COVER STORY : ‘How Famous Can You Be?’ : Whitney Houston, who breaks into the film world with ‘The Bodyguard,’ grapples with an excess of success and all those lingering image problems

<i> Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

Even before she was famous it was like this. Before the platinum records and the sequined gowns and the whole pop diva thing, Whitney Houston was being dogged. The rumors and the tabloid headlines--like “the one the other day, ‘Little Miss Perfect,’ ” complains her mother, Cissy Houston, with a sigh of the long-suffering--are weirdly close to the schoolyard taunts 25 years ago in Newark, N.J., when Cissy sent her daughter out in bows and pinafores, a real standout in the neighborhood.

“Kids,” says Cissy, “can be cruel.”

For most of her life, Houston has been a compilation of contradictions. The little girl from the middle-class, churchgoing family at odds with her classmates became one of the biggest-selling female pop stars of the ‘80s, rivaled only by Madonna. But her success and prom-queen image have come with a price to go Faust one better.

No wonder Houston buried her face in Kevin Costner’s shoulder in the ad for “The Bodyguard,” a romantic thriller opening Wednesday that stars Houston as, surprise, a pop music diva. It is her first film role, and she looks like she’s trying to duck her fate as possibly the world’s most misunderstood, maligned female vocalist.

No wonder that Houston slips into a hotel room shortly before the release of “The Bodyguard,” a pregnant sylph in black velour who stands there, a little sleepily, a little awkwardly in her slippers and her mussed hair, as if she isn’t sure what to do or even if she is among friends, and confesses that as far as being an actress goes, “Well, it’s a little intense watching yourself that large and for that long.”

It might be an apt description of Houston’s brief but spectacular career. Ever since she shot to the top of the charts in 1985 with her debut album, “Whitney Houston,” she has played to the public with a somewhat curious image. That first album, released when she was barely 22, sold 18 million copies worldwide. By 1988, she had made $45 million and her seven consecutive No. 1 singles had surpassed the Beatles’ record. “Whitney Houston,” wrote Rolling Stone, “is blessed with one of the most exciting voices in years.”


Despite her three-octave range and lyrical authority, Houston battled suggestions that her relentless up-tempo music was formulaic and that her success was largely a marketing phenomenon created by Clive Davis, the legendary founder and president of Arista Records, who had revived the careers of Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.

Houston’s transformation from gospel singer to belter of generic ballads--"Saving All My Love for You” and “How Will I Know"--also fueled the impression, particularly within the black community, that she was a bland crossover artist who could not lay claim to her talent. Her name has been booed at the Soul Train Awards and she’s been satirized--"Whitney Houston’s Rhythmless Nation"--on TV’s “In Living Color.”

When Houston’s third and most recent album, “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” ostensibly Davis’ attempt to move the singer closer to her R&B; roots, sold only 7 million copies, that “Whitney Bread” perception only increased.

And behind the scenes, the former gospel singer, who still speaks reverently of “my God” in casual conversation, has had to deflect a consistent series of rumors that she is gay, that she is prone to violence and that her lovers have included her executive assistant, Robyn Crawford, as well as some of Hollywood’s best-known actresses. That perception has persisted despite Houston’s marriage last summer to singer Bobby Brown, a rap artist six years her junior and with whom she is expecting her first child in March.

Despite her soft-spoken and even shy demeanor, Houston seems inured to the gossip. “When you reach a certain height,” she says matter-of-factly, “you will stand out and you will always be criticized. My mother told me this would happen: ‘You think you’re a success? You have seven No. 1 songs? They’re gonna (mess) you up.’ ” Houston pauses. “She wasn’t lying. She was not lying.”

Indeed, Houston’s hotel suite on this late fall evening seems to be a replica of that hothouse environment. The room is doing a slow burn on the thermometer, and the smell of lilies from an enormous arrangement on a nearby table is almost overpowering. But the singer, dressed in a velvety warm-up suit and curled on the suite’s peach-colored sofa, seems unconcerned about anything other than the birth of her child and her acting debut. She wears a modest wedding band, and a diamond-studded heart dangles from her neck. Although her face is slightly puffy, either from her nap or the pregnancy, she retains her sweetly cherubic features and her black hair is still worn in her trademark bob.

