Bobby Brown’s Bum Rap

By John Wolfson | Boston Magazine |

Bobby Brown was late, of course. He’d been ordered to show up at the Norfolk County Probate and Family Court in Canton at 8:30 a.m. on March 24 to explain how it was that he had gone nearly a year without writing a check for child support to Kim Ward, the mother of two of his children. When he finally arrived, around 12:45 p.m., he sent his lawyer, Vincent Dimmock, into the courtroom first. The attorney approached Ward at the opposite table and explained that Brown had worn a baseball cap to shield himself from all the television cameras. Could he borrow a comb? Ward’s lawyer, Linda Medonis, who had seen her share of bruising child-support battles, watched in amazement as Ward responded by searching her purse. Ward may have taken Brown to court, Medonis understood, but it was clearly out of need rather than spite.

The need, of course, was the $63,500 Brown owed Ward, news of which had been picked up by television stations and newspapers across the country. To the tabloids, it was simply one more misadventure in the life of Roxbury’s “Bad Boy” Bobby Brown, notorious for the many arrests, the drug use, the whispered insinuations about his occasionally bizarre marriage to the fading pop star Whitney Houston. Brown had, in the papers, suddenly earned himself another alliterative title: deadbeat dad.

Though used to reading critical stories about himself, Brown was devastated by the coverage of the child-support case, according to family members and close friends who spoke with him at the time. Whatever his failings and weaknesses, he told them, he had always been devoted to his children.

“‘You know I love my kids!'” Beirout Cummings, godmother to Brown’s son, recalls him saying during an emotional phone conversation. “I was like, ‘Bobby, you don’t have to tell me that.'”

That Brown loves his children is beyond dispute among those who know him best. They laugh at his image as a tough guy, a criminal. Outside of some drug and alcohol problems he’s had, they say, he’s basically a loving father and a ham who likes to make people laugh. Yet he had not sent any money to Kim Ward in 10 months. She was in danger of losing her home in Stoughton, where she lives with Brown’s daughter LaPrincia, 14, and his son, Bobby Jr., 12. The $5,500 payments had been made month after month, reportedly by a company owned by Houston, until May of 2003 when they stopped suddenly.

Whatever was wrong in Bobby Brown’s life went far deeper than whether or not he cared to provide for his kids. He had been in trouble many times before, but his relatives sensed it was different this time. Depressed, directionless, and deeply ashamed, his career virtually extinguished, he had finally hit rock bottom. It was a descent many of them trace to his 1992 marriage to Houston, after which he essentially quit performing and distanced himself from Ward, his first love. Making things worse was a brewing feud between his mother and Houston, which has now exploded into an out-and-out power struggle for influence over Brown. And today, the marriage that shocked the entertainment industry 12 years ago and has delighted the tabloid press ever since, may be on the brink of collapse.

But now it was time to face the judge. Brown’s lawyer stood and said that Brown had no money and no assets, that he was unemployed and financially dependent on his wife. It was a humiliating moment for a man who had sold millions of albums and reportedly earned $27 million between 1989 and 1993. The singer cried as he told the judge about the pressures in his life — his wife and his marriage and the press. “I don’t know how to say it, but a lot of things have come down on me,” he said. Unmoved, the judge found him in contempt for failing to pay child support and sentenced him to 90 days in jail. Brown cried again as he was handcuffed and led away. Behind him, Ward cried, too.

Despite her own mounting financial problems, Ward’s decision to take Brown to court had been a difficult one. After all, she had loved Brown since she was 12 and he was an 11-year-old nobody in an obscure Roxbury band competing in local talent shows. She had loved him when that band, New Edition, became famous and loved him when he left for a solo career that eventually made him one of the biggest pop stars of the late ’80s. She had loved him when he met Whitney Houston and even when he married her, and though 12 years have passed since then, and she denies it today, it’s easy to believe that she loves him still. And, she says, he is still in love with her.

Brown spent only one night in jail. Someone came up with the money he owed. When he was released, he set out for Ward’s house and spent a few happy hours with his children. Then the whole group went out for Chinese food.

