The Prom Queen of Soul

Whitney Houston is sleek, sexy, successful -- and, surprise, she can sing

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Whitney Houston holds her award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 30th Annual Grammy Awards March 2, 1987

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Meanwhile, her movers and shapers were working overtime to fix the Whitney magic in her music videos. The first video, You Give Good Love, tells the story of a romance with a cameraman -- and, more tellingly, with his adoring camera. In Saving All My Love, she is a beaming All-American girl shadowed by her secret lover's wife. In Greatest Love, Whitney dazzles in rehearsal rags and in a sequined evening gown that hangs elegantly from the world's creamiest shoulders. For How Will I Know, she wears just a yard or so of slink swank but still upstages the mod-art gashes of color and moves like the cuddliest disco dervish. The new video for I Wanna Dance with Somebody (directed, like How Will I Know, by Brian Grant) underlines Houston's chameleon charm. In one scene she reprises her Saving All My Love role; in another, she does a Tina Turner shimmy; throughout, she bops till any other mortal would drop.

In March, between takes on this video, the star dragged on a few cigarettes, posed with co-workers for just one more picture and, in a precious spare moment, perched on a stool and zoned out. As a professional model for a third of her life, Houston is used to being stared at, pampered, ordered about, tortured by beauticians' caresses. She doesn't seem to mind; she knows the only eye that matters is the unblinking one with the red light. "From the beginning," she says, "the camera and I were great friends. I know the eye of the camera is on me -- eye to eye. It loves me, and I love it."

Perhaps this cool lover will entice her onto the big screen. There is talk of film work -- maybe an adaptation of Toni Morrison's Tar Baby, maybe a movie version of Dreamgirls. Meanwhile, her family will keep Whitney well protected. Her brothers run interference for her on tour; Robyn offers support and palship; John promotes and shields the family star. Still, Dad must wonder when the cocoon becomes a cage. Last year, after a concert in London, Whitney joined the crew at the local Hippodrome. "I was nervous," he recalls. "At one point I spotted her on the dance floor. 'Guess what, Daddy,' she said, 'I've been dancing!' And she proceeded to dance until 4 in the morning. I almost cried, realizing that for three years she hadn't had the chance to act like a teenager."

So here she stands -- her carriage immaculate, of course -- poised for the future. It should be no surprise to her, so meticulous are her Svengalis' strategies. Houston denies she is corseted by the evening gowns, the narrow gauge of her songs or the charges of her advisers' puppeteering. "I was the primary mover of my career. I told my people to give me a plan and I'd follow," she says. "And it worked. I traveled and smiled, and it worked."

Whitney Houston could go Hollywood or even Vegas, become a legend or a lounge act. But for now she is happy to savor the triumph. "I like being a woman," she says, "even in a man's world. After all, men can't wear dresses, but we can wear the pants." If she dares, professionally, to wear the pants -- if her song selection grows with her technique, if she rises to the challenges her voice can already meet -- she may soon hear the sweetest accolade. "Whitney Houston? Great singer! Oh, you mean she's pretty too?"

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