Yet despite her obvious ease in this plush cocoon, Houston seems to have arrived at both a personal and professional crossroads. With the film, her marriage and her pregnancy, she seems to be sending out myriad signals that she is one step ahead of her image. At the same time, Houston seems uncertain of just where that step has taken her. Asked if she has plans to make more films, she turns insouciant:

“Oh, my agency is saying, ‘Whitney, don’t you want to look at this and that?’ No, I just want to be pregnant and have my baby.”

As for her singing career, Houston first suggests that “I could give up acting as long as I am singing and making records.” But later she turns more introspective. “When I first started, I loved to sing,” she says, sounding somewhat wistful. “I loved the joy of making music, making harmonies, all that creative stuff. But I certainly don’t want to do it for the fun of it anymore. I enjoy it, but it isn’t fun.”

Not yet 30, with a first baby and a major Hollywood film imminent--and with the first single from the film’s soundtrack (see album review, Page 62), “I Will Always Love You,” already at No. 1 on the Billboard charts--Houston seems at a loss to define herself. Her attitude almost begs the question “What Does Whitney Houston Want to Do When She Grows Up?”

“That’s what everyone wants to know,” Houston says with only the barest hint of irony. “And I don’t know.”

As with many a pop star, Houston’s move into film began as speculation and suggestion that with her model good looks and camera-savvy presence, she could/should make the transition to the big screen. Indeed, Houston’s name was bandied about as the most likely star in “Dreamgirls,” the yet-to-be-filmed screen adaptation of the hit 1980s Broadway musical about the rise of a group modeled on the Supremes.

“Whitney hadn’t said nothing about doing a film,” Houston says with a little angry shake of her head. “People presumed I would do a movie because I guess it was the next progressive step. Everyone was talking about me doing ‘Dreamgirls.’ ‘Yeah, we need somebody who can sing and who looks good. Let’s get Whitney.’ No! I didn’t want to be a Dreamgirl.”

Houston figured that if she was going to act, then she would wait for a role that would challenge her. “We already know I can sing,” she says. “I wanted to do something more dramatic. So I was waiting for something; I just didn’t know what it was. I guess it was ‘The Bodyguard.’ ”

“The Bodyguard,” written by Lawrence Kasdan nearly 20 years ago, tells the story of a pop music star, Rachel Marron, who receives a series of death threats, and hires as a bodyguard former FBI agent Frank Farmer and subsequently falls in love. It is one of Kasdan’s earliest efforts, written before “Silverado” and “The Big Chill,” when he was still an advertising copywriter in Detroit. When Kasdan worked with Kevin Costner on “Silverado,” the actor became interested in filming the script, which he saw as strikingly similar to the Steve McQueen classic “Bullitt.” But it wasn’t until 1990 that he agreed to produce and star in the film. His first choice to play the pop star? Houston.

“There are certain singers that occupy that territory that includes a world-class voice, real elegance and a physical presence,” Costner says. “Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand are two. Whitney Houston is another.”

But when the offer came to play Rachel Marron, the tempestuous diva--as well as sing six new songs for the film’s soundtrack album--Houston responded with an emphatic “maybe.”

“I knew it was the right project,” she says. “But Rachel’s character had to be fleshed out a bit. In the first draft, she was just mean and bitchy all the time. I mean, we all have our days, but I thought she should be a bit warmer.”

There were rewrites and more discussions, but Houston still would not commit to the role. Costner, who said he had screen-tested with Houston “because there is some method to my madness,” put the film on hold for a year.

“I think she was scared because as popular as Whitney is, she takes an unwarranted amount of shots (from the media),” Costner says. “She is a real big target, so if you combine that with the fact that she could turn out to be a bad actress, that’s a huge risk.”

Eventually Costner picked up the phone and made his case directly to Houston. “I promised her two things: that I would be right there with her, and she would not be bad, because I refuse to let anybody fail around me.”

“That was the thing that convinced me,” Houston says. “When he said, ‘I will be right there with you.’ He told me he knew the kind of performer I was, used all these adjectives and stuff, and said I could do this. But when he said, ‘You won’t be left out there alone,’ that’s when I got into it.”

Houston now considers the character of Rachel Marron “a milestone for women, black women and black actresses,” but her delay in agreeing to the role meant that Kasdan was unable to direct “The Bodyguard” because of scheduling conflicts. A relative unknown, Mick Jackson, the British documentary filmmaker whose portfolio of Hollywood films was relatively slim--"Chattahoochee” and “L.A. Story"--was hired. Costner and Kasdan had admired the glossy look Jackson achieved in “L.A. Story,” but more important, the director was known for eliciting effective performances from novice actors. (Jackson was also not likely to object too strenuously when Costner, in a move that seemed reminiscent of his last-minute post-production work on “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” re-edited “The Bodyguard” a few weeks before its release.)

