Oct 1990

Title: Whitney Houston.
Author: David Van Biema

Full Text COPYRIGHT Time Inc. 1990

Whitney Houston drapes herself over a chair in the middle of her own living room and seems out of place.

It's not just the living room itself; although at 25 feet high, bounded on one side by a panoramic view of her Mendham, N.J., property and on the other by a magnificent stained-glass wall, capped by a teal- and mauve-framed skylight more suited to an observatory, it's a space in which only a giant could feel comfortable.

Nor is it merely that the real-life Whitney Houston isn't the dominating presence her album covers suggest, although this, too, is true. (She is smaller, less statuesque, more girl-like.)

No, it is something less tangible -- some lack of understanding between her and the space. A tentativeness. A formality, as if this were someone else's home and it was resisting her.

Later she will tell a story that helps explain it: "When I finished touring on the second album, I hadn't lived in my house. I'd owned it for a year and a half, but I hadn't lived in it. I designed it on the road -- picked out the blinds -- but here I was moved in, and it was like it wasn't mine. The bedroom was so large, sometimes it seemed it was swallowing me. And I'd sleep in the maid's quarters. People used to laugh at me, but I needed to get a grasp on it, you know, my living space."

And from then on, as she passes through her home followed by the photographer, his assistants, the fashion coordinator and the hairdresser, it makes sense.  Some of the rooms are hers, some of them aren't -- yet. You can own a house, but it may be years before you occupy it.

Likewise, it may take a while for a very gifted and precocious musician to truly occupy her talent. Or for a young woman to whom everything came very, very quickly to occupy her life.

For four years there was virtually no getting away from her, not that anybody wanted to. Her first album, Whitney Houston, was the most successful solo debut in history. Her second, Whitney, featured four consecutive singles -- "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "So Emotional" and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" -- that hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart. She was just right for the conservative '80s. She was identifiably black, a gorgeous black woman, and nonthreatening enough for the "9-to-90" demographic to let into their living rooms. And she could sing. Trained by her mother, Cissy, an R&B and gospel artist (as well as backup singer to Elvis and Aretha), and influenced by her cousin, Dionne Warwick, Whitney had the Big Voice and could do seemingly anything with it. Her debut moved The New York Times to herald the 22-year-old as "a massive talent."

And yet even as the second album was monopolizing health clubs and car stereos in mid-1987, a number of critics were suggesting that despite owning her gift she didn't quite occupy it. Some put the point in racial terms: She was accused of betraying her black roots to do bland "crossover" material that captured the heart of Nebraska, Holland and Australia. Others took a more psychological approach. Says J. D. Considine, pop music critic at the Baltimore Sun, "She's a little like a prize horse that is trained to the point
where it has its speed and command of the track, runs around it a few times to show it can do it, but isn't really interested in the race, or why it's running."

There may be something to that. In her youth Whitney seems to have lacked the drive to be "special" one might imagine in, say, a future Madonna or Prince.  Specialness arrived -- but not at her bidding; at her mother's, perhaps, or God's. Cissy Houston wanted her daughter to wear dresses to the Franklin elementary school in East Orange, N.J. The daughter objected. There was already trouble with classmates: "My face was too light, my hair was too long. I got chased, I got picked at. Girls would tell me, `I'm gonna kick your butt after school.' " Cissy insisted. O.K., said Whitney, then changed into smuggled blue jeans -- anonymity, sameness, safety -- when she got to school. "Blue jeans saved my ass a lot of times," she says.

The little girl from the unsteady family -- her parents would split amicably when she was in high school -- loved the church: the shared feelings of holiness, goodwill, belonging, and the music. But here, too, she was doomed to be special. At 11, she was plucked from the choir to sing a solo -- "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" -- and was both thrilled and disturbed when half the congregation was in tears when she finished.

"I always wanted to sing," she says. "But background, like my mother." Fat chance. When Whitney was 14, Cissy, performing at New York's Town Hall, brought her onstage to sing a verse of "Tomorrow" from Annie. "People rushed the stage," says Whitney. "I kind of backed up. I was scared of the intensity. I thought they were going to kill me."

To help her deal with her gift and the mixed feelings it stirred, Whitney had the aid of a friend. Two years older than Whitney when they met as summer camp counselors, Robyn Crawford was athletic and empathetic -- "I did a lot of listening," she says with a smile -- and she served as bulwark and reality check as her new friend's life took off. By 1980, Whitney was enrolled as a model with the trendy Click agency. Soon, performing at small clubs, she was the buzz of New York's R&B crowd. And in 1983, after a fevered professional courtship, she put herself in the hands of a man whose reputation was built on
making female vocalists -- Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick -- so special they needed no last names. Clive Davis, searching for a big act at his new label, Arista, recognized in Whitney the looks, lungs and lineage of a future crossover empress. Which is what she became, ready or not.

