Whitney Houston Biopic Screenwriter Reveals How Singer Nearly Went Broke

Whitney Houston is one of the most successful artists in history. Aside from her music, she earned money through various business ventures. But like many, she found herself as the breadwinner for her family and mounting staff. Her later years were reportedly filled with financial strife that her biopic’s screenwriter says was due to her family living off her. And her estate was left to clean it up to preserve her legacy.

Whitney Houston sings on stage
Whitney Houston sings on stage – Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Screenwriter says Whitney Houston supported her entire family, leaving her with financial issues

Houston’s biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody explores her meticulously crafted career and image. Despite her mega success with No. 1 albums, hits, history-making moments, and films, she ran into financial problems that’ll be dissected in the movie. Her drug use didn’t help the situation.

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She learns she’s broke (or nearing broke) in a heartbreaking scene, which is largely due to her supporting too many friends and family members on her payroll. As a result, Houston has to continue touring, as touring is the quickest way to earn the most money. But she doesn’t want to.

“The way that the family business was constructed—everybody was on the payroll,” screenwriter Anthony McCarten told Vanity Fair. “Everyone was using her as an ATM. She had to keep pumping enormous amounts of money because everything was being paid for on Whitney’s dime. When she wanted to slow down, the machine was still as hungry as it ever was, and suddenly you run out of all the reserves you imagined you’d built up. So she got into a situation where she was finally confronted by the stark fact that the money was almost all gone, and she was relegated to living in a condo under the name Elizabeth Collins. To think of the great Whitney Houston, with all that success and all that global fame and all those record-breaking levels of success and sales, it’s quite sobering.”

How many family members were on Whitney Houston’s payroll

Houston’s two brothers, Michael and Gary, performed as her background singers. At some point, she hired new background singers as replacements, but they stayed on her payroll. Her father was also paid a salary of $500,000 annually working in some sort of management role, but according to insiders, her father’s role was unclear. Eventually, her sister-in-law Pat Houston became her manager in the last decade of her life.

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According to a New York Daily News article that highlighted Houston’s legal battle with her father, she claimed she paid her dad an annual salary of $52,000 to $90,000 a year from 1991 to 1997 – and loaned an additional $723,800 to buy and remodel his condo and paid for his cars and trips. 

Houston also spared no expense regarding her employees, including her background singers, band, etc. While touring, everyone stayed at the same hotel as Houston’s, typically the Ritz Carlton, and earned daily per diem in addition to their regular salaries. Employees said Houston also would pay for meals and other travel expenses at times.

She had a major fallout with her father over his alleged mishandling of her business affairs

Houston’s father, John, worked as her business manager for many years in her career. But at some point, things soured. In 2004, his company sued Houston for $100 million. He claimed breach of contract lawsuit, accusing her of never paying up for services during their contract, MTV News reported at the time. Eventually, the lawsuit dropped, but their relationship was estranged until John’s illness and eventual death.