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A Class of Her Own hide

Whitney Houston makes and smashes records every time she sings. Her talent is shaping her as a likely successor to all-time legends like Ella Fitzgerald.

WHITNEY HOUSTON is a phenomenon ... a tall, breathtaking beauty with a supernova smile and a voice that can soar effortlessly and gloriously through three octaves.

Whether she's singing the haunting Saving All My Love For You, belting out the bouncy, optimistic teenage beat of How Will I Know, sounding the triumphant anthem The Greatest Love Of All, or dueting with her mother, gospel and pop singer Cissy Houston, Whitney has no peer.

Winner of Grammys and countless awards and maker of platinum records and smash hits, Whitney Houston, however, is no rival for popdom's Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Sade, or Janet Jackson.

Whitney, who travels to Australia next month for a mainland tour - the tail-end of her grand world tour which began last year and already has taken in Europe and the United States - is in a class all by herself.

She is the first female singer in the history of rock who has had an album released and instantly No 1.

That is what Whitney's second album, Whitney, did in June last year when she became the fourth solo artist ever to launch at No 1 ... and stay there. The only woman to join that elite group, she is up there with Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen in the music archives.

As if that wasn't enough, Whitney made the record books with her first and only other album, reaching an unprecedented seven consecutive No 1 hits, a feat not even equaled by Michael Jackson.

That album went on to sell 22 million worldwide, the biggest debut album in history.

Whitney Houston's appeal is not just to hard rock, to R&B fans, or to soul. Her voice of emotion, intensity, and lyrical power reaches across the board to all ages, to all music lovers.

More than any other modern music star she almost singlehandedly has brought back ballads and "singing" to the rock music charts.

Although just 25 - her birthday was on August 9 - Whitney already has proved that she is a talent who is evocative of and a likely successor to all-time legends like Ella Fitzgerald rather than the follow-on to the bump and grind and instant pop rock success of Madonna.

She has the musical talent of a virtuoso, and as music producer Narada Michael Walden loves to point out, "if she sang the way she sang and was in the body of a 300-pounder she'd still be a star."

Time Magazine goes even further, insisting that if Whitney looked like Danny DeVito she'd still be a star in the music world.

Of course, Whitney is no Danny DeVito and no 300-pounder.

She has beauty as well as brains.

In the gorgeous department she has it all. She's a Cosby kid made in Heaven ... wholesome, sweet, cute, modest, shy, and beautiful.

That's why the star herself often seems an enigma. Somehow you can't believe anyone that talented, that pretty, that successful also can be that nice, that sweet, that good.

Whitney seems to be too good to be true.

Because Whitney gives interviews only rarely and is not seen at the normally celebrity studded hotspots of New York and Hollywood and has never been linked with a scandal, with an unsavoury young man, with even a breath of dirt, it is tempting to believe she is merely the product of clever marketing and packaging and that the real Whitney Houston was redesigned by her mentors and hidden from the public.

That certainly is the way it used to happen in Hollywood's Golden Years and how several music critics like to hint is what happened with Whitney.

In July 1987, Newsweek, miffed that it was not permitted to interview Whitney, who instead gave the interview to Newsweek's magazine rival Time, called her "Whitney bread" and charged that she was "a carefully wrapped pop package."

I caught up with Whitney in New York prior to her Down Under tour and spoke with the star in one of her rare interviews.

Whitney arrived an hour late - she got caught up in the heavy peak-hour traffic clogging Manhattan's Lincoln Tunnel on the route she drove from her secluded New Jersey home into the Big Apple and she was apologetic and concerned.

"The traffic was terrible, I am so sorry," Whitney says breathlessly as she arrives at 3pm, walking into the suite at New York's swankiest, classiest, new hotel, Maxim's, and flashing that megawatt smile which is even more luminous and brilliant in person than it is in the countless photographs of the star.

She is taller and more slender than she appears on video and today is dressed in black blouse, emerald green Chanel jacket, and black mini above bare, golden legs that go on forever.

She crosses her legs, uncrosses them, tucks them up under her.

"I think my legs are too long," she tells you quickly. "I just don't know what to do with them sometimes. If there is one thing I could change it would be to shorten these legs. I'd like to cut this part off" She chops at her shins and giggles: "It would be nice if you could just cut this part off and pull them together again".

Whitney at first is shy, diffident, and reserved. By her own confession interviews make her uncomfortable. It's part of the business but not a part she relishes.

It's not that Whitney hates the press or has an axe to grind like a Sean Penn or a Bruce Willis, it's just that she is awkward in the limelight and sees fame not as an accolade of success but as the downside of making a career out of what she loves most, making music.

Whitney reveals that while she loves to sing and that music is "my life," the celebrity spotlight and the fame that accompanies her musical success is not something she enjoys or seeks out.

"For me singing is like being in love - it makes me feel so mellow inside, so warm," she says. "It has something to do with coming from the heart, but fame ..." Whitney shakes her head.

"Fame and celebrity - that can be the most disenjoyable thing that you ever wanted to imagine." She admits that growing up in a family used to show business helped give her some grounding and some preparation for what fame would be like.

Her mother, Cissy Houston, after all had been a gospel and pop singer for three decades, her cousin Dionne Warwick had been a music winner and superstar since the early 60s, and Whitney's honorary "Aunty Ree" and close family friend, Aretha Franklin, is the Queen of Soul.

"No matter how much you are prepared for this you are never prepared for it, not really," she tries to explain.

"I mean how can you prepare for it. If it happens all you can do is try to handle it as it goes along." For Whitney that hasn't always been easy, although she says she learned long ago, before the superstardom thrust her into the public spotlight and made her a paparrazzi target, that fame came with the territory.

Musical success meant celebrity and that was that.

"If you are famous then you have to deal with being famous and I learned early on that this is simply a part of what I do," she says.

Next up for Whitney are plans for her third album. She reveals that she will be writing some of the songs: "I'm still real insecure about my songwriting but I am getting confidence and I write all the time."

After that she will turn her attention to Hollywood.

Her film debut may be the movie adaptation of Broadway's musical Dreamgirls or it may be in the story of the legendary Josephine Baker.

Whitney Houston loves to make music and wants to make films, but for this girl, celebrity and worldwide fame are neither the motivation nor the driving force ... which is why Whitney Houston, along with that voice and that smile, is nothing like her peers.

She is in a class all by herself.

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