Read an Excerpt
The Whitney I Knew
By BeBe Winans, Timothy Willard
WORTHY PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2012 BeBe Winans
All rights reserved.
Our Black Princess
My heart desires each of us to listen to her memory and see if we can't sift through the tabloids and into the heart of our "American Princess."
* * *
When my daughter, Miya, was four, she fell in love with the television movie Cinderella. The one in which Whitney played the Fairy Godmother and Brandy played Cinderella. We taped it for Miya so she could watch it. And watch it she did. Over and over and over again.
One day Whitney stopped by the house. The doorbell rang and Miya ran to see who was there. When she opened the door, she stood frozen—dumbstruck. Whitney walked in, and Miya ran across the room and grabbed me.
"Daddy, Daddy! The Fairy Godmother is here!"
Whitney clapped her hands, threw her head back, and laughed. "Oh, Lord! I spent all this time trying to be a singer, and now I'm a Fairy Godmother."
I can just imagine Miya's little mind working—how she would conjure up her little Cinderella world. I used to watch her play in her room. She'd act out both parts, first Whitney, then Brandy. How I'd laugh: my precious little daughter living in the princess world with Whitney.
On that day, when the doorbell rang, my little Miya faced her hero. But in this case, her hero was more than just a character in a fairy tale played over and over on the television. Now her hero was a live human being who took a real interest in her life.
The same woman who played the Fairy Godmother also played the real-life role of Miya's godmother. And maybe at that time in her young life, Miya didn't fully understand the "godmother" idea, but she would over time. Over time she'd see past the glass slipper and the "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" and into the real person. And that time would come by way of laughter ... play ... and, later, sadness.
* * *
To my Miya and her brother, Benjamin, and to my nieces and nephews as well, Whitney was as real as anybody else. She'd call the house and even stop in from time to time. She held those kids. She played with them. She sang to them. She was around like any friend of the family would be.
The public forgets that behind the glowing television screen a real person lives and breathes and eats breakfast just like everyone else. A person with friends and even enemies. A person with feelings.
Celebrities get lonely—even if they're superstars.
They get sad.
They get desperate.
They get lost.
They desire to be found.
Whitney wasn't just a singer who wore opulent outfits on stage; she was someone who liked to wear blue jeans and tennis shoes, she liked to play practical jokes, and she loved children. The fairy-tale character on the television found her way into my daughter's heart, but it was even more than that. She found her way into Miya's real life. Whitney was like that good friend of the family who everyone refers to as Uncle or Aunt So-and-So. No one remembers when or how they became part of the family; they've just always been so. Always family.
Whitney was Whitney. And that's why we all loved her. She brought herself into everything she did. She made the fairy-tale land her own. She brought that sparkle to Cinderella (and would later do so as Jordin Sparks' mother in her final movie, Sparkle), and my daughter dove into it headfirst.
When I run into people in my community, they ask how the family is doing and they say how sorry they are for the loss of my friend. And nearly everyone says, "I loved Whitney." There was universal upheaval when she died on February 11, 2012. I think people feel as if their Fairy Godmother—or maybe more so, Sleeping Beauty—has fallen asleep but isn't waking up.
I remember Oprah's interview with Whitney a few years ago. Whitney's involvement with "the princess movie," Cinderella, prompted Oprah to call her "our black princess." I would agree. I think she was that for anyone who heard her sing. She was that for my daughter.
But eventually we all grow up and the fairy tales we love to act out in our pretend worlds lose their luster.
My daughter is sixteen now. She just attended her first prom. She dressed up in her pretty dress and walked out the door, her best version of Princess Whitney. But the fairy-tale world has changed now. It changed the day I received a phone call while at dinner with my son, Benjamin.
My phone started going crazy. It was my cousin Cindy.
"Have you heard what's being reported?" she asked.
Cindy told me what she knew. I hit "End" on my iPhone with a trembling finger.
I tried to call Pat, Whitney's sister-in-law, but as I was dialing, my mom's number showed up.
"Have you heard?" she asked.
"I'm going to call Pat to find out ..."
"Oh, BeBe. CeCe and I just hung up with Pat. It's all true."
Everything changed with just the flash of a phone screen.
It changed when Benjamin and I drove to my daughter's work and told her that Whitney had died.
It changed when we cried together.
It changed when I realized my kids were more concerned about me than their own hurt.
* * *
Even now, I look at my phone, thinking she'll call. But she doesn't.
