LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Whitney Houston, who was found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel room on Saturday, rose from a gospel church choir in New Jersey to become one of the best-selling and most-admired female singers of all time.
With hits like “I Will Always Love You” - the theme song of what was her film acting debut in “The Bodyguard” opposite Kevin Costner in 1992 - and “The Greatest Love of All,” Houston won six Grammys and more than 400 other awards in a 25-year career.
Her soaring voice influenced singers ranging from Beyonce and Alicia Keys to Mariah Carey and Celine Dion - and inspired thousands of copy-cat performers on TV talent shows.
Her early successes also made her one of the first black artists, along with Michael Jackson, to find success on MTV. She later became the kind of singer and actress who could cross international barriers as well as ethnic ones.
“She had everything, beauty, a magnificent voice. How sad her gifts could not bring her the same happiness they brought us,” singing legend Barbra Streisand said in a statement.
Critics hailed the range of her voice and the passion behind her performances.
But behind closed doors, her life was far from the romantic dreams she captured so brilliantly in her singing. She struggled for years with drug and alcohol problems, entering rehab again as recently as May 2011.
And on Saturday, her sudden death shocked the world as much as Jackson’s passing from an overdose of sedatives and a powerful anesthetic in June 2009, at age 50. She joins a short list of brilliant singers - Elvis Presley, Amy Winehouse and Jackson - whose lives were cut short by personal problems and drug abuse.
Houston died on the eve of the Grammy Awards, and just hours before she was due to attend the annual pre-Grammy party thrown by record producer Clive Davis - the man who discovered her in a nightclub in the early 1980s and who guided her career through its many ups and downs.
Her death came just over two years after a 2009 comeback following the end of a turbulent 14-year marriage to singer Bobby Brown. She is survived by their daughter, Bobbi Kris.
Houston brought a painful and public honesty to her personal struggles, admitting in a 2002 TV interview that she had used marijuana, cocaine, alcohol and prescription drugs.
By 2009, as she released her first (and last) studio album in seven years with “I Look to You,” she told talk show host Oprah Winfrey that her and Brown’s drug of choice was marijuana mixed with cocaine.
She also described how when the two were high, he would break glass objects and at one point he painted what she called “evil eyes” on the walls of their home.
Her mother forced her into rehab, telling Houston “I’m not losing you to Satan,” the singer told Winfrey.
The pair divorced in 2007 and Houston declared that she was clean. But a comeback tour of Europe was dogged by poor performances, bizarre behavior, and repeated denials that she was back on drugs.
It was all a far cry from the days when Houston began singing in a gospel choir in New Jersey at the age of 11, and later accompanied her mother, the rhythm and blues singer Cissy Houston, in concerts and on an album.
Houston, whose cousin was singer Dionne Warwick and whose godmother was Aretha Franklin, did some modeling and started singing on jazz albums in the early 1980s before Davis heard her and offered her a record contract.
Her self-titled debut album was released in 1985 and produced the hit singles “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know” and “The Greatest Love of All.” At more than 13 million copies, it was the best-selling debut album ever by a female artist.
Houston’s global appeal survived the ups and downs of her career and personal life: her last album, “I Look to You,” debuted at No. 1 in the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, and was her first No. 1 since “The Bodyguard.”
She appeared in the movies “The Preacher’s Wife” and “Waiting to Exhale,” and had recently finished filming a musical drama called “Sparkle” with “American Idol” singer Jordin Sparks. The movie, ironically, is about a girl singing group who has to deal with the fallout of fame and drugs. It is scheduled for release in August 2012.
Reporting By Jill Serjeant; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Eric Beech.