With a scarf draped over her head and under her chin, Whitney Houston looks like a 1950s screen icon in ''Being Bobby Brown." She affects a sleek Joan Crawford-esque demeanor, the crepe softly framing her small, hard features. But while clothes suggest the woman, reality TV spells her out more explicitly. And Houston is no figure of grace and glamour. Bravo's ''Being Bobby Brown" drives home many unhappy realizations about fame and money, and one of them is that they have not been very kind to Houston.
And really, Houston is the star of ''Being Bobby Brown," which premieres tonight at 10. She is a spoiled diva who prefers to arrive late in order to create anticipation, and who then co-opts every scene she's in, whining to ''papa" Brown and moping about persistent fans. She is the drama queen to Brown's muddled court jester. ''That's my family," Brown says at one point. ''We live hard, play hard, and try to stay out of Whitney's way."
And, as Houston must know, she is the sole reason Brown has this show, and the reason any viewers might watch it. Without his marriage to Houston, the late '80s hitmaker would have faded into failed infamy many, many pop moments ago. Houston and her own scary dramas have kept his name in the tabloids.
Essentially, ''Being" is a chronicle of nothingness. Bobby gets out of jail; Bobby visits his kids in Boston; Bobby waits at an Atlanta hotel for Whitney; Whitney arrives late; they party; they have dinner; they laugh; they burp. The half-hour episodes (two air back-to-back tonight) are a blend of small talk in faceless hotels and planned camera-ops, including a family trip to the Bahamas. One minute, Brown is aimlessly mumbling about how ''a man is a man" and how he likes guns, and the next the couple are having a staged spa day with parallel body massages.
Speaking of staged moments, the show may be a little too obviously bent on proving that, despite the fact that he was arrested for allegedly hitting her, Brown and Houston are lovers. Their hookups on ''Being Bobby Brown" have a somewhat contrived air about them, as the two keep disappearing behind doors with smirks on their faces. We even hear daughter Bobbi Kristina yell ''Please! No!" as one door closes on her. If you think Bobby and Whitney aren't an authentic couple, the show seems to protest too much, you're very wrong.
There's a tiny bit of mystery in ''Being Bobby Brown," and it comes in wondering whether Brown and Houston, both of whom have admitted to drug problems, are using during the filming of the show. At times, each appears to be in an altered state, perhaps just from champagne. And as Brown applies Preparation H under his eyes to quell the puffiness, you can't help but see the hard living waging battle on his face. It's the same sense you get watching ''The Anna Nicole Show," or, of course, ''The Osbournes," the pioneer of this genre. Are these celebrities stoned out, you have to ask yourself, or just zoned out?
But then Houston and Brown could simply be high on the cameras. At one point, with the film crew following them and bystanders gawking at them, Houston exclaims, ''I just want to be a real person!" But of course, she and Brown probably couldn't tolerate being real people for very long. If they were real, they wouldn't get to have a restaurant opened early to suit their whims. They wouldn't be able to joke that their daughter takes daddy's court days off from school, and that she misses a lot of school. If they were real, they wouldn't have their own reality show.
''Being Bobby Brown" accurately mirrors the mundane celebrity nonsense that the tabloids manage to transform into news. And ultimately, the tabloid media may be the real reason for ''Being Bobby Brown" as well as for similar series such as ''Britney and Kevin: Chaotic." The celebrities whose stunt-filled and stunted personal lives drive their careers are realizing that it's time to own their own press. Why let Star magazine and ''Extra" cash in on their escapades? Why shouldn't they themselves collect from the audience for their drug problems and fashion faux pas?
They're discovering that they can buy valuable shares in their own tabloid victimization.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.