You're expecting her to float delicately into the room, but Whitney Houston strides in with a purposeful air. She's dressed way down in purple stretch pants and a brightly patterned flannel shirt, and while her smile is welcoming, her handshake is firm, businesslike. She's not here to fool around.
Since Houston burst on the scene at twenty-one in 1985, it's been easy for her to sell records, harder for her to get respect. Her albums – Whitney Houston (1985), Whitney (1987), I'm Your Baby Tonight (1990) and the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, to which she contributed six songs – have sold 26 million copies in the United States alone. She's had ten Number One singles, and at one point this year she came within one spot of having three songs – "I Will Always Love You," "I'm Every Woman'' and "I Have Nothing," all from The Bodyguard – simultaneously in the Top Ten. Her starring role as singer Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard, which to date has clocked a cool $390 million worldwide, ensures that a career in the movie industry is hers for the asking.
But criticism has consistently followed hard upon Houston's commercial triumphs. The daughter of Cissy Houston of the Sweet Inspirations (who sang behind Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley) and the cousin of the great Dionne Warwick, Whitney, now twenty-nine, has been characterized as lacking both her mother's deep soulfulness and her cousin's songful sensitivity. The movie world offered no relief. The Bodyguard was devastated in the press, and Houston's acting debut was not spared.
More personally, Houston has for years fended off allegations about a lesbian relationship with her longtime friend Robyn Crawford, as well as speculation about her 1992 marriage to New Jack Swinger Bobby Brown, who, though five years younger than Houston, has three illegitimate children with two other women. Even the birth of Houston and Brown's child, Bobbi Kristina, last March failed to slow the spinning of the rumor mill.
Houston and I met in the downstairs area of her mansion in the rural wilds of New Jersey. Gold and platinum certifications lined one wall of a purple and black den, which looked out on wooded grounds still covered with snow despite the day's warm weather. As her cat Marilyn prowled the room, Houston spoke animatedly and with considerable personal force – looking me square in the eye, gesturing with her hands, swinging her legs over the side of the chair at more relaxed times. In manner, she seemed more homegirl than diva.
As Houston and I talked, the singer's "Aunt" Bae – the title is honorary; she's a longstanding friend of Houston's family – tended to Bobbi, who eventually fell asleep in a baby carriage as Wheel of Fortune played on a gigantic TV screen in the equally gigantic living room upstairs. Aunt Bae also prepared a plate of chicken salad for Houston and me to munch during our talk. Afterward, when she noticed we hadn't finished it, Bae whipped together a CARE package for your bachelor reporter, placing it in a pink and blue FOR BABY bag she had saved in a kitchen cabinet.
As I rode back to New York City, the driver cruised the radio waves, and Whitney Houston songs cropped up three times in less than ninety minutes. She's having that kind of moment – her voice is everywhere. There is a real flesh-and-blood woman behind the voice, however, and in our interview she seemed determined that that woman be heard – loudly and clearly.
Let's talk a little bit about your musical upbringing. What kind of impact did it have on you?
Being around people like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and Roberta Flack, all these greats, I was taught to listen and observe. It had a great impact on me as a singer, as a performer, as a musician. Growing up around it, you just can't help it. I identified with it immediately. It was something that was so natural to me that when I started singing, it was almost like speaking.
Did you always want to be a singer?
No. I wanted to be a teacher. I love children, so I wanted to deal with children. Then I wanted to be a veterinarian. But by the age of ten or eleven, when I opened my mouth and said, "Oh, God, what's this?" I kind of knew teaching and being a veterinarian were gonna have to wait. What's in your soul is in your soul.
Do you feel like you have a specific model as a singer?
My mother was the first singer I had contact with. She sang constantly to us around the house, in church. I used to watch her and the feeling . . . my mother always said to me, "If you don't feel it, then don't mess with it, because it's a waste of time." When I used to watch my mother sing, which was usually in church, that feeling, that soul, that thing – it's like electricity rolling through you. If you have ever been in a Baptist church or a Pentecostal church, when the Holy Spirit starts to roll and people start to really feel what they're doing, it's . . . it's incredible. That's what I wanted. When I watched Aretha sing, the way she sang and the way she closed her eyes, and that riveting thing just came out. People just . . . ooooh, it could stop you in your tracks.
