A life in pictures: Whitney Houston

Jessica Lone Summers

We take a look at the life of sensational vocalist, Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston, the household name with a proprietary voice which has bounced off many a bedroom wall. And yet, as we so often can forget, she wasn’t just a celebrity with an impressively powerful diaphragm, but a human with a story full of depth. We take a look at her life, in pictures.

 

Childhood

Houston as a baby

Houston was destined for a career in a musical setting when she was born into a melody-loving family in New Jersey on August 9th 1963. Her mother was Grammy-award-winning gospel singer, Emily “Cissy” Houston and her father, John R Houston, would later become her manager. Through her mother, she had familiar relations who were also very involved in the music industry including aunt, Dione Warwick and her mother’s close friends, Darlene Love and Aretha Franklin.

"I knew God had blessed me"

Whitney Houston as a child in her old neighbourhood

She attended the Roman Catholic girls high school, Mount Saint Dominic Academy as well as being a member of the Newark, New Hope Baptist Church where she performed her first solo, Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah, aged 11. Of her first performance Houston recalled, "I was scared to death, I was aware of people staring at me. No one moved. They seemed almost in a trance. I just stared at the clock in the centre of the church. When I finished, everyone clapped and started crying. From then on, I knew God had blessed me."

 

Early career

Following her church performances, her mother, Cissy, recognised that Whitney had an exceptionally gifted voice and an unrivalled talent that fundamentally could be capitalised on. She began to coach Whitney and, during Cissy’s own career, she would often bring young Whitney along to the nightclubs she performed in—even bringing her up on stage to sing. This sprung into Whitney becoming a back-up vocalist for several acts including Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls.

In 1983, Arista records caught wind of the young and lively soul singer and there was immediately a professional connection, but deciding which route to take at such a young age must have been incredibly daunting. During a 1986 interview with Rolling Stone, Whitney described the process she went through and how her mother helped her decide:

“I remember this long, drawn-out meeting. ‘What are you gonna do? Who are you going to go with?’ I remember stopping the meeting and saying, ‘I gotta take a break.’ I went into another room and sat in a chair, and my mother came in after me and said, ‘You know, this is very difficult, but I’m going to tell you the truth: You should go where you are going to get the best out of it.’ Meaning, let’s say a company offers you a contract, and they’re saying: ‘Whitney, you can choose the songs. You can produce the songs. You can do whatever the hell you want to do.’ As opposed to Arista, with Clive Davis saying: ‘We’ll give you this amount of money, and we’ll sit down, and as far as the songs you want to do, I will help you. I will say: ‘Whitney, this song has potential. This song doesn’t.’ So, my mother was saying to me, ‘You’re eighteen years old. You need guidance.’ Clive was the person who guided me.”

During this time when she was forging a singing career for herself she was also embarking on a teenage modelling career. Her tall, svelte frame and "million dollar smile" afforded her the best fashion opportunities and she was signed to Click Model Management, Inc and later Wilhemina Models agency. often appeared on the front of Seventeen.

Whitney modelling swimwear

 

Getting recognised

In 1986, as well as garnering three separate nominations, Houston won her first Grammy for her power ballad Saving All My Love For You, Whitney then performed her song to the audience and it was so well received that the result was winning a subsequent Emmy award for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Programme.

 

Superbowl

"Loneliness comes with life"

For many, Whitney’s performance of the Star Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl XXV was her most memorable. The event itself had tremendous significance; happening at the same time as the Gulf war it was the first Super Bowl that had been broadcasted in countries other than just North America and the UK. The reaction to her performance was regaled as so strong and patriotic, that Arista records decided to release her cover as a single and donate the subsequent funds to a Gulf War-related charity. The track yet again held huge significance for Americans everywhere when it was re-released by Whitney after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, in a bid to do her part by donating the proceedings to the New York Firefighters 9/11 Disaster Relief Fund.

 

Relationship with the outside world

As with many celebrities who grow sceptical of outsiders, Whitney was always reluctant to let the unknown in.

During a 1987 article with Time Magazine, Dione Warwick explained how the family operated, "You don't get in unless we let you in."

She went on to describe the relationship she had with the media and fans: "I've always been a private person," she says. "In grammar school some of the girls had problems with me. My face was too light. My hair was too long. It was the black-consciousness period, and I felt really bad. I finally faced the fact that it isn't a crime not having friends. Being alone means you have fewer problems. When I decided to be a singer, my mother warned me I'd be alone a lot. Basically we all are. Loneliness comes with life."

 

Marriage and daughter

"I have priorities. Maintaining my daughter is my first"

Whitney’s marriage with Bobby Brown was renowned for being tumultuous and tabloid-worthy. After tying the knot in 1992, their first and only daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, was shortly born. Throughout their time together, they were known for partying hard, often with drugs and rumours swirled of abuse and violence—there was even an occasion where the police were called to their home, responding to a domestic-violence call. When quizzed on their unbridled lifestyle and inane drug-taking on Diane Sawyer’s television show Houston famously stated, "First of all, let's get one thing straight. Crack is cheap. I make too much money to ever smoke crack. Let's get that straight. Okay? We don't do crack. We don't do that. Crack is whack." Reportedly, their “drug of choice was marijuana laced with cocaine. Throughout the 2000s Whitney spent a few stints in rehab yet it was always an area that the star struggled to overcome.

Bobby Brown’s influence undoubtedly had a deleterious effect on Houston’s career, and after his show Being Bobby Brown which he allegedly pressured her to appear on, her personal demise and struggles were unambiguously bared to the world.

Bobbi Kristina Brown as a baby with her mother

Through all this turbulence there was one redeeming light that kept Whitney going, her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, who she kept close even while touring to avoid people she didn’t trust looking after her, “I have priorities. Maintaining my daughter is my first.”

 

The Bodyguard

Whitney with her co-star, Kevin Costner

Houston’s most notable film role was alongside Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard. She landed the film role after substantial success with her albums—directors were tripping themselves up in order to get her on the big screen. The film was at the time considered controversial due to the interracial romance, and had it not been for Whitney being a loved household name, it likely wouldn’t have been popular to the masses. As it was, the film was a huge hit in the box office, grossing $410 million worldwide.

 

Controversy

It’s certainly no secret that Whitney Houston was a troubled star and by no means had an easy ride through her life, and many people speculated about what the origin of her issues may be.

In a recent documentary about the singer’s life, Whitney, filmmaker Kevin Macdonald uncovered a deplorable secret that had supposedly taken place in her childhood, that her cousin, Dee Dee Warwick, had sexually abused her and brother when Houston was around the age of nine. The claims were made by Houston’s brother Gary Garland-Houston, and her former assistant, Mary Jones. While the subject is one that will likely go unproven, many believe it to be the reason for Houston’s own turmoils and subsequent drug-abuse.

Cissy Houston responded to the claims with her sister, Dionne Warwick: "If she was my daughter’s ‘close confidante’ it would seem she chose to betray Whitney’s confidence by publicizing rumours and hearsay. In any case Dionne, Michael and I do not know her the way we knew and loved Dee Dee Warwick. Dee Dee may have had her personal challenges but the idea that she would have molested my children is overwhelming and for us unfathomable."

Whatever the truth and whatever reason the reason for Whitney’s distress, she’s undoubtedly remembered not for her personal plights, but her gleaming smile and her colossal voice. She was the queen of soulful pop and she repeatedly broke down race barriers, paving the way for the mass of talented female singers, of all colours, today. In the words of the pop-monarch herself, “Judge not for your flaws, but for your triumphs!”