The Observer profile: Whitney Houston

With her tempestuous marriage to Bobby Brown behind her, the American singer has come back stronger, with her new album topping the US charts

On the release of her first album in 1985, Whitney Houston was hailed by the New York Times as "an exceptional vocal talent". Last month, her latest album was welcomed more cautiously by the same newspaper: "She's tentatively climbing back into the pop machinery, no longer invincible but showing a diva's determination."

In the intervening 24 years, Houston has achieved the heights of extraordinary fame – according to the Recording Industry Association of America, she is the fourth-biggest-selling female star of all time – and the depths of tabloid infamy.

She has spent evenings on the world's biggest stages and months in drug rehabilitation centres. She has starred in blockbuster movies and in a reality television show described by the Hollywood Reporter as "undoubtedly the most disgusting and execrable series ever to ooze its way on to television". And last week, she appeared on Oprah Winfrey's chatshow and is once again making headlines all over the world.

It is not hard to see why she remains a subject of such fascination. Her early talent was widely proclaimed, she is a genuine Hollywood star and her most celebrated songs – such as I Will Always Love You – are instantly recognisable.

And yet she has a knack for public confessions of the type more usually seen in the Big Brother diary room. Her terrible reality TV show – Being Bobby Brown – was supposed to relaunch her then husband's musical career, but became more famous for providing shocking details of his aggression towards her and the squalor, albeit opulent squalor, of the way they lived.

In 2002, she gave an interview to American TV journalist Diane Sawyer in which she denied taking crack cocaine by explaining: "I make too much money to ever smoke crack." And in 2007, when she owed a storage company £100,000, she dealt with the bill by putting hundreds of items of clothing and furniture up for public auction.

This time, Houston has spoken about how her mother forced her into rehab, by storming into her house with "these sheriffs", threatening Brown and marching her out of the door. She added that for a full seven months, while she was using drugs heavily, she wore her pyjamas and did not get dressed.

Those dark years were a long way from her clean-cut childhood. She was born in Newark, New Jersey, and raised a Baptist, but educated at the best local school, the Roman Catholic single-sex Mount Saint Dominic Academy. Her father, John, who would later become her manager, worked initially as a truck driver and later entered local politics as an aide to the first black mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson. Her mother is singer Cissy Houston, her cousins include Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and her godmother was Aretha Franklin.

With this background, it might appear that Houston's parents simply decided she was going to be a star, but her father always maintained that it was not until he was blown away by her vocal range during a rendition of Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah at the age of 11 that they decided to put her on stage with her mother.

By the time she turned 21, she had signed her own deal with Arista records and shortly afterwards came her debut album, Whitney Houston, which had phenomenal success – a year after its release, it reached the top of the US charts, remaining there for 14 consecutive weeks. Houston was nominated for three Grammy awards in 1986 and won one; in the same year, she won an Emmy and seven American Music Awards. Most notable was the apparent universality of her appeal – black, white, rich, poor: everyone loved Whitney Houston (or so ran the marketing pitch).

Two years later, she released her second album, Whitney. It was another commercial success and provided four more number one hits, although critics pointed out that musically it was unadventurous. "She was technically brilliant," says music writer James Maycock. "She had extraordinary range and a very polished voice, but it was fairly boring music. She hadn't done enough living to sing like Aretha Franklin. She lacked a soulful quality."

Houston, who had been trumpeted as a great "cross-over artist" for her ability to bridge the racial divide, found herself facing criticism for becoming "too white". At the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, when her name was called out, she was jeered.

This had little effect on the Houston machine. In 1992, she starred opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard and released I Will Always Love You from the soundtrack. As well as the apogee of her fame, the film provoked another round of criticism. Was her appeal universal or was she just too bland? Who exactly was she? "People know who I am," she retorted.

But did they? The world had met a clean-cut young star. She had been a fervent supporter of Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid campaign, had raised money conscientiously for charity and in 1989 established the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children, which continues to care for the sick and impoverished. In 1991, she had recorded The Star Spangled Banner to raise money for the families of American soldiers fighting in the Persian Gulf.

