With A Song In Her Heart And A Lot On Her Mind

SHE'S BEEN CALLED A DIVA--AND WORSE. But the Whitney Houston who sits down for an interview in a New York City hotel suite seems smart, sassy and real. (OK, so she's got a massive diamond ring and a posse of five sistergirls attending to her every need.) Houston, who's married to singer Bobby Brown, is awaiting her new movie and her second child. In Penny Marshall's cozy holiday film "The Preacher's Wife," she plays a lonely spouse and choir leader named Julia Biggs who gets divine intervention from an angelic Denzel Washington. Houston spoke with NEWSWEEK'S Allison Samuels about her life in--and out of--pictures. Excerpts:

How's the pregnancy going?

Well, I am at that stage where all you do is eat, pee and sleep. [Laughs.] And I am craving pickles and Fruity Pebbles--how does that sound?

Do you want a boy or a girl?

I want a brown bomber this time. I have my girl, so now it's time for a boy.

How did you get involved with "The Preacher's Wife"? Was Denzel already attached?

Yes. Denzel and his wife, Pauletta, and myself met at a restaurant in Los Angeles last year and we sat for hours talking about the [black] community. You look around you, and you see our brothers and sisters going down. It seems like our young generation has no fear anymore, and surely no fear of dying. They don't realize they are useless in death. So we felt that this film was about the community taking charge again and raising our children.

Were you and Tupac Shakur friends?

[Long pause.] Yes, we were friends, and I remember the last thing I ever said to him. It was at the "Waiting to Exhale" party last year, and I was so surprised to see him because I didn't know he'd gotten out of jail. So I waved him over, and we hugged and I told him, "Baby, you got to promise me something--don't let them get you." And he said, "I won't." That was the last thing I ever said to him, and he didn't do it. It hurt my heart for him to die.

You and Denzel have been friends for years. How was working together?

We became even better friends. Shortly after the movie wrapped, Bobby and I took our family to St. Bart for a vacation. And Denzel and Pauletta had mentioned they were going on a boat ride for a vacation. So after we got to St. Bart and were in our bungalow, I got this call and the person on the other end was saying, "Hey, what you black people doing in St. Bart?" It was Denzel. We hung out on the beach and had dinner. It was like the movie had never ended.

Right now you are the premier black actress. Did you ever expect that to happen when you started out?

No, no, this is definitely a surprise to me--as I'm sure it is to a lot of other people. [Laughs.] But it happened, and I accept it as a blessing, and I just hope it opens the doors for others. I mean, God bless Jada Pinkett, who came up to me and said, "Girl, you don't know what you've done. You've opened the door that was shut."

Who was your favorite actress when you were growing up?

I loved musicals, but for a young African-American there wasn't much to look at except for Diahann Carroll and Sammy, who I loved. But I loved them as people--not really for what they did but what they stood for. I loved Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire musicals because to me they were really what Hollywood was all about.

Favorite movies?

Well, again, there wasn't much. I loved "Sparkle" and "Cooley High," and then there were "Superfly" and "Shaft." But you'd go see that and say, "Aahhright, Superfly lives down the street--why I had to pay to see that?"

Is there any role you wish you'd done?

"Set It Off." It's fun and playful. I am not into killing people, but I am good with a gun. My husband taught me how. I mean, I learned as a self-defense method, but that kind of role is so cool because they're women really taking control. That's the kind of role I could sink my teeth into.

What's next for you?

I wonder that myself sometimes. I have the rights to the Dorothy Dandridge story--she was our Marilyn Monroe, and no one seems to care. But I don't think I'm ready for that role. I don't think I'm skilled enough to handle her life story.

You've said that playing Julia in "The Preacher's Wife" renewed some of the traits that you'd felt you lost.

Yeah, it did. Julia had to be very patient with Henry, and she had to take a step back and not say things--things that she thought might help but that he wasn't ready to hear. That's hard to do. As independent as I am, I can be very forceful, and sometimes my husband goes, "OK, Whitney, calm down--your energy is too high."

What's Christmas like for your daughter, Bobbi Kristina?

Well, her daddy goes all out, with the Santa suit and everything. And the night before is so fun, because my brother and his kids come over and we send the kids to bed and then we try to figure out those instructions for the toys. It's real hard, because you know there's a bottle of wine or two between Bobby and my brother. But the next morning it seems to all be done, and the children's faces are what it's all about.

Does she want one toy in particular?

Honey, yes. Just the other night Santa and I were at Toys "R" Us looking for a Barbie camper. I couldn't find it, and I was like "Oh, my baby has got to have it." So I looked behind every box with Barbie girl until I found it way in the back. Couldn't come home without it.

So you and Bobby go to Toys "R" Us--that's not drama?

It can be, but my baby has to have a Christmas just like yours, and I am going to shop for it just like you. People stop us and ask for autographs, and that's cool as long as they realize I got to get that Barbie camper.

Bobby once told me America would have been happier if you'd married a white man.

That's the classic way it works: the successful black woman is too rich and famous for the bbman. She's too much for him to handle because he can't compete--and all that other crap. But we weren't about that. It came down to "Do you love me?" and "Do I love you?" The answer was yes, and it was all good.