J. Lo: The Sequel

By NICOLE La PORTE 05/13/11  NY Times

SHE arrived like a modern-day Cleopatra, smiling and waving down at her adoring masses from the top deck of a trolley, her blown-out tresses fluttering in the wind.

“Lauren Bacall said, ‘It’s all about exits and entrances,’ ” clucked Jennifer Lopez’s publicist as the star — Saran-wrapped in a sparkly gold jumpsuit — descended the trolley stairs and tottered atop perilously high heels toward a makeshift red carpet set up at the Grove, an outdoor mall in Los Angeles, where she was taping a segment for “Extra.”

Amid shrieks and iPhone flashes, Ms. Lopez climbed up onstage and talked about her new album, “Love?” (Island Def Jam); about being a spokeswoman for L’Oréal; and about how to dress in her style for less.

“It doesn’t have to be expensive,” she said brightly, as models sashayed across the stage in Lopez-inspired outfits culled from the racks of Macy’s.

Meet the new, user-friendly J. Lo, who is back to doing it all, only without the imperious attitude that helped propel her to fame. In a few days she would fly to New York to introduce the new fashion lines that she and her husband, Marc Anthony, are designing for Kohl’s. Then she would return to L.A. for a flurry of events promoting “Love?” and her twice-a-week gig as a judge on the popular TV show “American Idol.”

Until recently, Ms. Lopez’s career trajectory was mirrored by the infamous tumble she took while performing her recession-insensitive ode to $900 shoes, “Louboutins,” at the 2009 American Music Awards. She and Sony, her longtime record company, split up after several lackluster albums. Her film “The Back-Up Plan” missed the mark.

But with “Idol,” which has 25 million viewers, Ms. Lopez, 41 and a former Fly Girl, has not only re-entered the public consciousness, but also modified the goddesslike persona that had become a liability. Whatever her protestations that she was Jenny From the Block, as her fame escalated in the early 2000s, Ms. Lopez became known as a demanding diva, thanks in part to a music video in which she cavorted shamelessly, and half-nude, on a yacht with Ben Affleck, her boyfriend at the time (the couple ended their engagement in 2004).

Today, Ms. Lopez is being praised for being a “nice,” constructive judge who, at this point, has shed more tears than any of the contestants. (When she said goodbye to Chris Medina, a young barista whose fiancée suffered a brain-damaging car accident just before he auditioned for “Idol,” Ms. Lopez was so distraught that she had to be consoled by fellow judges Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler.)

“Right now, Jennifer is a celebrity of the people, and it’s a strategy that is really, really working for her,” said Peter Castro, deputy managing editor of People, which recently named Ms. Lopez as the world’s most beautiful woman. “Before, there was a huge distance with the American public.”

Ms. Lopez, however, bats away the idea that there has been a makeover.

“The person everyone’s getting to know on ‘Idol’ now is always the person I’ve been,” she said one recent evening, after a taping. She’d changed out of the Nina Ricci dress she’d worn on the show and was stretched out on a sofa in her trailer, swaddled in cream-colored cashmere. The only concession to flash: a pair of studded, yes, Louboutins.

“I just think I went away for a while, and I’m being reintroduced to the public,” she went on. “And people who knew me from before are like: ‘Oh my God! I remember her!’ And then people who didn’t know me at all are just getting to know me for the first time. So I think it just feels brand new. It feels brand new to me, too, by the way. You know, this feels like my first album felt. It has that type of energy.”

Well, maybe a little less energy. Now the mother of 3-year-old twins (she said that she has no nanny and that family members take turns baby-sitting), Ms. Lopez insisted that she does not go as “full throttle” as she used to.

“I know how to say ‘no’ now,” she said. “I say: ‘I’m tired. I can’t do this. I’m not doing that tomorrow.’ I have kids now, so my life is not completely my own. They come first.”

In an ad campaign for Gucci’s new children’s collection, she is featured playing with her kids on the beach — a stark contrast from the severe S & M-ish shots she did for Louis Vuitton in 2003.

Still, J. Lo is not exactly Donna Reed.

“This is the woman who lays out three outfits for her kids and her husband every day before she leaves,” said Ms. Lopez’s manager, Benny Medina. “Every day! She may not be there for breakfast, but by the time she leaves, they all have three different outfits.”

