No one ever understood why Whitney Houston married Bobby Brown. Houston was a cultured pop princess with a golden voice, a perfect smile and polished demeanor, spit-shined by a large marketing and public relations machine (the same one she would eventually rage against). When Houston and Brown married in June 1992, she arrived at their union with a track record of proven success: three multiplatinum albums; fresh off an epic rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" — a million copies sold of a song every American knew or should have known by heart; and an upcoming movie role alongside Kevin Costner.
Brown was then, and still is today, a "bad ass," a term that he called himself as recently as Feb 18. That was during a performance on the evening of his ex-wife's funeral, which he'd walked out on earlier that day. But in 1992 he was known as much for being kicked out of boy band New Edition because he was unable to adopt their clean-cut R&B image as he was for singing "My Prerogative," a track that still seems to sum up his consequences-be-damned approach to the world 24 years after its release.
The prying public didn't wait for the 20/20 clarity of hindsight to say that they "knew" Brown was all wrong for Houston. It became a common refrain as soon as people heard they were dating; and when the pair divorced 15 years later, it devolved into "Finally!" or "See, I told you so!"
Blaming Bobby Brown for Houston's every misstep has also been a familiar refrain, one that didn't start when Houston died in a hotel bathtub on Feb. 11 — just reignited. For too many, it's easier to blame Brown for Houston's downfall than it is to accept that her perfect image was a product cleverly marketed by Clive Davis and consumed eagerly by the public.
Houston's marriage to Brown didn't jibe with the branding. It was jarring, that first time she didn't seem to be in lockstep with the reigning perception of her, and we keep going back to that moment because it was pivotal for us. We'd rather stay in denial about the myriad ways we were played by a machine than be mad at Houston, who pulled the plug on the fantasy the same way Toto pulled back the curtain in Oz, revealing the Wizard to be exactly who he was: bells and whistles and, above all, human.
In life, Houston was adored as much for her unparalleled vocals as she was for being a skinny black girl from, of all places, Newark, N.J., who had managed to outshine, outsing and outwin at award shows. Much like Diana Ross two decades before her, Houston was a rare black woman who didn't do soul and who did cater to a mainstream audience.
Houston was beautiful, and before she diminished her voice with cigarettes and drugs, she could sing really, really well. But don't let the beauty and/or the talent fool you. Neither guarantees self-esteem or smart choices or removes accountability from anyone for his or her actions.
We've watched too many Hollywood films if we're buying into the trope that Houston was an ingenue who was seduced and then hoodwinked, bamboozled and led astray by Brown, who, at a mere 23, was five years her junior and a father of three when they married. At that time, Houston was a month shy of 29, and she'd been in the entertainment business — notorious for being a cutthroat environment — for more than a decade and was winning.
This is a woman who, in a legendary radio interview, went toe-to-toe with Wendy Williams back in the day — long before Williams was a middle-aged mom made palatable for middle America — and won! In an Esquire obituary, Houston's onetime bestie (and, it is alleged, onetime girlfriend) Robyn Crawford said of Houston, "People thought they had to protect her. She hated that. And that's what people don't understand: She was the one doing the driving … she did what she wanted to do." At Houston's funeral, personal friends backed up that assessment, remembering Houston as a woman who called her own shots — even when they were to her detriment.
By Houston's own telling in a confessional 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Houston began using drugs before her relationship with Brown, whom she referred to as "her drug" of choice and her "partner" when it came to getting high. It was in 1992, the year she married Brown and released The Bodyguard, that her drug use progressed to "heavy" — Houston's euphemism for smoking marijuana combined with cocaine.
In that same interview, she took on the accountability that her fans hesitate to extend to her, even in death. "When he said something, I listened," Houston said of her then husband. "I was very interested in having someone have that kind of control over me. It was refreshing."
That is undoubtedly a disturbing mindset, and a recipe for disaster for most women, especially those who put a "bad ass" at the helm. But it was also a path that Whitney chose for herself.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor to The Root and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She answers your dating and relationship questions on The Root each week. Feel free to ask anything at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.