NEW YORK -- Whitney Houston, who released her first album in four years this week, has succeeded in getting the public's attention -- but not for her music.
Instead, the buzz is about Houston's admissions of drug use, her erratic behavior and her frail appearance.
''I think Whitney's lost it a little bit,'' says Delia Pena, of Bayonne, N.J., one of thousands of fans who waited outside Lincoln Center on Sunday to see the Grammy-winning star in a mini-concert that aired on Good Morning America.
''I like her music. I hope she's doing better.''
''Just Whitney'' comes a little more than a year after Houston, now 39, signed a reported $100 million contract to stay at Arista Records. When she was 22, she released her self-titled debut album, which has sold more than 13 million copies in the United States; she went on to have hits like ''Saving All My Love for You,'' ''The Greatest Love of All'' and ''I Will Always Love You,'' and starred in movies such as ''The Bodyguard'' and ''Waiting to Exhale.''
Those glory days, however, seem far away. Over the past few years, the singer has been dogged by controversy, from her tumultuous 10-year marriage to bad boy singer Bobby Brown to her missed concert appearances.
She looked so emaciated at a concert for Michael Jackson last year that there were rumors she was dying. And in 2000, Houston was charged with marijuana possession when an airport security guard found the drug in her purse; the misdemeanor count was dismissed when a counselor said Houston did not need treatment for drug abuse. Brown has a history of drug and alcohol arrests, including an arrest last month in Atlanta on drug and traffic charges.
After years denying drug use, Houston confirmed in an interview last week with Diane Sawyer on ABC's ''Primetime Live'' that she had used cocaine, marijuana and pills.
''The biggest devil is me. I'm either my best friend or my worst enemy,'' said Houston, who says she is using prayer to help her get over drugs. ''And that's how I have to deal with it.''
She scoffed at reports that she was a crack addict: ''First of all, let's get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack.''
At another point in the interview, Brown admitted taking marijuana because he's bipolar. And Houston acknowledged rebuffing her mother's attempt at an intervention.
The ABC special was a ratings success, landing approximately 21 million viewers. But Houston's thinness and defensiveness didn't impress critics.
The Washington Post dubbed the interview ''Whitney's Weird Chat,'' while the Miami Herald said the singer appeared ''strung out.''
''She wasn't humble. ... she came off very flip,'' said Karu Daniels, who wrote about the interview in his weekly column on EURWeb, an urban entertainment Web site.
''The interview was crazy ... I blame the people around her.''
Still, the interview may also have garnered some sympathy for the star.
''It's kind of clear that Whitney is in the middle of a major personal crisis, and I think women feel for her, because it's sad,'' said Michelle Santosuosso, program and music director for the Los Angeles urban adult contemporary station Hot 92 Jamz.
Santosuosso said the station recently presented Houston's latest single, ''One of Those Days,'' to the listeners and asked them to ''make it or break it.''
She said the response was overwhelming. ''Regardless of Whitney's personal drama, people are pulling for her,'' said Santosuosso. ''She is a superstar and people love to hear her sing.''
Reaction elsewhere hasn't been as strong. Considering the diva has had countless No. 1 hits, response to her new material has been unspectacular. The first single, ''Whatchulookinat,'' in which she blames the media for trying to mess up her reputation, was critically panned and received scant airplay.
Her latest single debuted at No. 94 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and has been rising slowly.
Still, Houston's star power remains formidable, judging from the crowd that waited more than an hour to see her perform three songs at Lincoln Center on Sunday.
Ada Penabaz and Alicia Doble, both 26, traveled from Boston just to see the performance.
''She has a strong voice, and she seems to be pulling through her tough times now,'' said Doble. ''She's survived these past 20 years.''
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