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Boomin’ System: Dancing. Acting. Singing. Butt-Kicking. Bombshell

originally published August 1999 / VIBE

Supreme Jennifer Lopez is the Biggest Explosion Outta the Bronx Since the Birth of Hip Hop

She is the kind of intoxicating pretty you could stare at for the next century or so. She has a celebrated, strong dancers body, and white America has discovered in her the beauty of the Big Butt. If celebrity is this county’s religion then Jennifer Lopez has, in the past two years, emerged a most seductive deity. She is a mammoth star who has yet to make a blockbuster. She has consistently offered nuanced, pitch-perfect performances opposite such heavyweight actors such as Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, and Jack Nicholson. In June, she dropped her The Work Group/ Sony debut, On the 6 (in homage to the Bronx-bound No. 6 subway train that took her home to her Capital Hill home neighborhood), a mélange of Latin grooves, Hip Hop and dance pop.

As much as people want to get to know celebrities, Jennifer Lopez assures me, “They never will.” Lopez is doing a good job working her chopsticks in West Hollywood health-food bistro she’s chosen for our meeting. And it’s a good thing—every customer in the joint is watching her eat while they pretend not to watch her eat. “You can’t let people in that much,” she says, “cause what do you have left for you?” Losing privacy, negotiating celebrity, learning exactly what to say in interviews and how to be in public a part of the star package that one cannot be prepared for. They are the hard lessons that Jennifer Lopez has been learning lately. “When I first started doing television years ago, it was like nobody cared. I was very open and free. Then you become famous and people care about every little thing you do, every aspect of your life. They become intrigued, I guess.” She shrugs her shoulders then gives the couple next to us a closed mouth smile while she chews her broccoli.

“They want to know who you are, it’s flattering at first…”

Here’s what you already may have read about Jennifer Lopez (let’s just get this out the way): She’s been known to do interviews in bathrobes and diamond crosses. She reportedly married Ojani Noa after a whirlwind romance (they met at a restaurant where he was a waiter while Lopez was shooting Blood and Wine [20th Century Fox, 1997]), then they divorced quickly and quietly in 1998. She’s been spotted poolside with Puff Daddy, in Paris with Puff Daddy at a Miramax after Oscars bash with Puff Daddy. (Lopez on Puff: “Friends.” Puff on Lopez: “I swear to God, my name better not even be in honey’s article.”) She is a 21st-century, unstoppable screen queen. Her favorite flick ever is West Side Story (United Artists, 1961).

Lopez has joined the upper echelon of sensational celebrities (think Julia Roberts) whose every grocery-store purchase requires documentation. But alas, it is a conundrum that doesn’t evoke much sympathy. First of all, most people don’t just become famous. They work very hard at it. They show up on red carpets wearing Valentino or Badgley Mischka body-clingers (or tulle, jeweled princess numbers). They steal the scene from blonder, more “luminous” award winners. They pose on magazine covers topless—or close to it—legs apart, or better yet, with their backs to the camera.

“Yeah,” says Lopez, and then, jacking a quote from another famous celebrity, says, “Never complain, never explain." What’s interesting about Lopez is that even as she embodies what being a glamorous Hollywood star is all about, she is so not. First of all, she’s all Castle Hill. When her label mate and friend Marc Anthony, the Spanish Harlem Latin singing sensation, hits her on her cell, she’s all “What’s up, nigga?” She may rock Fred Leighton on Oscar night, but on Tuesdays she’s all baguette cluster creations by Jacob the Jeweler in midtown Manhattan (he who designs icy baubles for your favorite rap stars). She pushes a droptop platinum Benz, which is equal parts ghetto fabulous and Hollywood hot thing. But make no mistake, she’ll roll down her window and curse you out if you: a) cut her off, b) even look like you’re gonna tap her whip, c) don’t let her over two lanes to make a left from the right lane.

She is indeed an ambitious one women franchise- a certified film star, an emerging pop-music princess, and you, include other actresses or Hollywood types, starts complaining in jest about last night’s date— “Girl, I’m ovulating, he could’ve got it but he’s frontin’ ‘cause I went out once with his roommate”— Lopez, jokingly, is all “Girl, send him my way. He’s a hottie. “Her way would be a top-floor West Hollywood apartment. Her bedroom is this all-white, willowy shrine draped with gauzy material. She is, and I’m surprised to learn this given her press, a real girl’s girl. The kind of loyal, down-for-whatever-girlfriend— “Who wants to go to Miami Friday night? I need a tan for the Oscars!”— that we’re all better for having on our team.

“Jennifer represents all the things that we [Latinos] are: beautiful, voluptuous, intelligent, proud,” chimes rapper Big Pun. “When I was young, she used to do plays at the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club. Always acting and dancing. She was doing something right.”

Occupying a position in the constellation is about timing and capturing the collective popular imagination as much as it’s about sheer will. Jennifer Lopez is immensely talented at a time when the Spanish-speaking population is expanding at an exponential rate. Slowly, Latin actors like Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek and singers like Shakira, Marc Anthony, and bringin’-down-the-house-on-Grammy-night Ricky Martin are making their way into the pop lexicon. These stars shine without being asked to sacrifice too much of their culture the way a Rita Moreno or Margarita Carmen Cansino (a.k.a. Rita Hayworth) had to do, acting as ambassadors/ caricatures like a Lucy-loving Ricky Ricardo.

In her film career she’s played an Italian (Out of Sight), a Native- American (U Turn, Sony, 1997), a Chicana (Selena, Warner Bros, 1997), and a (Blood and Wine). But radio programming is possibly the last frontier to be diversified, and it’s not as flexible, Sony has simultaneously released two

singles On The 6: “If You Had My Love” and “No Me Ames,” a Spanish ballad with Marc Anthony. “Unfortunately, it’s very segregated,” says her label copresident, Jeff Ayeroff, of radio programming. “But we’re marketing this as a pop album by a major diva, which is what it is.”

Growing up in a working-class section of the Bronx during the hip hop’s first days, Lopez’s musical memories are mixed. “The host shit was the Sugarhill Gang,” she recalls. “We were really into hip hop. And on the holidays and at home I’d have salsa and merengue with my family. As school it was R&B and pop and hip hop again. Hip hop was a big influence in my life. But salsa is what gets me going. It’s what I put on around the house.”

Her big showbiz break came when she won an audition to be a Fly Girl on Keenan Ivory Wayans’s In Living Color back in 190. “That was a real break for me, I mean I moved away from New York, I was on my own, I was independent.” Then came an audition for the Janet Jackson tour. Rene Elizondo Jr., Jackson’s then boo, and Jackson loved her. But the weekend before the tour was about to start, she called Elizondo and told him she won a role in an upcoming pilot, CBS’s South Central. She couldn’t begin the tour, but she hoped to join them on the road later. Elizondo told her she had to make a choice, and for Lopez there wasn’t one.

“My everyday thing is so nothing,” Lopez says apologetically, as she weaves in and out of traffic in between appointments. “If me and my girls go out for dinner, that’s a big deal. We’re all calling each other all day like, What are you gonna wear? Where should we go? Who’s driving?”

Indeed, a day with Ms. Lopez is hardly Page Six material, but it does confirm her reputation as a hard working self-invention. There’s dance rehearsal for her upcoming music video with Janet Jackson’s choreographer, Tina Landon. Meeting as Sony— the art department needs her approval on the album artwork. All day long there are conferences calls with management and label execs about the first single. The Puff-produced “Feelin’ So Good” with Fat Joe and Big Pun is caliente, hot, a high-priced pitchwomen for L’Oreal— yet she is decidedly free of an entourage (except for her personal assistant, Arlene, who’s her best friend from the Bronx since she was seven). And the two of them are all “You are so retarded” to each other all day long. She greets you— even though you’re a reporter, and whoa is she skeptical of the whole “media” thing— with a warm “Hi, Mommy!” and a hug. Her body is smaller and her face is softer than in photographs. Makeup is all about a little lip gloss, and that’s it.

When Shawn, part of her extended L.A. homegirl crew that does not, thank hot. But the sweet “If You Had My Love” is equally upbeat, and the vocals are strong. She’ll poll anyone with ears for their opinion, but it’s clear the last word will be hers. In cream sweats and a matching Tommy Hilfiger sweater she’s no less sexy than she is in a blackless, mesh Versace gown. It’s just that in Air Maxes she can move a lot faster.

Making an album has meant putting her film career on hold for at least a year. The last movie she did was Out of Segbt (Universal, 1998). “This album was exciting and scary to make,” she says. “With every script I read I’m like, Is this gonna scratch me? It is gonna make me a little crazy? ‘Cause if it is then I’m doing the right thing. That’s how it was with the album. It was a lot of work. I can’t try to be Whitney or Faith. I do something different, I have something else to offer to anybody who’ll want to, you know, fucking get down."

“When I heard she was coming out,” says rapper Fat Joe, via phone, of Lopez’s recorded material, “I was like, Jennifer Lopez? Maybe, she’s getting [a record deal] on the strength [of who she is]. But,” he says firmly, “she could sing. I think it’s gonna blow up. I don’t know if [she’s] like Mariah Carey, but I think she could sell come mills.”

“The Janet tour is a major job for a dancer. It’s a year and a half of work,” says Landon, Lopez’s dance coach for the day. “But she knew. Other dancers, they say they want to do this and that, but they never leave {dancing}. Jenifer was just certain.”

“I would have just died if I didn’t go for it,” Lopez says of the television spot. “I would have literally died.” (The show was killed after one season.)

It was her showing in Selena that made Lopez bankable, raising her permovie salary to a reported $2 million mark. She says her vulnerable performance of the slain Tejano star is her favorite. But it’s in smaller, darker films that she has developed range and depth. In Blood and Wine, a noise suspense drama starring Jack Nicholson, Lopez transformed what could have been a marginal, stereotypically hot-blooded character into a complicated, unpredictable woman with real purpose.

