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Remembering White Whitney

by Sean O'Toole / 17.02.2012

It is 1986, the summer of the greatest love of all. A group of Pretoria matrics is saying goodbye to algebra, Afrikaans second language, the lifecycle of the amoeba and cadets supervised by angry men in brown uniforms from the nearby military base. Good-fucking-bye to everything boxed and buried in a whites-only education. Their rage is palpable.

Broken eggs and ruptured tomatoes drip from the assembly hall’s walls. Someone is puking in the showers. The headmaster, slow witted and snake-eyed, is trying to intuit the satanic references hidden in the lyrics to ‘Lets do the Time Warp’. Suddenly, rising above the Rocky Horror pastiche, a future Miss South Africa hopeful seizes the microphone and breaks into song: “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.”

I always hated Whitney Houston for saving the day, that day. Her aching crescendo and banal poetics gutted the potential of that day. And believe me, it had potential. We didn’t have the language then, but what we were doing rather than saying was Occupy This Attitude, Motherfuckers! It was good idea that lasted, oh, about half an hour. A wannabe beauty queen snuffed our revolution. Shuffling dejectedly off the stage, which now belonged to someone belting out our shame – “Everybody’s searching for a hero, people need someone to look up to” – I hated white Whitney on stage too. She made us look like confused kids, which we were.

During biology lessons, this was before the disastrous final assembly, white Whitney used to tell us about her Bobby Brown. He was older than her, 31, or 29, or 35. (The other Bobby was younger than Whitney, by nearly six years.) While we were still squeezing zits and counting coins, Pretoria Bobby could afford to take high school girls to dinner. He could drive her to Jacqueline’s, the kitschy nightclub in the centre of town where Barney Simon, that faux peddler of alternative culture, briefly disrupted the Hi-NRG sound and tapped into our rage one Sunday night by briefly playing the Dead Kennedy’s, before feeding the kids in black the exaggerated romanticism they really wanted, The Cure.

Jacqueline’s was an endangered idea. Things were moving to the suburbs. At Limelight, a new club in the frontier suburbs out east, Kylie Minogue was all the rage. I never trusted her big hair and fluoride smile. She was just playing white Whitney. They all were. As things go in the suburbs, word got around that our white Whitney was a debutante with a future. She was progressing through the rounds, trials or whatever they call the heats leading up to that OMG moment at Sun City. She, the girl who also yawned at the uncomplicated lifecycle of the amoeba, was going to be Miss White South Africa. An unambiguous news headline one day told us that her Bobby Brown, age 31, possibly 29, or maybe 35, wasn’t in agreement with all this.

Bang! That one’s for you. Bang! And this one’s for me.

You won’t find white Whitney’s story on Google. She lived and died during the pre-history of white rule and faxes. There’s no picture of her online, so you’ll just have to trust me on this: white Whitney was never really a looker, not in your factory-moulded blond with a vacant smile kind of way. For starters, she was a brunette. She was also naturally dark skinned, which made her look credibly beautiful in a white swimsuit, but also suspiciously other in the era of Anneline Kriel and Sonja Herholdt. But teeth, legs and lithe bodies are modular things, easily replaceable. What set white Whitney apart was her charisma, her indefatigable belief that beauty was more than skin deep. Show people all the beauty they possess inside and they would gain a sense of pride, that sort of shtick.

I’m not making any of this up. Two years before our failed Occupy moment, before white Whitney, playing the part of Delacroix’s Lady Liberty leading a group of confused white kids into their future, I was in the lounge where she was later gunned down. We were watching Duran Duran doing the reflex. We: white Whitney, some wannabe Bobby Brown with a 50cc and me. I was the odd one out and seated alone on a couch on the opposite end of her parent’s lounge. Pretend Bobby later told me that he had tried to put his hand between white Whitney’s legs. She said no, and that was that.

It got more complicated later, when the next Bobby Brown arrived with an ambiguous age, wheels of freedom and some vaguely formulated plan to lead Whitney, both of them, to that lonely place beyond song.

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