Why Whitney Houston will always be my beauty icon

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Ava Welsing-Kitcher
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With news of another Whitney Houston documentary on the way, we celebrate the singer who was an important beauty icon for women of colour everywhere

Pop in the early Noughties wasn’t particularly diverse. Bands like S Club 7 and the Spice Girls dominated the charts, but always with one token member of colour. Britney was the world’s sweetheart, and Bratz dolls made pre-teen girls yearn for long hair and huge, immaculately drawn-on lips. As a child, I didn’t realise it but beauty standards were set by an ideal which was invariably white. Sure, brown girls had pop idols they could identify with – the funkiness of TLC, the mystery of Aaliyah and the outspokenness of MIA were all things young girls aspired to - but still everyone seemed to cherish the archetypal cookie-cutter stars.

I think my mother realised the lack of diversity in the pop culture we were consuming, so she exposed my sister and I to as many female icons of colour as she could. A standout moment of my childhood was cheering every time Whitney Houston’s It’s Not Right But It’s Okay music video came on VH1. I would watch with my family as Whitney told women everywhere that they deserve to be treated with the utmost respect while clad in head-to-toe leather with a no-nonsense bob and dark plum lipstick – my mum wears pretty much the exact shade to this day. Her beauty look matched her ethos, and although the song was about being cheated on, I immediately saw how beauty could be employed as a weapon of instant confidence during any moment of difficulty. There’s a reason why cosmetic sales grow when economies are struggling. 

When people think fondly of Whitney, they think of her as the cute, lively teenager from the early days of her career. Her iconic moments of pivotal beauty (think the Eighties-tastic How Will I Know and I Wanna Dance With Somebody videos) appealed to so many because they showed a different form of black beauty which was more commercially accepted. 

The arrival of Netflix’s Whitney: Can I Be Me in 2017 made me revisit the journey of Whitney’s tumultuous life. Now, I’m eagerly anticipating her estate-approved biopic Whitney, directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald, set to air this summer. Six years after the star’s untimely death, we’re taking a nostalgic look back at the pivotal beauty moments of her career and why they mattered to me. 

Natural hair on the cover of Seventeen, 1981

Whitney: Can I Be Me opens with footage of a teenage Whitney at the front of her church choir, singing her heart out with her hair pulled back into a ponytail. As her career started to blossom, Whitney mostly kept her hair in its natural afro texture. In 1981, she graced the cover of Seventeen magazine – one of the first black women to do so – with her hair in a small halo of soft curls and a ribbon. At a time when black women were taught to minimise themselves and conform, Whitney represented all the great things about being black, despite being moulded to fit a white ideal. 

Dreamy curls and pink eyeshadow in I Wanna Dance With Somebody, 1987

The I Wanna Dance With Somebody music video is a goldmine of inspo for every Eighties-themed party, ever. Who could forget that lavender bodycon dress? And still, her caramel-coloured curls stole the show for me. Full and flouncy, with a fringe that’s slightly poodle-like (like I said, it was the Eighties), Whitney’s hair was officially curl goals for me, important in the Noughties when we were fiercely loyal to our straighteners. It was the time of big hair and this showed that black girls could also do it like Farrah Fawcett. Her bright pink eyeshadow and blusher combo is so fresh and optimistic. 

Pretty Woman hair and gleaming skin on the I Wanna Dance With Somebody single cover, 1987

So, this single cover is everything. Her skin looks like she bathed in unicorn tears, her brows are surprisingly bushy (Eighties eyebrows were feathered out and highly arched) and her lips are cranberry and glossy. The curls from the music video have been fluffed out and loosely pinned up, giving serious Pretty Woman vibes. 

Just over 10 years later, Whitney was not playing around in this video. The song is about realising that her partner’s been having an affair – and her power bob, bold lipstick and slate smoky eye symbolised power and integrity in a humiliating and hurtful time. Clad in head-to-toe leather (including a choker and badass fingerless gloves), she assembled an army of women who’d been wronged to show that they’d survive heartbreak, and whatever else life would throw at them. 

Monochrome brown make-up in 1998

No-nonsense bob and power plum lipstick in It’s Not Right But It’s Okay, 1999

With her chocolate eyes and a metallic brown lip, Whitney’s monochromatic look was rich and subtly glamorous. As always, her skin was radiant and her tight curls are glorious. Despite drug scandals and a problematic marriage, Whitney stayed iconic. Her fabulous hair and gleaming smile made everyone feel like she was doing OK – even though she definitely wasn’t. 

Remembering Whitney as a beauty icon feels bittersweet. While her stratospheric success meant that black girls everywhere saw themselves being represented, it was this stardom which fed an unhappy and scrutinised life.

As a woman who defiantly showed her pain of experience, she dared to show herself as a flawed woman. Beauty is messy, beauty is relatable, and there’s something refreshing yet heartbreaking about seeing an icon as a fellow human. For me, Whitney will always be remembered as a true source of beauty inspiration, for her celebration of the versatility of afro hair and for her unapologetic reveal of life in the spotlight.

Images: Getty / Pinterest