From topping the pop charts, the next frontier was film, and in 1992 Houston starred with Kevin Costner in "The Bodyguard." The soundtrack won the 1994 Grammy for Album of the Year and also yielded the hit "I Will Always Love You," which became the best-selling single by a female artist in music history.
The Hollywood career was made wobbly by the personal issues and the bad press. In 1996, to promote the wholesome film "The Preacher's Wife," Houston spoke to the Washington Post about the struggles of separating her Sunday morning reputation from her Saturday night misadventures.
"I've just kind of prepared myself for what's to be expected" from the media, she says. "It still bothers me to hear rumors, but now I'm taking it in stride. It angers me at times, but I've decided to have a Christian-like attitude. Being angry destroys the soul. ... It still [hurts]. Everybody wants good press. No one wants lies. Fame is a very curious game. Perfect strangers call you by name. I don't know what transpires from making a record to 'I know you.' "
Houston amassed rooms full of trophies through the years, including 22 American Music Awards — more than any other woman — and six Grammys. Any awards show she was on was must-see television, although the reasons for that changed through the years.
On Saturday, at Staples Center, rehearsals were underway for the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, which air Sunday on CBS, and news of Houston's death arrived as a whispered bombshell while Rihanna was on stage singing "We Found Love." Producers swapped stunned looks and immediately reached for the phones, scrambling to find the right tone and content for a memorial segment on the show. They decided on a short, austere performance by Jennifer Hudson, one of Houston's clear contemporary disciples.
"It's too fresh in everyone's memory to do more at this time, but we would be remiss if we didn't recognize Whitney's remarkable contribution to music fans in general, and in particular her close ties with the Grammy telecast and her Grammy wins and nominations over the years," said Grammy executive producer Ken Ehrlich, a key figure in the Grammys since the early 1980s.
Ehrlich said it was difficult for him to watch Houston's decline through the years as addiction and chaos took away too much of her golden success story and her singular voice.
"It's hard to think of an artist who had such an incredible instrument, not to mention beauty, which made her difficulties in recent years even harder to accept," Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich recalled one shaky night in New York when word of Houston's behavior leading up to the awards show spurred him to visit her dressing room at Madison Square Garden to gauge her ability to perform — and he marveled to find that she had already pulled herself together.
A fonder memory was, in the 1980s, watching Grammy director Walter Miller show the young singer how to walk down a set of "TV stairs" — the first ones she had ever navigated.
"She was like a young filly about to head out on the track for her first race, a race you knew she was not only going to win, but would set any number of records," Ehrlich said.
FULL COVERAGE: Whitney Houston | 1963-2012
Los Angeles Times staff writers John Hoeffel, Randy Lewis, Gerrick Kennedy and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.