Before the rest of the world knew that Whitney Houston had died, Augusta native and Newsweek senior writer Allison Samuels was already trying to come to terms with the news.
On the afternoon of Houston’s death on Feb. 11, Samuels said that she was being interviewed on the first floor of The Beverly Hilton for a Behind the Music VH1 segment on R&B singer Brandy Norwood. Houston was scheduled to be interviewed for the same segment an hour later, and her assistant came by before Samuels’ interview to make sure she would be finished in time, saying that Houston had to attend music mogul Clive Davis’ party.
“We were 30 minutes into the interview when there’s a knock on the door. We ignored it because we were taping. The producer didn’t want to stop, but the knock got louder and louder, so we had to stop,” Samuels said during a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “He goes to the door, and it’s Whitney’s assistant again. She’s just sort of standing there. She looks a little dazed and confused. She just sort of says, ‘Whitney can’t make it. She’s not coming. Whitney is dead.’ ”
Samuels, a 1983 Glenn Hills High School graduate, said “the air went out of the room.”
Beforehand, Samuels, who had interviewed Houston seven times, and some of the Behind the Music staff had been joking about Houston showing up.
“She can show up sometimes and sometimes she doesn’t … but we didn’t expect to hear she was dead,” Samuels said. “She (Houston’s assistant) had just been down less than an hour before, saying to be ready for Whitney to come down. When she went back up, that’s when she found out she was dead. She died in that short window. I guess she was alive at 3 o’clock. She was pronounced dead at 3:55.”
People criticized the reception and party continuing as planned, but Samuels believes that by the time the news set in, it was too late to stop it. Guests were already en route or had started to arrive, she said.
“It was odd to know that she was on the fourth floor for that entire period of time throughout the party. One of the police told me they wanted to make sure they didn’t have another Michael Jackson situation, in a sense of not missing anything,” Samuels said. “I also think they were having a hard time trying to figure out how to get her out without coming through the middle of the hotel. I think it was a logistical nightmare for the police.”
Samuels has written stories about other celebrity deaths, such as Michael Jackson, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Princess Diana, but she didn’t know them nearly as well as she knew Houston. She will have a story in Monday’s edition of Newsweek about Houston.
“It was very surreal to be there and hear those words. I interviewed her enough before to know that on some level, this was probably going to happen to her. I was surprised actually that she lasted this long, given some of the interviews that I’d had with her where she was just so out of it,” Samuels said. “But I’d hoped that she was getting it together since things had quieted down a little bit. But from talking to people, I guess they hadn’t.”
Samuels said that she met Houston at the height of her career, and their last interview was six years ago. She recounts some of the experience in her 2007 book Off the Record, a collection of her encounters with entertainers and athletes during her journalism career. The night before their interview, they went out to dinner. Samuels said that Houston was “high as a kite.”
“I said to her and her publicist, ‘Please don’t let her come like this tomorrow to the interview because that’s not going to work out well for us.’ She came to the interview just as high as a kite the next day,” Samuels said. “I just kept thinking, this is going to have a bad ending. She’s not in control, and nobody is in control of her. You can’t last but so long like that.”
Houston was also well-known for not being very patient. At the VH1 taping, Samuels said everyone was rushing to finish her interview so that Houston wouldn’t have to wait.
“Whitney would cuss you out in a heartbeat. I loved her to death, but she was definitely that girl,” Samuels said. “That’s why when people say, ‘Why didn’t someone stop her?’… I say that she wasn’t that type of person that you could have stopped her if she didn’t want to stop. She was very strong-willed. Nobody was going to make her do anything.”
Still, Samuels knows another side of Houston. She wrote a children’s book about celebrities’ Christmas memories, and Houston was the first person to return her call.
“I think that showed what kind of generous spirit she had. She was a really nice person, certainly to me all the times that we met,” Samuels said. “I was surprised at how unguarded she was and just really sweet and open. I would ask questions and she would answer them. I really did like her. I thought she was a genuinely sweet person who just really got messed up by this business.”
She said her concerns now are for Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who is with her grandmother, Cissy Houston.
“She loved her daughter so much. She would always talk about her and going shopping for her. I really do feel for her. You just pray for her to be OK,” she said.
Samuels hopes that Houston had her estate in order. She anticipates a protracted legal battle over her assets if it isn’t.
“I hope that’s something that she did resolve.” she said.
“Because I could see that being a very ugly fight, and you don’t want that to be what happens to her daughter.”