A Hard Climb for the Girl Next Door

Article excerpt

Why Whitney Houston's fans never stopped rooting for her.

By Allison Samuels

With Whitney Houston's death in a Beverly Hills bathtub, bottles of prescription pills found in her room, it was hard to escape the reality of addiction that dominated her later years. On Fox & Friends, Bill O'Reilly announced that the star had "killed herself" with decades of drug use, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fought off critics who said an addict didn't deserve flags in her native state flown at half-mast.

Despite Houston's demons, her fans--2 million of whom tweeted about her in the hour after her death was announced--never stopped rooting for her. "I don't think I've ever seen a woman, a black woman, receive the type of attention and nonstop press Whitney has these last few days," says former Motown president Clarence Avant. "Everything stopped when the news of her death hit. It seemed the world paused and took note of the loss."

If the response was unprecedented, it was in part because Houston's life and career were also unprecedented--and unmatched even today. Houston wasn't just an incredible singer with sky-high cheekbones. She wasn't just a charismatic modeling, music, and film star. Houston was a New Jersey-born "girl next door" who, for a short period in time, changed the way the world viewed beauty, style, and fame.

Houston instantly altered several industries when she emerged in the early 1980s. When her smiling brown face, complete with a close-cropped Afro, appeared on the cover of Seventeen in 1981, she was one of the first African-Americans to grace the cover, and the industry took notice. When she belted out a chilling and soulful version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" at the 1991 Super Bowl, the world sat back in awe of her poise and calm. And in an era when African-American actresses are often given film roles portraying them as destitute, unloving, unlovable, or just "the help," Houston played the love interest of Kevin Costner, a white Hollywood superstar.

"Movie studios were actually creating roles for Whitney," says noted African-American film historian and author Donald Bogle. …