Happy Birthday, Whitney: Not The Diva, The Brown Girl


Thursday, August 9th. Whitney Houston’s birthday.

She was supposed to turn 49 today, probably celebrating with her daughter Bobbi Kristina, her mother Cissy Houston and a few friends at some fabulous restaurant that most of us could never get a table in. I imagine Houston would listen as her loved ones gather around a cake she wouldn’t eat, and sing “Happy Birthday” immediately followed by the soulful Stevie Wonder version. She’d smile at her 49 years and the unimaginable platinum-coated life she’s created with it.

Instead, as we approach the release of Sparkle, her final film, today we celebrate without her.

Whitney was our first Diva. Our mothers had Diana, our grandmothers had Aretha, but Whitney was ours. This skinny, brown girl from Jersey whose hair was never quite right, but her voice was undeniable. She couldn’t dance to save her life and she never had elaborate pyrotechnics in her stage show, but Whitney came at just the right time, when we still valued voice over everything. And now the voice is gone.

It has taken me a long time to reconcile just how I feel about Houston’s sudden passing just one day before the Grammy’s this pass February. I was in LA to cover the awards ceremony. I remember being in my editor’s truck parked on Melrose when I got a text from a friend saying, “Whitney’s dead.” The friend worked with Houston’s agency, so I immediately went to TMZ on my phone as I ran into the store to grab my editor. “Whitney’s dead!” was all I could get out as I grabbed her to leave. From that point on, it became about the story. My focus was getting the correct–and respectful–information out as it was happening in real time. I wrote our official announcement post on my Blackberry as we sat in the parking lot of El Pollo Loco, then sent updates from my hotel, a cab and the lobby of Clive’s party, just floors beneath the very bathroom where Houston’s body still sat.

It was, surreal, altering, humbling.

Still it would be months before I was able to identify exactly how I felt. On the morning of the BET Awards, I was given the heads up that Cissy would eulogize her daughter using one of my favorite songs. That night as I watched her sing Simon & Garfunkle’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” it finally became clear to me. I was angry at Whitney and I just didn’t know how to say it.