“In Britain, I’d worked with a lot of actresses who are not particularly schooled,” Jackson says. “And in this film it was either teach an actress to sing or, with Whitney, teach a singer to act.”

And with Houston, the first hurdle, according to Jackson, was educating a pop singer to the ensemble nature of a film set. “You’re making a queen into a beginner, and Whitney was aware of the loss of control that entails,” he says. “Her life as a pop music diva means that everything is set to her requirements, which is totally different from shooting a film. When she got a look at the schedule, the first thing she said was ‘I’m not a day person.’ ”

“It was the ‘hurry up and wait syndrome,’ ” Houston recalls of the two-month shoot. “I’d be there for six, seven, eight hours and then they’d tell me, ‘We’re not getting to your scene today.’ And with me, I could always be doing something else.”

One of the things she could have been doing was taking acting lessons--an offer that Houston made but that Costner declined. “Kevin said, ‘Whitney, please don’t do that. This isn’t about technique, it’s about your natural, charming character,’ ” Houston says. Despite the obvious similarities between her own life and the character she plays--Houston, for instance, employs armed guards at her New Jersey mansion--she spent several weeks in rehearsal before filming, where she struggled to make lines of dialogue sound as natural as song lyrics.

“It’s easy for me to stand onstage and sing and relate to people,” she says. “I feel the beats in music. I know when to become powerful and when to quiet it down. That was the hardest part in acting--learning the words and letting them flow like I was singing.”

Jackson says that although Houston possesses “tremendous charisma and the instincts of a natural performer,” she lacked technique. After an impromptu lesson in which Jackson “sat her down and told her the basics--that the camera will photograph her thoughts,” it was a matter of getting Houston to be aware “of when she looked like she was faking it and when she wasn’t,” the director says. “She’s not like Vivian Leigh on the screen. But she acquits herself well.”

Although Houston is convincing in the film’s performance scenes, she is far less at ease with the film’s intimate scenes. The sex scenes between Rachel and Frank are noticeably chaste--Houston refused to do nude scenes--but surprisingly no mention is made of the interracial nature of the relationship. Indeed, the casting of Houston and Costner as romantic leads comes while Hollywood’s most popular black actress, Whoopi Goldberg, is only now appearing in a romantic comedy--"Made in America,” opposite Ted Danson.

And though Houston is adamant about her refusal to do nude scenes--"Despite the fact that everyone would love to see me with my drawers down, it ain’t happening"--she is uncertain when asked about the film’s potentially pioneering casting.

But suggest that as a black woman, her on-screen romance with one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading men may be far more newsworthy, and Houston becomes discomfited. “That’s what they say,” she says somewhat airily. “But I didn’t think about it.” When pressed, Houston suggests that “throughout history there have been interracial couples; this was about a relationship, two people getting to know each other.”

Costner and Jackson, however, maintain that the lack of any “Jungle Fever” issues in “The Bodyguard” is intentional and should be considered a plus.

Jackson has stated that he is proud “that there is not a single reference in the entire movie to her being black and his being white.” And Costner insists that “I don’t think race is an issue here. The film is about a relationship between two people, and it would have been a failure if it became a film about interracial relationships.” Costner adds that he was “colorblind” when casting Houston. “Some of my choices are real simple, and it’s very easy to fall in love with Whitney.”

Indeed, it is not difficult to see in Houston’s film debut further testimony to her crossover appeal. Any suggestion that as an actress she may be open to the kind of accusations of exploitation that have dogged her in the music industry, and Houston refuses to see it.

“Does that mean you’re shallow if you’re a crossover artist?” she asks somewhat heatedly. “I don’t know,” she says, answering her own question in a voice dropped almost to a whisper. “That’s really the thing with me: What you see is what get. I could stop acting, and it wouldn’t matter as long as I can sing and make records. But I don’t think I’m going to break out (into something new). I’m a voice. You know, that’s my real God-given gift--that I have a voice and I can sing.”

As the youngest child and only daughter of Emily (Cissy) Houston, a professional gospel singer, and John Houston, her husband and manager, Whitney Houston was born Aug. 9, 1963, in Newark into something of a vocal dynasty. Not only was her mother a fixture in local gospel and pop venues--her band, the Sweet Inspirations, played New York clubs--but Dionne Warwick is her cousin and Aretha Franklin, the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, was known as “Auntie Ree” at the Houston household.

