From the church choir to the Super Bowl to the GRAMMYs stage, Whitney's story is one of a generational talent gone too soon.
One of the most iconic performers of the 20th century, Whitney Houston’s legacy will remain as long as music can be played. With the release of the new biopic, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, fans new and old are getting a closer look at the life, career and struggles of a generational talent gone too soon.
From her early days singing in church, to her star-making Super Bowl rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," to major movie roles and even more successful soundtracks, Whitney was a superstar in every sense of the word. However, her personal life was plagued by complicated relationships and substance abuse, the latter of which lead to her death in 2012 at just 48 years old.
Naomi Ackie stars as Whitney in the Houston family-approved biopic, and she told ET that having the support of Whitney's family and friends was instrumental in doing justice to the singer's story.
"Reading what Clive [Davis] had written, what Pat [Houston] had written, it was so heartwarming," she added. "And to get to see them in so many different parts of the process, they were always so supportive. Always willing to share anything to help me tell the story properly. I'm eternally grateful for them, and really quite touched by their involvement and how much they wanted this part of her story to be told."
Read on for a look at the life and legacy of one of the greatest performers of all time.
The Early Years
Whitney was born on August 9, 1963, in Newark, New Jersey, to John Russell Houston Jr. and Emily "Cissy" Houston (née Drinkard). She was surrounded by music from an early age -- Cissy was a gospel singer who later joined a popular session vocal group called the The Sweet Inspirations, who performed on songs with stars like Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison and more. Darlene Love was Whitney’s godmother, Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick were first cousins, and Aretha Franklin was considered an honorary aunt.
Whitney started out singing in church at the age of five, and also learned to play the piano. She was a soloist by age 11, and by 14, had started singing backup for her mother at cabaret clubs in New York City. She also started modeling, becoming one of the first women of color to cover a fashion magazine when she appeared on the cover of Seventeen.
She continued performing and recording throughout high school -- with Cissy insisting she turn down offers from record labels until her education was complete -- but her big moment came when Arista Records head Clive Davis came to see her perform and was instantly impressed, signing her to a worldwide deal on April 10, 1983.
Making It Big
Whitney’s first major hit was a duet with Teddy Pendergrass, “Hold Me,” which became a Top 5 R&B hit prior to the release of her self-titled debut album. Whitney Houston, released on Feb. 14, 1985, went platinum 13 times over and included mega hits like “Saving All My Love for You,” “Greatest Love of All” and “How Will I Know.”
She followed it up with 1987’s Whitney, which was certified Diamond and made Whitney the first female act to achieve four No. 1 hits from one album: "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)", "Didn't We Almost Have It All", "So Emotional" and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go.”
The success of her first two albums established Whitney as a global superstar -- with seven consecutive Billboard No. 1 hits breaking a record previously shared by The Beatles and The Bee Gees. Then, she stepped onto one of the biggest stages of her career in January 1991, when she performed a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Super Bowl XXV amid the Persian Gulf War. Whitney’s recording of the national anthem peaked at No. 20 on the Hot 100 and became the most successful recording of the song.
Over the course of her career, Whitney released five more albums -- I'm Your Baby Tonight, My Love Is Your Love, Just Whitney, One Wish: The Holiday Album, and I Look to You -- and two soundtrack albums, all of which were certified diamond, multi-platinum or platinum. She was the top-selling female R&B artist of the 20th century, and has sold more physical singles than any other female solo artist in history.
She also garnered dozens of awards during her career, including two Emmy Awards, eight GRAMMYs (including two GRAMMY Hall of Fame honors), 14 World Music Awards, 16 Billboard Music Awards and 22 American Music Awards.
The Silver Screen
In addition to her music career, Whitney also found success in the movies. Her first film role came in 1992’s The Bodyguard. The romantic drama -- in which Houston played a famous singer with a stalker who falls in love with her bodyguard, played by Kevin Costner -- received mixed reviews, but it was massively successful at the box office, earning $410 million worldwide.
Even more successful was The Bodyguard soundtrack, on which Whitney co-executive produced and recorded six new songs. Her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” remains one of the best-selling physical singles of all time -- going platinum 18 times over -- and won the performer the GRAMMY Awards for Album of the Year and Record of the Year in 1994. The album would go on to be named the top-selling Soundtrack Album of the Century by the RIAA.
Whitney also performed on the soundtracks for her next two films, 1995’s Waiting to Exhale and 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife. In 1997, she co-executive produced and starred in a television adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, playing the Fairy Godmother to Brandy’s titular princess. The special was ABC’s highest-rated in 16 years, racking up over 60 million viewers, and remains a fan favorite to this day.