So my mother was my first example that I looked at and said, "Wow, that voice right there." And I'm her daughter, so I sound like my mother when my mother was my age, though I truly think my mother has a greater voice than me, because she's the master, I'm the student [laughs]. She has greater range, greater power than I ever did.
How has your relationship with your mother evolved?
[Laughs] When I first started out I juiced my mother. I was like "Ma, Ma, Ma, Ma, Ma, what do I do? What do I say? How do I handle it?"
Now, I know. You learn, you grow up, and you become your own woman. But we're still very close. When other people are talking shit to my ear, I know my mother won't blow smoke up my ass, and I know she'll tell me the truth. She's honest with me.
What about your two brothers?
I was the only girl, and I was the baby, so a lot of attention went toward me.
Were they very protective of you?
Ooooh, uh-huh. Are you kidding? The disadvantage of growing up with two boys is that you can't do anything. If they saw me with a boy, it was like . . . "Who's that?" I was totally like "Oh, God, please, just go away." The advantage was that I knew all the raps [laughs]. I knew all the shit that guys could lay on you from A to Z. I got to hear how guys talk about girls.
It's not pretty.
[Howling] It's not. It's so ugly. Then I'd think, "I wonder if Sheila knows they're talking about her like this?" They're going: "I had her the other night." "Well, I had her last night." "Well, I had her last week."
So I got to hear how men really think about women – which left me with not much to be disillusioned about. Guys would walk up to me, and I'd go [folds her arms and frowns], "And what do you have to say?" [Laughs] I wasn't goin' for a lot of bullshit. You know, my brother had one girl outside, one upstairs, one in the basement – and all three of these girls would be waiting. Me – "You kept me waiting too long, see ya later." I knew it was a trip.
When you decided to start your recording career, how did you proceed?
I did showcases and invited record-company people. People were interested in me from the time I was fifteen – it was kinda like they were just waiting for me to grow up. Everybody put their bids in. So I sat down with my managers and my parents, and 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.
Did it bother you that many people saw Clive Davis as the Svengali behind your early career?
Sometimes it did when critics would say that Clive told me what to do and how to do it, because that's all bullshit. I don't like it when they see me as this little person who doesn't know what to do with herself – like I have no idea what I want, like I'm just a puppet and Clive's got the strings. That's bullshit. That's demeaning to me, because that ain't how it is, and it never was. And never will be.
I wouldn't be with anybody who didn't respect my opinion. Nobody makes me do anything I don't want to do. You can't make me sing something I don't want to sing. That's not what makes me and Clive click, because if it was, I'd have left Arista a long time ago. Clive and I work well together. We basically like the same things, which, thank God, allowed us to get along all these years. We get on each other's nerves sometimes, but we've been together ten years now. Anybody can get on anybody's nerves over that long a time.
Were you surprised that the first album got so large?
You know, it gets to the point where the first couple of million you go, "Oh, thank you, Jesus!" [Laughs] I mean, let's face it, you make a record, you want people to buy your record – period. Anybody who tells you "I'm makin' a record 'cause I want to be creative'' is a fucking liar. They want to sell records. As it went on – and it went on – I took a very humble attitude. I was not going to say, "Hey, I sold 13 million records – check that shit out." My mother always told me, "Before the fall goeth pride."
I'm still the same way. With "I Will Always Love You," I had no idea. I knew the song was incredible. I knew I had sung the shit out of it. But I had no idea that that record would sell so much, so fast.
In one week the album sold over a million copies.
Oh, man, it was like "What's happening?" I really think people were hungry for something that just had a melody and some good lyrics.
I talked to Dolly Parton by phone not too long ago. She said to me [imitates Parton's accent]: "Whitney, I just want to tell you something. I'm just so honored that you did my song. I just don't know what to tell you, girl." I said, "Well, Dolly, you wrote a beautiful song." And she said: "Yeah, but it never did that well for me. It did well for you because you put all that stuff into it."
You just crushed it.
