‘We were paralysed with shock’: Whitney Houston’s friend reveals for the first time the moment he found her dead in her hotel room
The horrific sight still keeps him awake at night and will be forever etched on his mind.
When Raffles van Exel saw Whitney Houston’s bodyguard frantically pumping her chest, he immediately knew she was dead.
The singing legend was naked as she lay rigid on a sodden beige carpet. Water from the fast-running tap was still pouring out of the bath, forming an eerie, transparent frame around her.
It was an ill-fitting, ignominious end for a woman who was once the best-selling female artist of all time.
Raffles instinctively ran for a towel and covered the bottom half of her body as her devastated bodyguard Ray Watson stood up and began crying into his hands.
Today Raffles becomes the first person in Whitney’s tight inner circle to break the silence surrounding her tragic death in February at the age of 48.
In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Mirror, he tells how she hid her drug habit from those closest to her in the weeks before she died, and how she seemed to have a premonition about her end. “Whitney was good at hiding her drug habit,” Raffles says. “I honestly thought she was clean in the two years before she died.
“Yes, she would have the occasional drink. And I knew she was taking painkillers and the anxiety drug Xanax. But I never suspected she was using hard drugs.
“It really shocked me when I found that out. And actually it made me quite mad because I thought, ‘Whitney, you had us all fooled.’
“Everyone thought Whitney was in a good place and we never imagined anything like this was going to happen.”
He adds: “But looking back, Whitney seemed to have a premonition about her death. She started carrying a Bible around everywhere she went and would read from it all the time. “Also, she kept talking about ‘leaving’ America. I thought she meant she was going to Switzerland, where she had talked about living, but now I realise she meant she was leaving this world.”
Entertainment consultant Raffles, 44, knew Whitney for 24 years, having first met her after a concert in his native Holland in 1988.
He was her constant companion in the three weeks before she died. He was also in business with her, working on a new candle line that would carry her name with her sister-in-law and manager Patricia Houston.
Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Raffles reveals how he was due to shoot an “infomercial” with Whitney at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on the fateful day, February 11, when she drowned in the bath of her luxury suite.
He says: “We were all waiting for Whitney to get ready and suddenly Pat said, ‘You know, I haven’t spoken to Whitney all day, I should go and check on her.’”
He tells how he was in a room just down the hall from where Whitney was staying, chatting to her daughter Bobbi Kristina.
He says: “After a while I told Bobbi that I needed to go back to my house to pick up a poster. She asked if she could come with me.
“We walked down the hall and saw Whitney’s stylist Tiffanie Dixon bawling her eyes out by a telephone. Bobbi Kristina said, ‘What’s wrong?’
“It was then that I saw Whitney’s elderly aunt Mary Jones falling on her knees by Whitney’s room at the end of the hallway. She was on her knees crying.
“I ran over and asked her, ‘What’s wrong?’ She was saying, ‘Oh my God. Not my baby. Not my baby. Not my Nippy.’
“She told me, ‘Go and help Nippy.’ I opened the door and saw Pat sitting on a chair, white as a sheet, rocking back and forth. I said, ‘Pat, what is wrong?’
“Then I saw Whitney lying on the floor with her bodyguard, who’d lifted her out, trying to give her CPR. It was the first time in my life I had seen a dead body.
“She was on the floor, totally naked. I don’t know where it came from, but I got a towel and placed it over her navel. Ray got up and started shaking his head and crying.”
Raffles reveals how the hotel security arrived and took over administering CPR. He says: “I stood holding hands with Pat… she squeezed my hand so tight.
“After no more than a minute, the police and paramedics arrived.
“They wanted to use defibrillators to try to get her heart started, but they couldn’t because the water was still running out of the bath and was overflowing on to the carpet.
“The carpet on which Whitney was lying was soaked through so there was a risk everyone would be electrocuted.
“They picked Whitney up and moved her from the bathroom to the living area. I helped one of the detectives move a sofa out on to the patio to make room.
“The police ordered everyone out but Pat refused. I told Pat I had to leave, that I could not take it any more.”
Raffles describes how Whitney’s family and friends were so paralyzed with shock in the minutes after she was declared dead that he was left to comfort Bobbi Kristina, 19, the daughter she had with ex-husband Bobby Brown.
