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 in our minds. However, Houston, like Michael Jackson, may have a legacy that can outlive the collective memory of her somewhat tainted past. And 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 after he died. Many may forget that Presley also died young and, on the toilet. But Jackson and Presley at the top two dead celebrity earners. Why? Because they present branding that allows new generations to become fans and then, consumers.
“Michael Jackson’s estate benefited from the fact that Conrad Murray was convicted,” she 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, similar to Amy Winehouse, 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.
So 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 catalogue 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 catalogue going forward.
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. Five years from now, will Whitney be remembered for her grace and for her songs? Or will she be remembered for dying from whatever comes out in the autopsy? It takes PR and smart planning and smart work. There’s potential there.”