Who, if anyone, could have saved Amy Winehouse?
The question always arises after any drug-related celebrity death about whether the star was surrounded by sycophants and enablers who ignored health risks to keep their meal ticket in motion. But we may never have seen a celebrity case as extreme as Winehouse's: The last four to five years of her life represented as extended and public a trainwreck as pop culture has ever witnessed. This was not a Heath Ledger, whose problems were kept largely under wraps, tipped only by suspiciously heavy-lidded interviews, but a superstar who seemed to openly court disaster for a shambolic half-decade, regardless of whether she was being enabled or shamed.
Looking back at relatives' statements over the years, you don't see much denial going on.
"I realize my daughter could be dead within the year," said her mother, Janis. "We're watching her kill herself, slowly. I've already come to terms with her dead. I've steeled myself to ask her what ground she wants to be buried in, which cemetery. Because the drugs will get her if she stays on this road. I look at Heath Ledger... She's on (his) path. It's like watching a car crash -- this person throwing all these gifts away." The year Winehouse's mom went public with this prophecy of imminent doom? 2008.
"Perhaps it is time to stop buying records," said her former father-in-law, Giles Fielder-Civil, suggesting a boycott as a last resort. "It's a possibility, to send that message... It's about time that their friends and their professional colleagues say to them ‘enough is enough'." The year he went on live radio to sound this warning? Not recently, when Winehouse had little public cache to lose, but all the way back in the summer of 2007, when her star was really just beginning to rise in America.
Her father-in-law thought a boycott could force Winehouse's label to reign her in. But Winehouse's equally concerned father, Mitch, called in to the same program to say the record company was doing everything it could.
"There's only one person to blame and that's Amy," her father declared four years ago. "That's what Blake's parents have got to understand... There's no question of the record company or her family trying to work her to the bone. These are some of the accusations that have been levelled at us." In contrast to the popular conception of corporate enablers, Mitch Winehouse described "caring, loving people from the record company, people who have been in the business for 20 or 30 years who are used to seeing matters like this, crying their eyes out because of their genuine love and affection for Amy. The record company isn't as callous as some people think it is."
Mitch Winehouse continued to sound like he was in anything but denial as he discussed his daughter's problems over the years. In 2008, he told the press Amy had developed early-stage emphysema. "If drugs mean more to her than breathing properly, then so be it. But the doctors have told her if she goes back to smoking drugs, it won't just ruin her voice, it will kill her."
Given the widespread awareness and acceptance of her problems, surely she could have been saved if she entered rehab, right?
Except that this was the woman who famously said "no, no, no" to rehab. Except when she was saying yes - entering a treatment facility at least four times over the years, according to reports. But those brief stints couldn't instill a sense of real personal determination.
The first time she went into rehab, by her own glib account, was before she recorded the 2007 smash "Rehab" and helped inspire the nay-saying song. "I did [go to rehab], for just 15 minutes,'" she told the Sun. "I went in and said ‘Hello' and explained that I drink because I'm in love and have [messed] up the relationship. Then I walked out."
Winehouse's parents and representatives of her management set up an intervention meeting after things started deteriorating so publicly in 2007, but Winehouse and her husband skipped it to meet his in-laws at the pub. But her troubles soon caught the attention of the law. In Norway, the young marrieds were arrested for drug possession and let off with a fine. In December, she was busted in London for interfering with a case against Blake, who was soon to spend two years in jail on an assault charge. In January 2008, Scotland Yard looked into - but ultimately didn't act on - a widely disseminated video that showed Winehouse appearing to smoke crack.
When the infamous crack video emerged, Mitch Winehouse said he wanted to get her sectioned under England's Mental Health Act to force her to clean up, but couldn't. "You might consider taking drugs is a danger to herself, but unfortunately the authorities don't," he said. As for her attitude, "Part of the problem is she doesn't think she's got a problem. She thinks she can do what she does recreationally and get on with the rest of her life."
But, following the bad spate of PR, she did check herself into rehab on January 24, 2008-a decision that must have involved eating some humble pie for a women whose star had risen on the cocky claim that she would never do just that. In any case, she didn't stay long, and emerged in time to perform via satellite on the Grammy Awards, where she swept the top prizes. It was the kind of massive validation that some observers thought might shore up her ego and render intoxication unnecessary. But that assumption hardly took into account the scope of her addiction.
The years 2009-10 brought a bevy of further incidents: an alleged assault against a theater manager who'd asked her to change seats at a performance of "Cinderella"; punching out an innocent fan at a gig, whom she mistook for someone who'd thrown an object at her; messing up the lyrics to "Valerie" at a rare, brief public performance with producer Mark Ronson; and an official end to her literally combative relationship with her husband, though, not surprisingly, she got back together with him for a time after the divorce.
In early 2011, Mitch Winehouse said that his daughter had been clean for about "two and a half years," while cautioning that "I'm not saying her problems have gone away." This provided great reason for optimism, as the father had not been one to sugar-coat her problems in the past. A European tour was booked during this supposedly healthy time.
But things took another turn for the worse, leading her to make her final entry into rehab on May 27. As she checked into the Priory Clinic again, an official statement cited her desire to "seek an assessment" and "be ready for performances in Europe this summer." According to the English press, on her way to check into rehab, she was seen downing a small bottle of vodka. Some sources said she was devastated at a breakup with her boyfriend of one year, film director Reg Traviss, whom gossip reports suggested had had enough of her propensity for partying. In any case, this stint in treatment lasted less than a week. Winehouse checked out June 2, saying in a statement that she would be receiving "outpatient treatment," two words that sounded the loudest possible alarm bells.
The rest is well-trodden, tragic history: A disastrous and widely YouTube-d tour opening in Belgrade, followed by a quick cancellation of her remaining dates. The Daily Mail reported the claim that shortly before her death Winehouse purchased "a cocktail of narcotics" that included cocaine and ecstasy, though the authorities in London have cautioned against a leap to judgment about any overdose before autopsy reports come in.
Dr. Drew Pinsky used the occasion of her death to belittle the idea that short stays in rehab do any good for a true addict.
"I don't care what the specific cause of death was — she (had) a fatal condition," Pinsky said on CNN. "Opiate addiction takes months to years to treat... Just as with the diabetic, if they don't take their insulin, if the addict doesn't do the (full, daily) program, they inevitably in all cases will relapse, and when it's an opiate addiction, it's a progression to fatality. The prognosis for an opiate addict is worse than the vast majority of cancers."
Surely there were enablers on the lower, non-public rungs of Winehouse's entourage: the dealers and ever-present hangers-on in and around her North London flat. But when it comes to her family and professional reps, there's little reason to imagine there was anything in Winehouse's five-year-long incapacitation for them. Her father likely had it right in 2007 when he said there was one person to blame. And it was the tragic figure who, even in the face of ongoing humiliation — and in the end, possibly, because of it — couldn't stop saying "yes, yes, yes."