David Roberts had been Whitney Houston’s bodyguard for seven years when her doctor suggested he take a spin with him in a small plane over the Grand Canyon. It was more a command than an invitation.
“I’m going up in a plane and I’m taking you with me,” he recalls the doctor telling him. “We were stuck, going up and down the Grand Canyon. There was no escape.”
The outing, in the spring of 1995, had an urgent purpose. Filming of the movie Waiting to Exhale had been halted for seven days after Houston, its co-star, had suffered a drugs overdose.
The doctor had singled out Roberts, who years before had left Scotland Yard to start his own private protection business, as the only person in the Houston travelling circus able to shine a light on the singer’s destructive behaviour. Roberts, whose time at Houston’s side had also been the inspiration for the 1992 blockbuster The Bodyguard, would eventually do as the doctor asked, sending a report of the drug abuse to those running her affairs.
What happened to that document is at the heart of a new documentary from Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal called Whitney: Can I Be Me.
When the news broke one February evening in 2012 that Houston had died in a bath at the Beverly Hilton, a drowning accident to which both heart disease and cocaine use were listed as contributing factors, Roberts wasn’t entirely amazed.
“It was sad,” he recalls from his home in West Palm Beach. “I mean, was it inevitable, did I expect it? I don’t think so. But once I knew it was a fait accompli, I said, ‘Yes of course.’ ”
Don’t mistake his reaction for diffidence. A full five years after Houston’s death, Roberts, who appears in the new film, is still angry about what happened.
Theirs was a relationship that nearly didn’t happen. When a pal at the US embassy asked in 1988 if he’d be interested in protecting Houston on a UK tour, he said he’d never heard of her. His daughter filled him in but even then he demurred. “I phoned the embassy and said, ‘You know what, she’s a lovely person, great voice, but I really don’t do sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.’”
He changed his mind soon after – and quickly found that he was dealing with all the things he’d had reservations about. “There was a constant presence of drugs,” he says. “It’s the entertainment industry. There isn’t any entertainer or environment of that ilk that does not have a drugs presence. It’s what happens, it’s what they do. It’s the culture.”
He adds, however, “In seven and a half years, I never ever saw Ms Houston take any drug other than a bottle of Heineken or a Newport cigarette.”
That doesn’t mean she didn’t. The film asserts she was introduced to drugs as a teenager by her brothers, both of whom would end up working for her. Roberts believes a danger for megastars is their failure to demand professionalism in the people around them and avoid enablers.
“They employ as many inadequates as they can from their families to represent them. ‘You’re big, you could be security.’ ‘You used to work a hat-check, OK, you can be my accountant.’ That’s how poorly they put this thing together because it’s a familial thing,” he says.
In the enabler category, Roberts firmly places Bobby Brown, whom Houston married in 1992. It altered everything.
“We brought this man out on tour and it became an additional burden. Every two days there was a crate of Heineken and a bottle of Crown Royal, and every third day we were ill. If that coincided with a show, too bad, the show didn’t go on. This man could not come up to her level so she went down to his. We were a very slick, fast-moving efficient business environment in those days. Then it all changed.”
It was in Arizona at the Exhale shoot that the drugs problem came to the fore. On the small plane, the doctor told Roberts that Houston had a window of just eight months to get clean and address nodules growing on her vocal chords.
After filming ended, the team flew to Brunei where Houston was to sing for a niece of the Sultan. But she couldn’t. “She went on stage and couldn’t sing a word, sing a note. Not one,” he says. “She talked her way through an hour and a half of total and utter embarrassment.”
That, combined with some marijuana cigarette remnants he found in her room, persuaded Roberts the time had come to draft his memo and send it. As he explains in the documentary (in cinemas from Friday 16 June), it did not have the desired effect.
Lawyers for the singer told him she no longer needed his services. As a reward for trying to intervene, he had in fact been fired.
Why had he been ignored? “Avarice and greed,” he says without hesitation. “It’s the industry, it’s the business, this little voice box on this little woman was making too many people too much money.”
He is clear in his mind that, had they paid attention to what he was telling them, Houston would still be alive today. “Sure, why not? She was a young woman. There were a lot of people from that date who were aware of the inevitable outcome of what would happen if they didn’t take action and, as we know, they took no action. And the result was fatal.”
WHITNEY ‘Can I Be Me’ will be released in cinemas on 16th June, with the premiere and a live performance from Michelle John taking place on 11th June at Sheffield Doc/Fest and being broadcast into cinemas nationwide. Tickets available via www.whitneyhoustonfilm.com