Robyn Crawford first met the woman who would cast a long shadow over her life in the summer of 1980.

Robyn was 19, and they were both working as camp counsellors in New Jersey during their school holidays.
She spotted a "strikingly beautiful" teenager sitting at the back of the room. Dressed in a silk blouse and knee-length shorts, she "simply stopped me in my tracks", she says.

Crawford asked her name. "Whitney Elizabeth Houston," the 16-year-old replied. The pair would soon become inseparable friends - and lovers.

Throughout her career, Whitney Houston, singer of I Will Always Love You and All The Man That I Need, was dogged by rumours that she was gay. As an African-American singer raised in the church, 'coming out' would have been unthinkable in her 1980s and 1990s heyday.

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Houston, who won more awards than any female performer in music history, denied the gossip, even as her private life was engulfed in addiction, alcoholism and marital violence.

Now, seven years after Houston's death, Crawford - the woman at the centre of those rumours - has broken her silence to confirm the stories were true, in her memoir, A Song For You: My Life With Whitney Houston.

Both girls came from unhappy families. Crawford's abusive father beat her mother. Houston went to a private girls' school and had already been signed by a modelling agency, but was caught between her warring parents - her father John, a housing administrator, and imposing gospel singer mother, Cissy.

Within weeks of meeting, Crawford claims, the girls had their first kiss in the living room of Houston's family home.

"If I knew when my brothers were coming home, I'd show you something," she told Crawford. The saucy remark reminded Crawford of what her mother had said on first meeting Houston: "You look like an angel - but I know you're not."

Crawford was deeply moved by the power of Houston's voice when she witnessed a parishioner faint with emotion as Houston sang at her local Baptist church.

Later, the girls spent the night at a friend's flat, Houston clutching a cannabis joint in one hand and a Bible in the other, before joining Robyn in bed.

"We took off our clothes and for the first time, we touched each other," Crawford says.

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"Whatever energy we had between us all that time was expressed through our bodies that night. It was free and honest. It was tender and loving."

Houston had inherited much of her mother's Christian fervour and "knew the Bible like the back of her hand", but she had a rebellious side. She smoked cannabis and told Crawford she'd first taken cocaine at 14. Yet Houston insisted they wouldn't take cocaine once she was famous.

"Whitney would say, 'Cocaine can't go where we're going,'' says Crawford. How tragically wrong this proved to be.

Crawford says their secret relationship was nearly exposed when her mother came home one afternoon and was surprised to find her daughter in bed. If she realised Houston was naked behind the door, she didn't say.

"You could tell Whitney and I were tight," Crawford writes.

"It wasn't all about our sleeping together. We could be naked. We could be bare and didn't have to hide. We could trust each other with our secrets, and who we were. We were everything to each other."

Crawford - now a 58-year-old fitness trainer - says "we never talked labels, like lesbian or gay. We just lived our lives, and I hoped it could go on that way for ever."

But it couldn't. Houston - who attracted music industry attention when performing with her mother in New York nightclubs - began receiving offers for a record deal aged 18. After she signed, she gave Crawford a present - a blue Bible - and an ultimatum.

Crawford says: "She said we shouldn't be physical any more, as it would make our journey even more difficult," adding: "She also said that she wanted children one day, and living that kind of life meant that we would go to Hell."

Houston noted, "If people find out, they'll never leave us alone".

Crawford accepted this. The pair moved into a flat in New Jersey, having separate rooms but often sharing a bed, if only because - when they were doing drugs - Crawford wanted to keep an eye on her friend.

She says: "We had a bond that no one could penetrate. It would be our secret, and it would hold us together."

Robyn Crawford and Whitney Houston circa 1988. Photo / Getty Images
Robyn Crawford and Whitney Houston circa 1988. Photo / Getty Images

She began to feel the first of many pangs of jealousy when Houston recorded her debut album with Jermaine Jackson - the married older brother of Michael - and they had an affair.

When Jermaine later rebuffed Houston, Crawford tried to make her feel better by saying she was "worrying over the wrong Jackson'. Houston soon hired Crawford as her assistant, and rumours swirled that they were together.

Houston was not as self-assured or as cool as she was portrayed, Crawford says.

"Performing, Whitney was a lioness, but offstage she was quiet and rarely roared."

When Houston - under pressure from her management - agreed to straighten and lengthen her hair with a "weave" of false hair attachments, she laid her head in Crawford's lap and cried.

Crawford says she was a "homebody" and a "kid".

On tour, they would race each other barefoot down hotel corridors or have water pistol fights with her entourage. Houston relaxed with colouring books.

Sadly, touring escalated her drug use. She would attend music industry parties featuring large bowls full of cocaine.

According to Crawford, Houston's family didn't just bleed the star dry financially but - in the shape of her brother Michael - kept her supplied with the drug on tour. The family dismissed Crawford as an opportunist.

Houston wasn't short of male pursuers, either. Robert De Niro was an early admirer "she had trouble shaking", says Crawford.

He repeatedly rang with dinner invitations, once calling her hotel at midnight.