I think Dolly Parton is a hell of a writer and a hell of a singer. I was so concerned when I sang her song how she'd feel about it, in terms of the arrangement, my licks, my flavor. When she said she was floored, that meant so much to me.
How has your huge success changed your life?
It's really strange. Michael Jackson said it best: You become this personality instead of a person. That's what's strange about this image business – the more popular you become, the weirder they want to make you. I read some stuff about myself in the last year – it's like "Who the fuck are they talking about?" I mean, they talk about my husband . . . . They don't even know him. They have no idea who he is. They don't know what we're like when we're in this house.
But the media always distorts shit. It's never, never what I said; it's never how I said it; it's never how I thought that person perceived me. It's always some other crazy shit – which is why I don't like doing interviews. Because they lie. They just outright lie.
Are you referring to the rumors that you were having a relationship with Robyn Crawford?
You know what? I am so tired of this. I'm really sick of it. People want to know if there is a relationship: Our relationship is that we're friends. We've been friends since we were kids. She now is my employee. I'm her employer. And we're still best of friends. That's what it is. You mean to tell me that if I have a woman friend, I have to have a lesbian relationship with her? That's bullshit. There are so many, so many female artists who have women as their confidantes, and nobody questions that. So I realize that it's like "Whitney Houston – she's popular, let's fuck with her." I have denied it over and over again, and nobody's accepted it. Or the media hasn't.
People out there know I'm a married woman. I mean, what kind of a person am I – to be married and to have another life? First of all, my husband wouldn't go for it – let's get that out of the way, okay? He's all boy, and he ain't goin' for it, okay? But I'm so fucking tired of that question, and I'm tired of answering it.
Fine. So how did you and Bobby hook up?
Bobby and I met at the Soul Train music awards. He was kicking Don't Be Cruel – he was hot, he was on fire. I and some friends of mine were sitting behind him. I was hugging them, we were laughing, and I kept hitting Bobby in the back of the head. Robyn said, "Whitney, you keep hittin' Bobby, he's goin' to be mad at you." I leaned over and said, "Bobby, I'm so sorry." And he turned around and looked at me like "Yeah, well just don't let it happen again." And I was like "Oooooh, this guy doesn't like me."
Well, I always get curious when somebody doesn't like me. I want to know why. So I said, "I'm going to invite Bobby to a party." And I did. And he called back and said, "I'd love to come," which was a surprise. He was the first male I met in the business that I could talk to and be real with. He was so down and so cool, I was like "I like him."
Then we saw each other again, like four months later at a BeBe and CeCe Winans show. After the show, CeCe had a party, and we all went out to dinner. At the end of the dinner, Bobby walked up to me and said, "If I asked you to go out with me, would you?" At the time I was dating someone, but it was kind of ehhhh. So I said, "Yeah, I would." And he said, "You really would?" – he's so cool – "I'll pick you up tomorrow at eight." And we've been friends ever since. See, our whole relationship started out as friends. We'd have dinner, laugh, talk and go home. It wasn't intimate. And then it kind of dawned on us, "What's going on here?"
The first time he asked me to marry him, I said [laughs]: "Forget about it, no way. It's just not in my plans." After a year or so, I fell in love with Bobby. And when he asked to marry me the second time, I said yes.
How conscious were you about how different you seem from each other?
We talked about it, but when you love, you love. I mean, do you stop loving somebody because you have different images? You know, Bobby and I basically come from the same place. Bobby comes from Boston, out of the projects. I come from Newark out of the projects. Bobby has two very strong parents, I have two very strong parents. I mean, people don't know a lot about Bobby. All they say is, Bobby the Bad Boy. I mean, they hear Bobby came from the streets. They know Bobby has been, you know, maybe shot or stabbed, or that Bobby's been in one gang or another. But growing up, we all have a rebellious stage. Bobby's energy is street. My husband's got a lot of energy, period [laughs].
You see somebody, and you deal with their image, that's their image. It's part of them, it's not the whole picture. I am not always in a sequined gown. I am nobody's angel. I can get down and dirty. I can get raunchy.
How have you and Bobby influenced each other?
Two years ago, Bobby spent a lot of time with me while I was on tour. And on his tour I spent a lot of time with him. We watched each other. I admire him because he makes people go where he wants them to go. Bobby's very sensual, very sexual onstage. Women watch my husband with an intensity that I've never seen before. It's like they get turned on.
