My blog today is a bit of a diversion from the norm. But I want to share with you my personal recollections of Whitney Houston. The news of her untimely passing has shocked us all, and I am just heartbroken when I think about the young Whitney I knew before she became Whitney Houston, the Superstar.
I had the pleasure of working with Whitney during her high school years when she was a teen model. I was a fashion editor at Seventeen magazine and then Fashion Director at YM. She was a delightful, sweet, wonderful person, and all of us who worked with her loved her. She was truly beautiful inside and out. Anytime we were booking models for a photo shoot, we would always say, “Let’s book Whitney” “See if Whitney is available” “Whitney would be great for this story.” She was never a diva and she was always professional. She showed up on time and made our jobs easier by doing her best in front of the camera. She never complained if days ran long and cheerfully did whatever was expected.
I remember a photo shoot in the Hamptons on one of those dog days of summer in August. It was 95 degrees and we were photographing back-to-school clothing. Whitney, wearing wool socks, boots, wool trousers and a sweater, was asked by the photographer to climb up a very high sand dune. She did so for quite some time and kept smiling all throughout that steep climb. She never uttered a word of dissent, even though the heat was brutal. She posed on that dune until the photographer had his money shot. That was Whitney: agreeable, kind, eager to do her best and a real trooper. I can picture her sitting on a studio floor in between shots, her schoolbooks open on her lap as she studied. She was not only diligent and hardworking but she was also fun to be around. Whitney loved to laugh and when she smiled she lit up the room. I traveled with her to the Dominican Republic for another fashion shoot and have vivid memories of her laughing and splashing in the sea—always sunny and smiling and happy.
Here are a few photos from Whitney's modeling days in YM, starting in August 1981:
None of us knew that Whitney’s godmother was Aretha Franklin or that Dionne Warwick was her cousin. Whitney was modest and never bragged about her megastar connections. We did know that her mother was Cissy Houston, renowned gospel singer, and that Whitney sang in her church choir. But it wasn’t until one day at a photo shoot when Whitney told us that she was going to sing with her mom that night that we discovered what a rare talent she was. Cissy Houston was performing at Roseland, and Whitney was slated to perform one song on her own. It was her first solo performance in front of a big NYC crowd and she was understandably nervous. She asked if we could all come and support her…and we did. I remember standing in the crowd near the stage and watching Whitney emerge from the wings and walk slowly onto the stage after her mom had introduced her. She tentatively took the mike, smiled at the audience, closed her eyes and started to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She was magnificent and that beautiful, clear voice resonated throughout the room. The crowd went wild as so many more crowds would in the years to come.
There were occasions when Whitney and I would take the bus together to our homes in New Jersey. I lived in Montclair at the time, and we would head to Port Authority after a day at a studio. We would order ice cream cones and sit laughing and talking until it was time to board the bus. I would sometimes drive her to her home in East Orange, and on one of those days, knowing that she was about to graduate from high school the following month, I asked Whitney what her plans were after graduation. I can picture her sitting in the passenger seat of my car, her books on her lap as she turned to me and said, “I really want to be a singer. Like my mom. I just love to sing. But I’m scared and nervous I won’t make it. Do you think I have a chance?”
Here was this unbelievably talented girl who was about to thrill the world with her magic questioning whether she might make it in the music industry. Of course, neither of us could even imagine at the time the incredible impact she would have upon the music and entertainment world. I looked at her and said, “Whitney, you are a beautiful person and you have an amazing voice. If you can’t succeed, I don’t know who can. I’m pretty sure you’ll make it, Whitney.” She smiled her sweet, lovely smile and thanked me for the words of encouragement.
And just three years later, in 1986, I wept tears of joy as I watched her on TV accepting her very first Grammy. “You made it Whitney!” I thought.
Today, it’s tears of sadness and my heart goes out to her mother and daughter, to her mentor, Clive Davis, and to all her friends and family. I will always treasure the very special memories I have of this beautiful, loving person and, dear Whitney, I hope you know that we will always, always love you.
YM magazine, June/July 1986: