, NEWARK, Feb 18- Fans of Whitney Houston paid last respects to their “homegirl” singer on Saturday in the streets of Newark outside the church where her life and career were celebrated in a moving funeral service.
Some bore large pictures of their late idol, wore T-shirts with her image and sang the songs that made Houston one of the best-selling divas of all time.
One sign drew from Houston’s lyrics to say, “We’ll always love you, Whitney.”
A gold hearse with a large “W” in the rear window rolled up to the New Hope Baptist Church, and Houston’s casket was laid before some 1,500 mourners inside, while diehard fans gathered outside behind police barricades.
“This is a day in history for me and I just wanted to get as close to her as I could,” said Tamecca Melvin, a Jersey City resident who remembered Houston before her days of stardom.
She was among many spectators remembering Houston from her childhood in the neighborhood, including her debut as a choir singer at the church where she was being memorialized.
“This was a tragic thing, and she was too young to go, she was too special to go,” Melvin told AFP.
“I grew up with her, even though she was a megastar, she was a homegirl, she always kept that persona about her and I loved that about her,” she said.
Houston died one week ago at age 48 in a Beverly Hills, California, hotel room. Although drugs are suspected as a factor, no official cause of death has been announced.
She dominated the pop and soul music scene in the 1980s and 1990s, selling more than 170 million records.
The streets immediately surrounding the red brick church were largely quiet Saturday after police blocked them off, but a crowd of hundreds of well-wishers formed beyond the barriers and the rows of TV cameras as a star-studded service took place inside.
Before the funeral service began, some fans left when police would allow them to approach no closer than two blocks from the church.
Others, like Melvin, stayed.
A few spectators began singing the words from Houston’s smash hit, “I Will Always Love You,” but the tune drifted off.
Elizabeth Wilson, another fan who waited beyond the police line, said, “It was the family decision. They wanted it to be private. We have to respect that.”
Among guests at the funeral were civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Motown legend Stevie Wonder, Grammy winner Alicia Keys, Houston’s “Bodyguard” costar Kevin Costner, and her cousin, singer Dionne Warwick.
As music wafted from the church, some fans outside danced slowly in the streets.
A Philadelphia man brought a large drawing of Houston that he asked people attending the funeral to sign.
“She would not have wanted us to be sad,” one spectator who identified herself as Cynthia told AFP. “We are mourning, but it is a celebration. It is a party to say ‘We love you.'”
Nearby, James German, 48, said in a low voice, “Rest in peace, Whitney.”
At a wake on the night before the funeral service, Houston’s fans danced and sang to celebrate her life.
They also put up an impromptu memorial to Houston in front of the New Hope Baptist Church that included balloons, flowers and personal mementos.