I Wanna Dance With Somebody: Remembering Whitney Houston’s Major Oprah Comeback
For a quarter of a century, The Oprah Winfrey Show was one of the most influential forces in pop culture. Five days a week, Oprah Winfrey—who became a superstar through the medium of TV—courted debates, shared human interest stories, and conducted celebrity interviews with everyone from Michael Jackson to Halle Berry to Tom Cruise. If a television was on at 4 p.m., it was likely tuned to Oprah. So, it was on this show that Whitney Houston, the inimitable talent whose legendary career had been derailed by drug addiction, positioned her big career comeback in 2009. Winfrey, credibly, touted Houston’s upcoming appearance as “the most anticipated music interview of the decade.”
That Oprah moment is depicted in the new Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, starring British actor Naomi Ackie in the lead role. The movie, however, depicts only the performance Houston gave on the show, highlighting how her singing had been hampered by drug use but her stage presence and will to entertain was stronger than it had been in years. In real life, Houston’s appearance included a revealing interview and was preceded by some important context. It was her first major TV appearance since her devastating 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer, who pressed Houston about her drug use, leading to the singer’s infamous denial of doing crack cocaine. “It was an unmitigated disaster,” Clive Davis wrote in his autobiography. “Whitney was guarded, vague, and defensive, and their conversation launched a thousand parodies.” I Wanna Dance With Somebody, for which Davis served as a producer, does not depict the Sawyer interview, declining to recreate one of the singer’s worst public moments.
The biopic, centered firmly on Houston, also doesn’t depict Being Bobby Brown, the 2005 Bravo reality series starring Bobby Brown, which Houston regularly appeared on, despite criticism that she was too unwell (and, frankly, too great a star) to be on the show. By then, Brown had been in and out of jail and was also a hard drug user. The show drew high ratings but was canceled after one season; Houston and Brown later divorced in 2007. Houston largely retreated from the spotlight after that, though she still made public appearances at events like Clive Davis’s Grammy party. She also drew headlines in 2008 for delivering a rare performance at the Plymouth Jazz Festival, where she sang only seven songs in 30 minutes, for which she was reportedly paid $3 million. She struggled vocally, raising concerns that the comeback for her upcoming album, I Look to You, was going to be an ill-conceived mess.
Then came the Oprah interview. Houston and Winfrey meet at the Town Hall theater in New York City, seated on the stage opposite each other in bright red chairs. Houston, who performed there when she was 13 alongside her mother, Cissy Houston, selected the venue for its sentimental value. “It was on this stage that it all happened for me,” Houston recalled, her voice deep and raspy. “I was this little, tiny girl with this big voice.” The voice, Winfrey reminds her. Houston laughs, saying. “You’re the first person that called me that overwhelming title.”
In the two-part interview, which runs a little more than an hour, Winfrey warmly but firmly drills down on Houston’s marriage with Brown. Houston, in return, is incredibly candid, ready to answer any question tossed her way. She’s calm and controlled, a world away from her erratic, combative appearance with Sawyer.