney: At times. Don't forget, there were some times we'd laugh our tails off. We had a ball. Sometimes you do have a good time. But when it gets to the point where you're sitting in your home and you're just trying to cover what you don't want people to know. It's painful. And then you want more just so that you don't let anybody see you cry. Or anybody to see we're not happy. ...
Oprah: And so you thought that your life as Whitney Houston, as we know her, was done?
Whitney: I wasn't even thinking about that. I had so much money and so much access to what I wanted and everybody was [asking] me" "What do you want? What do you need?" I didn't think about the singing part anymore.
Oprah: You didn't miss it?
Oprah: You said you realized that the marriage was going to be over. Did you then make a decision that "I'm gonna get myself out"?
Whitney: Yeah. I remember saying to God one day, I said, "Give me one day of strength." Because I was weak. I was so weak to [Bobby]. I was so weak to the love. I was, like: "This is love? What is this? What am I into?"
Oprah: Were you weak to him or were you weak to the drugs? Because the world's perception is you were weak to the drugs.
Whitney: He was my drug. I didn't do anything without him. I wasn't getting high by myself. It was me and him together. You know, we were partners. And that's what my high was. Him. He and I being together. And whatever we did, we did together. No matter what, we did it together.
Oprah: Because you were his wife.
Whitney: Yes. And he was my husband. And I'm gonna make this happen and we're gonna make this work. And that's the way it was.
Oprah: Were there days where you were drugged and didn't know what was going on? Because remember there was a time, I can't remember what year it was, that your sister-in-law sold pictures of your bathroom to the tabloids
Whitney: I wasn't there then
Oprah: And she said that there were days that you would lock yourself in a room and you would stay there and you would not speak to people for days. Is any of that true?
Oprah: Would you just sit in your room and do drugs?
Whitney: Yeah. Talk on the phone. Watch TV. Listen to gospel. I would still read my Bible, amazingly enough. I would still read my Bible. I still had it in me. I knew God was there. I knew the light was there and I was just trying to get back to it. I just kept trying to get back to that spirituality.
Oprah: Did you think something was gonna happen in those drug-crazed, drug-filled days where you're sitting for hours and days?
Whitney: There were times when he would smash things, break things in the home. Glass. We had a big, big giant portrait of me and him and my child. He cut my head off the picture. Stuff like that. And I thought, "This is really strange." So I figured, cutting my head off a picture, that was a little much for me. That was one sign.
And then there were other things like he started to paint in my bedroom eyes. Just eyes. Evil eyes that were looking at every point of the room.
Oprah: He started to paint on the walls?
Whitney: Yeah. The rugs. The walls. The closet doors. If I opened the door, there would be one picture. Then I'd close them and there would be another picture and eyes and faces. It was really strange. ...
Oprah: What are you doing with all of that?
Whitney: I'm looking at it going, "Lord, what's really going on here?" I was getting scared because I felt something was going to blow. Something was going to give.
Oprah: How long were you in rehab?
Whitney: I did my stint. You do your 30 days. I went to one where I could take my child with me. Everywhere I just had to have her with me. I wanted her to understand. I didn't lie to her. I couldn't.
Oprah: Really. Did you explain to her about the drugs?
Oprah: What did you say? How do you tell your child?
Whitney: I kind of associated it with our lifestyle. Our lifestyle. And what could happen.
Whitney: I got out of that program and it continued. The drugs didn't stop. So one day my mother came to my house. It's kind of funny. But now looking back at it, I see the love and the passion that my mother had for me, that she has for me.
She walks in with the sheriff and she says: "I have a court injunction here. You do it my way or we're not going to do this at all. You're going to go on TV, and you're going to retire. And say you're going to give this up because it's not worth it."
Watch Whitney tell this story.
Oprah: Your mama came to your house with the sheriff?
Whitney: She said, "It's not worth it." She said: "If you move, Bobby, [the sheriff will] take you down. Don't you make one move." And he stood there like he was scared.
And she said: "Let's go. Let's do this. I'm not losing you to the world. I'm not losing you to Satan. I'm not doing this. I want my daughter back. I want you back. I want to see that glow in your eyes. That light in your eyes. I want to see the child I raised. And you weren't raised like this. And I'm not having it. So you make a choice, and you make it here today because I have a court injunction that says you have to go." ...
Oprah: Was your mother saying you have to go to rehab, or was your mother saying you have to get out of this marriage?
Whitney: You have to go to rehab and make a decision with a clear mind.