Women’s History Month Spotlight: Whitney Houston and The Bodyguard

Whitney Houston performing "Greatest Love of All" during the HBO-televised concert "Welcome Home Heroes with Whitney Houston" honoring the troops, who took part in Operation Desert Storm, their families, and military and government dignitaries on March 31, 1991. photo: Mark Kettenhofen

Whitney Houston performing “Greatest Love of All” during the HBO-televised concert “Welcome Home Heroes with Whitney Houston” honoring the troops, who took part in Operation Desert Storm, their families, and military and government dignitaries on March 31, 1991.(photo: Mark Kettenhofen)

Whitney Elizabeth Houston (born August 9, 1963 in Newark, New Jersey) was a singer, actress, producer, and model. In 2009, Guinness World Records cited her as the most awarded female act of all time. Houston is one of pop music’s best-selling music artists of all-time, with an estimated 170–200 million records sold worldwide. She released seven studio albums and two soundtrack albums, all of which have diamond, multi-platinum, platinum or gold certification. Houston’s crossover appeal on the popular music charts, as well as her prominence on MTV, starting with her video for “How Will I Know”, influenced many African American women artists to follow in her footsteps.

Houston is the only artist to chart seven consecutive No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hits. She is the second artist behind Elton John and the only woman to have two number-one Billboard 200 Album awards (formerly “Top Pop Albums”) on the Billboard magazine year-end charts. Houston’s debut album, Whitney Houston (1985), became the best-selling debut album by a woman in history. Rolling Stone named it the best album of 1986, and ranked it at number 254 on the magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Her second studio album, Whitney (1987), became the first album by a woman to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

Houston’s first acting role was as the star of the feature film The Bodyguard (1992). The film’s original soundtrack won the 1994 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Its lead single, “I Will Always Love You”, won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year and became the best-selling single by a woman in music history. With the album, Houston became the first act (solo or group, male or female) to sell more than a million copies of an album within a single week period under Nielsen SoundScan system. The album makes her the top female act in the top 10 list of the best-selling albums of all time, at number four. Houston continued to star in movies and contribute to their soundtracks, including the films Waiting to Exhale (1995) and The Preacher’s Wife (1996). The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack became the best-selling gospel album in history.

On February 11, 2012, Houston was found dead at age 48 in her guest room at the Beverly Hilton, in Beverly Hills, California. The official coroner’s report showed that she had accidentally drowned in the bathtub, with heart disease and cocaine use listed as contributing factors. News of her death coincided with the 2012 Grammy Awards.

Throughout the 1980s, Houston was romantically linked to football star Randall Cunningham and actor Eddie Murphy, whom she dated. She then met R&B singer Bobby Brown at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards. After a three-year courtship, the two were married on July 18, 1992. On March 4, 1993, Houston gave birth to their daughter Bobbi Kristina, the couple’s only child. Brown would go on to have several run-ins with the law, including some jail time.

With the commercial success of her albums, movie offers poured in, including offers to work with Robert De Niro, Quincy Jones, and Spike Lee. Houston’s first film role was in The Bodyguard, released in 1992 and co-starring Kevin Costner. Houston played Rachel Marron, a star who is stalked by a crazed fan and hires a bodyguard to protect her. USA Today listed it as one of the 25 most memorable movie moments of the last 25 years in 2007. Houston’s mainstream appeal allowed people to look at the movie color-blind.

Still, controversy arose as some felt the film’s advertising intentionally hid Houston’s face to hide the film’s interracial relationship. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1993, the singer commented that “people know who Whitney Houston is – I’m black. You can’t hide that fact.” Despite the film’s mixed reviews, it was hugely successful at the box office, grossing more than $121 million in the U.S. and $410 million worldwide, making it one of the top 100 grossing films in film history at its time of release.

The film’s soundtrack also enjoyed big success. Houston executive produced and contributed six songs for the motion picture’s adjoining soundtrack album. The soundtrack’s lead single was “I Will Always Love You”, written and originally recorded by Dolly Parton in 1974. Houston’s version of the song was acclaimed by many critics, regarding it as her “signature song” or “iconic performance”. Rolling Stone and USA Today called her rendition “the tour-de-force”. The single peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record-breaking 14 weeks, number one on the R&B chart for a then-record-breaking 11 weeks, and number one on the Adult Contemporary charts for five weeks.

The single was certified 4× platinum by the RIAA, making Houston the first woman with a single to reach that level in the RIAA history and becoming the best-selling single by a woman in the US. The song also became a global success, hitting number-one in almost all countries, and the best-selling single of all time by a female solo artist with 20 million copies sold. The soundtrack topped the Billboard 200 chart and remained there for 20 non-consecutive weeks, the longest tenure by any Arista album on the chart in the Nielsen SoundScan era (tied for 10th overall by any label), and became one of the fastest selling albums ever. During Christmas week of 1992, the soundtrack sold over a million copies within a week, becoming the first album to achieve that feat under Nielsen SoundScan system. With the follow-up singles “I’m Every Woman”, a Chaka Khan cover, and “I Have Nothing” both reaching the top five, Houston became the first woman to ever have three singles in the Top 11 simultaneously. The album was certified 17× platinum in the US alone, with worldwide sales of 44 million, making The Bodyguard the biggest-selling album by a female act on the list of the world’s Top 10 best-selling albums, topping Shania Twain’s 40 million sold for Come On Over.

Houston won three Grammys for the album in 1994, including two of the Academy’s highest honors, Album of the Year and Record of the Year. In addition, she won a record 8 American Music Awards at that year’s ceremony including the Award of Merit, 11 Billboard Music Awards, 3 Soul Train Music Awards in 1993–94 including Sammy Davis, Jr. Award as Entertainer of the Year, 5 NAACP Image Awards including Entertainer of the Year, a record 5 World Music Awards, and a BRIT award. Following the success of the project, Houston embarked on another expansive global tour, The Bodyguard World Tour, in 1993–94. Her concerts, movie, and recording grosses made her the third highest earning female entertainer of 1993–94, just behind Oprah Winfrey and Barbra Streisand according to Forbes magazine. Houston placed in the top five of Entertainment Weekly’s annual “Entertainer of the Year” ranking and was labeled by Premiere magazine as one of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood.

In October 1994, Houston attended and performed at a state dinner in the White House honoring newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela. At the end of her world tour, Houston performed three concerts in South Africa to honor President Mandela, playing to over 200,000 people. This would make the singer the first major musician to visit the newly unified and apartheid free nation following Mandela’s winning election.The concert was broadcast live on HBO with funds of the concerts being donated to various charities in South Africa. The event was considered the nation’s “biggest media event since the inauguration of Nelson Mandela.”