Later in her career, Whitney teamed up with other music stars on several movie projects, recording the duet “When You Believe” with Mariah Carey for the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, and singing with Jordin Sparks in the 2011 remake of Sparkle, which ended up being her final film and music release.
Love and Troubles
After being linked to stars like Jermaine Jackson, Randall Cunningham and Eddie Murphy in the early years of her career, Whitney met Bobby Brown in 1989 and the pair were married on July 18, 1992. The relationship was a roller coaster from the start with Brown facing numerous legal troubles for drunk driving, drug possession and battery, and Houston suffering miscarriages before and after the couple welcomed their only child, daughter Bobbi Kristina, on March 4, 1993.
The later years of Whitney's marriage to Bobby also brought increased speculation about the couple’s drug use and erratic behavior. In early 2000, she had marijuana found in her bags at a Hawaiian airport, no-showed for the ceremony celebrating Clive Davis’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was fired from performing at the Academy Awards after appearing “distracted and jittery” during rehearsals.
Then, there was Whitney’s relationship with Robyn Crawford. The pair met as teens, when they were counselors at a summer camp in East Orange, Jersey, and remained inseparable for many years. Speculation about the nature of their relationship was always dispelled during Whitney’s life, however, in Robyn’s 2019 memoir, she claimed that the pair had a sexual relationship in their early years, but stopped being physical at the start of Whitney’s musical career.
However, Robyn remained close for many years, serving as Whitney’s personal assistant and working with her management company until 2000, when she quit. In her book, Robyn says that she left because of Whitney’s refusal to seek help for her drug use.
Early on, Whitney denied rumors of drug use, however, in her infamous “crack is whack” interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002, she admitted to using cocaine, marijuana, alcohol and pills, and added that her highly-speculated weight loss was in fact due to drug use.
In 2003, Bobby was charged with battery after an incident in which he assaulted Whitney, and in 2004, the couple starred in one season of his ill-fated reality show, Being Bobby Brown. The series was an unflattering look at the couple’s home life and led to further speculation about their substance use and domestic turmoil.
In a 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Whitney admitted that her drug use increased following the birth of her daughter and the success of The Bodyguard. She also opened up about more domestic disputes with Bobby and revealed that she had attended a 30-day rehab program. In 2011, Whitney returned to rehab, with a rep saying at the time that the outpatient treatment was a part of Houston's ongoing recovery process.
Gone Too Soon
Whitney was found dead in her hotel room at The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California, on Feb. 11, 2012. It was GRAMMY Awards weekend, and the performer was scheduled to attend the annual pre-GRAMMYs bash held by her longtime friend and producer Clive Davis that night. She was discovered in the bathtub -- the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office later determined that her death was caused by drowning and the "effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use.”
The singer was mourned in a private funeral, with performances by Stevie Wonder, CeCe Winans, Alicia Keys, Kim Burrell, and R. Kelly and remarks by Clive Davis, Kevin Costner, Dionne Warwick, music director Rickey Minor, and Ray Watson, Whitney’s security guard for the previous 11 years.
Sadly, tragedy followed Whitney in death, as her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, died just three years later, after also being found unresponsive in a bathtub. She was just 22.
It’s been over 10 years since Whitney’s death, but there’s no denying that her legacy continues to remain strong. In the weeks following her death, the singer became the first and only female act to ever place three albums in the Top 10 of the US Billboard 200 Album Chart all at the same time, with Whitney: The Greatest Hits at No. 2, The Bodyguard at No. 6 and Whitney Houston at No. 9.
To this day, she remains the first and only Black artist to have three Diamond-certified albums. The Bodyguard soundtrack remains the best-selling soundtrack album of all time, and The Preacher's Wife soundtrack is the best-selling gospel album of all time.
On January 15, 2020, Whitney was announced as an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 2020 class, and in March 2020, the Library of Congress announced that Houston’s rendition of "I Will Always Love You" had been added to its National Recording Registry, a list of "aural treasures worthy of preservation" due to their "cultural, historical and aesthetic importance" in the American soundscape.
And in October 2020, the music video for "I Will Always Love You" surpassed 1 billion views on YouTube, making Houston the first solo 20th-century artist to have a video reach that milestone -- and proving that she’s just as relevant as ever.
Now, with the release of Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, fans new and old can get more perspective on one of the greatest musical talents of her generation.
Ackie told ET that she spent months researching the superstar, "studying the songs and her history and what she was like as a child and all this beautiful, imaginary work that me, as an actor, I just like live for... It really pushed me to my outer limits and I'm so happy that I got to do it."