The Transformation Of Whitney Houston

The pop landscape was forever changed when a stunning New Jersey sensation burst onto the scene with her self-title debut, "Whitney Houston." She churned out hit after hit, starting with the single "You Give Good Love," followed by a string of No. 1 hits that beat a record set by The Beatles (via The Guardian). Whitney Houston's sound ranged from soulful ballads to catchy dance hits, and through the newer medium of music video, the world fell in love with her girl-next-door image.

But the world wasn't always kind to the pop diva. As she battled drug addiction and the struggles that come with fame, her professional life soon began to clash with the private. "It's sometimes hard to separate the two," she said in a 1991 interview. She added, "There's a time when I just want to play and I just want to be free, and just, you know, to do and say and go where I want to go." She attempted to strike a balance up until her life's tragic end in 2012, when the singer passed away under shocking circumstances.

Her family had strong musical roots

Born in New Jersey in 1963, Whitney Houston had a childhood filled with music. Her mother, Cissy, was a gospel singer who toured with her group The Drinkard Singers, according to The HistoryMakers. She later formed another girl group, The Sweet Inspirations, and performed alongside incredible talent, including Jimi Hendrix, Wilson Pickett, and Dusty Springfield. Cissy also had a robust solo career and sang backup for artists like Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison.

But her mother wasn't Houston's only musical influence. Per Biography, singer Dionne Warwick was her older cousin and Aretha Franklin was her unofficial godmother (her actual godmother, Darlene Love, had an amazing singing career as well). During an interview with MTV News, Franklin said she and Cissy were "old and very good friends and she used to bring Whitney to some of my recording sessions." She described Houston as a "shy, lovely girl," and said she didn't realize how much she impacted the pop sensation from their interactions: "I had no idea that Whitney felt as close to me as she does, but it's lovely, it's fabulous."

She believed her talent was a 'gift' from God

Coming from a musical family, Whitney Houston was no stranger to performing. In an ABC News special, she said she started singing at age 7, and that, at the time, she knew that "God had given me a gift." Heavenly sent or not, to say that her musical talent was incredibly rare is not an overstatement. Critics described her voice as "plush, vibrant and often spectacular" and noted that her range spanned three octaves, allowing her to achieve sounds of which many artists only dream.

Following in her mother's gospel footsteps, she began singing at church. Houston said she initially was not aiming for the limelight and wanted to become a backup singer. "I wanted to sing with my mother. That was safe for me," she said. "I was very shy." Her exposure to top performers also gave her unique opportunities. As a child, she had the chance to sing with her mother on the background sessions for Chaka Khan, who described pre-teen Houston as "amazing." Such experiences shaped her view on career possibilities. Houston said, "I knew exactly what I wanted to do. As a matter of fact, I informed my mother that I wasn't going to college, that I wanted to become a singer."

She was allegedly abused by a family member as a child

In "Whitney," a posthumous documentary that came out in 2018, award-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald revealed shocking allegations about the singer's early life. In interviews with people close to Whitney Houston, some claimed that she and her half-brother Gary were sexually abused as children by their cousin, singer Dee Dee Warwick, according to Vanity Fair. Gary said he was molested by a female relative while his mother was on tour. "My mother and father were gone a lot, so we stayed with a lot of different people," he said, adding, "Four, five different families who took care of us." He later named Warwick as his alleged predator. Houston's longtime assistant, Mary Jones, claimed Houston was also preyed upon by Warwick, who died in 2008. "She just had tears rolling down her face, and I just hugged her," she told MacDonald. "I said, 'One day when you get the nerve, you need to tell your mother. It will lift the burden off you.'"

Jones alleged that Houston feared how her mother, Cissy, would react if she found out. After the documentary aired, Cissy released a statement, calling the allegations "overwhelming and, for us, unfathomable," The Guardian reported. "We cannot reconcile the public's need to know about Whitney's life as justification for invasion of her privacy or the charge against Dee Dee, a charge which neither Whitney nor Dee Dee is here to deny, refute or affirm."

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

She became a teen model

Before she took the music world by storm, Whitney Houston had a brief stint as a teenage magazine model. Houston said (via an ABC News special series) that she was discovered at 16 by an agent who worked for a modeling agency and decided to roll with it. "This guy walked up to me, and he said, 'Are you a model?' and I said, 'No, I don't do any of that stuff,'" she recalled. "He said, 'Well, you should be.'"

She later signed on to the prestigious Wilhelmina Models agency and graced the pages of the biggest magazines at the time, including Seventeen, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, and Young Miss, as noted on her official website. A photographer recounted working with Houston when she was just 18 to CNN, calling her "an innocent, sweet, pleasant schoolgirl with very good manners," but without the polish and savvy of many of the models he knew (she even asked to do homework while waiting to be photographed). "All she had was the clothes she had worn to high school that day," he said. 

While her million-watt smile lit up the pages of the most popular magazines of the day, her true passion remained with music, which she still pursued while modeling.

