I will always love you: why Whitney Houston’s legacy lives on 10 years after her death
With a new biopic, a branded makeup range and her place at the V&A next summer, the late US singer is being discovered by a whole new generation of fans
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.
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.”