Born to perform, the once-shy child became a musical force of nature who ultimately fell to her demons

By People Staff
February 27, 2012 12:00 PM

She was just 19 years old-her slender frame swallowed by enormous ’80s-style puffy purple sleeves-and she looked nervous. Standing alone before a microphone on The Merv Griffin Show on April 29, 1983, Whitney Houston began to timidly sing the first few bars of “Home” from The Wiz in one of her first television performances. Then, as she worked her way through the song-“Maybe I can convince time to slow up/ giving me enough time in my life to grow up”-the extraordinary happened: Her voice ignited, flying from one octave to another. In that moment, a superstar was born. “You won’t forget that name,” Griffin told viewers as Houston flashed her model-gorgeous grin at the song’s close. “Whitney Houston!”

It wasn’t mere hype, or even a prescient prediction, but rather a statement of fact. That name, that smile and above all that voice, would go on to profoundly impact the music world during the two often-turbulent decades that followed. With more than 170 million albums, singles and videos sold and a record seven consecutive No. 1 Billboard hits, Houston was a cultural force who provided a soaring soundtrack to the lives of her fans. Before she was undone by a self-destructive spiral of addiction, the six-time Grammy winner was a glamorous queen of pop who influenced generations of power-voiced divas such as Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys. “I grew up watching this beautiful, incredible woman, and I’d be like, ‘Oooh, I wanna dance with somebody!’ in the mirror,” Keys, 32, recalls of Houston’s 1987 smash. But beyond the stunning five-octave range that propelled hits like 1992’s “I Will Always Love You,” which became the bestselling U.S. single of all time, Houston possessed the sort of star power that made her an inspiration. “She was a role model for the African-American community,” says actress Viola Davis. “She was one of our original songbirds.”

A shy, slight girl affectionately nicknamed “Nippy”-“I think she was given that nickname because she was so small,” remembers Henry Hamilton, her former elementary school principal in East Orange, N.J.-Houston claimed singing as a birthright: Her mom is gospel legend Cissy Houston, 78; her father, John, who died in 2003, was a former serviceman turned music manager; and her cousin is R&B great Dionne Warwick, 71. “My mother sang with me in her stomach,” Houston told Ebony in 1995. By age 5, young Whitney “would be down in the basement singing, screaming at the top of her voice,” Cissy once recalled. “Her father would say, ‘Can’t you do something about that girl, about that screaming?’ And I would say, ‘Maybe one day it will develop her voice.'”

It did, and within a few years she would wow parishioners with her first solo at New Hope Baptist Church, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” Even then, her voice had the power to transport masses. The Rev. DeForest Soaries, a Houston family friend, remembers one occasion when a 14-year-old Whitney filled in at the last moment during a gospel rehearsal. “Nippy sang the lead, and it ended the whole rehearsal,” he recalls. “It turned into a revival service. At 14, that child completely demolished decorum. People cried. At that moment I think all of us realized she was a superstar in the making.” As Cissy told PEOPLE in 1998: “There was something in her voice that no one, not even I, could teach her.”

Around the same time, Houston’s breathtaking beauty caught the attention of modeling scouts in New York. “She would stand in front of the camera and was just magical,” recalls Diane Forden, the fashion editor at Seventeen when Houston became one of the first black models to grace the magazine’s cover in 1981. She was also exceptionally focused. “She would bring her books to a shoot and study,” says Forden. “She was that type of person. Very dedicated and very diligent, whether it was her modeling or schoolwork. She was a kind person too. Very loving and very considerate of other people. She was never, ever a diva.”

But even as she capitalized on her looks, she wrestled with fitting in among her peers. “I think I got ‘Best Smile’ in high school, but I was shy,” she told PEOPLE in 1991, adding that she would smuggle blue jeans into school in an effort to belong. “My face was too light, my hair was too long, I got chased, I got picked [on].” Her protective, “old-school” mother, as one source describes Cissy, sought to steer her daughter on a more demure path. “Pretty can turn into pretty awful if you act [vain],” Houston said. “I was taught that by my mom. She saw what happened to women who took their looks as everything.”

