With Whitney Houston’s funeral taking place this Saturday — to be telecast by CNN and streamed online — the tragedy of her death is still fresh. However, Houston, like Michael Jackson, may have a legacy that can outlive our collective memory of her somewhat tainted past. But that doesn’t happen on its own. There are professionals who specialize in the act of “sanitizing” the image of a deceased celebrity.
“The estates of dead celebrities these days are so savvy, and there’s a handful of people that manage it in Hollywood,” explains Jo Piazza, author of “Celebrity Inc.: How Famous People Make Money.” “Whitney’s estate will likely sign on with one of them, because they know what to do to kind of sanitize a celebrity who has died in an unsavory way. They’re also bulldogs to make sure that the image is not used in a way that is one, not profitable for them, and two, will continue to damage the brand in perpetuity.”
Piazza notes that Michael Jackson’s estate used the same experts that had worked on Elvis Presley’s estate. Many may forget that Presley also died young and on the toilet. But Jackson and Presley are the top two dead celebrity earners. Why? Because their branding allows new generations to become fans and consumers.
“Michael Jackson’s estate benefited from the fact that Conrad Murray was convicted,” Piazza says. “That kind of clears his name and de-stigmatizes him going forward. The way Whitney Houston died, that’s not a family-friendly way to die. And if you die in an un-family- friendly way, it’s hard for parents to encourage that next generation of consumers to sign on to this brand.”
Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley’s respective Cirque du Soleil shows, in addition to Presley’s Graceland, not only generate big money for their estates but indoctrinate new generations as fans of their music.
But can Houston manage to overcome the same sort of branding crisis? Piazza doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think that her brand was as strong as Jackson and Presley’s,” she says. “I don’t think that she had a strong enough catalog in one genre to be able to do anything in perpetuity.”
Piazza also notes that because Houston did not write her songs, she also stands to make less money from her catalog going forward.
Hope for Houston
Dorothy Pomerantz is an entertainment journalist for Forbes Magazine and compiles the annual list of top-earning dead celebrities. She takes a more hopeful perspective on the future of Houston’s legacy.
“Yes, the way Whitney Houston died was incredibly sad; but what’s going to matter is how her heirs and her estate managers handle her name going forward,” Pomerantz says. “There’s no reason that something similar [to the success of Presley and Jackson] couldn’t happen with Whitney Houston after her estate and her name have had room to separate from the way she died.
“It takes PR and smart planning and smart work. There’s potential there.”
Whitney Houston: The biopic
Who would play who
We asked movie critic for Fandango.com Grae Drake to speculate as to who could play the key roles in a Whitney Houston biopic if one were to be made today. But Drake warned that the public will need distance from her death in order to appreciate a retelling of her life.
“Biopics usually do better when people have had time to forget what it was like to live through it in the news,” she says. “When you lose someone so quickly, you need to grieve a little bit as an audience, and a movie would be much more harshly judged the faster that it happens.”
Whitney Houston: Jennifer Hudson
Hudson’s Grammy tribute didn’t leave many a dry eye in the house on Sunday, and Drake says she’s the obvious choice: “Jennifer Hudson is who everyone is bringing up for this.”
Bobby Brown: Don Cheadle
Drake says: “The thing about Don Cheadle is that he can really bring something deep to a figure whom I think is largely unsympathetic.”
Dionne Warwick: Angela Basset
Drake says: “If anyone could do Dionne Warwick, it would totally be Angela Bassett."
Clive Davis: Brian Cox
Drake says: “Brian Cox has a soft side to him but at the same time, he’s kind of dangerous. And that’s how I see Clive Davis.”
Cissy Houston: Viola Davis
Drake says: We’d have to age her up a bit, but I’m just so excited for the recognition that [Davis] has gotten lately. The highs and the lows of Whitney Houston’s life must’ve been especially excruciating to watch as a mother, and Viola Davis could handle it.”