When I was young girl, I thought that Whitney Houston was a princess. Everything about her seemed perfect and I am sure that I cracked a few mirrors attempting to sing like her. As I grew older and Whitney attempted to take control of her own image, I began to understand that the Whitney Houston who I had loved — with what can only be described as a teenager’s glee — was a creation of Clive Davis.
In crafting Whitney’s public persona, Davis’s brilliance was giving Black people a woman who could be elevated at a time when we were all desperate for positive images of Black femininity. This vision of Black womanhood was framed in a manner that was not threatening to Whiteness because it didn’t involve a political message which questioned inequality or any of the issues Black women have to negotiate in this world. Whitney was a Black woman with a powerful voice, singing cute and ultimately harmless pop songs rather than gospel or R&B music. As a professional voice for hire, they told her what to sing and she sang it.
In the later years of her career, Whitney would take control over own image and move away from the “princess” Davis created in an attempt to be more authentically herself. Whitney strove to bring in the traditions of her own culture as an African-American woman and to more closely tie herself to the Black community, but despite her efforts, she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards. Like many celebrities, the creation still obscured the person, but in her case it was specifically because many viewed her as “too white.” Her acceptance in the Black community was often tenuous as a result.
Even in death, Whitney still has not found any peace: there are still people seeking to frame her celebrity and rake in gross profits from her image. Just days after Houston died, Peter Tatchell, an HRC campaigner penned a piece in which he asserted that Houston was involved in a long-term same-sex relationship and suggested that the public has a responsibility to ensure that this speculated relationship was attributed as part of her legacy, even though these are charges that Houston denied repeatedly throughout her lifetime.
In 2008, a section of a memoir written by Bobby Brown was leaked to the press. He alleged that Whitney married him because she was looking to put an end to rumors of her bisexuality, while he had hoped for a stable relationship and family. Now that she is deceased, there are rumors circulating that Brown is once again peddling a tell-all book about his relationship with Whitney. Because the confidentially agreement is no longer in place, this work stands to be even more sordid than what he shopped around three years ago.
Hitting what can only be called the lowest of the low, The National Enquirer has released photos of Whitney in her coffin. The viewing was a private affair for the family, yet somehow these images made it to the cover of a tabloid. It is not known yet who sold the images to The National Enquirer, but what is certain is that this is a practice which is quite normal for the gossip magazine — this is, after all, the magazine that became famous from publishing photos of Elvis Presley in his coffin.
In her heart-wrenching eulogy, long-time friend Robyn Crawford (who, coincidentally, is the subject of Tatchell’s lesbian relationship rumor) talked about Whitney’s drive to make it as a professional entertainer. Robyn made note that there was always a demand for Whitney to perform at an extremely high standard, no matter how she was feeling, or what was going on in her life. Sony Music owns much of her catalogue, including The Bodyguard soundtrack. Even as people play the songs Houston made famous, Whitney didn’t own the rights to any of these songs and her estate is not receiving direct benefit from songs written and owned by others. Despite all of the love and outpouring of grief for her loss, being a voice-for-hire still means limited profits.
From the very beginning, Whitney knew that she wanted to be a star, but I wonder if she realized that becoming a star meant her private life would constantly be fodder for people to speculate about and judge. Her sexuality, drug abuse, and failed marriage knocked her down from the princess pedestal and into an out-of-control “crackhead” stereotype. It seems to me that she was so much more than that – a woman of many passions with an incredible talent who never stopped chasing her dreams for success in the darkest hours of her existence. Will there ever be a time when Whitney’s legacy will speak for itself? Even in death, Black women cannot be allowed peace.