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Mark Harris on Whitney Houston

Mark Harris on Whitney Houston ?- Oprah Winfrey’s tell-all interview with the star was riveting, but for all the wrong reasons

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Mark Harris on Whitney Houston

How perfect that Oprah Winfrey’s much-hyped interview with Whitney Houston took place in an empty theater: After all, it was theater, and it was empty. The exclusive chat served either as a crucial pit stop on Houston’s comeback tour or, perhaps, as its whole point. For 25 years, Houston’s singing persona has been defined by supreme self-regard (learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all, remember?). So naturally, the primary subject of her comeback record is…her comeback. Half the songs on I Look to You sound like publicist-crafted interview talking points, from ”This is my chance to say ain’t got nothin’ but love for my family” to ”I could hold on to pain but that ain’t what my life’s about” to ”Survived my darkest hour — my faith kept me alive” to ”I was so weak to him, weak to the love, he was my drug” (okay, that one came from the interview). You might be forgiven for wondering if Houston’s record was just a promotional tool to support her Oprah appearance.

So why did the resulting ”tell-all,” in which Houston parceled out horror stories about her drug use and failed marriage, seem so flat and false? Partly because we live in a less celebrity-naive world than the one in which Houston and Winfrey attained fame in the 1980s. Bravo has taught us about the kind of stylista army that was evidently marshaled to get Houston looking so lacquered, and the network’s reality freak show Being Bobby Brown, filmed when Houston was too far gone to give a damn, showed us what her genuinely unguarded moments look like. As a result, this encounter between two self-protective powerhouses never seemed spontaneous; from their first stage-managed hug, it felt choreographed, and without Winfrey’s studio audience providing their tell it girlfriend backing vocals, also eerily airless. The two of them could have been talking inside a red-velvet sensory-deprivation tank.

Winfrey’s burden is that because she is an infinitely bigger deal than most people she interviews, and has seen and heard it all, she can’t convincingly play the astonished/concerned Everywoman while yet another celebrity spills her guts. We know she knows more than she pretends to. Houston’s burden is that she’s not a spiller; in interviews, she tends to be mildly aloof, cliché-prone, and not especially ingratiating. Trying to let it half hang out, she came off as someone whose handlers had advised her that ”openness” would help her image, not as a woman especially eager to yield her pain up to Winfrey’s embrace.

This made for some interesting tension, because Winfrey demands a narrative — of repentance, determination, something. If you use her show as rehab, you’d better come with a story, preferably one from the Oprah playbook, whether it’s ”I Knew I Had to Change to Save My Child” or ”I Will Grow by Helping Others Learn From My Mistakes.” With those two not really in play, the narratives Winfrey strained to extract from Houston — ”I Lost My Identity Because of a Man” and ”I Squandered the Gift That Made Me One of Earth’s Special People” — didn’t entirely jibe with Houston’s churchier, serenity-now selection: ”I Lost God and Then I Found My Way Back to Him.” Around the time we got to Brown spray-painting evil eyes around Houston while she read her Bible, she and Winfrey found mutually rewarding turf. But it’s a problem that most of the interview’s strongest statements — ”You were trying to be the good wife,” ”You were using drugs to hide the pain,” your marriage made you ”dim your own light” — came from Winfrey. Or lyricists.

And it was Houston’s misfortune that, after a week of ”You lie!” and Kanye, what apology junkies really wanted was an ”I’m sorry” from someone who actually seemed to mean it — and that’s just not how she rolls. The polished-woman-giving-a-deposition that she was bent on playing didn’t feel convincing; she’s more credible as a Real Housewife of Atlanta cold-cocking her husband with a phone and snapping ”Bring it!” than as a martyr spouting the language of recovery. Mostly, like a figure skater nailing her compulsories, Houston approached each topic with what looked like a grim determination to hit her marks. By day 2, during which Houston moved on to a quasi-triumphant miniconcert free of pesky high notes, Winfrey was weeping, and Houston was impressively dry-eyed. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the plan.

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