“I was lost. Now I’m free…”
— Whitney Houston, “I Believe In You and Me”
Entertainment legend Whitney Houston is dead. The iconic songstress, who reigned as the queen of pop until her melismatic chops and imperial image were weighed down by drug abuse, bizarre behavior and a turbulent marriage to singer Bobby Brown, passed away on Saturday at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. She was 48. The cause of her death is yet to be confirmed.
“She was undoubtedly one of the greatest superstars of all time, and to hear this news it greatly upsets me,” former American Idol judge and X Factor creator Simon Cowell told CNN Saturday night. “She was the benchmark. She truly was.”
From the mid-’80s to the late ’90s, Houston was one of the world’s best-selling artists, leaving audiences in awe with her powerful and peerless vocals that were rooted in gospel but fully transcending classification.
Her multi-Grammy-winning success carried her beyond the music charts to the box office, with screen gems like The Bodyguard, The Preacher’s Wife and Waiting to Exhale, but by the end of her career Houston had become an incredible cautionary tale of the destructive power of substance abuse. In interviews, she confessed to a dalliance with marijuana and cocaine, which robbed her of her pristine voice.
“The biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy,” Houston infamously told Diane Sawyer in a 2002 interview, emphasizing the tragic fall of a megastar who sold some 50 million records in America alone.
Houston, who was “discovered” by music mogul Clive Davis, first began singing in church as a child. The daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston and cousin of music legend Dionne Warwick, she made her debut in 1985 with the eponymous Whitney Houston, which sold millions and spawned several hits. Her first Grammy came with the success of “Saving All My Love for You.” A plethora of smashes followed, including the crowd-pleasing classic “The Greatest Love of All.”
Another multi-platinum effort, 1987’s Whitney, included hits like “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” In 1992, she starred opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, which yielded her most unforgettable hit to date: an epic update of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” The song ruled the charts for weeks, going on to win Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal at the Grammys. The film’s soundtrack snagged Album of the Year.
Yet despite such career and personal triumphs, Houston found herself hooked on drugs. Speaking with talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey in a 2010 interview, she confessed that by the mid-’90s, doing drugs had become a daily routine. “I would do my work, but after I did my work, for a whole year or two, it was every day,” she said. “I wasn’t happy by that point in time. I was losing myself.”
Houston also blamed her tumultuous marriage to Brown, whom she divorced in 2007, for her troubles. With the 2009 LP, I Look to You, Houston staged a modest comeback, dropping such singles as the Alicia Keys-penned “Million Dollar Bill” and the introspective title track. The album debuted atop the charts, eventually going platinum.
At the time of her death (ironically on the eve of the 2012 Grammy Awards), Houston was set to star in a remake of the 1976 film Sparkle, which was inspired by the Supremes.
To understate the facts, her sudden passing has sent shockwaves through the entertainment world, prompting many of the younger stars she inspired and those who admired her to take to their Twitter accounts in tribute. And if there is a single consensus that rings true, it’s that Whitney Houston — very much like the late, great Michael Jackson — was a world-class treasure that will never be forgotten. “[Houston’s] voice was distinct, so incredible,” Cowell told CNN. “And that’s what she will leave behind.”