For years, Whitney Houston’s sexuality was whispered about and brandished on the covers of tabloids, but while she was alive, Houston denied that her friendship with Robyn Crawford was anything but that — friendship.
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After she died, a pair of documentaries — 2017’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? and 2018’s Whitney — touched on Houston’s relationship to Crawford, the singer’s former assistant and longtime creative director. Crawford herself wrote a memoir in 2019, A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston, in which she describes how their romantic relationship turned platonic when Houston’s career started to take off.
“We wanted to be together,” Crawford wrote. “She said we shouldn’t be physical anymore, because it would make our journey even more difficult.”
In the new biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody — Houston and Crawford’s relationship is brought to life by Naomi Ackie, who plays the icon, and Nafessa Williams (Black Lightning). Ackie says that she believes Houston’s relationship with Crawford was the “deepest connection” that the late pop diva experienced.
“It was really important to me too that we tell her full story. If you’re going to explore this amazing woman, you’ve got to do it all,” Ackie told EW. “The thing I loved about her relationship with Robyn is that it’s just the deepest connection I think that Whitney experienced. That love that they shared, changed and morphed over time as they got older, but the love never changed.”
Houston and Crawford met when Houston was still a teenager and the biopic has them moving in together as a disapproving Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother played by Tamara Tunie), tries to dissuade her. Whitney’s father John Houston (Clarke Peters) is aware of the relationship between his daughter and Robyn and advises both of them to start dating men. Whitney complies (taking up with Jermaine Jackson, with whom she had two duets on her debut album), but Robyn refuses. That’s the end of their romance, but Whitney keeps Robyn on as her creative director until she clashes with Whitney’s husband Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), forcing Whitney to choose. The rest is a sad history.
“That’s a really big part of Whitney’s history and what made her who she is. And when I first read the script, it was already there, Robyn was always present,” Ackie said. “It didn’t even occur to me that wouldn’t be the case. If it wasn’t a part of the story, I don’t think I would’ve felt as excited or really wanted to do it because it’s part of who she is.”
While Houston’s estate had agreed to depicting her relationship with Crawford before Lemmons signed on to the movie, replacing Stella Meghie in 2021, Lemmons still had to fight to include a kiss between Ackie and Williams.
“It’s the sweetest kiss. It’s like a first kiss, very romantic,” Lemmons told The Los Angeles Times. “And I fought for it.”
For some, including Lemmons, who met and worked with Houston in the mid-90s, the singer’s bisexuality was an open secret.
“I think it is something that, as a young actor in New York City, we were all aware of. We thought we knew about it,” Lemmons said. “There was lots of speculation. For instance, when I met Whitney, Robyn was upstairs in the hotel suite, with her daughter Bobbi Kristina. It was a very significant relationship in her life, a very significant friendship. I think nowadays we would probably just say, ‘Well, she’s sexually fluid.’ We wouldn’t necessarily label it as it having to be one thing or another. She certainly was sexually fluid.”
I Wanna Dance With Somebody attempts to shed light on who Whitney Houston was, and including this part of her life reveals just another one of the pressures she was facing to live up to an impossible image of pop perfection.
“It was important to discuss, especially right now, because we have to ask ourselves, ‘What would’ve happened if these outside pressures hadn’t been on her, and she had just been allowed to be herself? Would that have been a lasting relationship, or would it have eventually become the friendship that it became?'” Lemmons said. “Those questions are interesting to me. But the relationship was so significant that I wouldn’t have done the movie if it wasn’t included in the film.”
Along with Houston’s sexual fluidity, I Wanna Dance With Somebody is also matter-of-fact about Clive Davis’ bisexuality. Davis, played here by Stanley Tucci, came out in his 2013 autobiography The Soundtrack of My Life. At one point in the film, Clive, Whitney, and Robyn are sitting in Clive’s office listening to a demo of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which Whitney loves because it’s about wanting to dance with somebody but not being able to. In the end, Davis is given the opportunity, and a happy life with a same-sex partner.
“Luckily things are changing now to a certain extent where people are more comfortable coming out earlier and earlier and not worried about the effect it will have on their career,” Tucci said. “Because that’s always the thing. In the 80s, you couldn’t really do that. There was lots of pretending and lots of secretive meetings and lifestyles. It’s just ridiculous and a shame. But now that is changing. And it’s really interesting because when I talked to Clive about it, he said, ‘I found out that I had more love to give.’ It was really beautiful.”