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“It’s a dream,” Jennifer Lopez says of the killer year she’s having, starring and serving as an executive producer on NBC’s hit new drama series Shades of Blue; embarking on a 40-show-per-year Las Vegas residency called “All I Have”; releasing the hit single “Ain’t Your Mama” for her upcoming ninth album; and serving as a judge on American Idol‘s final season. “It was a lot to take on last year, in the making of all of those things. But when they all launched this past January, I felt like, ‘Wow, look at all we’ve done!'”
How did such an eclectic career take shape? “Dance was my first love, dance and music,” Lopez explains. “And then when I went out to L.A. to work on In Living Color and I was a Fly Girl, I really started working on my acting hardcore and that’s what I wanted to do. I guess I saw that there was a limited future for me in dance and I wanted to be an all-around entertainer.” She landed some TV roles and then scored her first movies, Gregory Nava‘s Mi Familia (1995) and Francis Ford Coppola‘s Jack (1996), which paved the way for Nava’s Selena (1997), a biopic of Tejano music star Selena that offered Lopez a powerful part tailor-made for her diverse talents — and on which she became the first Latina ever paid $1 million for a movie.
Selena also helped to acclimate audiences to Lopez’s curvy look, which was of a sort rarely seen onscreen before then but which quickly became en vogue. (See: Kim Kardashian.) “In traditional movies, that wasn’t the figure unless you were playing, like, the femme fatale or the bombshell or something like that. You couldn’t be the serious lead,” she says. “We kind of broke that mold.” (Years before Selena, Lopez’s body also inspired the hit Sir Mix-a-Lot song “Baby Got Back.”)
Lopez followed Selena a year later with Out of Sight, an acclaimed Steven Soderbergh film in which she starred opposite George Clooney; then a year after that with her first album (singles included “If You Had My Love” and “Waiting for Tonight”) and music videos (“I would record records thinking of what the video was gonna look like”); and then a year after that with that green Versace dress with a plunging neckline that she wore to the Grammys (“Honestly, I felt like I didn’t have a good dress for that night, which I’ve never said before”), which resulted in an unprecedented number of Google searches and the creation of Google Images.
All these hits, coming one after another at a time when the internet was first exploding, turned Lopez into one of the biggest celebrities on the planet, which has its pros and cons. Because of paparazzi and fans of varying degrees of mental stability, she says she hasn’t been out on the street alone since Selena. “As I get older, it bothers me more,” she acknowledges. “When you’re young it’s like a shock at first, and you kind of have anxiety about it, but then you get used to that life and it just becomes your normal life. And now? I think when I had kids and stuff, I was like — I wanted a little more freedom to go outside and not have them have to deal with that part of it.”
But Lopez hastens to add that she realizes how fortunate she feels — perhaps because, on more than one occasion, her career nearly imploded. The 2000s began on a high: In 2001, she became the first person ever to simultaneously have the No. 1 album (“J.Lo”) and No. 1 movie (The Wedding Planner) in the same week. But then, in 2002, she started dating Ben Affleck. The tabloids gave the two the first supercouple-portmanteau, “Bennifer,” and both began to be known more for being known than for any accomplishments, which was compounded by their abysmal 2003 onscreen collaboration Gigli. Lopez and Affleck broke up in 2004, but it would be years before either regained their previous stature.
Lopez insists she took it all in stride: “I never thought of it as, ‘Oh, this is terrible! My career’s over!’ I just never thought that. I just knew that that movie didn’t work and that’s all it was, or that relationship didn’t work and that’s all it was. It wasn’t going to end me, personally or professionally.” She adds, “Even later on, after I got married and had kids [she gave birth to twins in 2008] and it was a slow time for me work-wise — I pulled back and I was working on my marriage and I was being a mom and all that — I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, what is my life?! Who am I right now?! Am I still that entertainer?’ I realized, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna be even better than you were before. Watch.’ Those are the kind of talks that I had with myself.”
Sure enough, Lopez rebounded in a number of hit rom-coms, including 2005’s Monster-in-Law (“I think I’m just believable as that girl who’s looking for the fairy tale because I kinda am”), some little-seen but respected indies like 2006’s El Cantante (“I did some of my best acting in that movie”) and, perhaps more than anything else, her 2011-2016 stint on Idol. “With reality TV, you can’t really hide who you are, it’s gonna come out,” she says. “I always felt like, ‘People know who I am, they know I’m a nice person,’ but it’s not like that because a lot of people believe everything they read.” She continues, “I think they only knew me from my records and my videos and my movies, which are playing a character, and what the press said about me, and the press was never really favorable to me — I don’t know why. At times they were, when the work was good, but there was a lot of tabloid fodder about my relationships; there was a lot of rumors about my, you know, ‘diva-like behavior,’ which was totally untrue; and I just carried this stigma with me. So when I did American Idol and they got to see me sitting there with no script, no lines, just being myself, laughing and loving music and talking about it and being emotional, and they got to see my heart and my soul, they saw a different person than what they had heard about. They got to see the real me, and they embraced that, and I embraced it and it was a beautiful thing that happened.”
While still on Idol, Lopez was already planning her next move, which caught many by surprise: In addition to her Las Vegas residency and new music, she revealed that she would be returning to TV, and not on a cable or streaming show, to which many A-listers have flocked in recent years, but on network. “Our whole goal,” she says of Shades of Blue, “was to bring a cable-like show to network. Network has the audience, it has more reach, and at the end of the day if I was gonna do a show I wanted it to reach a lot of people.”
As she takes stock of the increasingly diverse entertainment landscape around her that she helped to create — America Ferrera, Gina Rodriguez and Eva Longoria are also the stars of acclaimed TV shows — and of her own big moment, Lopez allows herself a moment to quietly express pride. “We worked so hard on all these projects,” she says, “and the Vegas show’s a huge success, Shades got picked up for a second season and the critics love it, Idol‘s farewell season was a beautiful kind of goodbye to such a legendary show that I got to be a part of for five years — it’s just a great thing.”
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