A Cautionary Tale and an Up-and-Coming Starlet - The Curious Relationship Between Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks

Photo Credit: TriStar Pictures
August 22nd, 2012

A Cautionary Tale and an Up-and-Coming Starlet - The Curious Relationship Between Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks

-- At first glance, clean-cut, fresh-faced Jordin Sparks appears to have little in common-apart from a powerhouse of a voice-with the often-troubled Whitney Houston. Sparks, who made her way into the spotlight when she won the sixth season of "American Idol" in 2007, is an up-and-coming performer with a bright future ahead of her. Houston, despite decades of smash success in the recording industry, struggled with addiction and abuse throughout her turbulent life before her untimely death in February of 2012.

Beneath the surface, however, the two women may well have been more alike than different. Both raised in Christian homes, both thrust into the public eye during their formative teen years, both gifted vocalists and actresses, and both beautiful, young women of color, Sparks and Houston forged an unlikely bond toward the end of Houston's life.

For Jordin Sparks, a young girl of color with big dreams of stardom and a big voice to match, Whitney Houston was an obvious idol. Houston's voice turned the recording industry on its ear; her beauty landed her extensive modeling work; her abilities as an actress helped catapult 1992's "The Bodyguard" to box office success. Sparks, born in 1989, never lived in a world without Whitney. Houston's 1985 self-titled debut album had spawned three number-one hit songs and sold millions of copies long before Sparks entered the world. Her personal struggles notwithstanding, Houston's talent, career, and success provided a perfect role model for an aspiring young performer like Sparks.

Sparks was cast in the title role of "Sparkle," Houston's pet project and a remake of the 1976 film based on the story of The Supremes. In the film, Sparkle and her two sisters, played by Tika Sumpter ("One Life to Live") and Carmen Ejogo ("Away We Go"), overcome mother Emma's (Houston) resistance and form a singing group in 1960s-era Detroit. Sparks admittedly grew up idolizing Houston, and she explained to NBC's "Today" that on set, she was "this sponge soaking up everything [Houston] was doing.... She was the consummate professional."

For her part, Houston was equally enamored of the young Sparks. Producer Debra Martin Chase, a long-time friend of Houston's, recalled to ABC's "Nightline" that Houston "saw herself in Jordin," and made efforts to attend Sparks' performances and recording sessions to lend her support. Houston even affectionately dubbed Sparks "my baby."

Their mother-daughter relationship onscreen translated to a kind of mentorship off-screen. By all accounts, Houston was professional, clean, and sober throughout filming, allowing her natural talents and beauty to truly shine. Sparks soaked it all in, learning nuance, subtlety, and grace from her idol-turned-friend.

Houston's final studio recording, an R. Kelly-penned duet with Sparks called "Celebrate," was completed on February 8, just three days before Houston's accidental drowning death in Beverly Hills. Sparks and Houston were scheduled to attend the Grammys together on February 12 as early promotion for "Sparkle." Sadly, Houston never made it to the red carpet. Sparks was devastated by the news: "I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't say anything. I was in complete shock, and somebody had to sit me down before I fell over. And I just lost it. I lost it completely," she told "Nightline."

Still, life goes on for those Houston left behind, and her posthumous legacy continues to grow. The "Celebrate" single was released in May and an accompanying video, a tribute to Houston, was released to critical acclaim in June.

As for Jordin Sparks, her future lies brightly in front of her. She's at work on her second signature perfume, a clothing line for Wet Seal, her third album, and her second movie, an independent drama also starring Jennifer Hudson ("Chicago," "American Idol").

Houston may have seen something of herself in young Sparks, but Sparks seems to see all too clearly the path Houston took, and how vital it is to avoid. She remarks upon one scene in "Sparkle," in which Houston's character comes down hard on the sisters for trying to form a musical group against her will. "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?" Emma demands of her daughters. "Watching the movie now with her not here, it holds even more weight. I just got chills thinking about it," Sparks told one reporter. "Sparkle" promises to be a fitting tribute to the talent-and the trouble-that marked Whitney Houston's short journey through life.

"Sparkle," directed by Salim Akil ("Jumping the Broom"), is set for release by TriStar Pictures on August 17.