Portraits of the late Whitney Houston, without frills

Today's tabloids, February 12, 2012. ()
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News of the death of Whitney Houston, one of the most awarded and biggest-selling performers in the world, ever, broke around 7 p.m. last night. Since tonight is the night of the 2012 Grammy awards, Houston was staying in a Beverly Hills hotel and news organizations were already converged on Los Angeles. So it was no surprise that the Sunday tabloid covers would be completely taken over by the story.

There were a lot of ways to portray her death, but with little information coming out about the cause of death before press time last night, a straight obituary play (instead of the news) was the only choice really available. (Look for news covers tomorrow, based on information about the cause of her death that is coming out on the web today, or something from a last-minute revamp of the Grammy program.)

Houston has of course been photographed throughout her career, both in candids taken by paparazzi and in endless styled photo shoots. Broadly, photos of Houston fall into a few categories. Early photos of the young singer of the self-titled album Whitney Houston tended to highlight her high-spirited innocence (think of the video for the song "How Will I Know"). But Houston was also a belter who did well posed as a regal and untouchable creative force (think of her image around the time of the movie The Bodyguard), and also a troubled celebrity with a bad-boy husband, Bobby Brown, and a drug and alcohol problem. So there are, of course, photos of her looking bedraggled, or crazy, or strung out.

(The one photo you almost never get is of Houston as a sex-symbol: Her expression is sometimes serious but usually just cheerful in styled photos, and you certainly never get the "hot-scowl" vixen from photos of her that characterize periods in most megastar's careers in pop music.)

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The youthful Houston with a giant bow in her permed hair couldn't have worked today. So the tabloids had essentially two easy options: The statuesque, queenly Houston at the top of the world, or the bottomed-out Houston looking, well, on the verge of death.

But the tabloids have chosen neither. On the front of the Daily News, Houston looks … fine. It's a close-up, so it's not forgiving on the details; pores, skin discoloration here and there, extreme eye-shadow and too-obvious blush. It's a photo by the famous paparazzo Ron Galella, and so the expression is honest-looking, anchored by a real smile. And yet it's too recent to be a photo of her glory days, so the smile seems fake anyway.

The Post has a recent posed photo of Houston looking impossibly skinny in a pair of skin-tight jeans with a Gucci-logo belt and a sort of bikini top that flattens her breasts and looks a little like sports equipment. It's a latish photo, and her smile, good-natured looking, doesn't match the styling somehow. It's like she was told to pose like a cat and wear a face like a little girl at her sweet sixteen.

The headlines are not obituary headlines; the Post reads as straight news, "QUEEN OF POP DEAD," with a dek that reads "Whitney Houston only 48." The News, too: "WHITNEY DEAD: Found in L.A. hotel room." It might have been "QUEEN OF POP: 1963-2012," in a serif type, elegiac. It might have been the near-death Houston, suggesting the likely outcome of the investigation, that her death is attributable, one way or another, to her struggle with addiction. But the photos aren't synced up with the text, somehow. 

Forced to choose, I prefer the News' treatment. It's at least intimate, and it's less strange.