At 19, Houston’s life would radically change course when she was discovered singing at a New York City supper club by Clive Davis, who promptly signed her to his Arista Records and would guide her career until her death. Personally choosing all the songs and producers for her audacious 1985 self-titled debut, the music industry legend, now 79, “was a father figure and her Svengali,” says a close source. Under Davis’s painstaking guidance, Houston’s career exploded with a record seven consecutive multiplatinum albums and a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as music’s “most awarded female artist of all time.” But behind their seemingly unflappable partnership, says another source, Houston sometimes chafed under Davis’s intense involvement in her life. “She was his shining star-his beacon,” says the source. “But she had a lot of resentment over not having control over her career and being forced to be somebody she wasn’t.”

And she wasn’t a “goody two-shoes,” says a record exec who worked with Houston for many years. She grew up proud of her “street” roots in Newark, N.J., says the source, but Houston was meticulously groomed by Davis to fulfill the role of America’s Singing Sweetheart-and it was, at times, a deeply uncomfortable fit. “She was in pain from living almost a double life,” says the source. “She wanted to be down with her community. That’s who she really was. But because of her career, she also had to portray this pure pop princess in gorgeous gowns, singing songs the white community adored.” A close family member recalls that Houston “could swear like a sailor. She complained that she once said the f-word backstage at an awards show, and Clive told her, ‘Madonna can talk like that. You cannot.'” It was only among family and friends, says the relative, that Houston was free to be herself. “She would exaggerate a white girl voice, and we would all laugh,” recalls the family member. “And we’d be like, ‘You don’t have to talk that way. There aren’t no cameras here.’ She loved us saying she was [street].” As Houston herself once proudly declared, “I’m nobody’s angel. I can get raunchy.”

Enter Bobby Brown, an R&B bad boy from Boston’s violent Orchard Park projects who appealed to the singer’s rebellious side. “She was really a down-and-dirty girl from Jersey,” says the close source. “That’s why Bobby was perfect for her.” The former New Edition teen idol, who already had three children by two former girlfriends, also offered Houston something she had long been seeking. “Before I met my husband, I always got that, ‘How can I show her that I’m worthy to be with her?’ attitude,” the singer told Essence in 1994. “When I met Bobby, it was simple. Bobby knew what I needed was love.” Adds a close family friend who has known the Houstons for 30 years: “People who didn’t know Whitney intimately were so shocked when she started dating Bobby, but those of us who knew her understood the attraction. They had a lot more in common than most people realized.” Their lavish nuptials in 1992 dovetailed with a professional high point for Houston as well, coming the same year that she made her acting debut opposite Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard. The film would gross more than $400 million and spawn the top-selling soundtrack of all time, with more than 32 million copies sold.

Eight months after their wedding, the couple welcomed daughter Bobbi Kristina, with Houston declaring, “I’ve never found anything more fulfilling than being a mother.” She doted on her new daughter. “Whitney always called Bobbi Kris her miracle baby,” says the close family friend. “When Bobbi Kristina was born, they were both over the moon.” But the pair’s bliss did not last long. By 1995 Brown underwent rehab for alcohol abuse, and in the years that followed, he was in and out of court over child-support issues and probation violations. Meanwhile, as his wife’s star continued to rise-she scored a $10 million payday for 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife opposite Denzel Washington-she increasingly struggled with her fame. “She would say, ‘Getting all this attention and flying around and giving interviews and performing, you have no idea how stressful it is being in that position,'” recalls Gary Catona, her vocal coach. As Houston admitted to Newsweek in 1998, “I think it’s fair to say [stardom has] been more than I bargained for.”

Houston also had to contend with heartbreak over multiple miscarriages as well as incessant rumors about Brown being abusive, which she refuted. “I do the hitting; he doesn’t,” she told Redbook. Harder still were long-simmering rumors that she carried on a romance with her close friend and then-executive-assistant Robyn Crawford. “Some things still sting very badly,” she told New York’s Daily News. “Look, I’m not married and have some kind of double life with some man or woman. I couldn’t live that way. I was raised in the church, and I care about morality.”

With the rumor mill in high gear, Houston also grappled with severe feelings of self-doubt. A spiritual woman who spoke openly of her faith but once admitted to Playboy she loved partying, she privately battled “unparalleled insecurity,” according to another close source. As the stress worsened, she increasingly turned to drugs. “For years, Whitney was a functioning addict,” says the family member. “She got really good at hiding it. After using cocaine, she could get onstage and just kill it.”