"He must be crazy," said Houston, who "let him down gently", says Crawford.

Kevin Costner was another persistent suitor, although he simply wanted Houston to star in his film The Bodyguard. Crawford said she kept refusing, as she didn't want to be an actress.

Finally she relented. The 1992 film earned more than $400 million. Houston said she'd told Costner she had one proviso with love scenes - he mustn't put his tongue in her mouth.

Crawford casts Houston's mother as a foul-mouthed bully who became jealous when she saw Crawford overtaking her in the singer's affections.

Cissy told her daughter: "It's not natural for two women to be that close."

When a magazine reported they were having an affair, Cissy - who, by that time, was helping her husband John run Houston's career - insisted Crawford never again appear beside her daughter in public.

Houston was so desperate to shake off the gay rumours that she compared homosexuality to bestiality.

"Her protests were too much and sometimes unkind," says Crawford.

She adds that her difficult relationship with Cissy boiled over on the London leg of Houston's 1988 tour, when Cissy, furious that Crawford had left their hotel for a walk, slapped her.

That evening, she was slapped again - by Houston, who had learned Crawford had kissed one of her female dancers. Houston, who "could be possessive", sacked the dancer, she says.

Houston's own love life was a different matter. She was attracted to the actor and comedian Eddie Murphy, but he failed to turn up to their first date.

Then when she went to surprise the star on his birthday wearing only lingerie and a fur coat, he refused to let her into his house.

Houston took it badly, disappearing on a two-day "drug binge" before returning to Crawford a "wreck", barely able to stand up.

Crawford says Murphy played on Houston's crippling insecurity. Although he gave Houston a diamond ring which Crawford took to be an engagement ring, she believes he never had any intention of marrying the singer.

Houston was even romantically linked to Michael Jackson, but when she and Crawford visited him at his Neverland ranch, Crawford was disconcerted when Jackson started to stare at her for minutes on end.

"He must really love your eyes," Houston said.

Houston should have realised her next major suitor, R&B singer Bobby Brown, was not ideal boyfriend material when she and Crawford, who by the 1990s was sharing a New Jersey mansion with the singer, first went to meet him backstage.

The mother of his children had also come to see him and, according to Crawford, the pair came to blows.

It didn't deter Houston. Nor did news that Brown had gone to see the same woman, unnamed in Crawford's book, to tell her he was now seeing Houston, and instead got her pregnant again.

Houston's drug-taking only worsened with Brown around, and their cocaine-fuelled rows were so violent the couple were thrown out of at least one hotel.

When Crawford urged her friend to stop, Houston told her: "I'm not ready just yet."

On the day of Houston's 1992 wedding to Brown, Eddie Murphy rang out of the blue and told her she was making a big mistake. Crawford, as "Matron of Honour", fought back tears as she took "one last look" at the bride and realised their relationship had changed.

Houston returned from her Amalfi coast honeymoon with a 3in scar on her face. Crawford didn't believe her explanation that she had cut herself after throwing a glass against a wall.

In 1995, it was claimed that John Houston, Whitney's father, had offered a man $6,000 to smash Crawford's kneecaps. Years later, Houston's brother, Gary, insisted the family - irked by the negative headlines about lesbianism - had merely wanted to scare her.

Meanwhile, Houston's toxic marriage to the violent and unfaithful Brown further isolated Crawford from the star.

She doesn't address claims that she had physical fights with Brown over Houston. She says she once saw him spit in Houston's face and then hit her on the head with a phone.

However, she no longer lived with Houston, and felt powerless to save a friend who looked so ill that she was unrecognisable to some. She felt even more sorry for Bobbi Kristina, Houston and Brown's daughter who - says Crawford - received little attention from her mother. (In 2015, in a parallel of her mother's demise three years earlier, Bobbi Kristina died aged 21, after being found unconscious in her bath.)

Crawford says the final straw came in 2000 after Houston and Brown turned on her for buying George Michael a present after Whitney failed to turn up to a recording session with him. She left her job, and the singer. They remained in sporadic contact.

The singer gave a disastrous interview in 2002, in which she admitted taking cocaine, pills and marijuana but said she didn't take crack cocaine as it was too "cheap" for her.

Five years later, she divorced Brown, who subsequently said she only married him to clean up her image.

In 2012, Houston was found dead in a bath at the Beverly Hilton hotel in LA. She was 48.

The cause was accidental drowning, with heart disease and cocaine contributing factors.

Last year, a documentary sanctioned by Houston's family portrayed Crawford as the singer's 'safety net'. Even Brown believes his ex-wife would be alive today if Crawford had remained an important part of her life.

Why did Houston self-destruct so spectacularly? Crawford has dismissed claims by Houston's brother, Gary, that he and his sister were sexually abused as children by their singer cousin, Dee Dee Warwick.

"If there was any truth to that I would know about it," she said on TV.

A mental health expert speculated this week that the turmoil caused by repressing her gay feelings could have sent Houston into her downward spiral.

For Crawford, that would surely be the cruellest of blows.