“I walked into Bobbi Kristina’s room and she was crying and bawling,” he says. “She asked me, ‘Is my mummy gone?’ I said, ‘They are working on her.’
“She held me and said, ‘I can’t believe she is gone.’ I didn’t want to be the one who told her her mother was dead.
“I asked to borrow her phone and I called Bobby Brown. I said, ‘Yo Bobby, where you at?’
“He said he was in Boston. I said, ‘I need you to come to LA, Whitney just died.’ He started crying. He said, ‘Is this a joke? Tell me this is a f***ing joke?’
“At some point someone told Bobbi Kristina her mother was dead. I think Pat gave her the news. Bobbi became hysterical.
“She started screaming and hyperventilating. She was really out of it. I told Pat that we needed to call an ambulance. Pat said, ‘I can’t deal with this right now.’
“I called an ambulance and we took Bobbi Kristina to Cedars Sinai hospital. But she was still so out of it and kept saying she couldn’t breathe. I think she might have taken something that day but I can’t be sure.
“The doctors wanted to give her something to calm her down, but she wouldn’t let them. Bobbi Kristina was in a really bad way.”
Raffles, who says he has never touched drink or drugs himself, was with Whitney through the years when she sank into the depths of her addiction.
He reveals that in the mid-90s, when she was married to R & B singer Brown, he would look on in horror at evidence of drug-taking – baking powder, smashed glasses and burnt spoons – as he took food into her room at the Bel Air Hotel. He says he tried to warn her to slow down, but says: “What Whitney wants, Whitney gets.”
He says she finally saw the light when her close friend Michael Jackson died from a drugs overdose in 2009.
“Michael was Whitney’s hero and they used to talk for hours and hours on the phone,” he says.
“Sometimes they would be up until two in the morning chatting away. When he died it was a major reality check for Whitney. She would tell me, ‘Raffles, I don’t want to end up like Michael.’
“I thought that finally she had got the message. She secretly moved to a private community in Laguna Beach, California, and when I visited her she was jogging on the beach and spending some quality time with Bobbi Kristina.
“She looked great and her eyes were sparkling again. I knew she was off drugs because she got really chubby. I told her, ‘Girl, you got big!’ She told me how happy she was to be exercising and getting clean.
“She said, ‘I’m still smoking cigarettes but I am going to quit them too. I want to get my high voice back and go out and show everybody what I can do.’”
But Whitney appears to have fallen off the wagon shortly after she arrived in Los Angeles in January. Raffles says she initially checked in to the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel and set about going to business meetings and visiting her dentist, who he thinks prescribed her painkillers.
She started drinking again and was spotted knocking back margaritas and staggering out of a Hollywood nightclub, sweaty and intoxicated.
But Raffles insists she hid her hard drug use from everyone close to her.
Whitney is believed to have been in a drug-induced stupor when she drowned in room 434 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel while getting ready for a pre-Grammy Awards party.
An autopsy report later revealed that a contributing factor to her death was the “effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use”.
The report stated that she had used cocaine shortly before she died, as well as marijuana and prescription drugs including Xanax, allergy medication Benadryl and muscle-relaxant Flexiril.
A Dutch newspaper later reported that Raffles had admitted to “cleaning” the singer’s room of drug paraphernalia before the police arrived. Others have accused him of being one of Whitney’s main enablers.
But a police investigation has exonerated him of any wrongdoing, and he says he is now going to sue those who made such allegations.
“The only thing I did was help Whitney’s family take all her belongings out of the hotel room after the police had given us permission to clear it,” he says. “I did not ‘clean’ the room and I never said I did.
“After Whitney died, the crucifixion of Raffles van Exel began and my life has been a living hell ever since.
“I’ve been called everything from Rihanna’s drug dealer to Hollywood’s biggest importer of narcotics. None of it is true.
“Whitney always promised she would make me famous, but this is the one promise I wish she had not kept.
“I feel now is the right time to speak about her as people want to know what happened.
“Looking back, I wish I had spotted the warning signs and done something to help her. I wish I’d spent more time with her and talked to her more. We should have staged an intervention or something.
“Whitney was my best friend, she was like family to me, and I don’t know how I am going to live now she is gone.”