When we first met in 1985, she was wearing a peach-colored draped goddess gown. Gazing out from the cover of her self-titled debut album, Whitney Houston looked luminous. Exotic. With her sensual stare, natural, close-cropped hair and a simple strand of pearls, she epitomized sophistication.And she had the voice to match, at once as old as a gospel hymn and as fresh as a pair of Pumas just out of the box.
And then 10 weeks ago, we met her again on her husband's reality show, "
, " which was shot over a period of months last year. This time she was wearing a cockeyed wig and a glazed expression, swearing at her husband and offering gross-out details about her sex life and bathroom habits.
Funny? Yes. Addictive? You bet. Everybody's using her catchphrase: "Hell to the no!" But will they buy another album once Bravo's must-see train wreck reaches its conclusion at 10 tonight?
"She doesn't really seem to care about what people think or necessarily care if her career continues, " says longtime Atlanta public relations specialist Meg Reggie, who has been glued to "
" this summer.
"I watch to count the 'Hell to the no's' and to see the two of them parent, " says Reggie. "She may have lost her older audience by [appearing in '
']. Maybe she can use the show as a springboard into an edgier style of music. But can she
that sophisticated woman in the evening gown singing 'The Greatest Love of All' after we've watched all that potty talk? Hell to the no."
Atlanta publicist Karen Canavan represented the Palm restaurant in Buckhead while the couple shot footage there in the spring of 2004. Canavan says that Houston's extreme honesty could spell a rough road ahead for the singer.
"Yes, people are talking, and she's back on the radar, but is this the right notoriety?" Canavan asks. "I talked to
at the Palm just last week. He seems to really
enjoying doing the show. But it's obvious to me from watching the show that Whitney is very controlled by her husband."
Canavan also points to Houston's chief 1980s competitor, Mariah Carey, and her current Jermaine Dupri-produced No. 1 hit, "We Belong Together, " as a possible template for Houston.
"That song is very traditional Mariah, " says Canavan. "When in doubt, go back to what you do best."
V-103 DJ Ryan Cameron agrees that Dupri could put Houston back on the charts. Cameron is a huge fan of the show, provides episode updates on-air and regularly takes calls from listeners who watch.
"Jermaine has the ability to pull people out of their castles [to] live in his world for a while. He has the formula. I believe anything is possible with Whitney."
The chief architect behind Houston's original public image, Clive Davis, announced last year that the duo would reunite on her next studio project. Davis was on vacation this week and unavailable to comment for this article, according to a spokeswoman with BMG Music, parent company of Houston's record label.
Until then, Canavan suggests that the singer avoid another tabloid-tinged "Primetime Live" interview in favor of a star-friendly stint on "Today" or "Good Morning America." A self-spoofing "Saturday Night Live" booking, a la Paula Abdul and Paris Hilton, might also help, she says.
Kent Matlock, of the Atlanta advertising and public relations firm Matlock and Associates, says that Houston should also focus on her core audience.
"I would guess that a large percentage of the people tuning in to laugh at her on this reality show are younger people, " he says. "They don't have the same frame of reference. They didn't fall in love to her music. She didn't tell their story. She told ours. Her love songs spoke to us. If you've emotionally enriched people's lives like she has, people can forgive you and overlook your madness.
"If she still has those pipes, Whitney Houston could easily redeem herself. She may surprise us yet."