Whitney Houston's pre-fame relationship laid bare in new documentary

The new documentary Whitney crafts a compelling portrait of Whitney Houston through the first-hand testimony of her closest friends and family members — several of whom have been reluctant to go on the record before. But there was one important figure in Whitney’s life who declined director Kevin Macdonald’s repeated requests to sit in front of his camera for an interview: Robyn Crawford, who first met the late singer when they were teenagers and quickly became enmeshed in her professional and personal life. “[Robyn] tantalized us over several months considering being part of the film, and in the end decided not to do it,” Macdonald reveals. “Fortunately, we have a lot of archive [material] of her, and also a lot of archive that she shot herself of Whitney. That makes her presence very felt in the film; you feel like she’s there, even though she’s not.”

Crawford’s absence from Whitney, now playing in theaters, does mean that she’s unable to personally confirm (or deny) the longstanding speculation about her relationship with Houston: that the two of them were lovers in the years before Whitney became the biggest female pop star of the ’80s. It’s a story that she’s previously declined to discuss on the record; in the wake of Houston’s 2012 death, Crawford contributed a moving “as told to” eulogy to Esquire that pointedly omitted any mention of romance. In the documentary, though, Houston’s family generally — if reluctantly — characterize the two as lovers. “I think it’s fairly obvious when you talk to the family and friends, nobody is denying that Whitney and Robyn had a physical relationship — a sexual relationship,” Macdonald says. “They were partners for a number of years. My understanding is that relationship was over in a romantic sense by the mid-’80s when Whitney became a big star.”

Whitney Houston and her reported lover Robyn Crawford in archival footage from the 2017 documentary <em>Whitney: Can I Be Me</em>. (Photo: Showtime/courtesy Everett Collection)
Whitney Houston and her reported lover Robyn Crawford in archival footage from the 2017 documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me. (Photo: Showtime/courtesy Everett Collection)

Even after they went their separate ways romantically, Crawford continued to be a major presence in Houston’s life into the late ’90s, serving a variety of roles from executive assistant to creative director to confidante. Macdonald believes that it was her professional relationship with the singer that upset Houston’s family as much as their personal relationship. “There are moments in the film where you see that there’s quite a lot of negativity from some of the family towards Robyn. But I think you have to remember that that is coming from a religious place for them: They’re Baptists and they don’t agree with homosexuality. But they also felt that Robyn was involved too deeply with Whitney’s business career, and they were uncomfortable with that.”

Following the release of her multiplatinum debut album, Houston had a series of high-profile relationships with Eddie Murphy and NFL star Randall Cunningham. But it was her romance with Bobby Brown that defined the second half of her career and ultimately led to the severing of ties between her and Crawford. “I think those were the two loves of her life,” explains Macdonald. “There was Robyn, and there was Bobby.” And, unfortunately, the two couldn’t co-exist in Houston’s orbit, leading Crawford to issue an ultimatum. “As it’s told to me by members of the family, Robyn said at one stage: ‘You’ve either got to get rid of Bobby Brown, or I’m leaving. We can’t both be here.’ And Whitney chose Bobby and she left. After that, I think they only spoke once or maybe twice more in their lives.”

Crawford, right, in 2003 with her wife, Lisa Hintelmann. (Photo: Getty Images)
Crawford, right, in 2003 with her wife, Lisa Hintelmann. (Photo: Getty Images)

These days, Crawford lives well outside the public spotlight with her wife, Lisa Hintelmann, and their two children. Asked whether there was one question he most wanted to pose to her had she agreed to be in the film, Macdonald indicates he was more interested in Crawford’s account of Houston’s pre-stardom state of mind than any intimate details about their relationship. “More than anything else, what would have been great would be to just hear the description of what Whitney was feeling in those early days. What were her wishes? What were her aspirations? What were her dreams? What were her fears? I think Robyn is that one who knows her that way so well.”

At the same time, he also cautions against using this particular portion of Houston’s biography to define her whole life. “At the time, there were all these rumors, ‘Whitney’s gay, Whitney’s gay.’ I don’t think Whitney saw herself as gay. I think she saw herself as someone who loved who she loved. She’s fluid; she had a relationship with a woman, she had a relationship with a man. It’s the kind of thing that today would be unremarkable, but back then it was remarkable and people wanted to put her into a box which she didn’t really fit.”

Whitney is currently playing in theaters. Watch the trailer:

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