If you can, lean in and listen to that voice—the one that sang the National Anthem, the voice that drew us into The Bodyguard. Imagine that voice in the form of a phone call. Can you hear it?
"Hello-o, my bro-tha," she would sing as I answered. Up and down the scale she'd soar—her typical phone greeting to me. We sang our hellos.
"Hello, my bro-tha. Whatcha doin' today? Mmmhmmm."
And of course, I would respond in kind. "Whatcha' doin', my si-ster! Can you get together sometime? Ohh-ohh, mmmhmmm."
We'd perform our conversational opera, she and I. Can you hear it? Not just a voice, but a person behind the voice. The playful sister always wanting to sing, even on the phone.
That same playful girl and I were planning my fiftieth birthday party. Hers would follow the next year. We'd talk about what we'd do for the party and who I'd invite. And now, when I think about that birthday, I only hear an echo of our discussions. It's a heavy echo. And I find myself singing back to it the same way I'd sing to her phone calls. But the echo fades and only my voice skims the empty hallway.
She's gone. And I miss her.CHAPTER 2
Whitney's Weight of Fame
When I started singing, it was almost like speaking.
* * *
Close your eyes. Imagine yourself walking down the street.
Any moment a person with a camera could appear—skeet-skeet,skeet-skeet—capturing your image for the world to see in the tabloids the next day. There you are, plastered on cheap paper for everyone at the grocery store to gawk at as they pay for their fruit and toothpaste. Imagine how you would think about your day. How it would change your routine to have to prepare yourself for the possibility of being stopped by anyone and everyone, just so they can have a picture of you.
Now imagine that you're intensely relational—a real people person. You love connecting deeply with others. You love your friends. And not just with a "you're a great person" type of warm fuzziness, but a savage love that wants and pursues friendships—that longs to be inside the hearts and minds of others.
Keep your eyes closed and continue imagining. Not only do you love people with every ounce of your being, not only do you thrive on personal loyalty and get lost in the security of your friendships and family, but you're stalked by the international media. Suddenly, it's hard to keep friendships private and family loyal.
In fact, it's hard to keep anything private. You're cut off from a normal life. Why? Because you pursued fame?
No. Because you possess a gift.
This gift was given to you by God, and you know it. You sense it when you use it. You communicate to people on a beautiful and mysterious level when you sing, and you love to sing. And suddenly millions of people the world over love to hear you sing. They love your gift.
Oprah calls you "The Voice" and will say after your death: "We got to hear a part of God every time she sang." The first time Tony Bennett hears you sing, he phones your mentor, Clive Davis, and says, "You finally found the greatest singer I've ever heard." Music critic Ann Powers of the Los Angeles Times calls you a "national treasure" and writes that yours is one of those voices that "stands like monuments upon the landscape of 20th-century pop, defining the architecture" of your era. New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica calls your gift not just "rare" but "impossible to mimic." Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson tells Newsday that you have taught her "the difference between being able to sing and knowing how to sing." Lionel Richie states to CNN that you knew how to "turn a ... melody into magical, magical notes." Fellow songstress Mariah Carey deems yours "one of the greatest voices to ever grace the earth." And Celine Dion—a peer if ever you had one—describes your voice as "perfect."
You are honored by your industry, your peers, your fans—and even MTV (they put you third on their list of the 22 Greatest Voices) and Rolling Stone (which says that your true greatness was in your "ability to connect with a song and drive home its drama and emotion with incredible precision"). What's more, you become the most awarded female artist to ever walk Planet Earth, with hit songs in nearly every Billboard genre and sales of more than 170 million albums, songs, and videos.
Companies clamor to bottle up your gift so they can make a buck. Oh, and they'll give you some of that money too. That's the game. It's played with exorbitant amounts of cash, which makes things easy for you—or so it would seem. You ride jets all over the world. You own several homes in the best cities. You can literally have whatever you want. Nothing is off limits. The world is for sale, and you're buying. That's the perception and the reality.
It all seems so surreal, like you're watching it happen from the outside, looking in. And it's all because, when you step up to the microphone, you light up an arena. But the tension and mystery of your fame runs even deeper. You love to share your gift—and it's not about the money or the trappings of fame. It's in your blood. Your mama sang, your family sang. It's what you do. It's what you've always done.
But it's not just that you sing. It's that you sing from a place deep within. The world burgeons with great singers, but only a few voices make people stop and listen and cry. You're one of them. Not by choice, but by Design. And it just so happens that you find incredible joy when you lose yourself in a song.
