The time: Summer of 1980. The place: A community center in East Orange, New Jersey. The characters: Two regular teenagers working a summer job. But the moment they met, Robyn Crawford knew there was something unique about Whitney Houston.
“She introduced herself as ‘Whitney Elizabeth Houston,’ and I knew right away she was special,” Crawford wrote in a piece for Esquire after the singer’s sudden death in 2012. “Not a lot of people introduced themselves with their middle names back then. She had peachy colored skin and she didn't look like anyone I'd ever met in East Orange, New Jersey.”
Houston was already a signed Wilhelmina model who was singing at shows in Manhattan at the time, but she immediately connected with Crawford. “Not long after I met her, she said, ‘Stick with me, and I'll take you around the world,’” Crawford wrote. “She always knew where she was headed.”
Crawford did stick with her — working as her assistant, executive assistant and then creative director — their friendship was one of, well, their greatest loves of all.
In her 2019 book, A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston, Crawford reveals more about the friendship that had never been uncovered before.
“I'd come to the point where I felt the need to stand up for our friendship,” she writes in the book. “And I felt an urgency to stand up and share the woman behind the incredible talent...I wanted to lift her legacy, give her respect and share the story of who she was before the fame, and in that, to embrace our friendship.”
Crawford said their friendship was 'deep'
That first summer, the two teens — Houston was 16 at the time and Crawford was 19 — just wanted to make some money. “She was working just like the rest of us,” Crawford wrote in Esquire. “She was there to work.”
Along the way, the two girls formed a tight bond. “Our friendship was a deep friendship,” Crawford said. “In the early part of that friendship, it was physical.”
Breaking her silence about her longtime secret, Crawford explained what was happening behind the scenes. “It was during that first summer that we met, was the first time our lips touched,” she continued. “I didn’t know how long it was going to last, but I was just enjoying the moment. That’s what we did — we enjoyed it.”
They kept their relationship a secret
As their relationship continued to grow, Crawford says they saw it going the distance. “We wanted to be together — and that meant just us,” she wrote in the book.
“We were intimate on many levels and all I can say is we were very deep and we were very connected,” she told TODAY.
The stressful part of it all was the secret-keeping. When Crawford’s mom met Houston, she told her, “You look like an angel, but I know you're not.” But even family didn’t know the nature of their relationship. When asked who knew about the romance, Crawford said, “I would say no one.”
Houston gave Crawford a Bible to indicate the romance was over
But it couldn’t continue.
Just after Houston signed her Arista record deal with Clive Davis in 1982, she broke the news to Crawford that their romance had to stop: “She said ‘I don’t believe we should be physical anymore.’ The music business was a world that we were learning and we didn’t want anything to interfere with where she was going.”
To truly prove the point, Houston gave Crawford a slate blue Bible. “She said if people find out about us, they would use this against us — and back in the 80s, that’s how it felt,” Crawford wrote in the book.
Crawford remained by Houston's side as her star rose
While it seems like it would be devastating, Crawford was always in a good place about the newfound situation. “I just felt that I wouldn’t be losing much,” she continued to TODAY. “I still loved her the same and she loved me and that was good enough.”
And so their friendship continued. “We went around the world,” Crawford wrote in Esquire. “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.”
Crawford was there through the ups and downs. “It was never easy. She never left anything undone,” she wrote in Esquire. “But it was hard. The Bodyguard was great when it was done, but it was a lot of work. She did the movie, she did the music, she did everything — and when she was done, she was done. She nailed it.”
Crawford and the singer were estranged by Houston's death
When Bobby Brown came into the picture, their friendship changed and by the time of her death, Crawford and Houston had been estranged.
When she found out about Houston’s death, it offered some time for reflection with the Esquire piece: “It's so strange that she died when she did. February was her month. Her first album was released on Valentine's Day, right around the time of the Grammys, right around the time of Clive Davis's party. It was an orchestrated thing. She was Clive's girl, his great discovery. And she died right before Valentine's Day, right before the Grammys, right before Clive's party.”
And in terms of their friendship, even though they were no longer in touch, Crawford and Houston always had an understanding and respect for each other. “She could not pick up the phone, and that meant it was too painful,” Crawford wrote in the piece. “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.”