In the coming weeks, Ward would be enlisted in a cause by Brown’s mother — the same woman who pushed her aside all those years ago to make room for Whitney. After all, Houston may control Brown’s money, but Ward is the one who still has control over his heart. Ward is the one who Bobby, in those quiet and vulnerable moments, still tells people he should have ended up with. Ward is the one who could help Carol Brown get her son out of his marriage.

Brown and his mother sat for an interview with the television news program Dateline NBC a month after the courtroom drama, hoping to salvage whatever remained of his reputation. The interview was mostly a rehash of Brown’s arrest record and squandered fortune, along with a convoluted denial that he ever hit Houston, and a rather unshocking admission of past cocaine and marijuana abuse. There was, however, one strand of the conversation that, though touched upon delicately, hinted at something deeper. Brown said he had sacrificed his career for his marriage and that Houston’s family had never really accepted him. In the same interview, Brown’s mother said she loved Houston, but added, “She can be a crazy person. . . . The problem with Whitney is that there are too many bad influences.” She left it at that.

Since then, the remnants of Carol Brown’s restraint have given way to anger. She is finally saying for the record what she has previously said only in private. Whitney’s mother, the singer Cissy Houston, “despises my son,” she says. “She had a perception of who she wanted her daughter to marry, and it wasn’t Bobby. I have tried to talk to the woman, and she’s an evil person, period. She’s a very evil woman. I don’t believe I’m letting this out, [but] it needs to be said.”

From Carol Brown’s reaction, it’s apparent that her son’s marriage may not last much longer. Whitney Houston’s projected image of strength is merely a fa├žade, “camouflaging weaknesses because you’re insecure in yourself,” Carol Brown says. “I want my son happy with or without her. If he can’t be happy with her then I want him without her. I want the best for her, but not if it means controlling my son.”

It’s an interesting word to choose — “controlling” — given that even those closest to Bobby Brown who agree with her assessment of Houston often use the same word to describe his mother. They say Carol Brown also had a very clear idea of who she wanted her son with. She wanted him with someone rich and powerful, someone from a “legitimate” family. She wanted him with someone just like Whitney Houston. She wanted her son to marry up and was shocked to learn that the family of “America’s sweetheart” was dismayed that she had married down.

Brown and Houston, who just completed drug rehab herself, both declined to comment. Their friend, Sister 2 Sister magazine publisher Jamie Foster Brown (who is not related to Bobby Brown), admits some problems in their relationship but says they haven’t given up. “Even with all the mistakes and problems, they love each other,” she says.

But others who know Brown and Ward say the latest problems, including the child-support dispute, have put in painful relief the extent of the singer’s slide into depression and inactivity.

In the middle of it all stands Bobby Brown himself. Described as easily influenced, more a follower than a leader, he has begun to show signs in the last few months of finally turning things around. There’s talk of a new album, maybe a few movie roles, and a reality-TV project he’s been filming around Boston and elsewhere and pitching to various networks. It’s worth noting that for all the talk of their troubled marriage, Houston has reportedly appeared in some of the scenes shot in Atlanta. Many people who know Brown say he still has the talent, but they wonder about the drive and, mostly, whether his success and his marriage can coexist.Brown’s personal life wasn’t always so complicated. He met Ward around 1980 when they competed in local talent shows. Brown was a member of New Edition, and Ward was part of a dance troupe known as Phase Fourth. Sabrina Johnson, who was also in Phase Fourth, recalls that when the two groups met for the first time, “Kim picked Bobby and they were together ever since.”

Brown told Ward he was 12, like her, but he was just 11. “At that time he probably wasn’t the cutest,” Ward says with a laugh, recalling their courtship. “There was something about him I just wanted.”

It’s easy to understand what attracted Brown to Ward. He’s said to be drawn to strong women like her. She looks people right in the eye and has a manner that is both take-no-excuses and with-you-to-the-end. The young couple started dating, an activity complicated by Carol Brown’s determination that her son not travel to Dorchester, where Ward lived. “She was strict,” Ward says. “She used to have a fit for him to come up there.”

