Since news of Whitney Houston’s death on Feb. 11 broke, the world has struggled with her legacy. Some have chosen to remember her as an ”American hero,” as Miranda Lambert called her. Others, like Bonnie Raitt, have praised the way she shattered gender and racial barriers for the artists who followed. ”She broke the glass ceiling for female R&B singers to cross over,” Raitt told EW backstage at the Grammys, the night after Houston passed away. Many of her colleagues have celebrated her amazing pipes. ”She didn’t need to come in with a cow on her head to get attention,” said Erica Atkins-Campbell of the gospel group Mary Mary. ”For Whitney, it was just her voice.” And of course there are those, usually cloaked behind the anonymity of the Internet, who have wondered why so much fuss was being made over a self-admitted drug user who squandered her talent. (To them we say, Have you listened to ”I Will Always Love You” lately?) Of all the accolades and insults, there’s one that has stood out as the most intriguing: She was the African-American Princess Diana.
That’s how a former Vibe editor characterized Houston in 2006 — a prescient observation six years before Houston died at the age of 48. As with Diana’s demise, the details are gruesome: Houston was found submerged and unconscious in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton hotel and couldn’t be revived. (Coroners have yet to disclose the official cause of death.)
The two faced very different demons — Diana battled bulimia and cutting, Houston’s downfall was largely of her own making due to a drug addiction — but both of their lives unfolded tragically. Houston arrived on the scene during the mid-’80s, descended from musical nobility — the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, cousin of R&B hitmaker Dionne Warwick, and goddaughter of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. After she became the first artist to score seven consecutive No. 1 hits (a record that still holds), including ”Saving All My Love for You,” ”How Will I Know,” and ”Greatest Love of All,” she emerged as a national hero of sorts: She sang ”The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl, and her song ”One Moment in Time” was the theme to the 1988 Summer Olympics. Just like Princess Diana, she devoted herself to charitable causes, joining with Nelson Mandela to rally against apartheid and (ironically) stumping for Nancy Reagan’s ”Just Say No” campaign during the ’80s. Both Diana and Houston married into unions that turned into train wrecks. And the birth of Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, in 1993 received Blue Ivy- (or Prince William-) like coverage; after all, she was heir to a throne.
The following years played out in the tabloids and on TV: the infamous ”Crack is wack” interview with Diane Sawyer, a bizarre trip to Israel, a jaw-droppingly revealing reality show. But by 2009 — two years after she had ended her 15-year marriage to Bobby Brown — Houston looked healthier. She appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to offer a mea culpa for the years she wasted as a rock-cocaine addict. Boosted by the interview, the album I Look to You became her first chart-topper since 1992’s best-selling soundtrack to The Bodyguard. Songwriter Diane Warren, who penned material for this final full-length, remembers hearing Houston in the studio. ”She did the vocal on ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength’ and blew my mind, as she did so many other times,” says Warren. ”That was a song I wrote to be her comeback song.” Instead, it was the last time they saw each other.
Houston’s final days were erratic. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Beverly Hilton’s security had gotten complaints that Houston was acting strangely, doing handstands by the pool. Others saw her vamping during a Feb. 9 press junket for Grammy headliners Brandy and Monica, until Bobbi Kristina, now 18, dragged her out of the room. That evening, Houston performed a duet with Kelly Price at the Tru Hollywood nightclub, picked a fight with X Factor contestant Stacy Francis, and was reportedly escorted from the premises.
The day she died, Houston had been getting ready for the annual pre-Grammys gala hosted by her 79-year-old mentor, Clive Davis. But the party went on without her at the Beverly Hilton, the same hotel where she’d passed away just hours earlier. Some 1,200 guests, including Tom Hanks, Britney Spears, and Diana Ross, arrived dressed for a black-tie event and were ushered into a de facto funeral. (Taylor Swift’s chair was empty, and her label rep Scott Borchetta said she didn’t feel it was right to celebrate that night.) Visibly distraught, Davis delivered a heartfelt statement to honor the star. ”I am personally devastated by the loss of someone who has meant so much to me for so many years,” he said, tearing up. ”Whitney was a beautiful person and a talent beyond compare…. [She] would have wanted the music to go on.”
At the Grammys, where next-generation divas like Rihanna and Adele performed, Houston’s impact was most apparent. ”She’s up there with Aretha and my dear friend Etta James, influencing so many incredible singers who came up after her,” Raitt said. Adds Van Toffler, a Viacom president who oversees MTV: ”Whitney had the chops. She’d stand in the middle of the stage, shut her eyes, and sing her you-know-what off. She didn’t need all the pageantry, dancers, people on bungee cords on the stage doing backflips.” Indeed, everyone from Canadian R&B singer Melanie Fiona to Kimberly Perry of the Band Perry labeled her an inspiration. ”Some of my earliest musical memories include singing to Whitney Houston in the car with the windows rolled down,” Perry recalled before the show.
We’ll have one more chance to pay tribute to Houston in Sparkle, a remake of a 1976 Irene Cara film that will be released Aug. 17. Houston, an exec producer, plays Emma, mother to Jordin Sparks’ aspiring singer. ”[Houston] is unbelievably brilliant in it,” insists Howard Rosenman, who also exec-produced. ”She was one of the most talented entertainers who ever lived.”
It will take longer than a week or two to fully understand Houston’s legacy. The biography of Houston will be written and edited for years to come — after all, some 15 years after Princess Diana’s death, we’re still asking the same questions about her. But here is a first draft, courtesy of Diane Warren: ”Every female singer now owes a debt to her.”
(Additional reporting by Kyle Anderson, Carrie Borzillo, Dave Karger, and Ray Rahman)