Whitney Houston’s drugged and drunken death, alone in a hotel bathtub, was as sad as it was tawdry.
Sad, because it left her already- troubled 18-year-old daughter Bobbi without her adored mother. Sad, because it silenced what really was one of the most beautiful voices of our time. And sad because — as evidenced by Whitney’s downward spiral over many years — it was all so achingly predictable.
But among the hundreds who knew her and the millions who admired her, a dignified sadness is apparently too much to expect. Instead, they’re tripping over each other in the rush to find someone to blame.
Fellow star Celine Dion led the charge by saying the tragedy was the fault of ‘bad people and bad influence’. Friends and fans were happy to be more specific: they laid it squarely at the feet of Houston’s ex-husband, bad-boy singer Bobby Brown, with whom she spent 14 tempestuous years. One ‘friend’ put it this way: ‘When they married, Whitney was the biggest singing talent on the planet. By the time they divorced she was broken.’
Meanwhile, one British writer brought her death closer to home with an idly obvious comparison: ‘Like Amy Winehouse with Blake Fielder-Civil, her drug problems were largely down to someone else.’
So now we know: blame anyone, blame everyone — but don’t, whatever you do, suggest that any part of this sorry story was Whitney Houston’s fault.
Falling under the spell of ‘bad influences’ — particularly male bad influences — has become the catch-all excuse for women who go spectacularly off the rails. Three bottles of vodka before breakfast? Pills down the throat, powders up the nose? The automatic reaction is: ‘Well, she fell in with a bad crowd, the wrong man, didn’t she?’
Far be it for any of us to point out that ‘she’, whichever female celebrity it might be, had a choice: about which crowd to fall in with, which friends to make, which man to marry. Let alone to point out that she could then choose whether or not to join in with their nasty little habits.
We’ve seen it, and heard it, countless times. About the fears of the family and friends of, for example, Kate Moss when she was ‘under the influence’ of druggie Pete Doherty — but never, once, how exasperated they were (or should have been) that this beauty could have picked almost any man on the planet but chose, instead, a gormless, talentless lout.
Waves of sympathy washed over the memory of Paula Yates when she died after abandoning four children for the greater pleasures of a heroin cocktail. It wasn’t her fault, they said; it all dated back to when she hooked up with that demon Michael Hutchence.
Really? I’d say it was entirely her fault that she left her irascible but doting partner and father of her children, Bob Geldof, for the well-known dangers of Hutchence. I slightly knew, and rather liked, Debbie Raymond, heiress to Paul ‘King of Soho’ Raymond’s £650 million fortune.
But again, when she died of a cocktail similar to Miss Yates’s, all fingers pointed to her companion on the night of her death. No one took into account that Debbie chose to leave her children at home, the younger only ten months old, and head off for a narcotic night on the town with a man she barely knew. Her risk; her choice.
The list goes on. Courtney Love chose her drugs, her alcohol and her Kurt Cobain. He didn’t tie her down and force the poisons into her; they came as a package and it was a package she freely bought. She, by the way, is currently ‘mentoring’ fellow off-the-rails star Lindsay Lohan; for some reason, I’m not holding my breath for radical reform. In either case.
Popular mythology has it that the giddy world of showbusiness forces these women into lifestyles fraught with wickedness and temptation and thus robs them of any normal capacity to choose. This is nonsense. The truth is that the average unemployed, unmarried Vicky Pollard-style mother on a sink estate is the one without a lot of choice. This glitzy crowd, with their money and their hangers-on, do have a choice; usually, quite simply, to say yes or no.
I have seen, indeed, participated in, the backstage shenanigans, the after-show parties and the elite members-only nightclubs in London, Los Angeles and New York, and it is quite true that a lot of drink, drugs and bedevilment are close to hand. But it is also true that for every woman who deliberately chooses to embrace the dark side, kidding themselves that debauchery is actually risque-chic, a dozen others equally deliberately exercise the choice not to linger.
Consider these two, for example: Denise Van Outen and Danniella Westbrook were born within months of each other, both to decent families. Both went to the same stage school, both hit the big time: Denise on The Big Breakfast, Danniella in EastEnders.
Both of them would have had exactly the same opportunities and access to booze and cocaine. Denise chose a career. Danniella, famously, opted for an excess so severe that it destroyed her nose. ‘Poor Danniella!’ went the cry. ‘A victim!’ Indeed she was. But only a victim of her own choice.
The infuriating thing about this urge to diagnose victimhood is that it is only, ever, applied to women. Men who go off the rails tend, instead, to be called hell-raisers — and not without a tinge of admiration, either. Can you imagine anyone (other than, perhaps, their mothers) blaming the behaviour of Oliver Reed, George Best or, latterly, Charlie Sheen upon ‘falling in with the wrong crowd’?
Elizabeth Taylor was no stranger to a drop of the hard stuff or potent prescriptions; it is nevertheless inconceivable that anyone might say: ‘Oh, if only dear Richard Burton hadn’t fallen in with that Taylor woman . . .’ So there we have it. Men, even — perhaps especially — the naughty ones, determine their own fate. Women fall at their feet, unable to resist the lure of whatever killer substances the man decrees.
Is that, really, here in 2012, the best we can do? Is that, really, what decades of demands for equality have come to? To her credit, that wasn’t the legacy Whitney wanted. She had endlessly protested that Bobby Brown was not responsible for her choices.
‘We were partners,’ she said. ‘The biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy.’
It was an admirable insight. So it’s even more of a pity that no sooner did she die than the rent-a-quote mob insisted upon casting her, like all the rest, as a ‘victim’. Because what I think Whitney knew, and what I think she was trying to say — albeit through self-induced brain damage — is that we have no equality worth the name until we recognise a woman’s equal right to be held to account for her own choices. And for her own mistakes.