LOS ANGELES -- Even before she was famous it was like this. Before the platinum records and the sequined gowns and the whole pop diva thing, Whitney Houston was being dogged. The rumors and the tabloid headlines -- like "the one the other day, 'Little Miss Perfect,' " complains her mother, Cissy Houston, with a sigh of the long-suffering -- are weirdly close to the schoolyard taunts 25 years ago in Newark, when Cissy sent her daughter out in bows and pinafores, a real standout in the neighborhood.

"Kids," says Cissy, "can be cruel."

For most of her life, Houston has been a compilation of contradictions. The little girl from the middle-class, churchgoing family at odds with her classmates has become, at 29, a best-selling pop star -- but her success and prom queen image have come with a price.

No wonder Houston buried her face in Kevin Costner's shoulder in the ad for "The Bodyguard" (which opened in Washington yesterday), a romantic thriller that stars Houston as, surprise, a pop music diva. It is her first film role, and she looks as if she's trying to duck her fate as possibly the world's most misunderstood, maligned female vocalist.

No wonder Houston slips into a hotel room shortly before the film's release, a pregnant sylph in black velour who stands there, a little sleepily, a little awkwardly in her slippers and her mussed hair, as if she isn't sure what to do, and confesses that as far as being an actress goes, "well, it's a little intense watching yourself that large and for that long."

It might be an apt description of Houston's brief but spectacular career. Ever since she shot to the top of the charts in 1985 with her debut album, "Whitney Houston," she has played to the public with a somewhat curious image. That first album, released when she was barely 22, sold 18 million copies worldwide. By 1988, she had made $45 million and surpassed the Beatles with No. 1 consecutive hits. "Whitney Houston," declared Rolling Stone, "is blessed with one of the most exciting voices in years."

Despite her three-octave range and lyrical authority, Houston battled suggestions that her relentlessly up-tempo music was formulaic and that her success was largely a marketing phenomenon created by Clive Davis, the founder and president of Arista Records, who had revived the careers of Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.

Houston's transformation from gospel singer to belter of generic ballads -- "Saving All My Love for You" and "How Will I Know" -- also fueled the impression, particularly within the black community, that she was a bland crossover artist who could not lay claim to her talent. She was booed at the Soul Train Awards and satirized -- "Whitney Houston's Rhythmless Nation" -- on Fox's "In Living Color."

And behind the scenes, the former gospel singer who still speaks reverently of "my God" in casual conversation, has had to deflect a consistent series of rumors that she is gay, that she is prone to violence and that her lovers have included her executive assistant, Robyn Crawford, as well as some of Hollywood's best-known actresses. Those rumors have persisted beyond Houston's marriage last summer to singer Bobby Brown, a rap artist six years her junior and with whom she is expecting her first child in March.

Despite her soft-spoken and even shy demeanor, Houston seems inured to the gossip. "When you reach a certain height," she says matter-of-factly, "you will stand out, and you will always be criticized. My mother told me this would happen. 'You think you're a success? You have seven No. 1 songs? They're going to {mess} you up.' " Houston pauses. "She wasn't lying."

Right now, however, the singer seems unconcerned about anything other than the birth of her child and her acting debut. She wears a modest wedding band, and a diamond-studded heart dangles from her neck.

Houston seems to have arrived at both a personal and professional crossroads. With the film, her marriage and her pregnancy, she seems to be sending out myriad signals that she is one step ahead of her image. At the same time, Houston seems uncertain of just where that step has taken her. Asked if she has plans to make more films, she turns insouciant.

"Oh, my agency is saying, 'Whitney, don't you want to look at this and that?' No, I just want to be pregnant and have my baby, you know."

An Emphatic 'Maybe'

Written by Lawrence Kasdan nearly 20 years ago, "The Bodyguard" tells the story of pop music star Rachel Marron, who receives a series of death threats, hires as a bodyguard former Secret Service agent Frank Farmer and subsequently falls in love. It is one of Kasdan's earliest efforts, written before "Silverado" and "The Big Chill," when he was still an advertising copywriter in Detroit. When Kasdan met Costner in 1985 on the set of "Silverado," the actor became interested in filming the script. But it wasn't until 1990 that he agreed to produce and star in the film. His first choice to play the pop star? Whitney Houston.

"There are certain singers that occupy that territory that includes a world-class voice, real elegance and a physical presence," says Costner. "Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand are two. Whitney Houston is another."

