Whitney keeps woes to herself; Singer: Houston's erratic behavior feeds whispered rumors that something is very wrong in her life.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What's wrong with pop singer Whitney Houston?

There have been hints; there are rumors. Within the music industry, there are whispers about the "D" word -- and we don't mean "diva."

Yet even though everybody "knows" what's going on, nobody is talking -- at least, not on the record. "People are so savvy about reading the news and reading behind the news," says Roy Trakin, senior editor at the music industry trade magazine Hits. "It almost seems as if we've come to a tacit agreement about what 'erratic behavior' means and what it's a cue-word for. It's kind of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink kind of thing."

What has been reported -- at length and in detail -- is Houston's increasingly strange conduct.

Last summer, Houston went out on tour and wound up canceling five of 24 scheduled shows, including one in Washington, allegedly due to throat problems. One concert, in Concord, Calif., was scrubbed minutes before show time.

In January, the singer was stopped by security guards at the Keahole-Kona International Airport in Hawaii when 15.2 grams of marijuana were found in one of her bags. Houston left the bag at the security gate, and was airborne by the time police arrived. (Hawaiian prosecutors announced Friday they are not pursuing charges.)

A month later, at the Grammy telecast in Los Angeles, the 36-year-old singer appeared to space out during her performance, momentarily forgetting the lyrics to her own song. Then in March, she pulled a no-show for a high-profile appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame banquet, where she was scheduled to induct Arista Records chief Clive Davis, who signed the singer when Houston was 19.

Houston's bizarre behavior seemed even more extreme during rehearsals for the Academy Awards broadcast three weeks later. Slated to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Houston reportedly missed her cues and fumbled the melody. She wound up being dropped from the show 48 hours before air time (Faith Hill was brought in as a last-minute replacement).

A spokeswoman for the Academy Awards also ascribed the situation to "throat problems," but other sources claimed that Houston had been cut by music director Burt Bacharach, who was appalled by the singer's lack of focus and unprofessional behavior.

"Whitney's chronic condition is very sad," was Bacharach's oblique comment to People magazine.

But what, exactly, that condition might be remains a matter of speculation.

Houston did an interview with a reporter for the current issue of the women's magazine Jane during which her conversation was described as disjointed and littered with profanity. Later, editor Jane Pratt told People magazine that when Houston turned up for a photo shoot, "Everyone there thought she was high on something."

Houston, of course, has repeatedly denied having a drug problem, going so far as to tell one interviewer, "I am not a drug addict." Nor has anyone come forward to allege -- on record -- that the singer has a substance abuse problem.

Houston's publicist, Nancy Seltzer, when contacted for this story, said only that, "Whitney Houston is in fine health."

So why do people assume otherwise?

"[When] you have somebody who's a superstar, and who's behaving in a way that's causing varying levels of concern, people are trying to fill in that blank," says Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone who has interviewed Houston twice. "People are reaching for the drug part here because it's the easiest explanation.

"But I haven't heard anything from anyone who has said, 'Oh, yeah. I absolutely know that's true.' "

Nor is the word from those who have had direct contact with Houston anywhere near as dire as what appears in the gossip press. For instance, Elysa Gardner, who interviewed Houston during her 1999 tour, had heard all sorts of stories about the singer's seemingly bizarre behavior.

"I'd heard from various people in the media, who had occasion to see her in a working environment, that she could be erratic, that she was easily distracted, that she sweated a lot -- all the symptoms you would associate with some kind of chemical problem," says Gardner, currently a music writer for USA Today. "To be honest with you, I didn't see any of that. I saw somebody who just looked tired and over-worked, and I felt for her."

Nonetheless, there are those who believe that where there's smoke, there's fire.

When Houston canceled 20 percent of her tour last summer, the word most often applied to her was "fragile," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of the concert industry trade publication Pollstar. "Obviously now, with all the other headlines, people are making other possible conclusions," he adds.

(A spokeswoman for IMP Productions, which produced Houston's Washington show, declined comment on why that show was canceled.)

Houston began to garner a reputation for strange and irresponsible behavior in the mid-'90s. In 1994, she arrived two hours late for a state dinner at the White House, honoring South Africa President Nelson Mandela. In 1997, she failed to turn up for an event at Madison Square Garden at which she was to receive the Triumphant Spirit Award for her charity work. That same year, she pulled out of an appearance on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" less than an hour before air time.

There were also rumblings of marital problems. In 1995, Houston's husband -- R&B; star Bobby Brown -- spent time at the Betty Ford Center being treated for alcohol abuse and was also named in a paternity suit. He has also been repeatedly linked to other women. Brown has two children from previous relationships and a daughter with Houston.

But the rumor rate has gone through the roof in recent weeks, thanks in part to cover stories in Jane and People. Yet for all the headlines and "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" reportage, even these stories have shed little light on the question, "What's wrong with Whitney?"

People, for instance, quoted "someone close to Houston" who said Dionne Warwick, who is Houston's aunt, and singer Natalie Cole were going to step in and speak to Houston about her "problem."

However, Warwick, when approached by reporters backstage at Arista Records' 25th Anniversary Concert in Los Angeles last week, denied the report. "I don't know where that came from," Warwick told the press.

Perhaps the most curious thing about l'Affaire Houston is how few people in the music industry will speak openly about it. Many are more than happy to share gossip or even speak about their own brushes with the singer -- but not if what they say is going to be quoted. Even those who will speak on the record often ask to be quoted anonymously.

Some cite a fear of reprisals by Arista Records' Clive Davis, who is said to be extremely protective of the singer. But the situation isn't quite as cut-and-dried as that.

Even though Houston has been one of pop music's reining divas for over 15 years, her image remains (for the most part) as clean-scrubbed and wholesome as it was when she was a 19-year old ingenue. As such, dishing the dirt on her dark secrets seems somehow tawdrier than similar gossip about, say, Madonna or Barbra Streisand, and that probably makes journalists less eager to cast the first stone.

Even the supermarket tabloids -- usually the first to jump on a juicy celebrity scandal -- have been relatively reticent. For instance, the current issue of the entertainment gossip magazine Star has Houston on the cover, but instead of promising dirt offers a cover line in which the singer seems to be saying, "Please, I need help."

But does she? DeCurtis, for one, believes that Houston has too strong a support network ever to get seriously into trouble. "It seems to me that Whitney Houston is a valuable enough commodity -- not to put too fine a point on it -- that if people wanted to do an intervention, [they would].

"She also comes from a fairly tight family," he says. "It's just hard to believe that things could get really bad without somebody stepping in."

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