Why Whitney Houston will never be bettered

As the new much-discussed documentary Whitney sheds fresh light on the superstar’s life, MARK ELLEN explains why her singular talent will forever set her apart


It was a bad move by Madonna. As Kevin Costner left her Los Angeles post-show lair, she turned to her documentary cameras gesturing finger-in-mouth nausea. Costner had planned to offer her the lead female role in his next movie, but when he saw Truth or Dare, he rang Whitney Houston instead.

And now, here was Whitney on worldwide MTV singing The Bodyguard’s monumental smash, I Will Always Love You. No dance moves, no bells, no whistles. Her performance hinged upon one sole aspect of her vast arsenal of talent: her voice. A tremulous cascade of sound, it could clamber to spine-shivering heights, soar, swoop and plummet. It used ballads as a refuge and dance numbers as a firing range, and fused Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Roberta Flack into fresh and uniquely compelling pop music in songs she appeared to inhabit. When Arista Records first heard her in a nightclub at the age of 19, they sensed a mountain of gold, a girl singer who, like Michael Jackson, could conquer both the black and white global markets.

And with The Bodyguard, that moment arrived: it pushed her to her peak and immortalized her girl-next-door charm, her devastating, dewy-skinned prettiness and her doe-eyed looks of innocence.

As seen here at the 1988 American Music Awards, Houston was considered a style icon as well as a pop phenomenon thanks to her glamorous high-octane outfits
Houston’s debut album, Whitney Houston, was the No. 1 album of the year on the 1986 Billboard year-end charts

But something else happened in 1992 that suggested we didn’t really know Whitney Houston at all. She married Bobby Brown. The lost years had begun. Arista had managed her celebrity like a series of storyboards, allowing precious little media access, apart from softly-controlled peeks into her New Jersey woodland mansion, or dazzling glimpses on the occasional red carpet. But the truth was now dismally different. She had sunk into a crack-cocaine habit and, at one desperately low point, spent “seven months in pajamas” while the allegedly abusive Brown drew “evil eyes” on the walls of their home, she claimed.

There were other secrets, too. The just-released documentary, Whitney, alleges that she had been sexually molested when she was a child by her late female cousin, Dee Dee Warwick. The route to international fame can be fueled by childhood trauma and the search for self-worth.

Through sheer force of will, in 1998 she powered her way out of this twilight world with the stunning comeback album, My Love is Your Love, her first in eight years. But Whitney could never quite escape the weight of press attention, or the comfort of drugs, and died in 2012 at the age of 48, a tragedy.

Yet she racked up achievements no other female singer has managed. Her 170 million record sales changed the way people sang – those wildly self-expressive, flute-like ribbons of notes. She was the whole package – model, actor, fashion icon, dancer, pop star. She was the first ‘soul diva’ and radiated a mesmerizing sense of power, mystery and the control of her own empire. She mastered the entire range of dramatic devices, from dazzling, theatrical spectacle to motionless, spot-lit, scene-stealing intimacy. And she influenced a whole flotilla of stars who water-skied in her wake – from Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Rihanna to Taylor Swift, Ashanti and Ariana Grande.

As Beyoncé once gratefully put it: “She is our queen and she opened doors and provided a blueprint for all of us.”

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