Sad news came to us last week in the death of singer, actress, and producer Whitney Houston. Gone at the age of only 48, her death leaves a big hole in the entertainment business. Not only was she an amazing singer, but she was also an actress – she made her big-screen debut in the film The Bodyguard. I talked with costume designer Susan Nininger about her experiences with Whitney on that film. Read on for more…
You were probably brought on board the project after Whitney was cast, right?… What preconceived notions did you have about who she was or how she might be?
As a person in life, I like to try to be in the moment with people, so any preconceived notion of what Whitney would be like did not interfere with our first meeting. She was bright and appreciative, and generous in her willingness to accept that we were creating the character of Rachel Marron, and not Whitney Houston. Being her first film experience where she would play a character, I found her to be very open and going with the flow of making a movie. So much so that she did not know to ask for her own make-up person, or even a big enough trailer! I think once she saw how big Kevin’s was, she got the idea that she might be able to have a bigger one!
How did you find her in reality – what was she like at this time in her life?
Whitney was almost always cheerful and so appreciative. She was fun and down to earth. I was pregnant while designing The Bodyguard, and she was always making sure I was taken care of. She loved to laugh and have a good time, so I remember many warm and fun and playful moments with her.
How did she approach her first acting role? What did she bring to the table?
I remember that Whitney had a bit of a challenge in accepting the early morning calls! She loved to sleep, and the mornings were hard for her, but she was a hard worker and always prepared for her scenes.
She was so charismatic, as is Kevin (Costner)! They were definitely a dynamic couple, although, as was appropriate for the story, a slightly mismatched pair – from two walks of life, on two separate paths, coming together for a period of time, but knowing that they were not really meant to be together. I felt the dynamic between the two of them in real life was similar to the relationship they had in the film: a great deal of respect for each other but very different.
Whitney’s speaking voice was as smooth and sweet as her singing voice. She had a natural silky tone to her voice and I was always mesmerized listening to it. She seemed very natural on film.
How was she on set – what kind of atmosphere did she create (or was she surrounded by)?
No drama that I can remember (of course it was a long time ago!) but I think I would remember any unpleasant episodes, and I do not! She had her entourage – all lovely and professional. The atmosphere she created was always just fun and relaxed. She was genuine and appreciative.
How involved was she in choosing her costumes?
The first meeting with Whitney was a camera test. I was prepared with tear sheets, illustrations, and garments/costumes for each scene that I had already prepared through collaboration with Mick Jackson, the director, and Jeffrey Beecroft, the production designer. We were on a sound stage at Warner, and I had set up a large ‘corral’ of racks full of clothes and two long tables with all the presentation boards of images laid out on them, and of course, lots of jewelry and accessories! She listened carefully as I made the presentation to her. She offered to bring whatever gowns we might need from her personal wardrobe. I thanked her for the offer, and gently reminded her that we were creating Rachel Marron, and not Whitney Houston, She totally got it. The most popular dress of all from that fitting was a Leger dress – she looked like a million dollars! Even the grips and electricians were telling me what a great look it was. It was all due to the woman who wore it!
The first month of prep included several shoot days devoted to shooting the music videos and still photographs that would be used in the set dressing – on television monitors, as magazine covers, and one photograph was even used as a wall panel. This was the first step in building the celebrity that would be ‘Rachel Marron’ in the film.
As we were preparing with Whitney for her role as ‘Rachel Marron’, original music was being written for her, which is now immensely famous. The song Queen of the Night was to be the key performance song – Rachel’s big hit. The design direction given to me by the director and the production designer was Thierry Mugler and Metropolis. I looked at all of Whitney’s music videos to study her physicality, the way she presented herself, dancing, etc. I decided that the Queen of the Night costume would allow Whitney to walk majestically, without any actual dancing.
I designed the costume to sway and gently swing behind her as she walked. I thought of her as a graceful peacock. The silver molded breast plate was worn over an elaborate corset of a rough burlap, colored raw silk & metal gunmetal taffeta, trimmed with black binding with silver grommets and pearls. Built into the back of the corset was a plastic plate to which were attached oversize ‘fans’ of pleated metallic lame. She wore a half helmet of molded silver plastic, a dense collar of silver beads, gunmetal stretch gloves with gunmetal pearls, and thigh high gunmetal vinyl boots with silver studs up the sides. The costume was a commitment to wear – elaborate and complex- Whitney bore it like a true Queen of the Night. She honored the vision I had created, with the immense support of Mick Jackson and Jeffrey Beecroft – this costume was why I had been hired.
I do not remember how many changes Whitney had, but there were a lot! We worked with a lot of pieces brought in from Europe by a private buyer. Rachel’s aesthetic was about texture and old Hollywood glamour. Her private moments were in comfortable soft silhouettes. There was only one dress in the movie that was her own. It is the gown she is wearing at the end of the movie when she is singing I Will Always Love You. It was one of the last scenes we shot. We were in Miami, at the Fontainebleau. The song was being recorded live, as I remember, and it was absolutely thrilling to be there watching her sing. She blew us all away with her execution of the song. Her mother was there, and I remember her commenting on how Whitney had outdone herself!
We had prepared a deep burgundy silk velvet dress for her to wear. It was very ‘old Hollywood’ – a ‘thirties bias cut. By the end of the shoot, Whitney was very tired! Of course, we all were. The shot of her singing was going to be very close, and she just asked if she couldn’t just wear her own dress. Of course. She had been such an incredible trooper through so many weeks of shooting.
The Bodyguard was a dream experience for me. Mick Jackson had hired me based on my work, which I call ‘Costume Sculpture’ – he wanted a totally unique stage look for Rachel Marron. Making the film was nothing short of amazing, and being around Whitney with her amazing talent and beautiful spirit was 99% of it.
She was sincere, and shared intimate thoughts with those of us working closely with her. Those moments will stay with me forever. The celebrity life – living in a fish bowl – was something we spoke about. It was very hard for her. I feel so sad that it took her life from her.
God Bless her, and her beautiful daughter and her family.
Thank you, Susan for your stories and your insight. My condolences go out to Ms. Houston’s friends and family. RIP, Whitney.