She was discovered singing in a night club by Clive Davis at 19

When Whitney Houston was 19, an opportunity opened up to her that would change the course of her life. Star-making music mogul Clive Davis attended a club called Sweet Waters in Manhattan to watch her mother's gospel cabaret act, ABC News reported. Houston had prepared two songs to perform: "Home" from the movie "The Wiz" and "The Greatest Love of All," which Davis described as "knockouts" to The New York Times. In 2009, he recalled the night to Diane Sawyer, saying, "To hear this young girl breathe such fire into this song. I mean, it really sent the proverbial tingles up my spine."

Soon after, Davis signed Houston to Arista Records, and with the ink barely dry, he brought her on national television two weeks later to sing on "The Merv Griffin Show." He told "Good Morning America," "Here she was, just turning 19, and she was a stunning beauty, stunning vocalist," adding, "I introduced her to the next generation. If there would be a Lena Horne, a new Dionne Warwick, it would be Whitney." Though things were moving fast for Houston after that fateful night, it would take two years for her debut album to release.

Her first album earned her a Grammy

Now with a high-profile television debut under her belt, Whitney Houston set out to make her first album under the wing of Clive Davis. Per ABC News, he carefully brought on songwriters and producers who could craft the kind of songs that put Houston's "powerful range" and "vocal emotion" on display. About two years after she signed with Arista, her self-titled debut was released on Valentine's Day. When asked why the album took so much time to create, Davis said, "You've got to make sure that no matter how outstanding an artist is ... if you don't have special material, if you don't have the right material, you're not going to make the impact that you want to make." 

His recipe for success paid off. Houston's first single, "You Give Good Love," went to the top of the Billboard charts, per her website, along with the singles "How Will I Know" and "Greatest Love Of All." She even ended up smashing a record previously held by The Beatles by releasing seven No. 1 hits in a row. At the Grammy Awards in 1985, she was nominated for Album of the Year and Best R&B Vocal Performance, and she won Best Pop Vocal Performance for her hit "Saving All My Love for You." The album was eventually certified Diamond in 1999, and to date has sold 22 million copies across the globe.

She solidified herself as America's sweetheart at the Super Bowl

With several hit albums under her belt, Whitney Houston's career continued to soar in 1991. That January, she had the unique chance to showcase her talent at a premier television event: the Super Bowl. But taking on that year's "Star-Spangled Banner" was a bit of a minefield. USA Today reported that the U.S. had entered the first Gulf War 10 days prior to the event. Many called for its cancellation to reflect on the gravity of a country at war, but President George H.W. Bush pushed to allow the game to go on. Striking the right tone during the anthem was imperative  – nothing could be perceived as disrespectful toward the troops.

Dressed down in a white tracksuit, Houston was radiant on stage. Her rendition of the song was impactful — soaring vocals sung with emotion and grace — and so moving that it was played widely on the radio after the Super Bowl. Arista Records released a single of the track, with all proceeds going to a charity Houston selected (Esquire noted that she fittingly chose an organization benefiting troops). Per EW, she reflected on the moment, saying, "They say the national anthem is one of the hardest songs to sing, but it gets a whole lot easier to use those notes when you think about the many men and women risking their lives in the Middle East."

She married another pop sensation

Whitney Houston met Bobby Brown in 1989, while they were both at the top of their careers. Their first encounter was at that year's Soul Train Awards, according to Rolling Stone, when Whitney accidentally kept hitting Brown in the back of the head while hugging friends sitting behind him. "I leaned over and said, 'Bobby, I'm so sorry.' And he turned around and looked at me like, 'Yeah, well, just don't let it happen again,'" she recalled. "And I was like, 'Oooooh, this guy doesn't like me.' Well, I always get curious when somebody doesn't like me." She made up for their awkward first encounter by inviting him to her 26th birthday party, and the couple began dating soon after (via Lifetime).

With Houston's squeaky-clean public persona and Brown's more hard-edge past and sound, many saw the pairing as a mismatch. "I may be a B-boy and she's America's sweetheart, but it's love," Brown said. After three years of dating, they wed at Houston's home in 1992 in front of 800 guests, including celebrities Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, and Donald Trump. Houston's custom-made ivory satin gown reportedly cost $40,000. The opulent wedding included white doves that were released after their vows, an 18-tier wedding cake, and crates of Dom Perignon. Brown remembered the day as "joyful," telling ET, "I was getting married to the most beautiful woman in the world." For their honeymoon, the new couple cruised the Mediterranean aboard a 140-foot yacht.

Film brought her career to new heights

Another seismic event in Whitney Houston's life in the early '90s was the result of her burgeoning film career. In 1992, "The Bodyguard," starring Kevin Costner and Houston, was released. It was a box office hit, earning over $400 million worldwide, and brought home numerous accolades, including Grammy wins for the soundtrack. While filming, Houston struck up a friendship with her costar, with whom she had amazing chemistry on screen. In fact, according to The Hollywood Reporter, he pushed to have her cast in the main role. He would later recall that she had doubts as she embarked on her film career. "The Whitney I knew, despite her success and worldwide fame, still wondered, 'Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me?'"