As the romance blossomed, so did the fortunes of New Edition. The 1983 single “Candy Girl” became a hit, and Bobby Brown began his ascent. Between 1983 and 1985, New Edition cut four albums and toured the country. Ward accompanied Brown on the road when she could. The group signed an endorsement deal with Coca-Cola. The members of New Edition had become stars, teen idols. But Brown and his mother imagined something even bigger, something that would require him to leave the others behind.

“He loves the spotlight,” says Beirout Cummings, Bobby Jr.’s godmother. “With New Edition, that’s when the problems clashed. He knew he could do it on his own.”

Helping him arrive at that conclusion, friends say, was his mother’s ambition. Carol Brown says she was only looking out for her son’s interests. “The New Edition part didn’t work because there were too many people involved and so many ideas,” she says. “The majority ruled. I was the minority. I stood up for what was right, and I was a threat. I can’t go any farther than that.”

Whatever the reason, Brown left New Edition in 1986, moved to Los Angeles, and embarked on a solo career. His first album didn’t do much, but his 1988 effort, Don’t Be Cruel, sold seven million copies and produced five top-10 hits. Brown had arrived, pioneering the New Jack Swing movement that combined rap and R & B. His videos seemed to be in permanent loop on MTV. He made millions of dollars. Kim traveled with him on tour. Her days began with a sound check, after which she and a bodyguard would head off to the mall for an afternoon of shopping. Later, she’d watch the show.

As Brown’s fame and wealth grew, so did his entourage. “Kim was the person who kept Bobby grounded,” says Cummings. “She never cared about his money. If they got in an argument, she would cuss him out, whereas everybody else around him became yes-men.” Their bond was strengthened when she gave birth to his daughter, LaPrincia, in 1989.

Carol Brown, however, was not happy with these developments. “His mother had a lot of say-so,” says Sabrina Johnson. “His family, because of Kim’s influence in his life and because of the relationship and bond she had with him, they tried everything they could to break that up.”

Cummings agrees. “His mom didn’t want him with Kim,” she says. “Kim had influence with him, and that was threatening to her.”

In 1989, Brown met exactly the sort of woman his mother could approve of. He attended Whitney Houston’s 26th birthday party at her New Jersey home. Surprising everyone, they began dating, eventually settling into a three-year, on-again, off-again courtship. During the off-again times (and some of the on-again, too), Brown was often in the company of Ward. Press reports tend to paint Ward unflatteringly, as the “former girlfriend,” but she was already the mother of one of Brown’s children, was living with him at his mansion in Atlanta, and, in 1991, gave birth to their second child, Bobby Jr. Ward says she figured she had a shot then at keeping her man.

“I feel like the only thing Whitney had over me was a pretty smile; she had that nice set of teeth,” she says, smiling herself. “I was a little bit younger then. I’m 36 now, so that’s how I felt. [I wasn't] thinking about her money, her power, I didn’t know none of that. I wasn’t thinking about her credibility.”

Of course, it was Houston that Brown ultimately married, in 1992.

“Why did he get married? The pressure,” Ward says. “It probably was the pressure from his family and from his friends. I mean, she was so big then.”

“That is so far from the truth,” says Carol Brown. “If he had married somebody nobody knew — say, Kim — I would have been just as happy. I’m not starstruck, okay? For instance, at his wedding, everybody was running around saying, ‘Did you meet this person? Did you meet Dick Clark? Did you meet so and so?’ No, I didn’t.” Then, sounding hurt, she says Whitney’s family and friends — “the stars or whatever you want to call them” — never came to her table to introduce themselves.

Almost immediately after the wedding, Brown essentially gave up his career. He was 23. Sister 2 Sister publisher Jamie Foster Brown, who has known Brown since his New Edition days, points out that by then he had spent nearly half his life performing. “He was a child when he got into that business,” she says. “Plus, he was married to Whitney Houston. All of that played a role in what happened to his drive.” Others contend that Houston, six years older than Brown, insisted he quit working in order to keep him under her control.