It seemed inevitable that Houston would attract the attention of Arista’s Clive Davis, who had revived the careers of both Warwick and Franklin, and who signed Houston to her first recording contract when she was still a teen-ager.

She had started as a child singing backup in her mother’s choir in East Orange, N.J., where the Houston family had moved after the Newark riots in 1967; she made her solo debut singing “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” in the local Baptist church before she was 12. “That’s when I knew she could sing,” recalls Cissy Houston, who decided to help train her daughter’s voice while discouraging Whitney, “who really had me believing she wanted to be a veterinarian,” from a professional singing career.

Although Houston was “babied and spoiled” at home, according to her father, her parents’ marriage was far less harmonious. And at school, Houston was encountering that early ostracizing, where she learned “that people didn’t like me.”

“It was that time when black meant black power and Afros, and I was a light-skinned girl with long hair,” recalls Houston, whose efforts to blend in were not helped by her mother’s insistence on what she calls a “Brooks Brothers” wardrobe. “Everybody else was down in jeans and ripped sweat shirts and I was standing out,” says Houston, whose grades began to suffer because of the harassment. “There were a bunch of girls who used to run me home. You know: ‘Let’s pick on Whitney.’ ”

A move to a private Catholic school, St. Dominick’s, eased that situation, but the tensions at home had only escalated. By the time Houston was 15, her parents separated and her father, to whom the self-described “daddy’s girl” was deeply attached, moved out. Although her father remained involved with Houston and her two brothers, and eventually became her manager, it was nonetheless a stressful time for the family. “I was the only one still living at home,” Houston says, “so I was the one dealing with it, and I was like ‘Would somebody please go somewhere because this is getting a little intense.’ ”

The few constants in her increasingly turbulent life were singing--at church and on the road with her mother’s group--and her friendship with Robyn Crawford, a college student and scholarship basketball player two years her senior. The two met as local camp counselors when Houston was 17, and it wasn’t long before she and “the sister I never had” were inseparable.

It was also the time that Houston began cutting classes to take modeling assignments--a game plan established by Houston’s first managers, concert promoters Eugene Harvey and Seymour Flics.

“Modeling,” Houston says, “was really degrading. They were always on me, picking at my appearance. It was not a life that I wanted to live.” By the time Davis offered Houston her first contract after hearing her perform in a showcase session in 1983, she said yes, with no second thoughts. It was the first time, Houston says, “that I knew I was on a different plateau and that I was going someplace else.”

Davis--one of the record industry’s most successful executives, who had guided the careers of Janis Joplin, Barry Manilow and Billy Joel--was quick to recognize in Houston the potential of “a brilliant artist of the top rank.” And he did not hesitate to pull her from her narrow gospel background into pop music’s mainstream.

“When I finished that first album, I felt successful,” Houston says. “I made some great songs, and people liked it. But with the second album coming, you know what people said to me? ‘Whitney, this is the most important album you will ever do.’ And I was like ‘Huh?’ I just sold 13-14 million albums, and now you tell me I have to work at success?’ ” She decided then that she would “not get into that thing where you have to try and beat yourself. That’s gone, that’s done.”

That attitude proved useful, not only when “I’m Your Baby Tonight” sold a disappointing 7 million copies, but also as buffer against the growing criticisms that Houston is a sellout crossover artist. Although Houston’s transformation from a gospel singer working church choirs into a sequined-gowned diva pumping out generic ballads on world tours seemed the perfect metaphor for the conservative ‘80s, it also struck many within the record industry and the black community as excessive mainstreaming of a unique singer.

It is a charge that Houston and those closest to her deny. “Oh, I’m a diva because I wear sequins?” Houston says dismissively, pointing to her early role models “Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha” as “pure voices who needed no gimmick.”

“What is the problem with crossover anyway?” asks Cissy Houston. “It’s the only way you can reach your public. And if her voice is not as hoarse as what one normally thinks of for a black artist, that’s not Whitney’s fault.”

Any suggestion that there is some rougher, more elemental version of Houston locked within her spangly pop image is quickly laid to rest. When the singer is asked to address the relevance of rap, R&B; and pop, she quickly segues into a laudatory discussion of country music. “I think rap is very strong today because it is right up the street, and when I started out, nobody cared what was happening in the ‘hood, so to speak. But I think music that tells a story, whether it’s rap, gospel or R&B;, is the best. Like country music, which is just starting to scan big, is what people want to hear today, because it’s simple and melodic and it tells a story.”

