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BET's high-five for docs, divas

BET honorees Whitney Houston, Keith Black, Queen Latifah, Sean Combs and Ruth Simmons at the Warner Theatre Saturday. (Juana Arias/for The Washington Post)

Divas! Love 'em or hate 'em, they always steal the show.

The new, improved Whitney Houston swept into Saturday's BET Honors and had the entire audience in the palm of her hand -- without singing a note. The singer was the last of five African Americans honored here at the third annual awards show, whose all-star cast included Stevie Wonder, Queen Latifah, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Mary J. Blige, India.Arie and Patti LaBelle.

When gospel singer Kim Burrell appeared onstage at the Warner Theatre for a surprise tribute, Houston leapt from her front-row seat, began to cry and quivered at the foot of the stage as Burrell sang "I Believe in You and Me," one of Houston's big hits. The audience exploded and then Jennifer Hudson -- the only singer who could follow that performance -- came on and launched into Houston's signature "I Will Always Love You" as her overwhelmed icon stood at her feet. The place went nuts.

Enough drama? Apparently not. Houston took the stage to accept the night's entertainment award. "I can hardly breathe," she said, trying to compose herself. "Did you all hear Kim Burrell?" Then she thanked God, BET, her mother and her fans: "It's amazing -- a wonderful, marvelous feeling to be looked at and not judged."

But not a word about Hudson or her performance, which raised more than one eyebrow.

We tried to ask Houston about the oversight, but she wasn't talking to reporters -- she skipped the red carpet before the show, the glitzy after-party, and posed for pictures but didn't do interviews at Friday's dinner for honorees, reports our colleague Krissah Thompson.

For most people, it was enough just to be in Houston's presence. Alesha Renee, a BET television personality, pulled the singer into a tight hug during the dinner. "How are you? Bless your soul," Houston told her. "I could die happy," Renee said, tears filling her eyes as a television camera rolled.

Luckily, the other honorees -- Queen Latifah, Combs, neurosurgeon Keith Black and Brown University President Ruth Simmons -- were happy to talk about this moment in the spotlight. "As much as I've done in my life, my family is rarely impressed," said Simmons, the first African American to head an Ivy League university. "I got this award and they are finally impressed with me."

The BET Honors ceremony is modeled after the Kennedy Center's annual awards -- famous people pay tribute to other famous people -- which created a red-carpet traffic jam at the historic theater Saturday: Former mayor Marion Barry, journalist Gwen Ifill, Oscar nominee Taraji Henson, super-lawyer Billy Martin, possible "Real Housewives of D.C." cast member Mary Amons, and one-time "Apprentice" star Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth.

The audience, all in tuxes and gowns, sat patiently as BET head Debra Lee and Mayor Adrian Fenty kicked off the taping (the show will air Feb. 1 at 9 p.m.) with an appeal to support relief efforts for Haiti: To celebrate the network's 30th anniversary, $30,000 was being sent to the country immediately, with plans to stage an on-air fundraiser similar to the one that raised $13 million for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

And then -- on with the show. Each honoree received a musical tribute, and then came onstage to accept their honor. Moms got plenty of shout-outs, as did the honorees' early influences.

"I would like to thank hip-hop music for allowing me a voice, allowing myself as well as my friends to have an avenue out of the 'hood, if you will, to find a way to pull ourselves up, be creative, and use what we could have used on the streets in a positive way, " said Queen Latifah. Black thanked his patients for their courage and faith; Combs explained his business drive (as a kid, he said he wanted to be a garbage man -- yes, really -- because he admired their grace and work ethic); and Simmons gave a shout-out to her university for "believing one can lead ably from difference."

This being a TV taping, there were retakes and set changes and more retakes . . . and pretty soon, more than three hours had gone by. The final performer, Maxwell, arrived onstage after the crowd had waited 15 minutes for his band to set up. The audience was promised a big payoff, but the singer did just one song.

"That's the concert?" someone blurted out, and forced Maxwell into one more number.

The show was hosted by actress Gabrielle Union, who changed into nine (nine!) different gowns. We found her in dress No. 10 -- a short, clingy number -- at the after-party at the Reagan Building, sipping champagne and being nice to fans who surrounded her, including several men eager to get a picture with the gorgeous actress.
Union told us she was proud to host the show for the second consecutive year because it shines a light on the honorees and their meaningful accomplishments, "not about who's dating whom or who's got the biggest butt."

By The Reliable Source  |  January 17, 2010; 9:22 PM ET
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