Music

Up close with Whitney Houston

Up close with Whitney Houston -- Only weeks after childbirth, the pop diva can't escape her wildly successful film, ''The Bodyguard'' and a No. 1 soundtrack album

”I can’t really be the average pregant woman,” says Whitney Houston. ”People say, ‘God, you got biig!’ For some reason, I’m not supposed to be pregnant. I’m not supposed to be a woman. I’m supposed to be something else. What, I have no idea.” She shifts around, trying to get comfortable on her couch. ”A guy who was once my manager told me, ‘You’re an icon!”’ She thrusts her arms up and throws back her head in laughter. ”I was like, ‘What the f— is an icon?’ He said, ‘People look up to you and they think you’re a god.’ Maybe that’s what it is, I don’t know.”

At this moment, in the living room of her elegant North Miami Beach condominium, Houston, 29, doesn’t look much like an icon, but she is unmistakably pregnant. Her face, though undeniably pretty, is puffy and devoid of makeup; her eyelids are swollen, and so are her feet. Eight months into her pregnancy, she has added nearly 40 pounds to her 5-foot-8-inch, 125-pound frame. In baggy black sweatpants and an oversize white T-shirt, she seems a world away from the svelte pop diva everyone knows. And the contrast is all the more striking because right now, that other, glamorous Whitney Houston is virtually inescapable.

The Bodyguard, Houston’s film debut, in which she plays a singer who falls for an ex-Secret Service agent (Kevin Costner) hired to protect her from a crazed fan, has so far grossed more than $106 million for Warner Bros. — making it one of the biggest hits of 1992 and one of the most profitable movies in the studio’s history. Its soundtrack album, containing six Houston songs, has been No. 1 on the pop and R&B charts for seven weeks and has already sold 6 million copies. And then, everywhere, there’s That Song; Houston’s remake of Dolly Parton’s 1974 ballad ”I Will Always Love You” has been No. 1 on the pop charts since Nov. 28 (two weeks before the movie opened), has sold 4 million copies, and has achieved near-total dominion on radio and MTV.

And this success is particularly stunning because it comes at a time when Houston’s career seemed to have lost momentum. Her third album, 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight, sold only 3 million copies — a smash for most artists but a comedown for a singer whose first two albums sold 15 million copies combined. Moreover, a number of stations at first refused to play ”I Will Always Love You” on the grounds that listeners would be turned off by its quiet, a cappella opening. And with reviews that mostly ran the gamut from bad to worse (”the year’s highest-profile stinker,” wrote Mike Clark in USA Today), The Bodyguard is hardly one of the season’s prestige movies, although it gained respectability when it made $16.6 million its first weekend.

Yet Houston, far from being smug about her vindication, seems oddly detached from it. ”I feel kind of embarrassed,” she says quietly. ”I almost wish I could be more exciting — that I could match what is happening out there to me. I wish I could tell you I wake up in the morning and play ‘I Will Always Love You.’ Sometimes I sit around and go, ‘You’re a bad, bad entertainer”’ — she slaps herself on the wrist — ”’Bad, bad. You’re supposed to be into this s—.’ But I’m not. These days, the first thing I think about when I get up is labor.”

Houston, who married singer Bobby Brown last July, is due in March. Though she won’t confirm she’s having a girl, she repeatedly refers to the baby as ”my daughter.” She has just spent a week on the road with her husband, who is on a yearlong tour in support of his own album, Bobby. Now she has taken refuge in her Florida vacation home (her primary residence is in Mendham, N.J.) to swim, lie in the sun, and take long naps. When she’s not working, this serene laziness is what Houston craves.

The serenity extends to her reaction to The Bodyguard’s reviews. Houston, who has been criticized in the past for selling out her soulful voice by singing middle-of-the-road pop ballads, seems untouched by the critical trouncing her first film has received. ”The public is intelligent enough that they are willing to say, ‘I want to see it for myself,”’ she says. ”I worked so damn hard on that movie, and I put a lot of time into it, as everyone else did. I’m grateful that people get it, that they’re open enough to understand it.”

”I Will Always Love You,” the ballad she sings at the end, has been a major part of the film’s success. ”You hear the song, you think of the movie,” she says. ”I think about people who have passed away, people in my family I’ve been close to. Certain parts make me think of my husband.

”Whose heart can’t this movie touch? We’ve been missing that level of, ‘Oh, God, I can lose myself in this movie.’ That’s the key element. It’s not offensive to anybody.”

One element in The Bodyguard — the interracial romance between Costner and Houston — might have been expected to offend at least some people, but it never became an issue. Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Grand Canyon) wrote the screenplay 15 years ago, and at one point Ryan O’Neal and Diana Ross were considered for the leads. Had the movie been made in the ’70s, the interracial romance would probably have dominated discussions of it. But The Bodyguard never even acknowledges that aspect of the story, and neither did test-screening audiences. ”When we put a card in front of someone for comments, it never came up,” says Rob Friedman, Warner Bros.’ president of worldwide advertising and publicity.

”I don’t think it’s a milestone that a black person and a white person made a movie together,” Houston says, stretching forward on the couch to take the weight off her back. ”I think for people to look at this color-blind is a milestone.”

The milestone may owe as much to Houston’s enormous mainstream appeal as it does to America’s changing attitudes about race. ”Whitney, in a sense, is to music and now to film what Cosby was to television,” says Sheldon Platt, her attorney. ”The American middle class looks upon her as a person, and they extinguish other ethnic or racial boundaries.”

”The black community sees (the movie) as something larger,” Houston says. ”Black women tell me, ‘This is something we’ve been waiting for, for somebody to kick it down so we can play these roles. We can be powerful independent women.’ Black men have a sense of pride too. They say, ‘It’s so nice to see a good-looking sister playing a part that has intelligence.”’

Originally posted February 5 1993 — 12:00 AM EST

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