Whitney Houston's pure majestic voice was honed in the choir of her Newark, N.J., Baptist church, but, as America's pop princess, she would seemingly stray far from her gospel roots into a tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown and down a dark path into drug addiction.
Many saw her marriage to Brown, a former New Edition member, in 1992 as the tipping point toward her decline.
"Bobby Brown you took our diva and turned her into an addict," one fan fumed on Facebook.
Despite the stark contrast between Houston's golden girl image and Brown's bad-boy reputation, Us Weekly's senior editor, Ian Drew, said the two were more similar than many believed.
"People like to blame Bobby Brown, but she was this way before Bobby," Drew said. "She drank and had all these problems before Bobby. He didn't take this pristine doll and turn her into the bride of Chuckie. She talked like she did on his reality show, 'Being Bobby Brown.'"
Brown released a statement Sunday to People magazine, saying, "I am deeply saddened at the passing of my ex-wife, Whitney Houston. At this time, we ask for privacy, especially for my daughter, Bobbi Kristina. I appreciate all of the condolences that have been directed towards my family and I at this most difficult time."
Brown was getting ready to perform at a New Edition reunion tour in Southaven, Miss., as news spread about Houston's death Saturday evening. The 48-year-old singer was found lifeless inside her Los Angeles hotel room bathtub, and paramedics tried but were unable to revive her.
Brown went ahead with the performance, while acknowledging that it was difficult.
"First of all, I want to tell you that I love you all," he told the sold-out crowd. "Second, I would like to say, I love you Whitney. The hardest thing for me to do is to come on this stage."
Drew said Houston's squeaky clean image was manufactured by an "elaborate PR machine," something she, herself, did not dispute.
"When you love, you love. I mean, do you stop loving somebody because you have different images? You know, Bobby and I basically come from the same place," the singer told Rolling Stone in 1993. "You see somebody, and you deal with their image, that's their image. It's part of them, it's not the whole picture. I am not always in a sequined gown. I am nobody's angel. I can get down and dirty. I can get raunchy."
"I don't think any of us can claim to know who the real Whitney Houston was -- if she was the tough round-the-way girl from New Jersey or the pure pop princess," said Billboard magazine editor Danyel Smith, adding that there was a lot of pressure on pop stars in the '80s to project a positive image. "Probably like most of us, she is a mixture of the two."
A former associate of Houston's said Brown is not to blame for Houston's downfall.
"There is a misconception about what happened between them," the source told ABCNews.com. "People want to blame Bobby. But people don't know that while Bobby was a stone cold alcoholic, he didn't ruin Whitney. She had her problems before he entered the picture."
It would be years before the public saw that other side of Houston. As the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, the cousin of 1960s pop diva Dionne Warwick and the goddaughter of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston seemed born to greatness.
"She was very beautiful, but very quiet," said Dr. Maria Pane, her high school classmate at Mount Saint Dominic Academy in Caldwell, N.J., and now a Baltimore neonatologist.
Pane said she had no idea she was "amongst greatness" until Houston started modeling and became the first African American to grace the cover of Seventeen magazine.
"She was so unpretentious yet she had that aura that she would be great," Pane said. "Whitney had the biggest smile. I never saw her sad, mad or angry. She had a dear, sweet face. She was just a very fun-loving teenage girl."
In the class 1981, Houston was one of 79 girls at the all-girls Catholic school.
"Her mother wanted her to have a good Christian school upbringing in a safe environment with a good education, and to be like any normal teenage girl growing up," Pane said. "This was a good girl. It was shocking to hear any stories of her after high school. The only way those stories could have come was that she was not surrounded by the right people at the right times."
Pane and her classmates heard only snatches of Houston's amazing voice.
"She would sing ditties during lunch hour and hum a bit," she said. "She had a very sweet, angelic voice."
But Houston was not a member of her school chorus. Instead, she reserved her voice for the gospel choir at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark.
After news of her death spread, the church held a special service starting at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. The following message greeted callers: "Pastor Joe A. Carter and New Hope Baptist Church mourn the loss of our beloved Whitney Houston. Keep her daughter Bobbi Christina and mother Cissy Houston and the entire Houston family and their friends in your thoughts and prayers."