However, all this was about to be eclipsed by a very public personal decline and her private life – until now so discreet and wholesome – was set to explode into messy infamy. In 1992, after relationships with Eddie Murphy and American football star Randall Cunningham, she married R&B singer Bobby Brown and a year later, they had a daughter, whom they named Bobbi.

In her Oprah Winfrey interview, Houston insisted that Brown was not responsible for her subsequent drug taking and continues to deny that he ever beat her, but she describes her marriage as "emotionally abusive".

Anyone who has seen an episode of Being Bobby Brown will know he treated her roughly; it is a matter of public record that during their marriage he was twice in prison – once for drink-driving offences and once for probation violations. He was also arrested for allegedly hitting Houston and a judge ruled he could stand trial for battery, although she refused to press charges.

On Oprah, Houston also told how, as she suffered narcotic-induced paranoia, Brown painted images of enormous eyes all over her bedroom walls. The wholesome artist of such wide appeal, so cleverly engineered by a steely combination of her father and Arista records president Clive Davis, who still works with Houston and is behind this autumn's new album, crumbled. She did not produce another studio album until 1998.

The intervening years were not, however, fallow. Houston starred in two further films – Waiting to Exhale (1995) and The Preacher's Wife (1996) – and produced a soundtrack album to accompany each. Waiting to Exhale was notably marketed more directly to a black audience than any of her previous work, but it proved a success, taking more than $80m across the world, and the soundtrack once again hit the number one spot in the charts. She was paid $10m for her role in The Preacher's Wife, in which she appeared with Denzel Washington, but at the box office it was less of a success.

When her 1998 album, My Love Is Your Love, was released, she was again honoured at the Grammy awards. In August 2001, she signed a new contract with Clive Davis and Arista worth $100m, which was the biggest deal in recording history. It remains to be seen whether that was a good investment.

"When Whitney arrives," reads an article in Jane magazine in 2000, "she was extremely unfocused, had trouble keeping her eyes open and kept singing and playing an imaginary piano." She was due to appear at the Oscars ceremony in the same year, but was sacked. And in 2002, she found herself facing a lawsuit from her father's company for money it claimed it was owed for negotiating her new deal with Arista. In a public appeal from his hospital bed, the dying John Houston told her: "Get your act together, honey."

Whitney Houston divorced Bobby Brown in April 2007, which presaged a decline in her profile, something of a blessing, it seems. Those close to her say she has been quietly rebuilding her life – and recording I Look to You, which was released in America three weeks ago, and went straight to number one.

It seems hard to believe that Houston is just 46 – no reflection on her handsome looks. Partly, this is because so much has happened, and so publicly, in her relatively short life. But it is also because she peaked early, before hip-hop had hit the mainstream and revolutionised black American music, and seems to belong to a different era.

We have, though, already seen two very different sides of Houston and her future remains unmapped. If the respectful recognition I Look to You has so far received is a sign of things to come, we may just be about to witness Whitney, Act 3.

The Houston lowdown

Born Whitney Elizabeth Houston on 9 August 1963 in Newark, New Jersey. Married Bobby Brown in 1992 and divorced him in 2007. They have a daughter called Bobbi. She has sold 140 million albums and 50 million singles.

Best of times Appeared in The Bodyguard in 1992 alongside Kevin Costner and released I Will Always Love You from its soundtrack. The single was a number one success.

Worst of times In 2004, a judge ruled there was sufficient evidence for Bobby Brown to stand trial on charges of battery, but she declined to press charges, and their home was later repossessed because they couldn't keep up mortgage payments.

What she says "God gave me a voice to sing with, and when you have that, what other gimmick is there?"

What others say "None of us would sound the same if Aretha Franklin had never put out a record, or Whitney Houston hadn't." – Mariah Carey

"Because of what Whitney did, there was an opening for me." – Anita Baker


Oliver Marre

The GuardianTramp

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