Today would have been her 49th birthday, and it still feels a bit unsettling.
While Whitney Houston’s voice was taken from us on February 11, almost 6 months ago, we have perhaps reached a place where we remember her as the same lady who made girls want to perform again with their hair brushes in the bathroom mirror.
Oprah Winfrey once said that when she grew up there weren’t images of prominent relatable black women on TV until Diana Ross and the Supremes became a mainstay on “American Bandstand.” After the emergence of a ballgown-clad Ross, Winfrey began singing and making faces in the mirror.
Then a generation passed … and the ’80s walked in.
Many teenage girls I grew up with longed for an icon who was young, relatable, classy, and undeniably talented from the emerging MTV era.
Enter Whitney Houston.
In fact, Whitney’s 1985 debut album ‘Whitney Houston’ displayed a gorgeous brown-skinned black woman with a short Afrocentric hairdo and the most regal posture. Little black girls had the opportunity to see themselves on that large orange album cover taped up around record stores and the walls along Highland Blvd in Hollywood.
Writer Andreana Clay actually remembers her transition from tomboy to girly-girl in 1986, where she wrote her “coming of age” was spurred by Houston’s remarkable class onscreen in early music videos. Clay wrote, “I held her in my back pocket, her hopefulness, her confidence.”
That confidence emanated from her enigmatic televised performances, which captured audiences and instantly made “Whitney” a household name. She became the go-to artist for many companies who sought a young fresh woman of color to promote products like AT&T, Coca-Cola, and Sprint.
Houston’s image as a young black woman was one part modeling, two parts guts.
In fact, she opened doors for black models by being the first to grace the cover of Seventeen magazine in 1981, doing so with a near-fade haircut and prominent Afrocentric features. Legendary model Naomi Campbell and supermodel-mogul Tyra Banks have both reminisced on the moment they were inspired by seeing Houston’s mug plastered across Seventeen.
Houston’s ability to model and her budding acting skills transferred into every photo, video, and appearance she made publicly. She took the same elements that drew girls to Ross in the 1960s and magnified them for the post-soul era.
As her career blossomed and she began to grow into womanhood, Houston’s image (however manufactured it may have seemed to some) became a signature that helped grow little girls into women during the 1990s. She often promoted the classy frocks-look donned by mainstream starlets of the ’60s, but had an earthy approachability to her appearance when she popped up on set at the “Arsenio Hall Show.” Houston had no issues coming on stage in a fresh t-shirt, jeans, and Chuck Taylors — the shoes she affectionately recalled wearing growing up in New Jersey.
Her crossover appeal and magnificent voice allowed her into arenas where black women had historically been siphoned off, and gained her the respect of women from a multitude of backgrounds. Houston’s image resonated in gay clubs, oversees in Middle Eastern ads, and at Sunday afternoon Baptist revivals. It allowed her to perform the National Anthem at one of the most conservative patriotic platforms: the Superbowl.
Yet, the most poignant declaration of Houston’s ability to empower women came via her 1992 remake of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” That song, coupled with the mammoth success of “The Bodyguard,” was a moment which clearly promoted the idea that young black girls could have the ability to achieve greatness while simultaneously self-actualizing, even in a white-male-patriarchal society.
“I’m Every Woman” was a turning point in Houston’s career, which lyrically and musically represented what her image had all along.
She was every woman.
Houston’s musical trajectory following “I’m Every Woman” was invested in the well-being of women.
There were many songs which left an imprint, particularly on young girls. “Step By Step,” “Count on Me,” and “In My Business” were the broke-up-with-my-man-but-I’m-
Houston’s music solidified her as Black Entertainment’s most beloved female superstar. Her ability to transcend typical Western ideological beauty was a gift to women around the world. Those earliest days of her career reframed traditional ideals of beauty and helped young girls to grow up alongside someone relatable.
Although Houston has now become an iconic figment of our growing up, an intense nostalgia comes back on days like this. While she would have been popping a birthday bottle of champagne today had she lived, we celebrate the timelessness of a woman who maintained her femininity while inspiring generations of little black girls to grow up believing they were created unique beautiful goddesses — even when performing in mirrors with hairbrushes.
Happy Birthday, Whitney.