For the film, Houston put her own spin on the Dolly Parton song "I Will Always Love You," which had as much success as the film itself. According to Fox News, the single spent 14 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. Parton remembered hearing Houston's rendition while driving and was so moved she had to pull over. "I could not believe how she did that," Parton shared. "I mean, how beautiful it was that my little song had turned into that, so that was a major, major thing." 

Houston later starred in hit films like "Waiting to Exhale" and "The Preacher's Wife" (per IMDb), though her film career was cut short as personal problems in her life began eclipse her work.

She soon became a mother

In March of 1993, Whitney Houston and her husband, Bobby Brown, welcomed their first and only child together, a daughter they named Bobbi Kristina. Bobbi Kristina had three half-siblings from Brown's previous relationships (and Brown would later father three additional children, per The U.S. Sun). Houston told Rolling Stone that there was "nothing more incredible in my life" than giving birth to her daughter. "God knows, I have been in front of millions and millions of people, and that has been incredible, to feel that give-take thing," she said. "But, man, when I gave birth to her and when they put her in my arms, I thought: 'This has got to be it. This is the ultimate.' I haven't experienced anything greater."

Having grown up outside the social media age, little is reported about Bobbi Kristina's childhood. Houston often kept her close, taking her on tour whenever she could — Biography noted that the performer sometimes even brought Bobbi Kristina on stage. But life on tour was hard, and alongside the glamour, Bobbi Kristina was exposed to darker moments, like her parents' growing drug use. "Our daughter saw it all," Brown wrote in his memoir, "Every Little Step." He claimed Houston's drug abuse — he said she ceased drug use while pregnant with Bobbi Kristina — increased after she became a mother. "When I think about it now, I just feel enormous pain, We failed her."

Her marriage ended in 2007

Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown's personal and collective demons made them prime for the tabloids, putting their marriage under intense scrutiny. Per The Hollywood Reporter, Houston had entered rehab for drug use in 2004 and 2005, while Brown was arrested on drug charges. And in 2003, the Daily Beast reported that Brown was arrested for hitting Houston, and he later confirmed he had hit her once. Brown also admitted to cheating on Houston, claiming that she had her own affairs. While Brown believed that their relationship was "doomed" from the start, Houston once cited her fame after "The Bodyguard" as the underlying issue. "Something happens to a man when a woman has that much fame," she told "Oprah." "I tried to play it down all the time. I used to say, 'I'm Mrs. Brown, don't call me Houston.'"

There was also the 2005 reality television series, "Being Bobby Brown." The show largely displayed Brown as crass and egotistical and was panned for robbing "Houston of any last shreds of dignity," per a Today critic. Houston was reportedly pressured into participating in the series by Brown, and it was canceled after she refused to appear in the second season. By 2006, the couple split, and the two were officially divorced in 2007, with Houston receiving full custody of their daughter, Bobbi Kristina.

She attempted to overcome her drug problems in rehab

By the time Whitney Houston divorced Bobby Brown, her struggles with drug use were already affecting her career. The New York Times noted that "her voice grew smaller, scratchier and less secure, and her performances grew erratic," and during a 2009 "Good Morning America" performance, she sounded "frayed." In an interview with Oprah Winfrey (via ABC News), Houston admitted to past drug use (specifically marijuana and cocaine), calling Brown "her drug" and claiming she "didn't do anything without him."

Reportedly leaning on her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, during this time, Houston released her seventh studio album and set out on her Nothing But Love tour in 2010. "Honestly, Whitney in many ways depended on Bobbi Kristina more than Bobbi Kristina did on her," a family member told the Daily Beast, noting, "No matter what she did or how drunk she got or how much her voice cracked at times, Bobbi Kristina still loved her so much and never gave up on her." By 2011, Houston's representatives released a statement saying she voluntarily checked into an "outpatient rehab program for drug and alcohol treatment."

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Her legacy continues to this day

Whitney Houston's life tragically ended in 2012. Before she was set to perform at Clive Davis' pre-Grammy Awards party in Los Angeles, Houston was found "facedown" in her hotel bathtub, and her death was later ruled an accidental drowning, Vanity Fair reported. Heart disease and drug use were contributing factors in the shocking incident. She was just 48 years old.

Just a day following Whitney Houston's death, her catalog of music sold nearly 1 million copies as fans mourned the incredible talent that was taken too quickly. And her legacy as one of the music industry's brightest stars continues to this day. Per MTV News, Houston blazed a path for female artists, becoming the first female artist to enter the Billboard chart at No. 1 with her 1987 album, "Whitney," and the first woman to receive two diamond awards. The soundtrack for "The Bodyguard" became the first album to sell over 1 million copies in a week. USA Today noted that at every Super Bowl, the national anthem singer will be compared to Houston, who "is widely acknowledged as the singer who set the bar impossibly high in 1991" for the song. Clearly, Houston's incredible talent continues to touch people's lives today.