Indeed the first single released from the “Bodyguard” soundtrack, “I Will Always Love You,” is a pop version of the country ballad written by Dolly Parton. When asked about his star’s career, Davis insists that Houston’s persona “is still growing and evolving” and that “she must be given time to unfold.” Davis says that despite the below-expectations sales of her third album, Houston is not experiencing “a ‘sophomore slump,’ although that typically happens to recording artists.” Her foray into film, he adds, “only indicates that her talent may be commensurate with Streisand’s.”

If there is any lone voice of caution heard it seems to come from Houston’s father, who currently serves as her manager.

“We can look for projects for her, but in the final analysis Whitney is the one who chooses where to go,” says John Houston, who adds that it is the “whole superstardom thing” that remains a bigger question for his daughter. “It seemed to come so much out of the blue,” he says. “I know if I asked her about it, she would say, ‘Daddy, I have no feeling for it at all.’ ”

Indeed, Houston’s present incarnation as the wife of Bobby Brown and a mother to be, content to head home to her New Jersey estate and await her baby’s birth, seems proof that Houston continues to grapple with both her success and her curious public image. “Through all the madness and the hype and the peaks and the cool-downs, I’ve maintained my basic values,” she says. Such as? “Getting married and having children. That’s old stuff, but it’s important to me.”

“Because how famous can you be? I’ve had seven consecutive No. 1 songs. What do I want? Eight? Because having all those things, having money and all that, didn’t make me happy. And nobody understands that. It’s always ‘Girl, to be in your shoes.’ But they have no idea; they’re clueless.”

Whatever private Angst Houston may be battling, she is reluctant to define it. After that semi-confession, the singer grows steely again. “I know this movie will only make people write more (gossip) about me,” she says cheerfully, citing the latest rumor. “I read that Bobby and Robyn got into this fight in front of a hotel,” she says, laughing. “First of all, if that were true, Robyn would have been knocked out, but my husband is a gentleman who would never fight a woman.”

Of her relationship with Crawford, the executive assistant who was also rumored to be her lover, Houston says: “She’s my best friend, who knows me better than any woman has known me. But by the time I met Bobby, Robyn and I had had enough time together and our relationship had changed from friendship to more of an employer-employee arrangement.” Crawford, Houston adds, no longer lives with her “but in her own place, which is about 30 minutes from me.”

As for her marriage to Brown, Houston, who had previously been linked with Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy, says it came about “because after a while I wanted a man, and he is the first man that I considered a friend.” She also says: “Women are supposed to have husbands. We are validated by that, and we validate ourselves that way.”

Whatever her reasons, the cynical take on the unexpected union is that Brown, who is the father of several illegitimate children and has battled rumors of drug abuse, needed taming in the public eye, while Houston was looking for some much-needed cachet within the black community.

“Bobby had an image, and I had an image,” Houston says somewhat wearily. “He was this bad boy, and I was this good girl singing in a beautiful dress, and never the twain shall meet. Well, you know, that could be wrong. We could turn out to be best friends.”

After a two-year courtship that began when they met at the 1989 Soul Train Awards--and some extensive prenuptial agreements--the two were married last summer at Houston’s home; she was already pregnant. Like many couples with separate high-powered careers, the two seem to spend little time together. Brown still owns a home in Atlanta and is currently supporting the release of his album, “Bobby” with extensive touring. “We had a week together a little while ago, and we will have another week together very soon,” says Houston, who seems comfortable with their arrangement.

Sitting here in her hotel suite, with her arms loosely crossed over her rounded abdomen, Houston seems only slightly less enigmatic than her conflicted good-girl, bad-girl public image suggests. She seems to sense the contradictions inherent in her. “So what’s this piece going to be about?” she asks a little defensively. “The last one I read said I was ‘The Barbed Doll.’ ”

There is something a little sad about someone who from her earliest days in public has been braced for the worst and who freely acknowledges that “I love to know that people don’t like me. That intrigues me because I want to know if you really know why you don’t like me or if you only think you know.” When Houston speaks for a moment about the sheer joy of singing only for herself “and my God,” you sense that she is being as honest as she gets.

“If I’m in the shower and singing and it’s nobody in there but me and my God,” she says with a smile that is almost serene, “it’s such a gratifying feeling to be able to do something that simple.”