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Deborah Cox talks her LGBTQ following and channeling Whitney Houston in 'The Bodyguard'

Deborah Cox stars as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard, with Jaquez Andrâ\u0088\u009A© Sims, Brendon Chan, Willie Dee and Benjamin Rivera. The show runs March 20-25 at the Straz Center. Courtesy of the Straz Center.
Deborah Cox stars as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard, with Jaquez Andrâ\u0088\u009A© Sims, Brendon Chan, Willie Dee and Benjamin Rivera. The show runs March 20-25 at the Straz Center. Courtesy of the Straz Center.
Published Mar. 16, 2018

TAMPA

Any singer who is sane — meaning, not the kind who go on American Idol but can't carry a tune — should be scared of the role.

Playing Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard, a musical adapted from the 1992 film starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, means singing more than a dozen of Houston's hits; the likes of Run to You, I Have Nothing and megahit I Will Always Love You.

Deborah Cox isn't any singer, however.

She's one of Canada's biggest ever R&B stars, whose 1998 single Nobody's Supposed to Be Here was ranked the No. 1 Canadian R&B song of all time by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

And while she respects Houston, even idolized her as a child, Cox isn't afraid to be filling the greatest shoes of all. It's something she's been doing her whole life, since she first learned to sing.

"Her style and her gift were incredible," Cox told the Times by phone before The Bodyguard comes to the Straz Center this week. "When I do the show, I go back to some of those old lessons, things that helped get me through certain songs."

Cox was born 46 years ago in Toronto, to Guyanese parents with musical backgrounds. As a child, Houston's voice left a lasting impression.

"When I heard her sing on the radio, I thought, 'That's what I want to do,'?" Cox said. "At 9 and 10 years old, I remember struggling to hit the high notes and find my own way of delivering the songs without feeling winded."

Her acting credits extend from television and film to Broadway, in the title role of the Elton John musical Aida. In 2015, she sang all the tracks for a Lifetime biopic, Whitney, directed by St. Petersburg's own Angela Bassett.

The Bodyguard is a story of an unlikely romance between Rachel and the former Secret Service agent hired to protect her from a stalker. It's a bit of a concert too, as they invite the audience to participate in a couple of numbers.

Meanwhile, Cox says her own life — in Miami with her husband/manager, Lascelles Stephens, and their three children — has been free of intruders.

"I have very good security, but you don't know they're there," she said "I have my anonymity when I'm not doing shows and experience the perks of celebrity too. I try not to let it get to me."

She remembers the soundtrack for The Bodyguard coming out in 1992, while she was singing backup behind Céline Dion. The Canadian superstar became another of Cox's mentors, from whom she learned how to preserve her voice between shows.

"Céline was a great person to learn that discipline from," Cox said.

In the late 1990s, as Nobody's Supposed to Be Here was taking hold at the top of R&B chart in the United States, Cox discovered she had a substantial following among gay men. It took her by surprise.

"I love the LGBTQ community and feel that we came together at a time when it was taboo," she said. "I remember being in the clubs at 4 in the morning, and I can still recall all of the stories of people feeling so empowered by my music and by me being there in the clubs with them, helping them to come out to be their authentic selves."

Cox last made a splash here at the 2016 St. Pete Pride festival, less than two weeks after the Pulse nightclub shootings. She remembers the free concert she gave that weekend as "one of those shows I really had the great pleasure and honor of doing."

Grammy-winning producer Hex Hector remixed six of Cox's songs, including a dance version of Nobody's Supposed to Be Here, which got tons of playing time in gay clubs. An anthem of defiance, Absolutely Not (Do I measure me by what you think? Absolutely not...) landed atop Billboard's dance chart and the soundtrack of the North American version of Queer as Folk.

Cox has publicly singled out her fans in the LBGTQ community for allowing her to change career lanes when she feels like it, even if that means taking a break from the next album. She continues to perform in Pride festivals worldwide.

"I think it's a special relationship because it grew organically, and we all got to know each other in a way that wasn't forced," she said. "I never judged."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.