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One look at Whitney Houston and your can see why she's an impresario's dream. It's not just her glossy voice and a way with a song that sounds as if she means every word. She also happens to be stunning to look at and enormously self-possessed. A case of nature or nurture? Houston -- whose single "How Will I Know" is No. 1 this week -- has had the benefit of both. Dionne Warwick is a first cousin, and Houston was practically born in a recording studio. Her mother, gospel singer and backup vocalist Cissy Houston, was busy working on a record the summer of 1963 when Whitney came into the world.

With that background, you might think Houston was a born musical star. But Arista Records president Clive Davis, who first heard her sing with her mother at a small Manhattan club three years ago, was taking no chances. He spent two years and $250,000 overseeing "Whitney Houston," her debut album of pop love songs, which features duets with Jermaine Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass -- plus a leggy swimsuit shot of Whitney on the back cover. With nearly 3 million albums sold, and three Top 5 singles, Houston has more than paid off Davis's care. Recently she picked up two American Music Awards and is up for three Grammys at the end of this month.

Soul idol: The magnitude of her success is due, of course, to her wide crossover appeal. "She has such range, from theatrical to gospel to soul," says Davis. Rhythm-and-blues purists might argue, however, that there would be more glory in her album if it had more guts. Houston does bring a charming combination of innocence and seductiveness to the glitzily produced arrangements. But her style and clear voice is more akin to Diana Ross's than to the rich, rolling sould of her soul idol, Aretha Franklin. Still, the years she spent in a Newark, N.J., Baptist choir, which her mother directs, are evident in the emotional wallop she can deliver when singing full blast. At such moments in live concert, she has brought the audience to its feet.

Despite all the fuss, Houston claims her life hasn't changed much -- "It's just gotten busier and faster," she says. She lives on her own in New Jersey, not far from her parents. (Her father, John, is an administrator with the city of Newark.) Apart from family gatherings around the piano, Whitney sang for the first time with her cousin Dionne on a recent "Solid Gold" TV show, and she thinks more collaborations are inevitable. Meanwhile, she is working on her second album of pop songs, which she expects to launch this summer with a tour. When she needs counsel, she still turns to Cissy, a veteran who has sung behind Elvis, Aretha and Wilson Pickett. "I'd really like to record with my mother," says Whitney. "She is my teacher, my adviser -- she's my greatest inspiration."

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