Biopic explains what Whitney Houston hated about her body, and why her legacy lives on many years after death

They are among the most successful pop videos of the 1980s – certainly in terms of the sales they drove – and they made Whitney Houston’s powerful voice and gentle face familiar around the world.

But for the British choreographer Arlene Phillips, who worked on the dance routine that accompanied 1987’s hit track I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me), there were clear signs of the acute self-doubt behind Houston’s talent even then.

“The funniest memory is how she hated her feet. She thought they were too big. It was always about what shoes she was going to wear and how I was going to make her walk,” the former Strictly Come Dancing judge once recalled.

The impression Phillips formed after working on Houston’s video, as well as on her 1985 hit How Will I Know, was of someone “insecure … sweet, shy and funny”.

Today there is no doubting the scale of Houston’s impact on the music industry, regardless of her sensitivities and fears, because a decade after her tragically early death and on the 35th anniversary of the release of I Wanna Dance with Somebody, her legacy is about to be celebrated by both high and low culture, with honours ranging from the sublime to the mildly ridiculous.

Naomi Ackie stars as Whitney Houston in the new biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy
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Soon, cinemagoers, together with visitors to a London museum, will once again be bowing down in front of the image of the woman once known as “the Voice”, while a selection of glimmering Houston-branded eye shadows has also just been launched by a top cosmetics company.

“It’s not surprising there is still so much interest – it all comes from her,” said saxophonist YolanDa Brown, chair of the British Phonographic Industry, this weekend. “She had something unique. She was regal on stage because of her stature and smile, always with that cheeky flirt behind it. And because of music streaming, a younger generation is discovering her.”

Audiences have already queued to see Houston’s posthumous hologram performances on stage that began in February 2020, or to watch the tribute musical Queen of the Night, which sold out again in London’s West End last month. But this Christmas has also seen the arrival of a makeup collection inspired by her look. Mac, the Canadian cosmetics company, has brought out a range of colours designed to help admirers re-create “her signature smoky eye makeup look” in a mixture of matt finishes and 1980s-style metallic hues.

The company’s “Eye-Conic Palette”, together with blushers and lipsticks, is branded Nippy, after the singer’s childhood nickname.

More prestigiously, of course, this week sees the much heralded international release of the biopic I Wanna Dance with Someone, which arrives in UK cinemas on Boxing Day, and was made with the approval of Houston’s family and her mentor, the producer Clive Davis.

Next June, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is to include her story in its new show Diva, a major exhibition that promises “to redefine” what that word means. The displays at the South Kensington venue will feature photographs, costumes and designs, as well as music, as the V&A seeks to unravel the nature of the influence of a string of great performers, from the classical soprano Maria Callas to Houston.

The term “diva”, once reserved for leading opera singers, often has a derogatory connotation now. It is usually applied to a someone whose talent is dwarfed by the size of the expectations they have of others. But it can still denote a performer of great skill and presence, despite its associations with imperious or neurotic behaviour. “When we talk about a vocal diva, someone like Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross, it is with reverence. I am hoping it does not always have to have a troubled element to it. I really hope it is not part of my story, speaking as a mother who performs,” said Brown.

“But there is always going to be a burden, with everything a star goes through – from all the travel to the pressure of performance and to people around you not standing up to you in your own interest. I hope it does not still go hand in hand. I believe there has been progress in the industry.”

Appearing solo on stage can be lucrative but frightening, and both factors can create an unhealthy atmosphere around a performer. This was a side of the Houston entourage that concerned Phillips in the 1980s. “The thing that always worried me was the way she was treated – as though she wasn’t real, almost,” she has said. “There were a lot of people around her who worshipped her.”

At a distance, the key points in Houston’s career stand out like heightened passages in one of her ballads. There was her early exposure to gospel sounds at the side of her mother, Cissy Houston, leading her into the world of teen modelling. Then came “her discovery” at 19, when Davis, played in the film by Stanley Tucci, signed her to his Arista record label. That mix of the holy and the profane became the trademark of her bell-like sound.

“You can hear the gospel training,” said Brown. “Singing in a church, you are ushering in the spirit. You have to have the power to be heard over the congregation and to pierce through, which she did, especially when she hit those high notes. It is a voice that will last because of the power and vulnerability in it. She had a fantastic range and use of vibrato, which allowed her to sing her pain.”

Houston’s first two studio albums made the top spot on the Billboard 200 chart and remain bestsellers. In the 1990s, she turned to acting, with a high-profile debut in The Bodyguard, opposite Kevin Costner. The torch song she recorded for the soundtrack, Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, became her signature tune, ascending above her many other hits.

These triumphs were followed by a series of bleak moments in which her failing health, caused by drug dependency, became apparent. All of this – even her grimly shocking death at the age of 48, when she was found on the eve of the Grammy awards, lying unconscious in her bathroom at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles – has become a key part of the legend.

Talk in the modern age of the value of “strong women” is one thing, but when it comes to those divas who are venerated, there still seems to be a premium on visible vulnerability. From Callas to Édith Piaf and Amy Winehouse, the singers who demonstrate frailty, even hint at desperation, are the ones who appear to communicate most enduringly. It is an unsettling puzzle.

For Naomi Ackie, the British actor who plays Houston in the new film, the important thing was to represent the intensity of the late performer’s experiences, from the voice to the emotional turbulence. “I loved singing so loudly, and noting carefully when she used to take a breath in her performances. But she was living in two different worlds that sometimes overlapped. I had to figure out what were the big themes in her public-facing life and what were the ones in her private life.”

Speaking to BBC Radio last week, Ackie added: “I assume that is the big thing about being such a huge star; the contrast of your life from day to day is so flat whiplash-fast. And you are spread so thin across the globe. That is something really hard to negotiate, even if you are super-grounded and have all the best people around you.”

As the Whitney waltzer begins to spin this Christmas, Brown welcomes the attention Houston’s musical legacy is getting, but also point outs that she was more than just “an act”, at a time before women held many positions of power in the entertainment industry, let alone black women. “Whitney’s artistry was multifaceted,” she said. “She was not just a singer, she was an advocate for charities and an actor, as well as a producer and a mother.”