Stardom Never Spoiled the Whitney Houston I Knew

"Well, Nikki, we're still here."

Those were the words Whitney Houston said to me as we stood backstage at The X Factor in London, where she was set to make another promotional performance on her "comeback" tour.

I looked at her. "Honey," I said, "we're in the permanent collection." The collection in question belongs to Clive Davis, who was also with us that day. Clive, my friend of 40 years, is the musical genius who discovered everyone from Janis Joplin to Jennifer Hudson -- to Whitney Houston.

Clive inspires his artists and friends to excellence, and accepts nothing less from them. So it's no small feat to stay in that collection. Whitney knew that all too well.

I was introduced to Whitney and her mother, Cissy, in the late 1970s by their cousin Dionne Warwick. Whitney was just a teenager at the time, and no matter what people may say, I can tell you that the superstar who died yesterday was no different from the girl I met all those years ago.

Whitney was a free spirit. She was kind, authentic, fun and funny. She never took herself too seriously. She always remembered where she came from.

I remember the party I threw for her at the Palladium in New York City after her first album, Whitney Houston, went double platinum. (Double platinum albums are those that have sold 2 million copies.) By then, she had the world at her feet, but the first thing she did when she arrived was to seek me out and thank me, very sweetly, for going out of my way to host a party for her. What a delight to discover that Whitney Houston the worldwide sensation was just as considerate and charming as Whitney Houston the well-mannered daughter of John and Cissy Houston from New Jersey. She never changed in that regard.

That evening at The X Factor, I was so proud of her. She had gone through so much in the past few years, all of it very publicly -- the divorce, the drugs, the booze -- but through it all, she never lost her pride. She had always been strong, but the person before me that evening was stronger than ever -- having extricated herself from her complicated marriage and seemingly overcome the addiction problems that came with it.

That evening, she sang "Million Dollar Bill," and while it may be cliché to say so, she looked like a million dollars. She had on the most beautiful shoes. "Whitney," I said, "those heels are gorgeous -- are they Manolo's"?

"No," she replied. "They're Louboutin's."

"They don't look like Louboutin's, the heel is black," I told her.

"I have the heels painted black," she said. "The red is too showy."

Did I mention that she never forgot where she came from?