While the church was a big part of her upbringing, Us Weekly's Ian Drew pointed out that Houston "didn't come that far from her church roots."
"Her church was in Newark, in a rough neighborhood," he said. "It's not like Whitney grew up in a golden palace. There was a grittiness to her upbringing even though she was in a show business family."
That family included the Queen of Soul as her godmother. Franklin's reaction to Houston's death: "It's so stunning and unbelievable. I couldn't believe what I was reading coming across the TV screen."
In her teens, Houston sang backup for Chaka Khan, Jermaine Jackson and others, as well as modeled. Around that time, music mogul Clive Davis first heard Houston perform.
"The time that I first saw her singing in her mother's act in a club ... it was such a stunning impact," Davis told "Good Morning America."
"To hear this young girl breathe such fire into this song, I mean, it really sent the proverbial tingles up my spine," he added.
The New York Times wrote that Houston "possesses one of her generation's most powerful gospel-trained voices, but she eschews many of the churchier mannerisms of her forerunners. She uses ornamental gospel phrasing only sparingly, and instead of projecting an earthy, tearful vulnerability, communicates cool self-assurance and strength, building pop ballads to majestic, sustained peaks of intensity."
She would be criticized throughout her career for playing down her black roots to reach white audiences, even getting booed during the "Soul Train Awards" in 1989.
"Sometimes it gets down to that, you know?" she told Katie Couric in 1996. "You're not black enough for them. I don't know. You're not R&B enough. You're very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them."
Her marriage to Brown in 1992 was seen by some as an attempt to refute those critics -- coming as it did during the release of her first film, "The Bodyguard," in which Houston played a singer who falls in love with her bodyguard, played by Kevin Costner. The singer's mainstream appeal allowed audiences to look past the film's interracial aspect, and despite mixed reviews, the film and its soundtrack went on to huge success.
But her marriage to Brown would have long-term consequences both personally and professionally. He would be arrested several times over the years on charges ranging from DUI to failure to pay child support. In a two-part interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, Houston revealed the drama that defined their relationship.
"He spit on me," Houston told Winfrey about one of more disturbing anecdotes. "He spit on me. He actually spit on me. And my daughter was coming down the stairs and she saw that."
While contending that he was not physically abusive -- though he slapped her while on probation and had to go to domestic violence court -- she did admit emotional abuse ran rampant in what she called a "passionate, loving ... crazy relationship."
Houston called Brown "her drug," adding that she "didn't do anything without him."
She also shed light on their actual substance abuse issues: Marijuana laced with cocaine was their substance of choice, and they "would have ounces" of cocaine available at all times.
"You put [cocaine] in your marijuana, you lace it, you smoke it," she told Winfrey.
"They were enabling each other," Drew said.
"If you watched her interview with Oprah Winfrey, she said the point where she started to decline was when her father died and she never recovered," he added.
Their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, born in 1993, was seen as their one crowning achievement.
"Bobbi Kristina basically grew up her mother's caretaker, similar to Francis Bean, Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain's daughter," Drew said. "In a way she was the adult in the relationship."
Though the six-time Grammy winner seemed headed for a comeback with her 2009 album "I Look to You" and her recent remake of the movie "Sparkle" with Justin Sparks, she was "very much struggling to hold it together," Billboard's Danyel Smith said.
She turned back to the church that had once nurtured her. "She was getting very much back into singing gospel songs and going go back to the faith that had sustained her in her earlier years," Smith said.
According to Drew, the last performance she gave, last Thursday at Kelly Price's For The Love Of R&B Grammy Party at Tru Hollywood, was of the children's song, "Jesus Loves Me."
Smith said, Houston was also "trying to nurture and take care of her voice."
But it appears it was too late.
"The tragedy of her life isn't even so much her death, but that her voice for all purposes was gone before then," Smith said. "We can not even begin to imagine the effect that had on her."
The Associated Press contributed to this report
- Bobby Brown
- Cissy Houston