In true African-American, tradition family and friends gave singing superstar Whitney Houston a four-hour, roof-raising Baptist Church “home going” Saturday.
From the pulpit of New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, N.J., the place where Houston first sang as a child, I, along with millions of others, watched as an amazingly beautiful, truly generous and painfully complicated woman took her final bow.
Throughout the service many, like noted film director Tyler Perry and gospel singer BeBe Winans, reminded the world of Houston’s engaging warmth, wicked sense of humor, and unwavering faith in God. Faces like Houston’s longtime mentor Clive Davis and Pastor T.D. Jakes recounted precious moments with the musical icon during her last few months, with Davis suggesting Houston would be perfectly prepared for her comeback in front the angels in heaven. Musical tributes by Stevie Wonder, CeCe Winans, and R. Kelly filled the packed church with heartfelt emotion and lyrics centered on love, loss, and tears.
But for me, the most moving and telling truth of Houston’s life and death during the service were told by her one-time costar Kevin Costner.
Though I winced slightly when he mentioned “a tree we can all hang from”—not exactly the best analogy for an African-American audience—it was hard to deny his honest sincerity, unique perspective, and insightful thoughts about a woman I’d interviewed so many times over the years. He spoke about Houston’s fear of not being “pretty enough” or “good enough” to be in the movie The Bodyguard and used the example of her over-applying makeup in an effort to “look just right for her audition.”
As Costner offered his touching reflections on a Houston few could imagine or ever saw publicly, I couldn’t help but recall my own encounters with the songbird dating back to the mid-’90s. In all our meetings, the 5-foot-10 diva appeared to be the living and breathing textbook definition of confidence, strength, and self-assurance. She oozed mile-high levels of self-esteem when she entered a room.
How could she not be, with such flawlessly smooth skin, perfectly placed bone structure, and a megawatt smile to boot? Houston turned heads with her looks and kept them looking her way with her overwhelming talent.
It was quite commonplace for my interviews with her to seamlessly flow into “sistafriend” conversations about her marriage to ex-husband Bobby Brown. He was always on her mind in some form, and she usually remained defiant in her support of him. In retrospect, I can see now that she was obsessed with ways of keeping his love close and constant and determined not to ever be alone.
I didn’t connect the dots about her unhealthy need to be in a relationship that was obviously toxic and doomed from the start by the cruel demons of low self-esteem and insecurity. For years the superstar’s defiant pose and friendly nature cleverly masked feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy in an industry that can enjoy your rise to the top as much as your fall to the bottom.
There is no doubt in my mind how heavy that mask must have been for Houston to carry all these years. No doubt about the huge toll it must have taken on her already compromised body and weary soul. Friends tell me she was “so tired of the struggle.”
Today, in the place where it all began and in front of friends and family, the woman with “the voice” was finally able to remove her mask and lay it all to rest.