'Sparkle' Star Jordin Sparks 'Lost It' When Whitney Houston Died, Remembers Working With Her Idol

PHOTO: Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston
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On the night of the Grammys, Jordin Sparks of "American Idol" fame was getting ready to walk the red carpet with Whitney Houston to promote their new movie, "Sparkle," when her phone rang. It was then she learned the singing legend was dead.

"I couldn't handle it," Sparks told "Nightline" in a recent interview. "I was like, you're lying, you're lying to me. So, we were like, OK, well, let's turn on the news. If it's there, then maybe that's confirmed it."

Jordin Sparks, left, with ABC's Deborah Roberts Credit: Rick Rowell/ABC

Sparks, who will make her movie debut when "Sparkle" opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, said she hadn't seen Houston since they filmed together. When the news flashed across the TV screen that the singing legend had died, she felt numb.

"There's just no reaction," Sparks said. "I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't say anything. I was in complete shock, and somebody had to sit me down before I fell over. And I just lost it. I lost it completely."

Houston was found dead of accidental drowning in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in February, although an autopsy report found evidence of cocaine and other drugs in her system.

Now, six months after her death, Houston is starring in "Sparkle," a remake of her favorite film about three young women from Harlem struggling to make the big time. It's one she used to watch over and over as a teenager in the '70s.

In a role that was to be her much-anticipated comeback, Houston plays a strict Christian matriarch with three daughters, all gifted with their mother's beautiful voice. She wants them to focus on school and God. They want stardom.

The film was a dream project for Houston, who helped bring it to life with Debra Martin Chase, her longtime friend and producer. Together, they've had a string of movie hits, including "The Princess Diaries."

"Sparkle" was special to them both.

"It was the first time that we had seen young women of color fabulous," Chase said. "We both just loved it. We were both inspired by it. And so when she mentioned, 12 years ago, 'what about we remake 'Sparkle'," I was like, 'oh my God, of course,' and the journey began."

But a lot would happen during those 12 years. The project stalled when the R&B singer Aaliyah, who was originally cast in the title role, died in a plane crash. Then, Houston spiraled into a much-publicized drug problem. But despite all that, Chase said she never doubted that her friend was up for the challenge of seeing "Sparkle" through.

"I knew how much it meant to her," she said. "When, I don't know, she looked me in the eye, she was in a good place … and I just knew. I knew she wouldn't let me down. I knew she wouldn't let herself down. She both wanted this and needed it."

So last year, when "Sparkle" finally was ready to shoot, Chase said Houston jumped into the role of no-nonsense Emma. Drug abuse and domestic violence are major themes in the film, as they were in Houston's personal life. But on set, Chase insists Houston was sober and present.

"I've known Whitney for 20 years," she said. "I have seen the bad times, been there big time, and I know, without any doubt, that she was clean… when she worked with me. I know who I'm looking at and people will too when they see the movie. She's present, fully, and she looks beautiful."

Chase said Houston bonded with her 22-year-old co-star, Jordin Sparks, the "American Idol" winner who wowed audiences with her gorgeous looks and powerful voice on the show in 2007. She said the two shared similarities: Both Sparks and Houston had been thrust into the spotlight in a big way at a young age -- Sparks with "Idol" and Houston with the 1992 blockbuster film, "The Bodyguard."

"She saw herself in Jordin," Chase said. "When she wasn't working and Jordin was performing [she would say], 'I've got to come-- I've got to come up and see my baby.'"

When it was time to tape Sparks' big moment in film, her solo on the song "One Wing," Houston, her idol, was there.

"There was this moment where she came up from the audience and I was walking on the set," Sparks said. "She goes, 'Come here.' She's standing there, and she put my face in her hands, and she was like, 'You're everything that we were looking for,' and I just completely lost it. Here's this person that I've looked up to my entire life telling me that I am what she was looking for, and I was just like, 'I don't even know what to say.'"

One of the most emotional pinnacles of "Sparkle" is when Houston, her character's voice battered yet still beautiful, belts out the song, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." It's a song that resonates with her own gospel roots before she became a giant star, and then flamed out earlier this year. But Chase said Houston wasn't envious of newcomer Sparks' budding career.

"Whitney's struggle in life was to get off the platform," she said. "She was born onto the platform. She had that voice, she had those looks, and she knew it, and it was a part of her that appreciated it, and a part of her that resented that."

Sparks also said there was no hint of the singing legend's stormy past when she teamed up with Houston for a duet on the song, "Celebrate" -- another dream come true for the young singer. Houston recorded the track on Feb. 8. Five days later, she was dead.

For Chase, the film's release is bittersweet. She is releasing a treasured project without its biggest star, who is now a haunting voice from the grave and a reminder of what was.

"I feel like this is my gift to her," Chase said. "This movie will be what people remember, not the crazy pictures of her coming out of the nightclub. They will remember her beautiful and spiritual and strong and passionate from this movie."

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