How Jennifer Lopez Learned to Dance Again
Nothing can stop Jennifer Lopez, not even a blackout.
On July 13, she was ready for another night of “It’s My Party,” a strenuous two-hour arena-sized reworking of her successful Las Vegas residency. But as she took the stage, a massive power outage in New York City cut all the lights at Madison Square Garden. Lopez, who couldn’t even address the crowd because her microphone went out, didn’t want to evacuate. “I was like, ‘It’s going to come back on!’” she recalls a few weeks later in an interview with Variety in the living room of the Manhattan penthouse apartment she shares with her fiancé, Alex Rodriguez. “I didn’t realize how much it meant to me to perform there. It’s just a really big deal.”
When Lopez got home, three of her young family members — her daughter, Emme; her niece, Lucie; and Rodriguez’s daughter Ella — tried to cheer her up by serenading her with the classic song “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” But Lopez only felt better after she’d devised a solution, rescheduling a makeup performance for two nights later. “They said, ‘Insurance will pay for it; they’ll refund everybody,’” Lopez says. “And I was like, ‘That’s not the point.’ The point is this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of these people, and I’m not going to do this show ever again. So we’ll do it. And I added another show.”
Throughout her career, J. Lo has refused to relinquish the stage. Although the haters and tabloids have tried to stop her in her tracks, she’s continued to reinvent herself. Now, at 50, she’s never been more formidable as an entertainer or more ferocious as a businesswoman. And she says she’s found happiness in her personal life with Rodriguez (aka A-Rod), a relationship that she often chronicles on social media for her 140 million followers, an astounding number that exceeds the entire population of Japan.
“She represents resilience,” says Constance Wu, who appears with Lopez in her upcoming movie “Hustlers,” due in theaters Sept. 13. “When you’re that high up, people are always going to try to knock you down. And she’s always standing up.”
Indeed, her latest tour was proof that Lopez’s star is still ascending. From June to early August, she performed 38 shows at mostly sold-out venues around the world, grossing an estimated $54.7 million. Lopez’s set was packed with her greatest hits, from ’90s bangers such as “Waiting for Tonight” to early 2000s staples “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” and “I’m Real,” as well as 2011’s massive “On the Floor” collaboration with Pitbull. “We didn’t realize that 50,000 people would show up in Tel Aviv or 30,000 in Moscow,” says Lopez’s longtime manager, Benny Medina, of his only client. “Her touring background is not that extensive or deep.”
But Lopez’s screen credits are vast. Starting with her breakout role in 1997’s “Selena,” for which she became the first Latina actress to earn $1 million, Lopez subsequently played the lead in Steven Soderbergh’s critically acclaimed drama “Out of Sight” and romantic comedy favorites “Maid in Manhattan” (opposite Ralph Fiennes) and “Monster-in-Law,” in which she sparred with Jane Fonda. Throughout her 20s, she was told by agents that she couldn’t sing and act and would have to pick one or the other, but Lopez refused to choose. Instead, she made herself into a quadruple threat: a dancer-producer-singer-actress who, in addition to tentpole movies, went on to sell more than 10 million albums in the U.S., according to the RIAA, as well as anchor TV shows both as on-air talent (“Shades of Blue,” “American Idol”) and behind the scenes (“World of Dance”).
In fact, Lopez is still looking for ways to expand her reach. She’s thinking about directing her first movie with the upcoming drama “The Godmother,” in which she has the lead role, for STX Entertainment. “To star and direct is going to take a year or two out of my life,” says Lopez with a hint of dread. “I just need to be ready to do that.” And she’s recording new music for her next vehicle, “Marry Me,” a Universal Pictures comedy about a pop star who has to navigate fame in the social-media age.
This fall, Lopez is poised to have her own “Erin Brockovich” moment with the release of “Hustlers.” Playing the ringleader of a New York strip club during the 2008 financial crisis — think “The Wolf of Wall Street” with women — Lopez not only stars in the film but also produced it with her company Nuyorican Prods., surrounding herself with a strong ensemble that includes Cardi B, Lizzo, Julia Stiles and Keke Palmer.
On the surface, thongs and stripper poles might seem to go against the tide of a Hollywood that champions gender equality in the #MeToo era. But “Hustlers,” based on a New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler, is an empowering story about dancers who take their destinies into their own hands. “Everyone was excited to see this world through the eyes of the women,” says Lorene Scafaria, who is perhaps the first female director of a stripper movie from a major studio She shot the film with a gaze that doesn’t sensationalize the performers’ body parts. Of Lopez’s key dance scene, Scafaria says she wanted to “treat it more like a sports movie, to highlight the athleticism of it, and to celebrate that this is Jennifer Lopez at 50 years old, better than we’ve ever seen her.”
