The big love of Whitney Houston’s life was a woman. But she had to pretend they were just friends.

Whitney Houston was lucky. Uncannily talented and lucky. When she was in her teens, she was lucky enough to meet the person who would become the great love of her life. Someone who knew her before she became wildly famous. Someone who knew her on the kind of deep level that can keep you anchored during a tsunami of life-changing, head-spinning success. Someone who would stand fiercely and protectively by her side for two decades. That person’s name was Robyn Crawford and Whitney Houston’s relationship with her was the defining romantic one of her life.

Or it should have been.

In actual fact, the most successful popstar of the 80s (and arguably of all time) was forced to keep her relationship with her girlfriend hidden from the music industry, her family and her fans. Ultimately, the pressure became too great. The rumours too loud. Whitney married self-described ‘bad-boy’ Bobby Brown who was notorious for his partying and dramatically accelerated her decline into addiction, effectively sealing her fate.

Despite her romantic relationship with Robyn continuing for many years after her marriage and Robyn being a constant presence in her personal and professional life as her creative director and closest ‘friend’, the clashes between Bobby and Robyn ultimately became too great and Robyn left.

Whitney and Robyn. Image via Lafayette Films/Passion Pictures.

According to everyone close enough to know, Whitney never recovered.

This tragic love story of two women who could never be publicly together is beautifully, powerfully told in the Netflix documentary Whitney Houston: Can I Just Be Me. And watching it and thinking about it in 2017 is an oddly perplexing experience, particularly if you're under 35.

At a time when Miley Cyrus was able to have public make-out sessions with her Victoria's Secret model girlfriend, and the couple could kiss and hold hands without any potential negative impact upon her career, it can be almost impossible to imagine a period when even the hint of being gay was enough to torpedo the trajectory of anyone in the public eye. In the 80s there literally were no openly gay celebrities - let alone lesbians which was a bridge even farther than being a gay man. And bisexuals? Forget it. If you were gay or lesbian or bisexual or trans or queer in any way you were closeted. You denied it. You hid it. You lied about it. You had to.

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Sometimes though, the gossip was persistent. And so it was with Whitney.

Whitney and Robyn. Image via Lafayette Films/Passion Pictures.

As the years went on, at the height of her fame, before she married Bobby Brown, interviewers began to question her, tentatively at first, about the gay rumours. Speaking to Out magazine in 2000, she had this to say in response to an enquiry about why speculation about her sexuality wouldn't go away:

“I ain’t ‘ho’-in. “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.”

It was her mother Cissy's attitudes to LGBTI people that were more revealing though, according to a quote from Whitney in the same interview:

“I watched the way my mother dealt with gay people. They could tell her anything and she wouldn’t trip. She’d be like [adopting a sassy, worldly voice] ‘If so-and-so don’t treat you right, fuck ‘em. Leave ‘em and move on to the next thang.’ It was about relationships and loving each other. My mother was an inspiring singer. She sang from her heart about love, the tragedies, the ups, downs, the all-arounds of love, and she somehow made you feel like you’d come out triumphant, no matter what. This had a strong hold for gay people. She’d come out in her slippers and sing. They’d love that. ‘Sing, Miss Cissy!’ She was real.”

Because despite Whitney's claims about her mother's tolerance, it clearly did not extend to the sexuality of her daughter. A year after Whitney Houston's death, during an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Cissy was asked whether her daughter had ever been in a 'gay relationship' with Robyn Crawford. She shook her head, insisted they were simply "very good friends" and then when Oprah followed up by asking if she would have been bothered if Whitney and Robyn had been together, Cissy replied "absolutely" so emphatically as to leave no question about the position she held throughout her daughter's life. And even after her death.

Robyn and Whitney. Image via Getty.

In the Whitney Houston documentary, Can I Be Me, there are multiple firsthand accounts from people close to Whitney, people who worked intimately with her over decades who all told the same story: Whitney and Robyn were inseparable. Whitney relied on Robyn in every way. Robyn was her anchor, her rock, her ballast, her biggest champion, her fiercest protector and her greatest love. Their relationship endured even the first decade of her marriage to Bobby Brown who, in his own book, revealed he accepted that his wife continued her relationship with Robyn long after he married the pop star.