You tell Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone that when you'd watch your mother sing in church, you'd get "that feeling, that soul, that thing ... like electricity rolling through you"—the same thing you experienced when the Holy Spirit would be on the move in a worship service. "It's incredible," you said. "That's what I wanted."
The world watches you get lost when you sing—they get lost with you. That's what makes you special. That's what separates your voice from all the others.
Is it worth the pressure and everything you give up when you use it? Sometimes.
Achieving fame doesn't happen on a whim. Sure, we live in an age where YouTube creates overnight success stories. But more often than not, those flames burn out as quickly as they flared up. True fame, on the other hand, is birthed. It begins with a gift. In Whitney's case, it was the gift of a voice and the infusion of a soul that loved deeply all the time. And when those two components mix, you have something uncommon. That's the Whitney I knew.
She lived in the tension of wanting to love those she was close to—to be gregarious and spontaneous because that's who she was—and dealing with the tremendous pressure and demands of her fame. It was a fame birthed from her incredible gift, a gift everyone wanted—the kind of gift that gave us that "Star - Spangled" moment.
Hers was a tangible gift that audibly and even visibly set her apart. That's what Whitney possessed. There was no gimmick to her, only giftedness. But with that giftedness came great promise and great responsibility, the weight of which can be too much for even the most pure in heart.
The world saw Whitney in the tabloids just like it sees Madonna or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Our mistake is that we make our assumptions about the kind of people they are based on the manipulative lenses of photographers scrambling to land their photo on the front page of the tabloids. We watch Being Bobby Brown and think that the scenes caught on tape constitute Whitney as a person, a mom, and a wife. True, the reality show was not Whitney's (or Bobby's) shining moment. But are we really that eager to remember someone for their worst moments when they've given us so many of their best?
The truth is, those images never constituted Whitney's reality. Her life was not lived at the reality-show/tabloid level. And yet, because that's all so many people saw, it's all they allowed themselves to believe. The public formed their opinion of her through writers and photographers who never met her. To me, that's a tragedy.
Imagine yourself in this situation. You can't escape the expectations of the mob. And it kills you.
It's like what one writer wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle when remembering Whitney as a role model: "I'm not talking about the Whitney who succumbed to ... erratic behavior. Lord knows that the crown—six Grammys, 22 American Music Awards, well over 100 million albums sold, 'Most Successful Female Solo Artist of All Time' "—must have been heavy to bear." Absolutely, it was heavy to bear. And when the expectations of the mob join with the pressures of stratospheric fame, you can begin to doubt your own identity, which can ignite a desire to get it back no matter the cost.
* * *
Sometimes we think we own those in the public eye. We buy an album and, back in the day, we'd haul it around in our Walkmans or keep it spinning on our record players. Now we can literally carry songs in our back pockets, keeping little pieces of our favorite artists with us at all times. Some people think this entitles them to a part of that celebrity's life.
Luther Vandross once told me of a time when he was riding an escalator up and a lady who was headed on the down escalator recognized him. She made a big fuss when Luther didn't stop and sign something for her, blurting out, "I'm never going to buy another one of your albums again!"
Though Luther couldn't stop—he was on an escalator!—when he reached the top, he immediately hopped the down escalator. Upon catching up to the woman, he asked, "How many of my records do you own?" The lady quickly rattled off several titles. Luther then reached in his pocket and paid her a couple hundred dollars and said, "There, that should cover it. I never want you to buy my records again. You don't own me!"
I think Whitney felt all the time like Luther did that day. She couldn't go into a restaurant and enjoy a meal without someone coming up and saying, "I don't mean to bother you ..." Don't mean to bother you? Whitney was gracious to people, but she still was never able to eat a meal uninterrupted when in public.
Whitney bore that weight. And yes, she embraced it at some point, but it never becomes less of a burden just because you acknowledge it as your reality. It's always with you. It was always with her.
When you and I see a famous person like Whitney flying all around the world, singing in front of hundreds of thousands of people, we marvel, "That must be the life." In some ways, it is an incredible opportunity, but not without its share of darkness. When you and I are sick, we can call in to work and take a sick day. But when 20,000 fans become angry and demand their money back, and the concert promoter then wants to turn around and sue you for millions of dollars if you fail to deliver the goods, you must learn to cope. Let me break this down for you so you can understand how the pressure links back to the talent—the performer.
Excerpted from The Whitney I Knew by BeBe Winans, Timothy Willard. Copyright © 2012 BeBe Winans. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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