I've learned to be freer from Bobby. I've learned to be a little more loose. Not so contained, you know? I like the way my husband moves – I wish I could move like him. He just naturally has this . . . [imitates Bobby's strut in her seat and laughs wildly]. And since I've been around him, I've gotten, you know, a little bit freer with my shit [laughs].
Bobby'll listen to me sing, and we'll work on things together. Like falsetto, different voices, things that he wants to learn how to do with his voice. And he'll say to you today that he's become a better vocalist by being with me. I help him with his breathing, and I help him keep his voice in shape.
You must have been offered lots of movie roles. What made you decide to do 'The Bodyguard'?
[Long silence] Hmmmmm. I want to say something else about what we were just talking about. You know, Bobby . . . these people . . . I want to get something straight. I've heard a lot about my husband being this womanizer. You know: "He's a womanizer, he's got three illegitimate children, da-da-da-da-da-da" you know that whole thing? I just want people to understand something: My husband has never, never, disrespected any woman. Any woman that he's wanted has wanted him. And I want people to know that my husband's a good person. He's a respectable human being. He was raised with respect. And I just wish they would stop trying to make him out to be this man who just goes around and arbitrarily says, "I want her, and I'm gonna screw her."
He loves being married, and he's respectful to his marriage. He respects me, and I respect him. I'm tired of people talking about him like he's this bad guy and he has no respect for me or his marriage. That's bullshit. He does. And anybody who knows him knows that's true. Okay, now we can go on to The Bodyguard.
I got a call saying that there is a script that Kevin Costner has, called The Bodyguard, that he wanted me to do. He wanted me to costar with him. I went, "Yeah, sure." Then I called my agent, and she said, "Yeah, it's true." So I read the script. I liked the story, but in the beginning Rachel was very rough, very hard – a little bitch.
Were you concerned that because Rachel is a singer, people would confuse her with you?
You know what I was concerned about? That people would dog me before they gave me the opportunity to do the job. Making the transition from a singer to an actress made me apprehensive. Like "Can I really do this?"
Had you been pursuing roles?
I wanted to do some acting, but I mean, I never thought I'd be costarring with Kevin Costner! I thought, "I'll just get this little part somewhere, and I'll work my way up." And all of a sudden I get this script, and I said: "I don't know. This is kind of . . . big." So I was scared. It took me two years to decide to do it. I kind of waited too long for Kevin. I think it got on his nerves. He called one day and said, "Listen, are you going to do this movie with me or not?" I told him about my fears. I said: "I'm afraid. I don't want to go out there and fall." And he said: "I promise you I will not let you fall. I will help you." And he did.
Were you concerned about the interracial aspect of the film?
No. Nobody made an issue of that, not from when we started to the end. People loved this movie – the critics dogged it, but people loved it. They weren't looking at a black person and a white person, they were looking at two people having a relationship.
What about the rumors that you have your face averted in the ads for the film so as not to call attention to the fact that you're black and Kevin Costner is white?
That picture just signifies what we were saying about The Bodyguard. It wasn't anything like "Hide Whitney's face 'cause we don't want people to know that a white man is carrying a black woman." I mean, people know who Whitney Houston is – I'm black. You can't hide that fact.
There's a relatively sophisticated vocal tradition that you're part of. But almost simultaneously with the rise of your own career, much harder styles of black music have risen up. Obviously, Bobby's been part of that. Do you pay much attention to that type of music?
Absolutely. It's a form of expression, and you have to pay attention to it. Rap is very heavy, and people identify with it. There's some rap I like, some I don't. I think there are people who are really true to their art and really have something to say, and there are people who play off it because it's popular – and that's crap.
What about the portrayal of women in a lot of rap?
I think that sometimes it's a little overdone. Women sometimes are portrayed as . . . playthings. But then again, I think women play into it. You see a lot of videos that have women as bodies, with bathing suits on, just running around. I don't think women are made to do anything they don't want to do. Women have a clear choice. That's the way I was raised. My mother always said to me: "If you want to be respected, then act with respect. If you don't, then you'll be disrespected." If you walk around and flaunt your ass in front of guys' faces, then that's what they're gonna think you are. And don't be surprised if somebody says, "Hey, gimme some of that ass."
