Whitney Houston | Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez | Mariah Carey 

Whitney's Wacky Outdoor Show

Whitney Houston's outdoor performance Sunday afternoon in the plaza at Lincoln Center was as wacky as anything the troubled singer has come up with yet.

She arrived nearly one hour late, and the show — which Good Morning America taped for broadcast Tuesday — started much later than scheduled.

About 1,500 people (an amateur's estimate) filled the plaza, hoping to get a look at Whitney after her calamitous interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC last week. Houston did not disappoint.

The concert was supposed to refute the stories Houston is abusing drugs, and to help promote her new album, Just Whitney , which will be released tomorrow in this country.

In Britain, where it came out on Nov. 25, the album finished at the terrifyingly low number of 76 in its first week.

I don't know how Good Morning America will edit Sunday's performance, but this is what we saw. Houston sang three numbers — "One of those Days" and "Tell Me No" from her new album, and the Christmas song "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

Her voice was impeccable for having to sing in a bitter cold wind -- you had to give her credit for trying. She even said, "You know I never sing in cold air." As usual, she perspired so much she needed a towel.

The amazing thing is that she still sings like an angel. She was very loose on stage, perhaps too loose. Right before she started "One of Those Days" she said, laughing, "I'm [expletive] my knickahs." I'm sure ABC will edit that out.

Before "Tell Me No," she made several pleas to the audience to buy the new album. But it was the last song that was strangest — and best.

Houston did not seem to know the words to "Do You Hear What I Hear?" so she read them off a piece of paper that was taped to the stage beneath her feet. Unfortunately, this meant her head was pointed down quite a lot.

A minute or so in, backed by a high-school choir, she got lost in the song, and started yelling, "Stop! Stop!" to the choir and the band. She started to slip and almost fell off the stage.

"What if I fell?" she asked rhetorically. "That would be more money for you," she said to someone in the wings. However, when "Do You Hear?" started again, Houston nailed it.

An announced fourth song, which was supposed to be an older hit, did not materialize. Instead, Diane Sawyer came on stage and the two of them discussed last Wednesday's interview. Whitney called Sawyer "my new friend," seemingly clueless about the apparent damage done to her in the interview.

Proclaiming at that point that Jesus loved her, Houston launched into an impromptu gospel song that was extremely heartfelt and moving. She said, "Let's do it the way they do it in the dirty South!" She stopped as suddenly as she started it, though, thanked the audience and got off the stage. That was it.

I asked some of the high-school choir kids later why Houston had stopped the Christmas song.

"I don't know," was the answer, "we were doing fine."

Whitney is a quick study. If you lay out a basic idea and melody, she can turn even a small bit into a whole song. She's good at what I call show-biz faking — she can take one word, repeat it over and over into a crescendo, using her church background as a foundation. That alone is worth the price of admission.

But she seems to have no idea otherwise about what people are saying or thinking about her. Being an hour late, performing erratically — none of it occurs to her that it might be a problem.

On stage, Sawyer asked her what she's doing next.

"Taking a vacation," Houston said. You had to laugh. Or cry.

Ben and J-Lo Go to the Prom

Have you had enough of Jennifer Lopez, a.k.a. J-Lo, and Ben Affleck? You say yes, and I know you mean it. But here's the latest.

Columbia Pictures premiered J-Lo's new movie Maid In Manhattan last night, with a party following at the Rainbow Room.

The romantic comedy, which is slight, is also extremely pleasant and has a tremendous supporting cast. Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci and Bob Hoskins are like an all-star baseball team of veterans hoping the designated hitter — Lopez — will come through.

The movie itself is guaranteed to be a hit. It pulls in elements from Pretty Woman, Cinderella, Working Girl and a dozen other films. Writer Kevin Wade also wrote the latter, but it works.

Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, once Julia Roberts' agent and now her producing partner, made this one, too. She should have a patent on smart, feel-good, whipped-cream comedies. In Maid, the savvy Elaine also used her dog and her mother-in-law in major roles. They were cheap and they were talented. Not a bad idea.

Maybe it was just me, but count the number of times the word "real" is used in the movie — as in "being real." This is Lopez's mantra, as in her hit song, "I'm Real."

Meanwhile: In the lobby of the Ziegfeld Theatre, I watched as Ben and Jen posed for endless pictures with the press. They were both dressed to the nines. Ben affected a Clark Gable "serious attitude" stance, while Jennifer signed autographs. They imparted no information.

Affleck seems to have lost all his spontaneity and joviality from his debut five years ago. They were like a Barbie and Ken in formal wear. Jennifer wore a fur coat so plush it would make PETA fanatics have epileptic fits.

At the theatre, none less than Caroline Kennedy, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon sneaked in. Only the first went on to the party, which was surprising since Roberts has a financial interest in the movie and Damon is Affleck's best and lifelong friend. But I couldn't blame them.

At the party, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Richardson, with her dour husband Liam Neeson, as well as game show host Pat Sajak, watched as J-Lo took to the dance floor and danced mostly to her own records. Even though there had been a full orchestra, she was not tempted to sing with them.

Meanwhile, publicists stumbled over themselves to make sure no one spoke to the couple officially. When guests pulled out disposable cameras to take pictures, bodyguards blocked them.

I felt sorry for the Columbia studio publicists. There was tension in the air and not a thing anyone could do to resolve it. But the food was great and the view from the Rainbow Room was spectacular. You can't have everything.

What's next for J-Lo? Besides the two movies she's made with Affleck, she's in negotiations to tape a TV special at Radio City Music Hall on Jan. 29 and 30 to air Valentine's week. Either ABC or CBS will broadcast it and there will be no conflict with a much rumored wedding.

"They are not getting married that week," her manager, Benny Medina, told me quite pointedly. So if you'd been thinking of ordering that silver cheese tray and slicer, hold up. You have time.

Mariah Has a Hit

The powers that be start counting sold units of Mariah Carey's Charmbracelet album today. I'm told that sales will exceed 200,000 copies, putting Carey in the Top 10 and returning her to past glories.

Good for Mariah. I wasn't always a fan, but you have to respect someone who overcomes her problems. She listened to the right people, and she's back on track.