We are waiting for Whitney Houston. Angela Bassett, her costar in Waiting to Exhale, sits patiently, quietly, in full makeup. The reputably hip photographer Ruven Afanador, a tall man also wearing makeup, paces the floor of the Manhattan studio in motorcycle boots. Houston’s veteran publicist, Lois Smith, worries about the time slipping away. Assistants and photo editors look at their watches and munch on the catered Chinese food, which has begun to gel.
They’re here to photograph two women, one a pop star striding into an acting career, one an Oscar-nominated actress striding toward stardom. And against odds that are controlled by white-owned Hollywood, they are both poised to become the first women who can sustain themselves as above-the-title, African-American, sex-symbol movie stars. Ever.
It’s not an easy prize to come by. Despite Bassett’s immense talent and Oscar nod for What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993) and Houston’s immense fame (80 million albums sold worldwide at last count and more than $400 million generated worldwide generated by her 1992 debut film The Bodyguard, costarring Kevin Costner), neither actress has yet sold a movie by her name alone. That chance is about to move one step closer or one step farther away, depending on the success of Waiting to Exhale. Based on the 1992 Terry McMillan novel, it is the first major Hollywood film to place middle-class black women (played by Houston, Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon) at its center. But at the moment, at this photo shoot, Bassett is waiting, and Houston’s black Rolls-Royce limousine is presumably stalled in traffic.
An hour and a half late, an entourage issues forth into the studio—the bodyguard, a beefy makeup man named Quietfire, a hairstylist, an assistant, more assistants. Then, finally, Houston herself. She whips behind a curtain into makeup and wardrobe.
When Afanador focuses his camera on the two actresses, Bassett falters occasionally, working to summon back her smile and bright eyes time and again. This is all fairly new to her, photo shoots and limousines and assistants and awards and publicists. She still shows up on time. But Houston has been here and done this. In front of a lens, her face shines as steadily and perfectly as her long, sustained final notes. It’s the kind of facial pose that Jackie Onassis used for public outings—beautiful and frozen.
The camera stops. The Face morphs into severe fatigue.
Bassett graciously thanks the photographer. Houston hurries past him, into a swarm of powder and brushes. Now this writer is introduced to Houston, who, keeping her back turned, holds her stare on herself, in a mirror framed with lights. She rolls her eyes.
”He’s nice,” says her publicist.
”I’ve heard that before,” says Houston. Then she reluctantly turns to shake hands. The Face returns for a second, maybe two.