By 1994, without a steady income stream of his own, Brown was essentially bankrupt, owing millions in taxes. In a sign of what was to come, it was Houston who was said to have paid his bills.

Brown’s behavior became erratic. Prior to his marriage, it was his sexually suggestive stage routines that earned him the bad boy reputation. Once he was married, however, his image grew darker after a series of drug- and alcohol-related incidents, including assault charges.

Compounding the tension, Ward claims, was the fact that Bobby Jr. was born barely a year before Houston gave birth to Brown’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina. Ward says Houston has refused to warm to Bobby Jr. though she is generally kind to his older sister, LaPrincia. “There’ll be times she’ll call me,” Ward says, affecting a nasally, upper-crust voice to mimic Houston. “She’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, can LaPrincia come down to spend time with Krissy while we go to such and such?’ Hello? No! He has another kid here, too. She has a problem with little Bobby.”

Ward’s aunt, Debbie Spotts, adds: “There’ve been times in the past where Kim has had to put her foot down and say, ‘If LaPrincia’s gonna go, then Bobby [Jr.] is gonna go. If you’re gonna take one, then you take the other one.'”

With his problems mounting, Brown became depressed and lost confidence. What everyone had assumed was just a temporary break from his career began to look permanent. “After a few years, I was waiting for him to get back on his feet and do what he had to do,” his mother says. “And it never came.”

And then came the hearing in March, when Brown had to stand before a judge and the media and admit that he could not support his children. That moment seems to have sparked many changes in the many lives that orbit Brown’s. Carol Brown now makes no attempt to disguise her disgust with Houston, who most people believe controls the couple’s money. “I think the anger was in knowing that certain people who knew his situation and had control knew how bad this could hurt him and how bad it could make him look,” she says.

Ward makes it a condition of consenting to an interview that she not be asked where the money came from to pay off Brown’s child support. “I don’t know if Bobby’s broke,” she says, “but I know the child support was coming. I know that all of a sudden it stopped.” That’s when Carol Brown started calling Ward.

“It might have [previously] been a situation where she wanted him to date somebody else, and she’d do whatever she had to do to get me out of the picture,” Ward says. “But then she realized she didn’t want that person and I was back in the picture. I’m the one who has control over Bobby. I’m the love of Bobby’s life. Even now he’ll sit there and tell me, ‘I should have married you.’ His mother just told me the other night, ‘Bobby told me he should have married you.’ We all know this, this is old news. But she’s coming to me now because she wants him away from Whitney. Years have gone by that I haven’t spoken to this lady, but right now, I’m her best friend.”

Several people who know Brown say they are convinced that the humiliation of the court appearance in the child-support case served as the motivation that finally has him moving again. “This is it for me. I have to make a change,” Beirout Cummings recalls Brown saying during their phone conversation after he appeared in court. “I’ve heard him say that before, but this was different. His manhood was crushed, his ego was crushed. It’s probably 75 percent of me that says he’s gonna make it. But that 25 percent. . . . Is he really free?”

Ward says: “He knows what his downfall was. He knows what his mistake was. He knows what he needs to do to get it together. I feel like, I don’t know if I should be saying this. . . . ”

“We’ve never talked about this [to the press],” her aunt interjects.

“I think he needs to leave his wife,” Ward continues. “I think he knows that, too. But it’s not that easy. Number one, he doesn’t have his own money. I feel like she keeps him back from that because she knows if he has his own money, he’s out of there. He would definitely leave.”

Filming for Brown’s reality show has taken him to Miami, London, and Boston. Those around him say he’s serious about a new album; some even say he’s already started working on it. “You know how Americans are,” says magazine publisher Jamie Foster Brown. “They love comebacks, somebody who falls down, ‘I did wrong, I’d like to come back.’ Americans love that.”

America may soon learn whether Bobby Brown can get back up.

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