Photograph by Rob Verhorst via Redferns

Inside Whitney Houston’s posthumous hologram tour

The late singer is currently touring Europe as a ghostly digital reincarnation. It’s not right, but is it okay? Houston’s hologram stylist tells us more.

Whitney Houston is currently touring the UK, belting out popular hits like I Will Always Love You (1992), It’s Not Right But It’s Okay (1998) and Million Dollar Bill (2009) to crowds of adoring fans. We all knew Houston was a superstar. But even for her that’s some feat, given that she died eight years ago. 

Following her especially tragic 2012 death in the bathtub at Los Angeles’ Beverly Hilton hotel, her memory and her legacy are being perpetuated by An Evening with Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour, a 25-date digital reimagination currently doing the rounds in Europe.

This ghost-in-the-machine – or, on-the-stage – production is the latest posthumous performance victory lap for a dead legend. Late hip-hop OG Tupac Shakur made a ghostly appearance in a Supreme campaign last month, big-voiced balladeer Roy Orbison also performed live” in raves from beyond the grave. Meanwhile, a controversial Amy Winehouse hologram tour has been in the works since its 2018 announcement and is still yet to materialise. Sixteen-year-old Japanese pop sensation Hatsune Miku, though, is neither dead nor alive. She was born a hologram and has existed as a virtual character since she exploded in 2007.

But what’s it like on the inside of a concert tour where the headline act exists as a trick of the light? Timothy Snell knows. The celebrity stylist and costumier is overseeing the signature Houston looks that she” is wearing” on the holo-production. 

These include updated versions of her iconic looks from the past: an 80s leather jacket, white vest and blue pedal-pusher jeans in one sequence; a gold, floor-length gown fit for a five-octave-singing diva in another; a similar gown but embellished with garish glitter in yet another. Even death can’t stop a diva’s multiple costume changes.

Initially I thought: how is this going to work?” admits Snell. But I didn’t look at it as Whitney’. I looked at it as an experience of Whitney.”

To be fair, he should know. Snell has experience working with what we might call Actual Whitney. He styled her for multiple Grammy Awards appearances, and says his working relationship with the singer went as far as her telling him: You feel like family to me.” 

Which begs the question: what would his family member make of him facilitating an exploitative professional afterlife in which she had no say? And isn’t it just, you know, weird?

She’s no longer with us and we can’t bring her back,” he says, So I looked at it as creating an art experience – an art installation, if you will.”

Snell often mentions the experience”. Simply, for him, the end goal was to give fans a second chance to listen to Houston and watch her perform”. Of course, there is no talk of cash. The whole thing is a work of art as opposed to a hand-rubbing business venture. 

Critics aren’t seeing the experience” quite the same way. The Guardian gave it a two out of five star rating and called it a ghoulish cash-in”. The BBC questioned the ethics of the tour, asking: Whatever happened to the notion of Rest in Peace?”. One Twitter user questioned whether the late singer’s onscreen resurrection looks like Toni Braxton in a wig,” while Entertainment Weekly simply termed it tacky reproduction”.

All that said: from a straight-up fashion perspective, isn’t this undeniably – or, even, morbidly – fascinating? While a stylist for a concert tour would work with the living, breathing, dancing talent in the rehearsal room and onstage, Snell’s hologram venture is less playing dress up, more Ctrl+X + Ctrl+V.

It was important that when people looked at the hologram it looked like you were really at a Whitney show,” he states firmly. It was [also] important that the clothing represented what she actually wore onstage.”

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Houston’s style evolved dramatically throughout her 30-year career. The flamboyant jumpsuits, padded shoulders and cinched blazers in the 80s gave way to the recognisable off-duty airport snaps featuring baggy 90s silhouettes of ski jackets, tracksuit bottoms and teeny-tiny sunglasses. The turn of the millennium saw Houston transform into a simpler style: embroidered blue jeans, ribbed turtlenecks, floor-length jackets and knee-high boots. 

I would do a lot of research by putting together storyboards of what she wore in the 80s, 90s and the early 2000s. [I’d then] put together a capsule collection of how the clothing would work with the songs that were chosen. You start with the sketches, the storyboarding, and then the design.”

Interestingly, though, styling for a hologram doesn’t necessarily give the stylist more freedom to experiment. Digital Whitney is placed against a black background, meaning everything she wears has to include bright pops of colour so as to not fade. Houston’s hair was lightened, too. 

And while Houston wasn’t especially known as a dancer on stage, creating an as-life-like hologram meant capturing small details to amplify the performance. Snell mentions a scene where the singer wears a fringe dress.

We wanted to create something that had a lot of movement. It was important because Whitney didn’t dance a lot [so we had to] create dresses that would illuminate and that would move for her.” 

All things considered, then, could we be looking at the future of styling? Or, one of them?

It definitely leads to a new experience of styling,” agrees Snell. I think it’s great that you could stand there, push a button and change the colour of a gown, eliminate this, add that. We would never have had the opportunity to change [things] so quickly when you have people sewing and doing the work.”

Ultimately, though, real stars still need real costumes sewn by real people. As Snell acknowledges: It’s not for everybody, but you’re not looking at Whitney Houston. You’re looking at an experience.” 

And for some – Whitney obsessives, tech early adopters, pop culture rubberneckers – An Evening with Whitney: The Whitney Houston Hologram Tour might still provide The Greatest Love of All.


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