To hundreds of millions of fans around the world, Whitney Houston was one of the biggest pop icons of all time.
To Jonathan Houston, she was just “Tia.”
Whitney Houston’s nephew paid tribute to his beloved aunt Saturday night in Los Angeles at a rare public screening of her 1992 film debut The Bodyguard, the romantic thriller about a pop superstar, imperiled by fame, who hires an ex-Secret Service agent to protect her from danger.
The Warner Bros. release became a $411 million global hit, spawning the best-selling soundtrack of all time with Oscar-nominated ballads “I Have Nothing” and “Run To You” and the Grammy-winning single that became Houston’s signature hit, “I Will Always Love You.” It hit theaters four months after Houston married Bobby Brown, ushering in the biggest phases of her career and her personal life at once. But Jonathan Houston was just a young boy when his “Tia” transcended her early pop success and came into her full diva power with The Bodyguard.
“I remember her around that time,” Jonathan told the audience Saturday night at LA’s Cinefamily theater. “She was herself. Still to this day, hearing ‘Whitney Houston’ doesn’t ring a bell to me. Me and my cousins, we called her ‘Tia,’ Spanish for aunt. We knew her as Tia. She was the light of our world growing up. We looked at her pretty much as God. She was very down to earth, very much a homebody, and somewhat even of a tomboy at home, a comedian. At any function, she was always with the kids playing games or water guns—and always singing.”
Directed by Mick Jackson hot off of 1991’s L.A. Story and originally written by Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross, The Bodyguard was a high-profile gamble for Whitney. By the time she was cast opposite Kevin Costner, also at the height of his post-Dances With Wolves early-’90s career, a litany of more seasoned Hollywood actresses and singers had been up for the role.
“I’m not sure how much everyone realizes how nervous she was filming it because it was her first film, Bobby encouraging her and waking her up [every day], saying, ‘You have to go film,’” said Jonathan, a singer himself who’s followed in the footsteps of his musical extended family.
“She’s a lot like herself in this movie, as far as her mannerisms,” he continued. “You get to see who she is as a person as far as her idiosyncrasies, rather than this big diva when [her character] gets mad or when she yells.”
Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, was also a part of The Bodyguard, in a way: Whitney filmed her iconic “I Will Always Love You” music video, wistfully serenading an empty theater while rocking a power suit, while pregnant with Bobbi Kristina. “I remember Krissy telling me one day, ‘I don’t like Kevin Costner because he was kissing my mother while she was pregnant with me,’” Jonathan Houston recalled. “That was a joke, of course!”
Programmed as a Valentine’s Day offering, The Bodyguard’s memorable Academy Awards-set denouement also made it prime Oscars week viewing at Cinefamily, just across town from Hollywood’s Dolby Theater. The screening also accidentally coincided with the three-year anniversary of Houston’s death by drowning on February 11, 2012 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, a tragedy eerily recalled by Bobbi Kristina’s recent hospitalization in Atlanta.
An emotional Jonathan Houston left the audience with one last remembrance of his aunt: “What I want everyone to know most is that she was a very kind, loving person. You hear media reports and this and that, and most of it isn’t true, or it’s stretched. It’s really horrible, because she gave so much to so many people.”
“She gave so much that she wasn’t able to give any more. Her downfall was giving herself to other people—to the world, to her family and friends, and continuing to give. That’s what I remember her for: Her giving spirit, her loving spirit, and her kind heart. Even when she was down and out.”