Lopez has been encouraged by recent changes in Hollywood. “There are so many smart, talented women out there, in front of and behind the camera, and I think we’re at a point where our voices are not stifled as much,” she says. “Because of the #MeToo movement, it’s ‘We are equal, and we want to be treated that way.’ We’ve been making our own opportunities, and as you prove your worth and value to people, they can’t put you in a box. You hustle it into happening, right?”
Lopez raised some eyebrows recently when she signed with Hitco Entertainment, the new company founded by Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who was forced to exit her former label, Epic Records, following sexual harassment allegations in 2017. “Benny and L.A. have a very long relationship,” Lopez says. “And I don’t know of a perfect person out there. Nobody wants to be judged by their worst moment when they’ve lived a life when they’ve done a lot of great things. And that doesn’t excuse any behavior, because I don’t. It’s about going, ‘Oh, that was wrong, and I need to be better.’”
When she started out in the industry, Lopez recalls getting turned down for starring roles because of her ethnicity. “Maybe 30 years ago, it was very ‘Oh, you’re the Latin girl. You’ll do Spanish roles; you’ll play maids; you’ll only be limited to this little box,’” she says. “It’s about getting people in the business — the agents, the managers, the Tommy Mottolas of the world — to believe this girl can do more. But you have to prove yourself too.” She wasn’t nervous when she landed the star-making role in “Selena” at age 26 over 22,000 other actresses. “I was too young and didn’t know what the hell was going on,” says Lopez, who had been a Fly Girl on “In Living Color” and appeared in a few movies. “It was great they offered me a million dollars. I feel like everyone was making a statement.” She argues that the movie “made the impact that it needed to make,” paving the way for a generation of Latina actresses turned entrepreneurs — from Eva Longoria to Jessica Alba — who followed.
Growing up in the Bronx, Lopez never set out to run her own empire. “My first paycheck was probably when I was 10 years old,” she says of a job she got through nepotism (her mom, Guadalupe, was friends with the owner). “I used to sweep the hair at a beauty salon and clean the sinks. I just wanted my $10, to go do whatever I wanted with. And it was such a great feeling.”
But now that she’s a multifaceted mogul, she’s learned that she enjoys calling the shots. “I think I’m used to being the boss, which is a weird thing to say out loud,” Lopez says. “Nobody in my family was really the boss of anything. We all had bosses. But I guess in the past few years, I’ve come into my own in believing in myself and giving myself credit, knowing that ‘OK, you’re running the ship.’”
What’s she like as the captain? “I can be tough,” Lopez says, admitting to her constant drive for perfection. “I’m firm. I’m not a yeller or a screamer. I think nobody likes to disappoint me, because I get very quiet. I’m also relentless. I don’t have hours.”
Lopez credits her current career surge to a decision that was risky at the time: signing up as the lead judge on “American Idol” in 2011 and settling into the seat vacated by Simon Cowell on the Fox reality TV juggernaut. In her late 30s, Lopez had been on an unofficial sabbatical from Hollywood to give birth to her twins, Maximilian and Emme, in 2008 with her then-husband, Marc Anthony. “I had the kids and wasn’t being offered a whole bunch of stuff,” Lopez says. “I really concentrated on my marriage. I was going around with Marc. I went on two or three tours with him.” And her future as a recording artist was in doubt following management shuffles at her label, Sony Music. “I realize now that it was all necessary, even though it was a tough time.”
Lopez, whose public persona had been defined by her 2002 romance with Ben Affleck, felt like she had lost control of the narrative of her career. “If you go back to Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, they had such a hard time in the press,” she says. “It was just a double standard of being a woman. It’s not a mystery.” She felt maligned by the tabloids, and it hurt her self-esteem. “It’s probably what kids deal with, with social media now, like ‘Everybody hates me.’ No, everybody doesn’t hate you. It’s just a few people writing a few things.” And there were other bummers of early aughts Hollywood. When she met with directors, she recalls more than one remarking on the size of her backside. Scoffs Lopez: “They would never say to a guy, ‘Your d— is really big.’”
