Reflections on the Life of Whitney Houston on Her Birthday

There's no other way to describe it. Whitney Houston's sudden passing in a bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hotel this past February was a horrible waste of talent and a tragic loss for the world.

Houston's battle with drugs and the horrors of an abusive marriage aren't uncommon in the world of show business, but given her success and upbringing, it was especially sad to watch her decline and witness her ultimate demise. Fortunately, we as fans were able to learn a bit about life, love, and Houston by watching her bloom and then fade under the spotlight. Here are a few things, good, bad, and ugly, that we learned from watching Whitney.

First, the Good
Born August 9, 1963, Houston achieved many remarkable milestones over the course of her career. Named by Guinness World Records as the most award-winning female performer of all time, she chalked up sales of more than 170 million records, including seven studio albums and three movie soundtracks that achieved diamond, multiplatinum, platinum, or gold certification. She was the only recording artist to chart seven consecutive number-one hits and became only the second performer (coming in behind Elton John) and the first female to have two number-one albums on the Billboard year-end album charts.

Houston's eponymous 1985 debut became the best-selling debut album by a female artist up until that time, and Rolling Stone went on to rank it as the best release of the year. The stats don't end there. The soundtrack to her first feature film The Bodyguard garnered the Grammy for Album of the Year, while its first single, "I Will Always Love You," ranked as the best-selling single by a female artist in the history of the music biz. It helped Houston become the first act -- solo or group, male or female -- to sell more than a million copies of a single album in a week. Likewise, she ranks at number four in the list of the ten best-selling female performers of all time.

Lesson learned: Talent gains its recognition. But with untamed addiction, even talent can't conquer all the odds.

Still, these amazing numbers don't tell the entire story. Those who caught her in concert during her prime, and the millions more who saw her onscreen in The Bodyguard and her other films that followed -- The Preacher's Wife, Waiting to Exhale, and Cinderella (Sparkle, her latest, is about to be released posthumously) -- can testify to her remarkable charisma and unique presence that she radiated during her turn in the spotlight.

Perhaps she had it in her genes. Mother Cissy Houston and cousins Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick seemed to bequeath her their talents. But regardless, she radiated it and made that acumen her own.

She began her career singing gospel, performing with her mother and modeling for fashion magazines, but by the mid-'80s, she was already an international star, having scored a hugely successful debut album and several number-one singles. As a result, she also became the first African-American artist to receive consistent heavy rotation on MTV.

Her second album, Whitney, made her the first female artist in musical history to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart and the first artist to enter the album charts at number one in both the U.S. and the U.K.

Lesson learned: Whitney once ruled.

Then, the Bad
All was not rosy despite the sensational sales. Some critics claimed she wasn't "black enough," and she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards when her award nomination was made. Consequently, she made her third album, I'm Your Baby Tonight, in a more R&B mode. Sadly, though, it was her marriage to Bobby Brown that brought her the first bout with bad publicity, a consequence of her husband's various run-ins with the law and his alleged propensity for illegal drug intake.

Lesson learned: Decisions have consequences, but artistic repercussions are a lot less serious than a ruined reputation caused by a stupid spouse.

Even in the midst of what would be her first film success with The Bodyguard, she found herself courting controversy when the film company deliberately hid her face in its ads to diffuse the fact that the plot focused on an interracial relationship. "People know who Whitney Houston is -- I'm black," she declared in a 1993 Rolling Stone story. "You can't hide that fact." To make matters worse, Houston received generally unfavorable acting reviews even though the movie went on to reap superb ticket sales, making it one of the top 100 grossing films of all time, at least up until that point.

Lesson learned: Racism is apparently still alive and well in Hollyweird.

While Houston would recoup some of her earlier accolades later on, her good-girl image began to tarnish. By the late '90s, she had settled into a pattern of missing interviews, being tardy for photo shoots, skipping rehearsals, and allegedly being under the influence of drugs. On January 11, 2000, security guards discovered pot in Houston and her husband's baggage at a Hawaii airport. Before the pair could be apprehended, they managed to board their plane and make their escape.

Lesson learned: Take a lesson from Paul McCartney: Don't stash your stash in your suitcase.

Ultimately, the Ugly

Houston's problems accelerated from that point on. She failed to turn up for her performance honoring Clive Davis when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame. A short time later she missed another key gig when she was fired from the Academy Award broadcast by its musical director and her personal pal, Burt Bacharach. Her flack insisted it was due to throat problems, but those close to the scene say it was Houston's shaky performances in rehearsal that led to her dismissal. Later that year, Houston's executive assistant declared she herself had had enough and left Houston's employ.

Lesson learned: Do the diva bit all you want, but don't piss off those close to you.

Thank you, Whitney, for teaching us about both the wonders and horrors of stardom.
Happy birthday.

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