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Houston Puts Her Soul On Nice hide

Whitney Houston's meteoric rise to stardom hasn't inflated her ego, but it has swelled her feet. Since kicking off her first national tour here last August, the 23-year-old singer with the glorious voice and picture-perfect looks has trekked back and forth across the country on a non-stop series of concerts that continue for at least another three months. "When this tour ends, I'm definitely going away on vacation," she vowed recently.

"After that, I don't know." One of the biggest pop music sensations of the 1980s, Houston soared to prominence with a speed wearying to even the hardiest souls.

To date, her self-titled debut album has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide since its release last year, earning one Grammy Award and yielding three consecutive No. 1 singles -- "The Greatest Love of All," "How Will I Know" and "Saving All My Love for You." Hailed as one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world by Harper's magazine, Houston achieved her massive popularity without the revealing costumes or flamboyant theatrics now de rigueur for many female pop artists.

Already, she is being touted as her generation's answer to Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand, and -- like both -- a crossover to movies seems inevitable. Yet despite her dizzying ascent to the ranks of the rich and famous, Houston maintains that she has not changed. "I'm the same person I was before," she insisted at the start of an interview last week.

"I still feel the same way and I value the same things.

My perspective hasn't changed; things around me have.

I'm busier now and I'm more famous, but I'm the same lady. "It can be rather difficult at times, but I have the love of my family, which is a definite asset. Once you have people who care about you for you, the other things are pretty easy." Houston's observation that things around her have changed, even if she hasn't, qualifies as a significant understatement. At her debut concert here last summer, she performed two sold-out shows at Humphrey's for a combined audience of 1,600. Three months later, Houston attracted a capacity crowd of 3,000 for her concert at the Civic Theater. Tonight, she is expected to draw more than 11,000 people for her 8 p.m. performance at the Sports Arena. "I don't think of it as frightening," said Houston of her transition from intimate theaters to cavernous halls.

"I love performing in small places; it gives you an intimacy that big places can't. In big places, you have to think of everybody on a one-on-one basis." But if Houston is attracting substantially larger concert audiences, her access to the public and the media has decreased dramatically. "I'm surrounded now," she admitted.

"I have people who protect me and people you have to go through to meet me.

It's not that simple to get through to me unless you're my mother or my father.

I know that I cannot be reached, and -- really -- I shouldn't b

e. There are too many people who want to see me to talk to me about nothing. "It's good to be protected, and sometimes it isn't. But it works.

If you're going to play in this ball game, you have to play by the rules.

I am famous, but I don't sit at home all the time.

I do go out and do things like other normal people, (although) sometimes I can't and I have to accept that. "Would I wear a disguise?

Oh, no. I wouldn't know what to do or be.

You wouldn't believe how often I go out and people don't know it's me.

They expect me to be more glamorous, all made up and with my hair done up.

I'm not that person.

I'm in jeans and boots with no makeup.

Many times people come up and tell me, "You look a little like Whitney Houston,' and I give the response, "Do I? Thank you!' " Perhaps more than any other music star of the 1980s, Houston was born to be a singer.

Her mother, Cissy Houston, is the former leader of the Sweet Inspirations, the gospel-tinged vocal group that earned fame in the '60s backing Aretha Franklin and Elvis.

Whitney's cousin, Dionne Warwick, has been a prominent musical force for more than 20 years. "What I know, my mother taught me," Houston said. "Nobody else has been able to mimic my mother, so that's a blessing.

I'm about the only one in this business who can do that." Able to sing almost before she learned to walk, Houston joined the musician's union at age 13, subsequently singing on albums by Lou Rawls, Chaka Khan and the Neville Brothers.

She was signed by Arista Records in 1983, following a bidding battle by several major labels.

But even with her impressive musical pedigree, the astonishing success of Houston's debut album caught many by surprise, including the singer herself. "We worked really hard on the album and made sure it was perfect, but nobody thought this would happen," she admitted.

"Coming from a musical family, it's sort of in your gut.

My family loved to sing, and that's what we do.

Through some way, the Lord found it right to put us in show business." Perhaps moved by divine inspiration, Arista spent two years grooming Houston for her debut record and obtaining the services of such proven hit-makers as Jermaine Jackson, Narada Michael Walden and Kashif. "I've never handled an album this way," acknowledged Arista president Clive Davis, who personally signed Houston and has masterminded her career. "I certainly knew Whitney was special, and it was a very careful procedure to wait for the best material and producers to become available," he continued.

"It worked like a dream. We've both been wonderfully astonished, but I don't expect to duplicate that success with the next record." "I had the best-selling baby album in history, and I can't do that again," agreed Houston, who is now putting the finishing touches on her second album.

"To put the same qualities in again -- my vocals, my time -- yes. The only thing that will be the same on the new record is me. "There will be plenty more up-tempo things on the album, but I love ballads, and that seems to be my ticket.

I love to sing them, and not everyone can.

And, yes, I will be previewing one or two songs from the new album at my concert." Houston's first album was criticized for being too safe and for lacking the remarkable visceral power that she brings to her live performances. Will she take more chances this time? "No," answered Houston.

"I'm a singer, and that's what I do. I can't have an attitude that I'm going to outdo myself or I'll be a very frustrated performer.

What you do is put your best into every song.

If people buy it, they will, and if they don't it's a change in the public's perception. You'll have to decide after the record is released." To her credit, Houston has not exploited her cover-girl looks, even after becoming a certifiable sex symbol.

A devout Christian who dresses and behaves with impeccable taste, she offers convincing evidence that a woman can be simultaneously wholesome and sexy. "Oh, yeah, I think that's so," affirmed Houston.

"I wouldn't want a man who was hard or obnoxious or rambunctious.

It's tenderness and softness and innocence, and a lot of people find that attractive.

I don't think men feel they can be suggestive or make propositions to me, because I don't project that myself." Houston giggled.

"It's not all glamour and glitter, and it's not easy," she stressed.

"It's a lot of work, but I love it and you have to be a true talent.

A true talent knows what it can do.

There's no sense in me going out there and being something I'm not, something that I don't have the utensils to be.

Not everybody can sing solo; some people are meant to be background singers.

You have to be what you can be."

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