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.
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