“Robyn and Whitney were like twins,” security personnel Kevin Ammons says in the film.

“They were inseparable. They had a bond and Bobby Brown could never remove Robyn. He wanted to be the man in the relationship.”

“I don’t think she was gay, I think she was bisexual,” stylist Ellin Lavar claims.

“Robyn provided a safe place for her … in that Whitney found safety and solace.”

The two women met when they were 16 in East Orange, New Jersey, the town where they both grew up.

Almost immediately they became inseperable. As Whitney became famous, it was challenging enough to be black in a music world where mainstream artists were almost exclusively white. Her music label insisted her records not sound 'black' in any way. To pull the vast number of record sales they were aiming for, Whitney had to be a 'cross-over' artist and appeal to white fans. For her first album, at least, she towed the line. She had to and as a result she was widely shunned by the black community, particularly those within the music industry.

By all accounts this broke her heart.

Part of the struggle she faced with wanting to be herself  (the 'Can I Be Me' of the documentary's title) was being a black, queer woman who was being forced to present as white and straight. The pain and the internal conflict of that deception must have been almost impossible to bear for anyone, let alone an artist of such immense talent at such a young age - Whitney was only 22 when her first album was released in 1985.

A young Whitney Houston. Image via Lafayette Films/Passion Pictures.

It's hard to overstate how famous and how successful she was.Whitney Houston was the only artist to chart seven consecutive No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 songs  - not even The Beatles managed that. Over her career she sold 200 million albums and for much of her working life, she managed to keep Robyn by her side. When she signed her first record deal, Robyn became Whitney's assistant and continued to work for her, eventually becoming the Creative Director on all tours which meant being Whitney's right hand in every aspect of her professional - and personal - life.

Robyn quit in 2000. She couldn't take it, worn down as she was by so many years of clashing with Bobby Brown and trying to get Whitney the help she needed to get off drugs and stay clean.  That’s when Houston’s tragic spiral picked up serious speed, according to Lavar. “That was the downfall of of Whitney. Robyn was the person who was keeping her together,” Lavar recalls.

“Bobby Brown and Robyn Crawford were like fire and ice. They hated each other,” confirmed David Roberts, Whitney’s former bodyguard.

“They’d battle for her affections. Bobby and Robyn had some physical altercations and there were times where he wasn’t always the winner. But then Whitney would always come and pour oil over troubled waters,” he notes.

Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston in 1998. Image via Getty.

After her tragic death in a bathtub, wasted and alone in her hotel suite in 2012,  Robyn wrote an obituary for her friend and former love. She wrote it for Esquire magazine where her current wife works and it's exquisite and painful both. In part, it reads:

She had peachy colored skin and she didn't look like anyone I'd ever met in East Orange, New Jersey.

She was nothing like the Whitney Houston she became but at the same time she was already there. She knew, and so did everyone around her.

...Not long after I met her, she said, "Stick with me, and I'll take you around the world." She always knew where she was headed.

She shared the fruits, and she changed a lot of lives. The record company, the band members, her family, her friends, me — she fed everybody. Deep down inside that's what made her tired.

 I have never spoken about her until now. And she knew I wouldn't. She was a loyal friend, and she knew I was never going to be disloyal to her. I was never going to betray her. Now I can't believe that I'm never going to hug her or hear her laughter again. I loved her laughter, and that's what I miss most, that's what I miss already.

I'm trying not to think of the end. I'm trying not to listen to all the reports. All these people talking about drugs — well, a lot of people take drugs, and they're still around. Whitney isn't, because you never know the way the wind blows. I just hope that she wasn't in pain and that she hadn't lost hope. She gave so much to so many people; I hope that she felt loved in return. She was the action, for such a long time. She's out of the action now. I hope she can finally rest.

[You can read Robyn's full Whitney Houston obituary here]

The last word goes to the man who ultimately drove Robyn out of his then-wife's life, Bobby Brown: “I really feel that if Robyn was accepted into Whitney’s life, Whitney would still be alive today,” Brown told Us Weekly. 

Brown has since remarried and has two more children. His daughter with Whitney, Bobbi Kristina, died tragically just three years later after drowning in the bath, echoing the death in February 2012 of her mother. Robyn Crawford has also married. She and her wife have twins.

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