Editor's Note: Sheryl Lee Ralph is a Tony award nominee for her work in the original case of Dreamgirls on Broadway. She has appeared in TV and films alongside stars such as Denzel Washington, Robert DeNiro, Whoopi Goldberg and Eddie Murphy. She is founding director of The DIVA Foundation and author of an upcoming book "Redefining DIVA," which will be released next month.
By Sheryl Lee Ralph, Special to CNN
(CNN) – Like so many others, I was stunned into shocked silence when I was told of Whitney Houston’s death. I thought about Whitney and her battles with music and misery over the years. She was so very different from when I saw her for the first time back in 1981 and said to myself, ‘oh my, that’s a “Dream”!’
I was on Broadway at the time making my mark playing Deena Jones in the original cast of Dreamgirls. We were a hit, a bonafide smash. Night after night at the Imperial Theatre, we ended every show with the kind of applause that brought people to their feet. But just up the street in a club called Sweet Water, there was a teenager doing the same thing: her name was Whitney Houston. She was as fresh and as fabulous as we were, a real life Dreamgirl who was also giving audiences moments they would never forget. I know I will never forget how in that little club, sitting with my Dreamgirls co-star Loretta Devine, we both thought, ‘Wow, this girl is the real deal.’ But just as fame came calling on us, it came for Whitney too, and it wasn’t always nice.
Everybody wants Fame, but Fame is a very difficult friend to keep. It can be like a jealous lover who wants you all to himself and when threatened, will beat you up, ruin your good looks, tear down your self-esteem and even kill you. In order to call Fame your friend, you have to have it all together. You have to be ultra-strong, solid to the core and know that God is good. Fame will build you up just to crush you down. You have got to have faith along with fame. You have got to know who you are or Fame will take you out. We have seen it happen over and over: Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse.
Whitney had a real show biz pedigree– Auntie Ree Ree (Aretha Franklin) was her godmother, Cissy Houston, lead singer of the Sweet Inspirations and background singer for Elvis Presley was her mother and Dionne Warwick was her cousin or aunt. I could never get it straight. She had a simplicity and innocence about her in the beginning with her close cropped curly ‘fro and skin with a hint of left over teenage acne. She was just a purely talented kid and there is nothing like pure, raw talent.
In the beginning Fame was wonderful. I will never forget those lavish 80’s parties, where we were surrounded by the beautiful “yes” people who told you, yes, you’re right, yes, you’re beautiful, yes you’re wonderful. Yes, Yes, YES! Whatever you want, yes! It was all there for the asking. No one tells you no and you feel protected. You think they are there to help you. New fame brings friends, clothes, jewelry, sex and drugs. A dangerous mixture. Then add a little alcohol for an extra kick. But just as quick as you go up, you can begin the descent down.
I saw how drugs took the best of Nell Carter, the actress/singer who playwright Tom Eyen was writing Dreamgirls for. She left us to pursue a bright career in Hollywood when she landed the sitcom “Gimme a Break.” I remember Nell telling me to “stay away from the hard stuff” as she vomited into the toilet. I have never forgotten that moment.
The next time I saw Whitney, I could tell that Fame was having its way with her. We shared a very talented makeup artist and he had a serious drug issue. I don’t know, but I thought he was sharing his issue with Whitney. It hurt to think that it could be true.
I saw her again several times on the set of the TV show “Moesha,” with and without her husband of fifteen years, Bobby Brown. I could see Fame was walking with both of them. It was obvious. Whitney and I spoke quickly and quietly as I helped her turn her wig around. I was saddened to see what I saw and I wished there had been more time to say “Stop!!” To remind her of that great beginning of hers and tell her how quickly it all ends. To let her know that the road she was walking with Fame has had the same end of the road for everyone who has walked it that way. But there wasn’t the time.
I didn’t have the time to tell her that she was not some ordinary diva. She was a DIVA! - Divinely Inspired Victoriously Anointed. But all too soon the DIVA has died again.
Opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sheryl Lee Ralph.