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Whitney Houston gets tough hide

New 'My Love' CD reveals a more mature, streetwise superstar

Whitney Houston will remain forever young to fans who first saw her perform on Boston Common in the mid-'80s. She was a radiant 22-year-old ingenue who had modeled for such magazines as Seventeen, Young Miss, and Glamour. And musically she had been "groomed," as she put it, by her show business mother, Cissy Houston, and by her first cousin, Dionne Warwick.

"I've listened and absorbed - and now I'm ready," she said in a Globe interview at the time.

She was a striking package - a singer/model with the highest pedigree and cheekbones, but also a sanitized figure who played it safe with gushy ballads and light 'n' breezy dance-pop. Still, it made her the princess of Top40 radio, as shown by her appearance at the KISS Concert at Boston Garden in 1987 when she sang so angelically that the crowd barely let her go.

But today, there's a new Houston in our midst. Look at her latest album, "My Love Is Your Love," which leaves the Goody Two-Shoes image at home as she delves into contemporary, hip-hop flavored tracks with street-hipster guests Missy Elliott, Faith Evans, Wyclef Jean, and Lauryn Hill. "Whitney as you've never heard her before," says Arista Records boss Clive Davis.

The new Houston profile: A tougher, more worldly, somewhat scarred, and thoroughly grown-up 35-year-old woman who has a child (Bobbi Kristina, 6) and a husband (Roxbury-bred Bobby Brown, who has been tabloid fodder with his brushes with the law). The latest brush was violating probation in Florida just a week ago when he was charged with drunken driving after crashing Houston's car into a condominium sign. He now faces up to 90 days in jail.

The incident has put a storm cloud over Houston's new tour, which comes to the Wang Center next Wednesday and Thursday. But the new Whitney is tough-minded enough to tell people to back off from pestering her about her private life. "I'm still in love with God, I'm still in love with my husband. I've got a great marriage," she recently told a journalist in Chicago, where she opened her tour last week.

Her mind-your-own-business stance also comes to the fore in a new song, "In My Business," written by Elliott, who observed the Houston/Brown marriage, then put it to song. "Too many people ... say we won't last/They're predicting that it's over," sings Houston. "Should I believe them? They say I don't need him/Don't they know I've made up my mind?"

"It's too ridiculous," Houston sings later in the song, commenting on the gossip and tabloid intrusions.

Or, as she told USA Today, "They talk about [Brown] as this man who has always been a womanizer. I always see the ladies walk up on him, but he's a gentleman. A cordial kind of guy. Bobby's also a sexy kind of guy - and I don't mind him looking, as long as he knows where home is. I look, too."

If truth be told, of course, far more people are looking at Houston than at Brown. Houston has sold 100 million records since her meteoric debut. That includes 13 million for her self-titled debut album, which had three straight No. 1 singles in "Saving All My Love for You," "How Will I Know," and "The Greatest Love of All." And 33 million worldwide for "The Bodyguard" soundtrack, which remains the top-selling soundtrack of all time. The album's first single, "I Will Always Love You," also is the top-selling single of all time.

Houston has reached diva-esque heights - exemplified by her stealing the show at the "VH1 Divas Live" taping this spring with Tina Turner, Cher, Brandy, Mary J. Blige, and others. But Houston refuses to let the "diva" label thwart her.

"I wake up and look at myself in the mirror in the morning and I think, 'Diva? I don't know about that!'" she said. "It takes a couple of hours at least to turn into a diva."

Indeed, a diva, at least according to the petulant definition of the word, wouldn't interrupt her tour to make a surprise appearance at the Gay Pride Pier Dance in New York, as Houston did on Sunday night. She turned up in a simple black tank top and Dolce and Gabbana pants to entertain 7,000 people at Pier 54 on 13th Street with "Heartbreak Hotel" (not the Elvis Presley hit by the same name, but a new tune by Faith Evans and Kelly Price) and "It's Not Right But It's Okay," penned by the 21-year-old Rodney Jerkins, who also produced the Grammy-nominated "The Boy is Mine" for Brandy and Monica.

Rather than stay in the shadows, as she did in her grooming days, Houston has taken charge of career. For example, she's big enough to sell out sheds and arenas, but she's avoiding them in favor of small to mid-sized theaters, hoping to foster more intimacy with the crowd. (Tickets at the Wang run up to a gaudy $151, but her management says that those are "golden circle" seats and only 40 to 50 are being sold.)

Above all, this is no longer the woman who showed up at the KISS Concert to sing to canned backing tracks. Houston now has a seven-piece band, along with four singers and four dancers. The former ingenue is calling the shots with the aplomb of a superstar.

When she first played on Boston Common, Houston opened with a rousing cover of Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Starting Somethin'." She started something, all right, and not even a fickle public, or an unpredictable husband, can hold her back now.

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