As a young girl, Yaya DaCosta would imagine what it was like to be Whitney Houston.
“I sang around the house all the time,” she says.
“I knew every word to every song. And seeing her as an example of this beautiful, sexy woman was huge because growing up in a community where that body type was not celebrated, it gave me a certain amount of confidence.”
All these years later, Yaya’s youthful dream has come full circle.
She opened up about the project and coming to terms with her own celebrity during a recent interview in Los Angeles.
What did you learn about Whitney that you didn’t know before this project?
Because this movie deals with her life, that was something that I had to research and really figure out how to communicate. Because all I knew of her as a fan was the voice that she wanted us to know. And by voice, I mean the voice she used in interviews, the voice she put on in public… Who she was. And there was who she was at home. How she grew up, how she spoke to people at her church… So I learned a lot about things like that.
You don’t sing in the movie. Can you sing?
Deborah Cox did the singing. There is an old proverb, “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk you can sing.” That may sound like a joke, but yes, I have sung in theater. For this, we had a 21 day shoot and not very long to prepare. So there was no [time for] vocal training.
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It was more important to me to communicate her essence. The only person who can get all of her nuances and act like her and sing like her would be Whitney herself. She was “the voice” for a reason. It would be amazing if Deborah Cox could also act, but obviously, everyone has their gifts. And I was just so grateful to be given the opportunity to work with somebody like Deborah Cox.
What kind of pressure is there on you to play a real person when the family is objecting to the movie being made? You obviously want to do right by her.
As an actor, that is something I am experiencing now. Even at the relative beginning. That happens when you are becoming a public figure. There is definitely something about public ownership that is a bit uncomfortable. My father said, ‘It takes away from the so-called ownership that we as family members feel like we have over one another.’ That is something that is difficult to accept. But it is part of the reality of celebrity.
I recently lost my big brother. So when someone who didn’t know him says his name, I know the visceral reaction that I have. I don’t even want you to say his name. I feel sad. I feel defensive. So as a human being I get it. Family is family. However.. This story. She is the biggest superstar of our time. This story is inevitably going to be told and it is probably going to be told over and over again. I just feel so lucky to have been the first.
Does it make you nervous about becoming a celebrity yourself. That if anything happens in your life it is fair game for the tabloids?
It is definitely not fair, but I understand people’s desire to live vicariously through others and to maybe feel better about their own lives and their own choices by putting a lens on others or judging them. But at the end of the day we are all human beings. That is one of the things I experienced in the filming of this movie, was that I tried to just keep her human and vulnerable and human.
Are you glad this movie doesn’t cover the end of her life?
I think it was a brilliant choice. People want to see and be reminded of why we fell in love with her in the first place.
Would you have done the movie if you had to say ‘Crack is Whack?’
I don’t know.
Is Yaya the name on your birth certificate?
I moved it from being a middle name to a first name.
How does Yaya embody who you are?
It just fits. When I was a kid, people used to say, ‘Wow, she’s so old!’ Even now, my friends joke about how old I am. Just because there are certain things… I am not fully of my generation. I have a smart phone, but I also have a flip phone. There are just certain things. I appreciate the new and I appreciate the old. In one region of the world, Yaya means “wise old spirit.” In another, it means “grandmother.” To me it means I get to have a first name that doesn’t necessitate having a last name.
WHITNEY airs January 17 at 8:00 PM on Lifetime.
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