The prickly singer snubs Rosie O'Donnell, capping a turbulent year

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times at least if you’re Whitney Houston.

With the success of her Nov. 2 Cinderella special on ABC, the 34 year-old pop princess should be riding higher than those soaring F sharps in ”I Will Always Love You.” But although the two-hour fairy tale, which Houston executive produced as well as starred in, gave the network its best Sunday night in 10 years, beating such heavyweights as CBS’ Touched by an Angel and Fox’s The Simpsons and King of the Hill block, Houston’s triumph was tempered by a messy contretemps with Rosie O’Donnell earlier the week. And as anyone in Hollywood can tell you, it’s not nice — or prudent — to anger the Queen of Nice.

What ticked off O’Donnell was Houston’s last-minute no-show on The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Houston had been slated to hype Cinderella on the program Oct. 30 — the first day of November sweeps. But at 9:15 a.m., according to sources — 45 minutes before the show was to air live — Houston bagged her appearance, citing an incapacitating stomach flu. The abrupt cancellation had the normally effusive O’Donnell seeing red. Whitney is not here — she’s ill,” the host half-cracked on the air. ”I hope she’s very ill.”

”A guest like Whitney Houston canceling 45 minutes before a live show is equivalent to a 747 crashing a minute before airtime on a news program,” sympathizes a producer of another daytime talk show. ”You’re caught with your pants down. This is how producers earn their stomach linings.” ”Oh, yeah, it definitely screwed up the show,” O’Donnell told EW a few days after the incident. ”We had to stretch out the end. We had a sit-down talk segment with [Cinderella actor] Paolo Montalban, who was not scheduled to speak. It threw [everything] off. I’ve been on live TV for a year and a half, and I’ve never missed a show. Most people show up, especially when they have a movie that they’re producing and starring in to sell.”

Houston added insult to injury later in the day by accompanying husband Bobby Brown when he went to tape his appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman. ”She was feeling better,” says publicist Lois Smith, who represents both Houston and O’Donnell. ”She went with Bobby to give him her support. She felt she would get in and out without anybody noticing. She got sick again. It was a stupid thing to do.” (Coincidentally, Brown suffered his own meltdown on MTV News the weekend of Nov. 1 when he unexpectedly scorched everyone from his old New Edition cronies to Kenneth ”Babyface” Edmonds, a frequent Houston collaborator.)

The O’Donnell flap marked another headline-grabbing incident for Houston — merely the latest in a distressing string this year. Although she has always had something of a prima donna reputation, her problems recently — say, since The Preacher’s Wife became her first big-screen bomb last December — have apparently moved to another level. Clearly something was wrong during Houston’s Oct. 5 live HBO concert, in which she strained to sing her tunes, reeled off a random, bewildering medley of tributes to dead celebrities — including the Notorious B.I.G. and Princess Diana — and dripped more flop sweat than Nixon. One reviewer likened the performance to ”a tape-delayed near-death experience.” And according to an on-set source, she almost never arrived on time during the filming of Cinderella, a pet project she nurtured from scratch. Then there was that mysterious facial slash last summer, while Houston was vacationing in Italy with Brown. She told Italian police she cut herself on a rock during a swim off a yacht; a member of the crew reportedly said Houston was cut on the boat.