Whitney Houston 'Transcended Race'

Warner Bros.

ABC's Linsey Davis and Steve Baker report:

Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder will sing their final goodbye to Whitney Houston, with many other of her famous friends in attendance - a private service today for the woman who broke so many barriers, going from the church she sang in as a little girl all the way to the silver screen in the Bodyguard.

In 1981, Houston became one of the first black models to grace the cover of "Seventeen" magazine.

Music producer Clive Davis molded her into a cross-over music sensation, and Houston still holds the Billboard record for the most consecutive No. 1 hit singles - seven in a row from 1985 to 1988.

Along with Michael Jackson, she helped open the door for a generation of black artists with landing music videos on MTV.

"Whitney really transcended race," said Jess Cagle of "Entertainment Weekly." "She was Whitney. You really didn't think of her as a black singer. You really didn't think of her as a black actress. You really just thought of her as Whitney."

Houston was catapulted into mega stardom on the silver screen in 1992 after landing a leading role in the blockbuster film, "The Bodyguard," starring opposite actor Kevin Costner.

The film was originally slated to star Diana Ross and Ryan O'Neal, but after Costner was tapped for the roll, he insisted he needed Houston as his co-star.

Other than music videos and a few small roles in the films "Silver Spoons" and "Gimme a Break," Houston had never acted in a movie.

In a 2002 interview with "World News's" Diane Sawyer, the singer described how terrified she was to do "The Bodyguard."

"Scared to death, terribly frightened," she said. "I mean, Kevin Costner, I said, 'why me?' He said, 'because you're the only one that can sing.'"

Houston's film debut was an enormous hit, and "The Bodyguard," which grossed over $400 million after its release, became famous for the star's signature ballad, "I Will Always Love You" and the dizzying shot of the long, unforgettable kiss shared between Houston and Costner.

At the time, a black woman and a white man sharing such a tender moment together on the big screen sparked widespread discussion about interracial issues.

"It was interesting that 'The Bodyguard' also came out the year of the Rodney King riots, when tension between the races was very much in the news and very much a concern of everyone," Cagle said. "Then there was "The Bodyguard," it was an interracial romance. There was no discussion about it. It was a monster hit. People loved it. People loved those two stars. For anyone to say that there was a problem with the interracial romance made you look stupid. It made you look completely out of step with the rest of the culture."

Of course, there had been other films that bridged this racial divide, including the groundbreaking and first ever interracial kiss in a movie in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and many subsequent kisses with actors Wesley Snipes and Laurence Fishburne, to name a few. But those movies made interracial love their pivotal plot points, whereas "The Bodyguard" seemed to blur race.

"I don't think it's a milestone that a black person and a white person made a movie together," Houston said of the film in the 2002 interview. "I think for people to look at this color-blind is a milestone."