At Grace, the fated, deeply damaged female lead in Oliver Stone’s U Turn, Lopez faced an emotional dilemma. She didn’t want to travel the dark, twisted road taken by her character. She found herself panicking the night before a major shoot, “I have the most wonderful father, youknowwhatimean? I didn’t want to think about fathers molesting their daughters or killing their wives,” she says. “I had to call myacting coach and he faxed me this article on Meryl Streep, where she was talking about going to difficult places. It’s about not being afraid to go there. And at the end of the day it’s a job. I’m getting paid to go there.”

And then there is her body. Her burst, in particular, has overshadowed her formidable acting ability. It is written about, photography lovingly (with her cooperation, of course). It is used as an example, in teen mags for girls and grown women’s fashion tomes, of a changing body ideal.

“I know,” she says. “It’s like this whole other person.” Mind you, she has a very healthy, “I look at it in a positive way… women out there who are shaped like me are not ashamed of it ‘cause I’m representin’ “kind of attitude about the whole thing. Women like her— namely black women— haven’t exactly had issues of shame when it comes to that particular body part. In most sectors of our community, the bigger the better.

Positive attitude aside, the objectification of Ms. Lopez’s most beautiful body part has everything to do with white America’s gaze on ethnic bodies. It is almost cliché to fetishize the hypermasculine, topless black male body (usually drenched in sweat from the hard labor, you see) of a Michael Jordan or a Tupac Shakur or a D’Angelo. The objectification of black (and brown) women’s bodies is complicated not only by the history of slavery (yes, slavery existed in Puerto Rico) and those bodies in property, but also by rape.

When I relate to Lopez the mythological proportioned but true— and I might add, pretty relevant— story of Hottentot Venus, the 19th- century South African girl who was taken around Europe in a cage and put on display naked, like an animal, the attraction being her “shelf-like” derriere, she responds appropriately, I guess. “That’s disgusting.”

It’s not really her responsibility to contextualize other people’s fetishes (or some ancient girl’s containment). When a miscellaneous white-boy-late-night-talk-show makes comments bordering on lewd but meant to be complimentary about her ass, why not smile and work it? When she says, kind of finally, “I glorify in the face that my mother bore me and I came out with her body, “I’m certainly ready to throw a prideful fist in the air. But there is always reason to be suspicious when objectification gets tangled with celebration and your very cultural body part damn near requires its own publicist. “I would love to read an article where it’s not even mentioned,” she sighs. Sorry.

And since we’re in feminist mode, I ask her about this notion of ambition being a dirty word when attached to women. One journalist I know, who, as he puts it, falls in love with all his female profiles, resisted Lopez’s charms because “she’s just so ambitious. I’ve never met anyone that ambitious before.” Again, Lopez has a healthy unawareness of the charge. “Why? Is [ambition], like, a bad thing with women? She asks rhetorically.

“I mean, yeah,” she continuous, “I’m ambitious, but so is everybody— men, women. Where I’m from, if you see somebody who stays home, it’s like that’s dirty too. I want something, you want something; you should do whatever makes you happy. If going after things and accomplishing things makes you happy, then fine. If staying home and baby-sitting makes you happy, that’s cool. “She takes a breath. And then with a dismissive wave of the hand and a little neck roll: “I don’t look at things like that, what society says. It means nothing to me.”

Conversation seemed to have been cast to the wind when, within months, she fell in love with and married Noa. I don’t ask her about her marriage because while she is warm she is also clearly guarded. But I do ask her about her own obvious passion (this is no Latin cliché I’m employing, it is her high intensity) and the struggle to keep it in check. “Being a passionate person, sometimes it’s hard to exercise control,” she says. “But you have to learn, you have to.” It’s as if she’s talking herself into some new frame of mind. “Half the time you’re like, ‘God, I’m really stupid right now!” She throws her head back and laughs. “But emotions are a very strong thing. It’s harder for me now, ‘cause I’m so self-aware. It’s hard for me to let go, to be free like that.”

And what of pain? It is not the deepest thing. Folks should know the moment they connect with Lopez that she will move on, that she will be fine, that besides her very close family and maybe Arlene, she doesn’t exactly need anybody. She means it when she says of love “I love love. Giving love, that’s one of my biggest joys, youknowwhatimean?” But understand that Lopez is not only driven but guided. She was put on this planet to be this very big thing— her very aura glows— to be a star and shimmer in as many ways that light is refracted.

She has a better-than-decent singing voice, and her album is a winner. I admit I never took the Fly Girls too seriously as dancers, but watching her warm up with Landon is a workout in itself. And she comes alive when she dances. She literally lights up, throws that hair around, works that body. But it’s on the big screen, on which movements are necessarily smaller, that she is, in my mind, her most artful. She buries vanity for the material. She makes intelligent choices, she selects great material, and more important, her instincts are honest once she’s inhabited the character she has chosen to give souls.

“I always try and make [characters] real,” she says in earnest. “Not necessarily me. Just true to themselves.” And you know that it is this kind of selflessness that will has us tracking her long after this album has stacked up smash singles, long after she has taught the world how to salsa. We will be talking about Jennifer Lopez well into her second and third Oscar wins. You just watch.


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