Sisterhood Blog

When We Wished We Were Whitney

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

  • Print
  • Share Share
Getty Images
Whitney Houston, center, with Bobby Brown and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in 2003.


Back in the 1980s, Whitney Houston was the girl who had it all: devastating looks, an incredible voice, impeccable show business connections. Her success seemed predestined. Whitney spent her childhood singing in church choirs and nightclubs along her mother Cissy Houston. Dionne Warwick was her cousin and Aretha Franklin, her godmother.


In her definitive 2006 Salon piece on Houston, Rebecca Traister wrote:

 “Many female stars are motivated to present themselves — or others choose to represent them — as rebel bad girls who defy prudish expectation and wholesome good looks by staying out late, drinking too much and sneaking off to bathroom stalls with Wilmer Valderrama. Back in the mid-’80s, Houston was defying a different set of cultural expectations — the ones applied to black girls — to a much different effect. She was presented to us as youthful feminine perfection: all sugar and spice and poofy dresses, a solid rearing in the church, a close family.”

While we mere mortal young women were struggling to get a foothold in the world, we were finishing high school, trying to make it through college, slaving away at our entry-level jobs, Whitney was breaking the color barrier on MTV, recording hit after hit, climbing the charts, collecting awards and accolades, and then becoming a movie star.

Even if her sentimental ballads and fluffy upbeat pop tunes were not your musical cup of tea, there was just no denying the power and magic of her voice and the utter confidence and poise on stage.

That’s the Whitney Houston that my generation will always remember — not the terrible, endless, downward spiral that followed. I could never bring myself to watch her reality show, it all sounded too horrible. I suppose it is comparable to my mother’s generation wanting to remember the young, lithe, leather-jacketed Elvis and let the image of the overweight Vegas Elvis fade away. 



At one point I had to pay attention to Houston in her later years and covered her bizarre 2003 trip to Israel, which included a baptism in the Jordan River, and an awkward photo opportunity with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. She said, at the time: “I’ve never felt like this in any other country. I feel at home, I feel wonderful.”

She even declared her intention to build a home in Dimona, where she visited a community of Black Hebrews. But she never visited again. 



There were occasional glimpses of hope, reports of her trying to turn herself around, most prominently when she spoke with Oprah Winfrey, back in 2009. But even with Oprah, she seemed shaky and strung out.



Is there a lesson for us in her tragic story, other than the worn-out lesson, already delivered convincingly by Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, about how difficult it is to combat drug addiction once it has its claws in someone?



I can’t help thinking that maybe it did all come too easily, too soon, and too young for Whitney Houston. Maybe when you are so beautiful, talented, successful, showered with awards and able to hold stadiums full of people enthralled when you are 21 years old, it’s too difficult to figure out what to aspire to next — that there is nowhere to go but down and the only thrills left are chemically induced. 



Maybe we mortal, less magically gifted women, introduced earlier to life’s disappointments and struggles, are able to find joy in far smaller accomplishments and pleasures. As young women, we dreamed of being a superstar like she was, when in fact, she might have been better off if she was a little bit more like us.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Whitney Houston

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.