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Whitney Houston At 22 hide



"You know the kind of questions I keep getting?" says Whitney Houston. "The questions people are curious about are questions about my life - about what I'm like."

She sounds suprised. I'm not. She's gone so far so fast, who among us has seen enough of her to know what she's really like?

Whitney Houston! Her name has the sound with a pedigree built in, as if she's a Rolls Royce among Ladas and lesser vehicles: stylish with classic great looks, a superb lineage and a vast support staff to ensure no hitches are encountered.

Her mother named her Whitney, Houston tells me on the phone, just after she was born. Mother was in the hospital watching Whitney Blake play Dorothy Baxter in the television sitcom, Hazel. Mother was impressed. Dorothy Baxter was the elegant wife of a corporate lawyer. Class.

Houston is the headliner tomorrow at the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand. Yet she was an unknown merely a year-and-a-half ago when RCA Records here took the unusual step of giving her a coming-out party to celebrate her debut album, Whitney Houston. It went on to sell 7 million copies, spawn four hit singles and grab her a Grammy last year for best pop performance by a woman. Heavy hitters

But like the Rolls, none of this happened by accident. The album took two years to make. It was developed by Clive Davis, head of Arista Records (distributed here by RCA.). He brought in such music-business heavy hitters as Teddy Pendergrass, Jermaine Jackson and Jeffrey Osborne to help out: they weren't going to mess around with so much potential.

Whitney, daughter of Cissy Houston, first cousin to Dionne Warwick (who once added an "e" to her last name to give it an added dash of class) and Aretha Franklin's sometime protégé, was to the platinum record born.

She accepts the many movie offers coming her way with equanimity - "I'm touring and I'm making an album," she informs. "There's time to consider movies later. The fact of the matter is that we should wait for the right vehicle to make the right movie."

She's in no hurry: everything's coming her way. She suits perfectly the dark corners of stretch-limos, glossy magazine cover stories and show business perks like the reception she'll be given here tomorrow night. Whitney! She's 22. It's as if she's been a star forever.

To further dazzle us, she looks the role she's playing. She has gorgeous features that aren't idiosyncratic in any way and don't "type" her. She can look great in almost any situation - even in a Coca Cola television commercial designed to have her out-stomp the greatest stomper going, Tina Turner.

Houston has full lips, slightly hooded eyes and a yards-wide smile of blistering white teeth. Yet there's an athleticism to this sensuality: her body is lithe, not lean. It's a figure meant to be photographed.

Nor does her full impact stop here. There's the matter of attitude. She has it by the bushel. She acts like her name sounds. Some think it's because she was a model for several years and knows how to pose. Others guess it's because of the big bucks she's now making. Whatever, she looks like the success she has become.

What she isn't, however, is terribly self-analytical. "I'm me," she tells me over and over. No,the scripts she's been reading haven't typecast her in any particular way: "They show me as I am. When I started off I didn't want to be Dionne. I didn't want to be Aretha. I wanted to be me. I learned a lot from each and I love them. But I am me. That's all that I intend to salvage.

"I'm a spontaneous individual. I'm not a planner. My management does all that for me. I just deal with one thing at a time. I'm touring now. I've almost finished recording an album and that's how far I know what I'm doing."

She grew up in East Orange, N.J., where her father, John, heads Newark's planning board. Mother Cissy's music business connections - she was a founding member of the Sweet Inspirations, one-time backing group for Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin - led Whitney to want to sing.

She did studio work, backing up Chaka Khan among others: she did a bit of cabaret in the New York area. Then she met manager Gene Harvey, who gave her career its unerring sense of direction.

"I love working but I'm not a workaholic," she says. Her escapes? "I go away - go away in my mind or wherever I can go. Just to get away from it and not have to deal with it, is the one thing you want to do. But then you have to come back. When I'm not working, I'm usually playing tennis, swimming, reading, listening to music - I'm just a normal every-day person."

Clothes horse

I wonder about the surface of things - her fashion sense. She is a great clothes horse. She brightens up considerably at the topic. "I love (Paris designer) Azzedine Alaia. I like Givenchy. It's not that I'm into fashion. It's just when I see something that I like, something that'll look good on me, then I'll get it. I'm not into what's new or what's fashionable or what's not fashionable."

She occasionally goes to the annual collections to buy clothes. "But now that the designers find out that I've been there or that I come there they say I should wear this or that.

"I started (being interested in clothes) very, very young. My mother dressed me always in the best. She always told me she wouldn't put anything less on me than what she had on."

I tell her I'd obviously missed seeing her in one of Alaia's clinging little leather numbers, slit up to here - a la Tina Turner.

"Oh really?" she says smoothly. "Well, you haven't been watching."

The modeling she did "was just there - it was just something that happened. They tell me the camera likes me."

As for singing: "My mother gave me all the do's and don'ts 'way ahead of time. The list of the do's and don'ts goes on forever. Even today my mother will say things like, 'Maybe your show is a little bit too long ' or something.

"My singing came from singing gospel music. Gospel music can be very loud and very screaming. But my mother, being my teacher, always told me you don't have to scream to sing. From singing with my mother, from learning from her, I understand phrasing. The lyric has to be heard."

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