FROM THE ARCHIVE: Whitney Houston's 2000 Out Interview

2.13.2012

By Out.com Editors

We remember the passing of the music icon by revisiting the singer's first interview with the gay press, in which she answered those pesky lesbian questions

 

Talk to Houston for any length of time and the impact that her own mother has had on her is palpable: Whitney loves mother Cissy, loves her, and nearly every topic comes back to the woman who sang backup for Aretha Franklin as a member of the gospel-flavored Sweet Inspirations. “Most kids went to the movies or played, like my brothers,” she recalls. “My mother took me to the studio. It was her way, I think, of being close to me. Aretha and [famed record producer] Arif Mardin watched me since I was in my mother’s belly. Aretha called me Li’l Cissy. Maybe she saw something.”

“Is he asking you nice questions?” Bobby Brown, another major influence in Houston’s life and her husband of eight years, has just dropped by, wearing a baby-blue turtleneck and his trademark wire-rimmed glasses. “I don’t have to catch him outside, do I?”

“No—he’s very sweet,” Houston says in a motherly voice. “He’s from OUT. [Switches her tone.] Pick me up some miso soup. I need miso, like now.”

“Wait,” responds Brown. “Say that again. I like the way you said ‘now.’”

“Oh baby,” she counters. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Say it, say it,” Brown chants, jumping up and down. [Changes to a fey voice.] “Ssssay it; it turns me on, I sssswear!”

Whitney guffaws. “Get outta here!” she bellows. “Crazy man!” Brown leaves and Houston gasps, “He is so sick! I love him—and he don’t give a shit that you’re gay.”

It’s a fairly bizarre display of marital affection, but Houston quickly returns to discussing her childhood, back home in Newark, New Jersey. Little Whitney’s kiddie version of her mother’s pipes was nurtured in the New Hope Baptist Junior Choir: “The choir was like a family, my second home, where I could express myself,” she says. “It kept me out of trouble and off the street. The church was a safe haven for young people. It should still be that way.” It wasn’t long before Houston started singing alongside her mother at nightclub performances and in the studio. Like many young stars, Houston heard her calling early. “Unfortunately,” she says of her precocious interest in show business, “’cause I didn’t know what I was in for. It was different back then. It wasn’t built on tabloid and media. You either got it or you don’t; no in-betweens. Aretha had it. Gladys had it. The Temps had it. The Four Tops had it. There was no playin’. Now there’s a lot of studio stuff goin’ on, no real live acts. You see them and think, ‘What the hell is this? That ain’t the record I bought!’ Back then, you saw Aretha, and you got the record and more.”

The teenage Houston sang a solo on disco producer Michael “Let’s All Chant” Zager’s 1978 track “Life’s a Party” and went on to do studio backups for the likes of Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls, while landing Glamour and Seventeen covers as a model. Although the Sweet Inspirations never became a mainstream success in their own right, Cissy’s blistering performance on such Zager-produced dance-floor anthems as “Think It Over” earned her a hard-core following of gay men, whom Whitney first encountered during her mom’s club dates. “My mother’s best, most beautiful, brightest audience was gay men,” she recalls. “We used to work at Reno Sweeney [a trendsetting, ‘70s Manhattan cabaret]. My mother used to pack that club out. I mean, the queens would be around the corner! Around the corner in a line, waiting to see Miss Cissy.”

The queens who were lining up to see Miss Cissy came for more than just her tremendous singing. “I watched the way my mother dealt with gay people,” Houston says. “They could tell her anything and she wouldn’t trip. She’d be like [adopting a sassy, worldly voice] ‘If so-and-so don’t treat you right, fuck ‘em. Leave ‘em and move on to the next thang.’ It was about relationships and loving each other. My mother was an inspiring singer. She sang from her heart about love, the tragedies, the ups, downs, the all-arounds of love, and she somehow made you feel like you’d come out triumphant, no matter what. This had a strong hold for gay people. She’d come out in her slippers and sing. They’d love that. ‘Sing, Miss Cissy!’ She was real.”

Even back then, the younger Houston was garnering fans of her own. “I remember the first time I heard Whitney, she must have been eight or nine,” remembers Elliott Hubbard, who co-owned Reno Sweeney. “Cissy had invited me to hear her and her daughter sing at a church up in Harlem. Whitney had a solo and—whoa! —she brought down the eaves of that church.”

Houston’s big break came in 1983 following a performance at Sweetwaters, a funky Manhattan watering hole. Arista exec Davis—who had signed the likes of Janis Joplin, Billy Joel, and Aerosmith, and who masterminded last year’s monumental Santana comeback—arrived late and left early without a word. The next day he phoned Houston: Her record contract was drawn up and waiting for a signature. She’s been on the Arista label ever since.

Before releasing her career-making full-length debut, Houston sang on an album for the pioneering disco producer/solo artist Paul Jabara, who penned Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” and scored a massive club hit with the Weather Girls’ now classic gay anthem “It’s Raining Men.” “I miss him,” Whitney says of the singer, who died in 1992 of AIDS. “Gay and could write his ass off. We did Studio 54 together, a whole showcase with me and the Weather Girls. He’d say, ‘You gonna be bad as shit one day. You gonna be so fuckin’ hot.’ That was Paul. And he was right [giggles], may he rest in peace!”

Here, once again, Houston’s reminiscences are interrupted: The four members of Destiny’s Child, the female R&B harmony act of the moment, are ushered to Houston to say a brief hello. Decked out in scene-stealing, hookers-from-Mars outfits complete with thigh-high stiletto-heel boots, the quartet nevertheless cower before the diva as if they’re meeting the pope. Houston jumps out of her chair. “Say my name, say my name!” she wails, quoting the chorus of Destiny Child’s latest hit. “I listen to you. You be saangin’! You’re the inspiration.” The star is in full matriarchal mode, her arms waving in her smock like it’s a preacher robe. The newest members of Destiny’s Child, in particular, are eating it up. One asks for a hug. Houston magnanimously grants her request, even when it’s revealed that the quartet is up for Best R&B Group Performance; Houston is up for the same award for “Heartbreak Hotel,” with Faith Evans and Kelly Price. (Both acts lose to TLC.)

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