Did you pay much attention to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings?
Yeah, I watched it very closely – black-on-black crime in the highest form. I mean, come on, do we really know who's telling the truth? No. We still don't know that. How many asses have been pinched before Clarence Thomas is what I want to know. It was such a big thing, Anita Hill. Clarence Thomas said some things to her that were out of turn. Men will do that. It's been done for a long time. All of a sudden, it's an issue because Anita Hill said, "Oh, he pinched my ass, and he talked dirty to me, and I'm really upset." It's over. He's still a Supreme Court judge. Is she any better?
Do you believe there was a special focus on Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, as well as the Mike Tyson situation, because they centered on black people?
[Long pause] Let's put it this way. Was there ever an issue that you've seen in the last ten, twenty years that became such a public spectacle that involved white people to that degree? I mean, William Kennedy Smith–
Who walked, very nicely and very cleanly, I must say. Is his crime any different from Mike Tyson's? Who's to say it's true? I'm talking from both sides. Who's to say that William Kennedy Smith raped this girl? Who's to say that Mike Tyson raped this girl? Who's to say that these young ladies weren't being promiscuous? I know what I have seen. I have seen Mike, a very good friend of mine, go to jail behind something that I think has been done a lot.
Do I think it's because they're black people? Well, no. I think it's because they're famous black people. Black people who have money. I think that plays a real important part in the whole thing. Because if Mike Tyson was nobody, who would give a shit? If Clarence Thomas wasn't an educated black man who came up from nowhere, would we care?
How do you look on other women artists who might be considered your competition?
People who go out and buy me, buy me for me. Furthermore, I came out first anyways [laughs] – anybody that's gonna come has definitely got to come after. They don't say I sound like Mariah Carey, they say Mariah Carey sounds like me, you dig what I'm saying? So I don't feel like I'm in competition with these people. Madonna and I certainly aren't in competition. Mary J. Blige – it's her own thing. She is the queen of hip-hop. She's the first girl to come out that's real down, real cool, but can sing. So everybody tries to follow. But I've been out here since 1985, so whoever comes got to come after me.
You have another gigantic record right now. Do you feel much pressure to sustain that level?
You know what I feel? I feel old. For the most part, from the time I was eleven years old, I've been working. I did the nightclubs, I did the modeling, all that stuff. My husband and I were talking about it the other night. He's been in the business since he was about twelve – he's twenty-four now. I just don't want to get jaded. It's not as much fun as it used to be. When I first started, I was having a lot of fun. But it ain't fun no more. I enjoy what I do, and it gives me great joy to know other people enjoy what I do. But it's not fun. You know what's fun to me? Being with my husband. Being with my family, going out and laughing, having a good time. That's my fun. But the fun in the business, the excitement, like at the beginning? Gone.
Do you want to have more children?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Having Bobbi Kristina . . . I could never do anything that could top that. There's been nothing more incredible in my life than having her. God knows, I have been in front of millions and millions of people, and that has been incredible, to feel that give-take thing. But, man, when I gave birth to her and when they put her in my arms, I thought: "This has got to be it. This is the ultimate." I haven't experienced anything greater.
What do you want for yourself at this point?
Really, it has nothing to do with business whatsoever. It's my family. To raise children, to raise decent human beings. To keep my husband happy. To keep him strong. Things of that nature. They are very simple things.
Bobby and I were talking the other day. He cracks me up. He goes: "You think you're so fine now" – because I dropped the weight – "but you know what? Bam, I'm gonna pop you again." I said: "What! You got to be kidding, I just dropped a baby!" He said, "Nah, we're gonna have some more kids, honey." We were joking about it – we were talking about having more children.
There's nothing I want to do individually at the moment that I can think of. I'm a mother, and that's my concern for the most part right now. I'm gonna do a tour, I'm gonna do another movie – things I'm looking forward to, don't get me wrong. But it's not my first priority. It's not what I put my focus on. Right now that little girl is my focus, and that's it.
This story is from the June 10th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.