Habeas Whitney


The one that got me was a torso shot. There were a bunch of them published even before she died, frantic paparazzi pictures of Whitney Houston leaving last night’s party. Most of them felt like fragments: she appears disoriented in a short black dress ruched to her body. Hair is hanging in her face and as always her gleaming skin appears to be a single high note away from breaking into of one of her famous flopsweats. She is partially hidden by other people, or seems to be twisting away from the camera with bared teeth, yelling or having just yelled. Together the photos give the feeling of a predatory altercation in progress; this was a woman who couldn’t walk to her car without producing images out of a Picasso detail.

But some were cropped to highlight points of interest. One was a close-up of some scratches on her wrist, another on a reddish fluid—wine? blood?—sliding down her leg. And then there was one of her midsection in profile. That’s all you saw: Whitney’s belly, protruding noticeably from her thin frame in a perfect, second trimester mound. They called her bloated, but we’ve all been watching Whitney Houston’s body for long enough to know that she carries what little extra weight she has on her up front. It’s adorable, actually. Always has been.

I remember the first time I saw that body. My dad had bought her debut record—now that I think of it hers is the only contemporary record I can remember him buying. When he put it on I would sneak into the living room and sit on the good gold brocade couch with the album cover in my lap. It was the back cover that really killed me: Whitney in a white bathing suit, bestriding some rocky shore like an Eighties Athena and gazing off into the distance with her hands on her hips and her chin up high. Shit, I would think. Has anyone ever been this lucky? And then: Is that really what 19 looks like?

I suppose on some level I was aware of the complication of a little white girl having such thoughts, but that didn’t make them less sincere. I could spend hours flipping the record back and forth as that very grown up voice rippled over me, wondering how God could love one person that much. She would have been remarkable without her beauty, but the fact that she also appeared to have alighted from the clouds turned her from a talent into a phenomenon, one that consolidated everything we valued most into one flawless package.

Kids don’t care that much about poise, or adult contemporary ballads; my initial interest in Whitney was more rhetorical (and jealous-ical). But I have a memory of watching her open the Grammys back in 1988 and gaining a new understanding of what it meant to be great. She was singing some kind of Olympic theme song and blowing it open with the force of her voice. Suddenly a big power ballad that could have sprung, full formed, from Diane Warren’s loins was no longer florid and embarrassing, it had dignity and real feeling. She was Apollonian, a vision of complete confidence: there was never any doubt she would find whatever note or effect or roofbeam-shuddering belt she reached for. That’s something you see once or twice in a lifetime in a performer: not that she didn’t hesitate, but that she was beyond hesitation. Hesitation didn’t exist for her. She seemed to delight in her ability as much as we did.

In a way perfection became the point of Whitney. How quickly we were spoiled. Because she could sing like that it seemed like she should always sing like that. In fact she always did—on the radio, in supermarkets, or any time the impulse struck you to call up a song. From that great, omnipotent height the first flaw—the first flat note—is a tragedy. As impossible as it was, watching her back then, to imagine such total ruination, it was inevitable that as a performer she would be shadowed by a feeling of tragic loss.

We dealt with the early onset of that tragedy the way we do now: poorly, exploitatively, and by indulging a crude fascination with the terms of her existence. Which is to say with her body. Nothing illuminates the body’s divinity the way talent does. And rarely does a body appear more wretched to us, more useless and husk-like, than when that kind of talent is destroyed or disappears too soon.

The performer might begin to think of her talent as supreme and her body as a trap but in fact the two are inseparable, until they are separated. What’s bound up in the gap between the divine body and the empty vessel in the public imagination is our fear of and fascination with death. And so for a decade we watched Whitney with a specific set of preoccupations, circling and re-circling the idea that although this is clearly the same body we had come to know, the thing that made it what it was seems irretrievably gone. What was that thing?

That Whitney came to share in that process seems cruel. Because the tragedy of the loss of her talent was only inevitable for us—she might have found a way to inhabit her body in a new way, with a new self. Some do. Instead she became a symbol of decline and decline’s ultimate end. Because her talent seemed lost to us we focused on what remained, claiming her body as a kind of compensation, examining it as if in pity of its curious persistence.

Or maybe we just continued to do what we had done: “Do you work at it now, to keep your weight up?” Diane Sawyer asked Whitney in 2002, a year after she had appeared at a Michael Jackson tribute looking so frail the network actually fattened her image digitally before the program was broadcast.

Whitney: No.

Diane: But people are going to be looking, and people are going to be pointing.

Whitney: But they always have. From the moment I stepped out there, they always have.

At her funeral Whitney was laid out in a gold coffin smothered with white flowers and placed before the altar of the New Jersey church where she sang her first notes. Her sister-in-law spoke to those of us who were not granted a viewing of the body. She urged us to imagine the Whitney who sang “The Greatest Love of All,” the way she looked then. I agree, we should remember her that way. But it seems wrong to take away the other Whitney, the suffering she did for us, or seemed to do. Or to put it another way it seems dishonest to deny those final images, and the years of loaded, unrelenting scrutiny that preceded them. Not when they seemed to mean so much to us.

Michelle Orange's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney's and other publications and has been collected in The Best Sex Writing 2006 and Mountain Man Dance Moves. She is the author of The Sicily Papers and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a collection found in issue 22 of McSweeney's. Follow her on Twitter @michelleorange. More from this author →