Who was the real Whitney Houston and what was it that haunted her so very deeply?
In the six years since the superstar’s untimely death at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Feb. 11, 2012, questions continue to swirl about how the beloved once-in-a-generation singer with the heavenly voice found herself so entrenched in addiction that it killed her.
With the new documentary Whitney, Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald set out to answer these questions, interviewing over 60 of Whitney’s closest friends and family members. But the final theory the film presents — that as a child Whitney and older brother Gary were both molested by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick, a trauma that tortured her throughout adulthood — has flared tensions in the already embattled Houston family.
In this week’s WHO cover story, family members and friends open up about Whitney’s shocking untold story. While some find the child abuse claim helpful in solving the mystery that was Whitney Houston, others, like her mother Cissy and Dee Dee’s sister Dionne Warwick, find the allegations in the film painful, exploitative and hard to believe.
“We cannot overstate the shock and horror we feel and the difficulty we have believing that my niece Dee Dee Warwick . . . molested two of my three children,” Cissy tells PEOPLE in a statement on behalf of herself and Dionne, revealing they first learned of the claims two days before the film’s May 16 premiere in Cannes.
Though the two share their support for all victims of child abuse, these are charges “neither Whitney nor Dee Dee are here to deny, refute or affirm … How can that be fair to my daughter, to Dee Dee, to our family?” (For Cissy and Dionne’s emotional full statement, visit people.com/cissyhouston.)
The claim comes by way of Mary Jones, Whitney’s longtime assistant, who says in the film that the singer opened up to her about the abuse, and would sometimes ask, “Do you think I did something to make her think I wanted her?”
Despite the reaction from some members of the Houston family, Jones stands by her choice to share the information with the world.
“I was close to Whitney, she confided in me and I struggled tremendously deciding whether to share this secret or keep to myself,” Jones tells PEOPLE in an exclusive statement. “I deeply love and respect Dionne, Cissy and their entire families, and my intention was never to embarrass anyone in the family, but rather to bring to light that Whitney was subjected to something painful and troubling as a child. And it’s something that happens to other innocent kids and goes unspoken too much.
She continues, “I decided to share the story so that people might understand that throughout her entire life Whitney carried this with her, and the weight of it was immense. Whitney was a wonderful woman, an angel, and she did not drag herself down all alone — there was a cause.”
By all accounts Whitney, nicknamed Nippy by her father John Houston, started out as a sweet and spunky little girl from Newark and East Orange, New Jersey. “She had a Cinderella kind of warmth, this magical way about herself even as a little girl. She was special,” recalls brother Gary.
She was bullied for having a slightly lighter complexion than her peers and began honing her talents early on. “We’d be playing pinochle when Nippy was 5, 6, 7 years old. She’d be down in the basement with her mother’s wig and the mop as a mic, singing at the top of her lungs,” recalls Ellen White, a family friend they call Aunt Bae. “I always felt that Nippy could sing but I never anticipated, never fathomed Nippy would be Whitney Houston.”
Trouble started early for the star. According to her brothers Michael and Gary, Whitney first tried cocaine at the age of 16, and they were all using heavily as she catapulted to stardom in the mid-’80s, bringing them along for the ride.
“When you come from nothing there’s a tendency to want to be the savior,” longtime music director Rickey Minor says of Houston’s large, family-filled entourage. Despite her partying, her voice soared and she landed seven consecutive No. 1 singles. “We were pinching ourselves over her success,” says Clive Davis who first signed her to Arista Records in ’83.
THE TRUTH ABOUT ROBYN
Though Whitney dated men publicly, friends and family affirm longstanding rumors that her relationship with best friend Robyn Crawford was once romantic. “Robyn loved Whitney. She was also very young and probably not equipped to withstand the slings and arrows,” says Whitney’s longtime agent Nicole David. “Do I believe it was a sexual relationship as well? I believe it was.”
Whitney’s fame grew, the romance fizzled. “As a teen Whitney ran from her mother’s house into the arms of Robyn. But from what I gathered, by the time Whitney was becoming a star in the mid-’80s, it had already become a really close friendship.” (Crawford has not commented and did not participate in the documentary.)
THE BOBBY BROWN EFFECT
Marrying Bobby Brown in 1992, the same year she starred in the worldwide hit film The Bodyguard, Houston’s fame and drug problems reached new heights — and the pair’s erratic behavior became tabloid fodder.
“The problem with Whitney and Bobbywas they exacerbated each other’s addiction,” says Whitney’s friend and hairstylist Ellin LaVar. Originally, “She did more cocaine, he drank more. But when they got together they both started doing more cocaine and drinking. It just manifested itself in a really bad way.” (Brown tells PEOPLE in a statement: “I just hope people remember Whitney for the music she shared with the world, which was her most important legacy.”)
Though they happily welcomed daughter Bobbi Kristina in 1993, Whitney was by then deep into addiction and largely unfit to be a good mother and role model. “Nippy genuinely loved her,” says White of Bobbi Kristina, who White helped raise and who died in 2015 at age 22. “But it’s hard when you’re in drugs. It’s so insidious and debilitating.”
A STAR DIMS
“Over the years it was about, ‘Get her ready for a performance, get her ready for camera.’ When she was having her ‘downtime,’ she was having her ‘downtime,'” recalled a family source. “We were all accustomed to that code word.”
After she took the stage looking shockingly gaunt at a 2001 Michael Jackson tribute show, her family claims to have tried multiple interventions, but nothing worked to save her from her demons. The night of Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy party, she was found floating in her hotel room bathtub, having drowned with cocaine and prescription drugs in her system.
Despite the pain and darkness that plagued her life, the hope is she’ll be remembered most for her gift. “If I could, I would tell her, ‘I, along with millions of others, deeply feel the pain that took your life,” says Davis, “but your greatness will forever inspire.’”
“I think about her every minute of the day,” Cissy told PEOPLE in 2013. Now, in the wake of the film she confirms “She faced challenges,” but remains adamant, “she was not a victim.”
This article originally appeared on PEOPLE.