But the polished facade began to crumble as early as 1994, with Houston showing up late for concerts and even keeping former South African president Nelson Mandela waiting two hours at a White House tribute in his honor. She was surrounded by an entourage-most of them on her payroll-indulging her every whim. “Everyone was afraid to say no to her,” says one insider. “For stars like Whitney, when it comes to getting their way, it’s almost like arrested development. They never emotionally mature past the age where they become famous. They’re like children, ranting and raving until they get what they want. It’s like, ‘I want my coke, and if you say no, you can find yourself another job.'”

Yet the close family friend insists that the singer did seek out positive influences in her life. “She kept other people around her who were trying to keep her on the straight and narrow,” says the longtime friend. Still, those within her inner circle say they were helpless to get through to the troubled star. “Whitney was the boss,” Crawford tells PEOPLE. “As her team, we were limited to advising, suggesting and supporting when it was called for. At the end of the day, Whitney did what she wanted. She was a grown woman and not a pawn on a chessboard.” As a family member recalls, “I remember yelling at her and saying, ‘You’ve done so much in your life, but you’re not even trying to get clean. Don’t do it for me. Do it for yourself.'” Increasingly moody and mercurial, “she would yell at Bobby, at us, at anyone who told her she needed to get clean,” adds the relative. “She could be so sweet, but then she would become enraged for really no reason. She burned a lot of bridges.”

More troubles followed: In 2000 she narrowly avoided arrest after authorities spotted 15.2 grams of marijuana in her purse-she boarded a plane and was airborne before police arrived-and three weeks later she dropped out of a scheduled appearance at the Academy Awards just 48 hours before showtime. By the time she famously told Diane Sawyer that “crack is whack” in 2002-one year after her shockingly gaunt appearance at a Michael Jackson tribute concert sparked rumors of her death-the once vibrant star had begun what would prove to be an irreversible slide into the throes of addiction. “Her eyes always had a light in them,” says the family member. “But when she would use, that light would go out. It would be like something switched off, like you couldn’t see her spirit anymore.” Her turbulent marriage to Brown in tatters-after 14 largely rocky years and one unvarnished, hell-to-the-no reality show, Being Bobby Brown-“her life was a complete disaster and everyone knew it,” says the close source. “It’s not that she and Bobby didn’t love each other, but there was a constant struggle between her career being supersuccessful and his not being as successful as hers.” What’s more, adds the source, “she felt pulled between what was going on at home and dealing with Clive and the constant pressure of maintaining her stardom.”

In a candid 2009 interview with Oprah Winfrey, the singer pined for a life that wasn’t to be. “I knew in the days when I was a teenager singing for God. I was so sure,” she said. “When I became ‘Whitney Houston,’ and all this other stuff that happened, my life became the world’s. My privacy. My business. Who I was with. Who I married. And I was like, ‘That’s not fair.’ I wanted to go to the park. I wanted to walk down the street with my husband, hand in hand, without somebody looking at us or having the media always in my business…. I just wanted to be normal.”

Scrutiny of her once otherworldly voice crushed her even further. With her speaking voice noticeably raspy in interviews, her singing suffered even more. Her 2009 album I Look to You was followed by poorly received live performances in which she could no longer hit high notes and, once again, she canceled appearances. “She couldn’t handle what happened to her voice,” says the record exec who worked with Houston. “It collapsed her self-confidence and crippled her inside. After those negatively reviewed performances [in 2010], it was essentially over for her.”

But the born entertainer never gave up hope for her ever-elusive comeback. “She said once that Aretha Franklin told her, ‘I’m passing the torch to you,'” recalls Catona. “She was conscious of her responsibility. ‘I still have the voice,’ she told me. ‘It’s locked inside and wants to be freed.'” While the voice is now gone, those who loved Houston hope that the pain she felt is over as well. “She had a lot of inner struggles and personal issues,” says the longtime friend. “There was the public perception of who she was and what was expected of a church girl from New Jersey. But she was so many other things, and not being able to be herself was a hell of a burden. Now she can finally rest. I’m sure she is at peace.”