I was first introduced to Whitney Houston when my parents gave me a Christmas subscription to Seventeen Magazine one Christmas in the early ’80s. The pages were full of fresh-faced models that we all came to know by name: Whitney, Phoebe, Joe. I remember this cover from 1981, and, since I had recently tackled knitting my first sweater, I contemplated making the cute sweater dress (with shoulder pads!) on the cover, falling in love with those post-disco metallic yarn accents. I ultimately never ended up making the dress, which was probably for the best.
A couple of years after the sweater cover, one of the after-dinner entertainment shows ran a short segment that teen model Whitney Houston, niece of Dionne Warwick, was soon releasing an album. The piece included a clip of her at the piano singing with Jermaine Jackson, and she had a surprisingly beautiful voice — something somewhat rare in the ’80s, when the introduction of music videos often meant that form trumped function. By the time I started college, her album was released and comprised the soundtrack to my freshman year. I went to a small Christian college that kept alumni and donors happy by “banning” dancing (the school now includes a Dance major; go figure), so we had illegal, student-sponsored dances at the armory down the street. Bringing the room down for a slow dance was inevitably kicked off with a Whitney ballad.
I never bought another of her albums, never saw The Bodyguard, never went to a concert. But during the late ’80s and all through the ’90s, any of us who were around at that time know that Whitney was omnipresent.
And then the public decline started. The weird behavior. The oft-parodied Crack is Wack interview. The tabloid photos of her “drug den bathroom.” That awful Being Bobby Brown reality show. And Whitney pretty much became a sad figure who fell back into obscurity, popping up periodically to remind us that she had been great and was on the cusp of recapturing the good times. I didn’t even realize that she had released a new album in the last couple years, or that it went to number 1. But she seemed to be struggling to get past her years of drug abuse, bad publicity, and professional idleness.
When Phil told me Saturday night he’d just read on Facebook that she died, like many of us, I was shocked. And sad that someone who seemed to have everything didn’t have the capacity to choose a better path. And while making some bread yesterday, I thought about the ultimate object lesson: That money truly doesn’t buy happiness, and sometimes making bread and living simply and in relative obscurity is a lot easier than having limitless resources and adulation and the soul-sucking scrutiny that can come with it.
I look at this fresh-faced cover from more than 30 years ago, and I remember wanting to be cute and fun like the girls enjoying their fake ice cream and their shimmery dresses, and see the infinite possibilities for where their 19-year-old lives could have gone. Sometimes you don’t really want to know the ending.