But when the offer came to play the tempestuous Rachel -- as well as sing six new songs for the soundtrack album -- Houston responded with an emphatic "maybe."

"I knew it was the right project," she says. "But Rachel's character had to be fleshed out a bit. In the first draft she was just mean and bitchy all the time. I mean, we all have our days, but I thought she should be a bit warmer."

There were rewrites and more discussions, but Houston still refused to commit to the role. Costner, who had screen-tested with Houston "because there is some method to my madness," put the film on hold for a year.

"I think she was scared, because as popular as Whitney is, she takes an unwarranted amount of shots {from the media}," says Costner. "She is a real big target, so if you combine that with the fact that she could turn out to be a bad actress, that's a huge risk."

Eventually Costner picked up the phone and made his case directly to Houston. "I promised her two things: that I would be right there with her and she would not be bad, because I refuse to let anybody fail around me."

"That was the thing that convinced me," says Houston.

She offered to take acting lessons, but Costner declined.

"Kevin said, 'Whitney, please don't do that. This isn't about technique, it's about your natural, charming character,' " says Houston. Despite the obvious similarities between her own life and Rachel's, Houston spent several weeks in rehearsal struggling to make lines of dialogue sound as natural as song lyrics.

"It's easy for me to stand onstage and sing and relate to people," says Houston. "I know when to become powerful and when to quiet it down. That was the hardest part in acting -- learning the words and letting them flow like I was singing."

Although Houston is convincing in the film's concert scenes, she is far less at ease in the intimate ones. The sex scenes between Rachel and Frank are noticeably chaste -- Houston refused to do nude scenes -- and no mention is made of the relationship's interracial nature.

Houston is adamant about her refusal to do nude scenes -- "Despite the fact that everyone would love to see me with my drawers down, it ain't happening" -- but she becomes uncertain when asked about the film's potentially pioneering casting. Suggest that as a black woman, her on-screen romance with one of Hollywood's most bankable leading men may be far more newsworthy, and Houston says, "That's what they say. But I didn't think about it." When pressed, she suggests that "throughout history there have been interracial couples. This was about a relationship, two people getting to know each other."

Good Girl, Bad Boy

Houston's present incarnation as the wife of Bobby Brown and a mother-to-be, content to head home to her New Jersey estate and await her baby's birth, seems proof that she continues to grapple with her success and her public image. "Through all the madness and the hype and the peaks and the cool-downs, I've maintained my basic values," she says. Such as? "Getting married and having children. That's old stuff, but it's important to me.

"Because how famous can you be? I've had seven consecutive No. 1 songs. What do I want? Eight? Because having all those things, having money and all that didn't make me happy. And nobody understands that."

After that semi-confession, the singer grows steely again. "I know this movie will only make people write more {gossip} about me," she says, citing the latest rumor. "I read that Bobby and Robyn got into this fight in front of a hotel," she laughs. "First of all, if that were true, Robyn would have been knocked out, but my husband is a gentleman who would never fight a woman."

Of her relationship with Crawford, Houston says: "She's my best friend, who knows me better than any woman has known me. But by the time I met Bobby, Robyn and I had had enough time together, and our relationship had changed from friendship to more of an employer-employee arrangement." Crawford, she adds, no longer lives with Houston, "but in her own place, which is about 30 minutes from me."

As for her marriage to Brown, Houston, who had previously been linked with Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy, says it came about "because after a while I wanted a man, and he is the first man that I considered a friend." She also says that "women are supposed to have husbands. We are validated by that."

Whatever her reasons, the cynical take on the unexpected union is that Brown, who is the father of several illegitimate children and has battled rumors of drug abuse, needed taming in the public eye, while Houston was looking for some cachet within the black community and a father for the child she seems genuinely to want.

"Bobby had an image, and I had an image," Houston says somewhat wearily. "He was this bad boy and I was this good girl singing in a beautiful dress, and never the twain shall meet. Well, you know, that could be wrong, we could turn out to be best friends."

After a two-year courtship that began when they met at the 1989 Soul Train Awards -- and some extensive prenuptial agreements -- the two were married last summer at Houston's home when she was already pregnant. Like many couples with separate high-powered careers, the two seem to spend little time together. Brown continues to own a home in Atlanta and is supporting the release of his third solo album, "Bobby," with extensive touring.

"We had a week together a little while ago, and we will have another week together very soon," says Houston, who seems comfortable with the arrangement.