Lifetime’s “Whitney” and the inclusion of her lesbian best friend

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This week The Daily Beast released a piece that was picked up by several outlets (including Jezebel) that proclaimed Lifetime’s new Whitney biopic as having hinted at Whitney Houston‘s rumored romance with best friend (and out lesbian) Robyn Crawford. I was surprised because, having watched the same screener, I was actively looking for such hints and found, well, nothing. Whitney, which doesn’t premiere until January 17, is a brief snapshot of Whitney Houston’s life.

Taking place between 1989 and the late ’90s, only certain topics are breached by director Angela Bassett, namely the singer’s torrid relationship with Bobby Brown. Robyn is there, played by the talented yet under-used Yolonda Ross, but she’s shown as a confidant; a caring best friend that is gay only in appearance (preferring androgynous suits and button-up shirts with slacks to dresses donned by the glamorous women around her). Robyn shows up from the beginning, arriving with Whitney at the the Soul Train Awards, wearing a suit that nicely compliments her best friend’s gold and metallic sequined dress.

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Robyn is Whitney’s handler, of sorts, leading her through fans on the carpet and inside to say hello to other artists, including a meeting with Bobby. It’s made very clear that Whitney is intrigued by Bobby, watching with an excited face as he performs a highly sexual version of “Every Little Step I Take.” Robyn laughs and shakes her head. Backstage, Whitney and Bobby flirt while Robyn calls from nearby, “Whitney, they need us,” but it’s not done in a jealous girlfriend type way. Instead, Robyn appears to love and care for Whitney more than anyone else in her life, including her own mother. When Cissy (Whitney’s mom) and other family members show disdain for Whitney’s relationship, Robyn encourages Whitney to follow her heart. Any reservations she might have is not shown to be because she’s pining after her best friend, but because she seems skeptical of the man who has already cheated on her friend and has several children from previous relationships.

Whitney and Robyn live together in New Jersey, and Whitney explains to Bobby early on in their relationship, “She’s been my best friend since I was 16. She runs my businesses.” Whitney cares for Robyn, buys her gifts, sits on her lap, and is affectionate toward her. While it’s clear Robyn shares that affection, there is nothing overtly romantic or sexual about their relationship, at least not in this film. Whitney is most interested in Bobby, though she is at first afraid to commit, explaining her trepidation:

“It’s just happening so fast. this is all new to me. I don’t know how to be sure this is real. it’s not about you, it’s me. When I was 15, mommy put me in this Catholic girls school and I was so shy and those girls were so cruel to me. All those years I only made one friend, Robyn. It takes me a long time to give that kind of trust. I just thought we could keep this casual, for a while longer.”

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“What’s in your heart?” Robyn asks Whitney. “That’s what you should follow.” Whitney and Bobby are married, with Robyn as the Maid of Honor in a lilac blazer and floral headpiece. It turns out, however, that everyone was right to be a little worried, and so were her family and friends. Bobby cheats on her, and he and Robyn get into an altercation where he asks her to stay out of their marriage. Robyn maintains a respectful boundary, telling Whitney she doesn’t think Bobby is a bad guy, just not right for her, and she should end it before they hurt each other any worse.

Yolonda Ross has played several queer roles before taking on Robyn, including starring in Cheryl Dunye‘s 2001 film Stranger Inside. She romanced Jessica Leccia in Slippery Slope and was part of the John Cameron Mitchell queer indie Shortbus. Yolonda told The Daily Beast she knows Robyn personally, having lived in New York for years, but doesn’t confirm or deny any truth to a romantic relationship between the friends.

“It’s an interesting part of her life. Whether they were together or not, they were people who were so important to each other. … I think it’s always a fine line to walk when you’re playing someone who’s a real character. It’s the same thing I did when I was in Antwone Fisher. That was a real person I was playing in that movie, too, and I wanted to know some things about that person, but not everything about that person so that you’re not mimicking in that way. But in this case, there wasn’t a lot out there about Robyn for me to even get into. It was, more or less, taking what’s on the page and making that real—making what I feel this relationship is or would be real. I personally knew of fights that went on between Bobby and Robyn during that time. You would hear about them. And you also knew that Cissy didn’t like him. That kind of stuff was out there, so it’s keeping all that in mind but still playing what’s in front of you in the script. You can’t add to something that is not documented, not written in.”

Yolonda says the way she played the role was not necessarily “shying away from” the possible romance.

“She’s a beautiful woman. And from what I knew of Robyn then, I don’t think she was in the closet. It’s a love and it’s an admiration. So that was played there. How much of it is a love that’s between two lovers is a different story, because that, then, would have called for there to be different kinds of scenes in the movie. I played it as love and longing. Ultimately, what’s happening with them is that the person who Robyn loves is leaving. No matter if you’re lovers or a best friend, when someone you love leaves to get married, your relationship is going to change. That’s what I played. And that’s what it was.”

Today, Robyn has a partner, editorial projects editor at Esquire magazine, Lisa Hintelmann. They live together with their adopted twins in New Jersey. She has never publicly commented on rumors that she and Whitney were romantically involved, but Whitney’s mother has gone on record to say the gossip isn’t true. Those who watch Whitney might see the love between the singer and her best friend, but watching for any kind of secret romance will only frustrate you, because the amount of sex Whitney has with Bobby Brown is almost too hot for Lifetime.

Beyonce Knowles at the North American Debut of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren at the Esquire Apartment 2003 - Inside

Robyn has, however, penned a 2012 tribute to Whitney in (where else?) Esquire, writing about meeting Whitney as a teen, and working with her forever after. She writes of her with so much love:

And we went around the world. I was her assistant and then her executive assistant and then her creative director. I was her point person for the day-to-day. I traveled all around the world first-class and anyone who ever worked for her will tell you her checks never bounced. You knew she was going to take care of you. She wasn’t going to be in a five-star hotel while you were in a two. I flew the Concorde the way some people ride the bus. She shared the fruits, and she changed a lot of lives. The record company, the band members, her family, her friends, me — she fed everybody. Deep down inside that’s what made her tired.

…And that was Whitney. She could not pick up the phone, and that meant it was too painful. I have never spoken about her until now. And she knew I wouldn’t. She was a loyal friend, and she knew I was never going to be disloyal to her. I was never going to betray her. Now I can’t believe that I’m never going to hug her or hear her laughter again. I loved her laughter, and that’s what I miss most, that’s what I miss already.

If Whitney Houston did have a lesbian relationship with Robyn, it’s not to be found in Whitney. And it looks like Robyn Crawford doesn’t feel the need to clear it up for anyone, either. So enjoy Lifetime’s depiction (which includes YaYa DeCosta doing larger than life impersonations of the legend) and a lot of cocaine. At least the lesbian character comes out looking like a really great friend, even if, at any point in Whitney’s life and career, she happened to be more. 

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