For his next location, the photographer chooses the game room in the basement, with its Pacmania, Blasteroids, pool table, fake-zebra chairs and fake-leopard carpeting. The spot seems more comfortable to Whitney, who is lecturing Misteblu, her Angora cat, who refuses to pose for the camera: "You eat good, you live good, you should be happy to get your picture taken with me. But life isn't like that, is it? You can't be happy all the time."

The next years were unexpectedly wearing. Soon after Whitney Houston came out in early 1985, she toured as the opening act for Jeffrey Osborne and Luther Vandross. When the album hit big, she became a headliner. "I toured for two years," she recalls. "Then right into the studio to make the second one." To everyone's surprise, the second one opened at No. 1 and stayed there. "It was hot as a pistol. Immediately I began to tour again. I did the States. I did Australia, Japan. That took another two years."

As any rocker will tell you, four years on the road can turn anybody's specialness into a pathology. You may well be special enough to ban, as one group did, brown M&Ms from your dressing room, but you may not be able to find a real friend -- or even a real emotion. As one single after another topped the charts, Whitney says, "There was no time to really revel in it or be saturated in it. There were times when I cried because I didn't understand
what was happening to me as a person." When the tour finally ended, Whitney was relieved. "I had done what I was supposed to do, and my break was deserved. It was time to catch up on me."

So if you are 25, rich, famous, and have no idea what it all means, how do you begin to catch up?

"I lived in my house." Ah, yes, the house -- 20,000 square feet of palatial ranch, complete with requisite pool, her initials embedded in the bottom in 16-foot black Plexiglas letters. At first it was hopeless: Lights flickered on and off as she contended with master switches. She was ignorant of alarm codes. She felt stupid. She decided to do something. "I found out who's the electric guy, who's the maintenance guy, the pool guy, the this, the that.  Some things I learned as I went along." And one day she quit sleeping in the
maid's room for good. 

What next? What else might yield to a little determination and work? In 1986, Whitney asked her father, who had guided Cissy's career in the old days, to run her corporate entity, Nippy, Inc. At the time, as John Houston notes bluntly, "Whitney didn't know nothing." Owned but not occupied. "I remember my father showing me pictures of this real estate, and I said, `Oh, Daddy, these are so nice, but I already have a home.' And he said, `These are your investments.' And I said, `Oh, yeah. I knew that.' " And soon she did. Now
she yeas or nays his important corporate decisions and can proclaim, "Whitney Houston is a business. And she feels very good about that, you know."

Friendship, of course, is a more subtle task. Whitney already had old friends: Robyn, now her executive assistant; two brothers, Michael and Gary; and the little army of Jerseyites who had known her family for years and now took roles in her organization. But she needed new friends. People to share her new life as equals and still remind her of the values she grew up with.

BeBe and CeCe Winans, from a venerable black Pentecostal family in Detroit, were an extremely popular gospel duo. Contemporaries of Whitney, both were married, and CeCe had two children. BeBe remembers originally meeting Whitney after one of her supporting appearances. "I told her, `I don't know your name, I just want to know what church you came from, because nobody who sings like you didn't come up in church.' "

It was the right opener. They exchanged numbers. And exchanged them and exchanged them, so they could call each other from any city or continent. "If the phone rang at three a.m., it was Whitney," says BeBe.

"She's like the rest of our family," says CeCe. "She's crazy."

And whenever they all ended up in the same town, without a producer within miles or even a microphone, Whitney would sing with BeBe and CeCe, usually about God. It was like throwing off a straitjacket. "They sing from such a pure place," she says. "It brought me back to where I started. I could be free, to express the real core of me."

It was happening. Whitney's life -- her cold, resplendent, unused house of a life -- was filling, with two cats (Misteblu has a cohort named Marilyn) in the yard and music in every room. Well, in almost every room. There was still an empty room, as one of her songwriters might say, for love.

This was complicated, though not as complicated, she says, as some rumors have suggested. "I mean, people really believe that I'm gay! It's a real trip. At first it hurt, because even back in our hometown people thought Robyn and I were gay because we were so close. But now, all I can say is, it cracks me up. I have no desire for a woman. But if that turns you on, and that's what you think, go for it. I'm not going to spend the rest of my life trying to prove it's not true, because I know the truth."

