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Houston Comes Home hide

Film, album put Whitney back in the gospel fold

LOS ANGELES -- "It's like coming home again," Whitney Houston says of The Preacher's Wife movie and soundtrack, her overdue forays into gospel music.

The 33-year-old diva, who began singing publicly at age 11 with the New Hope Baptist junior choir in Newark, N.J., is now belting those steeple quakers for a far larger audience, including fans unfamiliar with the gospel foundation that gave rise to her colossal pop career.

"When you start in gospel, it never leaves you," she says, unwinding in a trailer on the lot outside the Shrine Auditorium. "I lived it, breathed it and never forgot it."

Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir just finished rehearsing I Love the Lord and Joy to the World, a Preacher's Wife medley that forms the splashy opening for Thursday night's ABC special, Celebrate the Dream: 50 Years of Ebony. The 15 pop and gospel tracks on the soundtrack, out today, could finally silence critics who gripe that Houston's technically flawless voice lacks soul or passion. Translation: She's not black enough.

The singer resents such racial definitions in music and emphatically declares, "I make great records that transcend the barriers between white and black, fat and skinny, gay and straight. With pop records, you have to be restrained because you're making songs for Top 40. With gospel, you're singing to the spirit of God, so everything comes out."

If Houston sounds defensive, who can blame her? She has been scrutinized, hounded and denigrated since achieving international stardom with 1985's Whitney Houston, for a time history's best-selling debut by a solo artist. While critics groused, People correctly predicted, "It will take an act of Congress to keep this woman from becoming a megastar."

Anticipating huge sales, Arista has shipped 4 million copies of The Preacher's Wife to stores. Judging by Houston's track record, reorders are inevitable. The 1992 album for the The Bodyguard, her movie with Kevin Costner, sold more than 33 million copies worldwide to become the biggest soundtrack ever. The Waiting to Exhale compilation sold more than 8 million copies and spawned five hits, three by Houston.

With fame and wealth came an unexpected barrage of spiteful rumors: that she is the salty-tongued poster girl of regal arrogance, that she and personal assistant Robyn Crawford are lesbian lovers and that her marriage to R&B star Bobby Brown is either a sham or rife with curiously tolerated infidelities.

All are rehashed in Good Girl, Bad Girl, an unauthorized biography by Kevin Ammons, the ex-boyfriend of Houston's fired publicist and a struggling singer who was crushed when Houston wouldn't manage his career. Ammons could not be reached for comment Monday.

"I barely remember him," she says, visibly piqued. "He obviously wants money. I don't have time to care about what people write about me. Besides, my mother taught me never to dignify a lie." She laughs abruptly. "It's lonely at the top! In the beginning, I cried many nights because I didn't understand why the media would make things up or be so negative. They wanted to see if they could break my back, and I guess they thought I could handle it. They put people on pedestals just to tear them down."

Houston learned about press hype and public misconceptions by observing the careers of her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, and cousin, songbird Dionne Warwick. But she was unprepared for the nonstop surveillance of her private life. At first, tabloids focused on the constant presence of Crawford.

"I've got a kid and they still say I'm a lesbian?" Whitney asks dumbfounded. "I fall in love, I get married, I have a great child and they're still talking about this? Robyn plays basketball, she's tall, she's broad -- that makes her a man? I don't get it. We've been the closest of friends since we were 16. At one point, we said, let's stop being friends, but that's ridiculous. Go ahead, say we're lesbians. I don't care!"

The fury disappears and a giggle escapes as she raises a fist. "More power to lesbians, though. I don't want to put them down." The tabloid heat only intensified after she and the trouble-prone Brown met at the 1989 Soul Train Awards and wed in 1992. Now seven weeks pregnant with their second child, Houston is particularly incensed by assaults on their relationship. A drug rehab dropout and a frequent name on police blotters, Brown was seen as a rowdy bad boy and incorrigible womanizer.

With strained patience, Houston explains that her misunderstood husband is a "God-fearing family man" whose partying ways have distorted his public image. "He's not a whoremonger," she says sternly. "I don't marry whoremongers."

Their marriage did buckle under the strain of publicity and demanding careers, but Houston debunks the theory that Brown was emasculated by her success.

"That's surface madness," she says. "According to Bobby and me, if we wake up every day, we're successful. We have a higher focus and take the rest in stride. I love this man and he loves me. We know what we want from each other."

With her career in gear at age 18, Houston's carefree youth was cut short by professional responsibilities and the glaring eye of the public until Brown entered her life.

"You're supposed to be partying in your 20s," she says. "I was on tour and making records. I sacrificed those years. When Bobby came along, I started having a ball. He taught me how to have fun."

Despite her reiterated devotion to Brown, rumors of marital strife persisted and even linked her romantically to Denzel Washington, her co-star in The Preacher's Wife (opening Dec. 13). Lies, Houston says.

In Penny Marshall's remake of 1947's The Bishop's Wife, Washington plays visiting angel Dudley, whose charm and attention tempt Houston's title character, Julia Biggs.

"But Julia's faithful and loyal, no matter how messed up the situation looks," Houston says. "She stays true because she knows leaving and quitting doesn't make it better. It only makes you wonder what would have happened if you'd stayed. Julia's like me. She goes the distance."

Houston enjoyed this third movie role and plans to stay on Hollywood turf, though music takes priority.

"I'm a singer turned actress, not the other way around," she says. "I haven't lost any enthusiasm for music. I have lost enthusiasm for the music industry, because it sucks. It's unfair. There are some real crappy people looking to screw you. Industry people are nosy, and they talk about you behind your back."

Houston is aware she's considered haughty and imperious by some, and she's perturbed by those who expect her to be America's Sweetheart, a wholesome and virginal role model.

"I never claimed to be perfect," she says. "I never claimed to be Princess f - - - - - - Di. Even Di is saying, 'You got it all wrong. I am a person. Get off my back.'

"Maybe people think I'm a bitch because I know how to say no," she says. "As you get older, you find out how to take care of yourself in this business. I watched Gladys and Dionne and Aretha say, 'This is the cut-off. I'll take this much and no more.' I've learned from them."

Houston has decided to say no to another year of back-to-back filming and recording. She'll spend most of 1997 eating, sleeping, playing cards with friends, retreating to an island hideaway with Brown and indulging daughter Bobbi Kristina, 3.

"I thought I would lose my mind a month ago, but the 'too much' part is over now," she says. "Movie's done, album's done, baby's on the way, husband and daughter are in place, everyone is healthy and strong. It's a very happy time."

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