She saw “Idol” as a way to reintroduce herself to audiences, which was a novel idea before “The Voice” carved out a path for its pop-star judges to raise their musical profiles. “It was a big turning point in my career,” Lopez says. “Everybody was like, ‘Don’t do this. Your career will be over, and they won’t offer you any movies. They’ll think you’re a joke as an artist.’ And I was like, ‘The truth is, I’m not getting offered a whole bunch of movies, so what are they not going to offer me?’”
“Idol” allowed Lopez to counterprogram public perception by showing her as a three-dimensional artist with feelings. “You can’t hide on reality TV,” says Lopez. “And they got to see I was a real, caring person who was actually nice.” Another benefit to being watched by millions weekly: “I don’t think I had been taken as seriously up until then for what I knew about music. Even though I had several hit albums, I think they put me in this ‘pretty pop’ category.”
Medina says he knew that “Idol” would be the right move for Lopez. “It was authentic to who she was,” he says. “It wasn’t just judging. It was participating in the growth of these kids and their artistic journeys.” And Lopez arguably experienced the biggest career boost of all. “Everything changed,” she says. During her five seasons on the show, she recorded her most popular club anthem to date, “On the Floor,” and returned to starring in profitable movies with 2015’s “The Boy Next Door.” In 2017, she executive produced her own NBC reality competition series, “World of Dance,” now in its third season, and kicked off her Vegas residency, “All I Have,” which sold more than $100 million in tickets.
Even now, she is savvy about her image. Lopez came up with the conceit for “It’s My Party” herself, engineering the concert to the theme of her 50th birthday, with a DJ and a troupe of backup dancers. She wasn’t deterred when she caught a nasty cold at the launch of the 31-city extravaganza, which affected her ability to sing. “I took wellness shots and steam baths,” says Lopez, who relied on alternative remedies instead of antibiotics. “I knew a lot of it had to do with stress and exhaustion, so if I could just get on a healthy regimen, I would bounce back. I willed myself to health.” On the tour, she enlisted 11-year-old Emme to join her for a duet. “When I said, ‘I’m limitless,’ she screamed it back at me in a way she hadn’t yet,” Lopez says of the first time they sang together in New York. “It made me so emotional, because it was a culmination of a moment. I want her to know she’s limitless.”
Lopez’s small creative trust is led by Medina and her former agent Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, who brings her scripts and runs her production company. Goldsmith-Thomas also co-wrote the screenplay for Lopez’s most recent film, “Second Act,” at J. Lo’s urging. “Why is she a mogul?” Goldsmith-Thomas says. “She understands the power in the pivot. We have one life. She would say, ‘What’s stopping you? The only thing stopping you is you.’”
On a typical day, without the demands of an early call sheet, Lopez prefers to stay up until 4 or 5 a.m. and sleep in until 10 or 11 or even noon. “That’s a better schedule for me,” says Lopez, who opened her door to us at 2 p.m.
Her home, located near Madison Square Park, feels more like an opulent museum, with modern furniture and majestic artwork. As Lopez sits in the living room talking about her career, Rodriguez shuffles about in the kitchen, taking a business meeting. Lopez says they try to maximize their time together. “He loves being at every show that he can be at,” she says. “I go to all his baseball games. There were times in my life when my career was going great, and my personal life was going OK. And there were times my personal life was stable, but my career was not great. This is the first time where I have a really beautiful alignment between the two. I think Alex brought that for me. I love it. We have a beautiful life.”
She reveals that she almost passed on “Hustlers” to maintain a healthy balance of career and family. “We were supposed to do it last summer, and I had worked so much,” Lopez says. “I was like, ‘I have to stay home with my kids and Alex.’” But Scafaria, who had written the role of Ramona specifically for Lopez, postponed the production for her.
“I think people forget that she’s such a gifted actor,” Scafaria says. “I was so excited that she was going to play a character on top of that. In a way, the role fits her like a glove, but it’s also a glove with spikes on it.”
Lopez still felt jitters when she emerged as Ramona, performing a dance in a G-string meant to establish her character as the city’s most confident stripper. “I was terrified,” Lopez confesses. “I felt exposed. I was like, ‘I’ve never done anything like this. I’m going to be up there in f—ing dental floss. What is this? Who is this person?’ And then you get up there, and you have to have a ‘f— you,’ empowered attitude. You have to take your power back. You have to be so bold. It’s almost like when you say you’re a rock star, you have to be arrogant to go up there in front of all those people or you crumble. You realize it’s the same type of balls that it takes to do something like that. And these women have that. They are tough, hard, vulnerable and damaged. It’s a great character to play.”
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