The truth, she explains, is that her career had stunted her romantic life. "I wasn't really going out with anyone. I was on hold. I was recording. I was promoting. I was here. I was there. A certain kind of paranoia runs through you. It's not like people meet you and want to get to know you. They already think they know you. So one day you turn around and . . . `Oooh, I've got this wall around me.' "

Whitney remembers a mother-daughter chat two years ago in Verona, N.J. "I said I wanted to grab for the simple things in life. I wanted to find a guy, get married, have children. And she in her wisdom said, `Yeah, well, that'll all come to you . . . but honey, it's going to take time, and all Mommy can tell you is God knows when it's right for you. And when it's right, He'll deliver.' "

By way of warming up, Whitney got Eddie Murphy. "I went to Arsenio's birthday show [in 1989], and Eddie was there. Ed and I had never quite connected; the time wasn't right. But this was when I started to say, `O.K., I'll go out with you, you know, I'll have a date with you.' "

They both lived in New Jersey. They were both multimillionaires. And he was supportive, in his fashion: "Eddie says I can sing my ass off." Eventually the romance passed, but a picture of the two on a street, her hand on his chest, is framed in the game room.

Now, she says, she is "dating. But I date steady. One guy at a time." The current guy is not as well known as Eddie Murphy, but "he does exist, and he knows who he is, and he's very much a man." It is from his pinkie, she says, that she got the elaborate ring that now adorns (informally) the third finger of her left hand.

Finally there was an interior to Whitney's life -- a private interior with comfortable nooks and crannies that only she knew -- and the time to explore them. Time to spend a week sunning in her second home in North Miami Beach.   Time to visit her nephews and nieces or spirit her mother to a Tyson fight in Las Vegas. Time to puzzle over recurring dreams, like the one in which a statue turns into an ugly giant "eight or nine feet tall, kind of discolored.  He's always running after me but never gets me." And another in which "I'm
crossing the George Washington Bridge [connecting Jersey to Manhattan], and the bridge starts swinging. It's raining and snowing and sleeting. It's so windy the bridge turns upside down. But I'm making it, I'm making it across.  And when I'm almost there, a hand reaches out for me. It's a man with white hair who says `He told me to come for you' and lifts me up and puts me on the other side."

And best of all, there was time to catch BeBe and CeCe on tour. Whitney joined them onstage in so many places, they started setting up a mike for her; she was often a backup singer (shades of Sundays past) but sometimes the lead. "A lot of people came to those concerts," says CeCe. "Ashford and Simpson, people like that. Some of them didn't know Whitney could sing that good. She hangs a little looser in a gospel concert, and she just let it rip. And they were floored."

Which is interesting, because that's what all those critics had been saying she should do, hoping she would do, suggesting maybe she couldn't do, because she didn't have the soul, or the heart.

The third Whitney Houston album, titled I'm Your Baby Tonight, is due out this month, and she is a little careful in describing it. After all, before Whitney was released there was a lot of talk about how it would be "blacker" than Whitney Houston, which it wasn't. Nonetheless she ventures, "It's a little heavier in rhythm; it's got nice grooves in it." R&B aficionados are heartened by the fact that several songs, including the title track, were
written and mixed by the hot R&B production team L.A. Reid and Babyface. (Says Reid, "I never knew she was as funky as she is.") "This one's more spontaneous," Whitney says. "You know, I'm not going to try to be this wild queen or something, but I think maybe it's just having a lot more fun."

She is also producing two tracks herself. They seem to have special meaning to her. One is a gospel-touched song coauthored by BeBe. Whitney recites the following lyric: "I'm knockin', come open up the door / My heart's been right here waiting for someone to adore / Who's to say it's easy -- sometimes life's not fair / I've heard some say just knock, the door will open / And when it does, you'll find love standing there / . . . And if it's true, I'm knockin'... . ."

Night has fallen. The photo session is over. In the kitchen someone is icing a cake. In the den sits a quartet of cardplayers: Whitney, Robyn, Billie (a backup singer) and Ellen, Whitney's hairstylist. Somebody is griping, creatively, about bad cards. Somebody else sings along with the radio -- note for note, in perfect harmony. Billie is telling a funny story. And suddenly a peculiar noise fills the air, sounding a little like this: Whooo! Heeee!  Whooo! Heee! It is Whitney. Still dressed in her sequined gown from the last photographic pose, doubled over in her chair, losing it, falling out laughing. "Whooo! Heee! Whooo! Heee!"

And at least in this room, at this moment, she seems very comfortable, totally in harmony, with her home.

CAPTION: "I don't have a new gimmick, I don't dye my hair fifty different colors," says Whitney. "I'm a singer."

CAPTION: "My mother raised me to be a lady," says Whitney, "raised me to be
decent and have dignity . . ."

CAPTION: . . . which doesn't mean she can't enjoy a card game with her inner
circle in Mendham, N.J.

CAPTION: "If you thought after a hiatus of like two or three years that Whitney Houston's dead, forget it," says the singer, here at her bedroom window. "I'm here and I'm back. I'm back on the block."

-- End --



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