Last spring, when Ms. Lopez was first asked to be a part of “Idol” ’s post-Simon Cowell reboot, she initially dismissed the idea. Then she realized the schedule would keep her close to her family. “I love artists, working with them and collaborating with them, and this seemed like the ultimate way to do that,” she said. “And it has turned out to be that, even more than I expected.”

Although early chatter this season was focused on Mr. Tyler, the former Aerosmith frontman and another newcomer to the judging panel, these days it’s all about J. Lo — including, most importantly, what is she wearing?

At a recent taping “Idol” taping, during one commercial break, a chorus of young girls shouted out from the top of the bleachers: “J. Lo, we love your shoes!”

(There was less enthusiasm for the Roberto Cavalli drop-crotch pants Ms. Lopez wore when she performed her new single, “On the Floor,” a few days later.)

“She’s made ‘Idol’ glamorous,” said Simon Fuller, “Idol” ’s creator and executive producer. “There’s something incredible when you have a superstar on the panel, who’s peaking in her career. You turn on the radio, you hear her song. You tune into other news channels or entertainment shows, they’re talking about her. You pick up any magazine, and there’s Jennifer Lopez.”

But what can “Idol” do for a star whose talent for fame has always superseded that for singing, dancing and acting?

Her catchy track “On the Floor,” featuring the rapper Pitbull, is a hit, selling more than 1.5 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The response to “Love?,” which features the work of the Lady Gaga producer RedOne, has been less spectacular, though. In its first week, the album sold 83,000 copies, according to SoundScan — an improvement over Ms. Lopez’s last English-speaking album, “Brave,” in 2007, but well behind the Beastie Boys’ “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2.”

On the film front, Ms. Lopez has been cast as a voice in 20th Century Fox’s next animated “Ice Age” movie, and is considering a leading role in a drama at Fox, where (per her “Idol” contract) her Nuyorican Productions company has a deal. But her box-office heat has cooled considerably since she was critically lauded for “Out of Sight” and carried high-grossing, romantic comedies like “The Wedding Planner.” (One word: “Gigli.”)

“I don’t know anyone who bats a thousand in the movie business,” Ms. Lopez said. “I’ve made some great movies, and I’ve made some not-so-great movies.”

She added: “Would I have wanted more opportunities to work on even greater films, consistently? Sure. Everyone wants to work on the great movie and have the great role and get nominated for an Oscar every time. Life is not like that.”

According to Mr. Medina, the most important thing for Ms. Lopez right now is her “presentation,” which he thinks has been helped by a new group of handlers — chiefly himself.

In recent years, “I could tell there were people around that weren’t sensitive to the nuances of how Jennifer Lopez music should be presented — her artistry,” Mr. Medina said. “It didn’t have any special, Jennifer kind of flair. To me, Jennifer defined a glamour and a New York, street-edge, Girl-From-the-Bronx-Gone-to-Hollywood-Done-Well attitude, and that has to come across in how she’s presented.”

(Last fall, Ms. Lopez fired her longtime publicists at the public relations powerhouse BWR.)

Mr. Medina, who discovered Will Smith and has worked with Mariah Carey, has been around the block with Jenny before. In the late 1990s he helped turn her into a global brand with albums like “This is Me … Then” and “J. Lo” and fragrance and fashion lines.

But in 2003, in the thick of her “Bennifer” period, Ms. Lopez’s relationship with Mr. Medina fell apart, culminating in a lawsuit she filed alleging that he had misappropriated more than $100,000. (Ms. Lopez’s publicist, Mark Young, wrote in an e-mail that the lawsuit was “never pursued” and was resolved by a “financial solution.”)

By 2004, Ms. Lopez had retreated with her husband — now also one of her key professional advisers, she said — to Miami. Although she continued to star in films and to record music, her public profile dimmed.

The origins of her “rebirth” as her team likes to call it, date back more than three years, when Mr. Medina and Ms. Lopez ran into each other at an event after years of not speaking. Ms. Lopez was seven months’ pregnant, and without saying anything, Mr. Medina dropped an envelope in her lap. It was an application to be her twins’ godfather — a role they had always talked about his having.

“It was like passing a note in class to the girl that you love,” Ms. Lopez recalled. “Kinda like, ‘Throw it to her.’ I got it on my lap.”

“I read it,” she said, “and it was so sweet.

“And I realized that we really belong together, in each other’s lives.”

At the Grove event, Mr. Medina hovered near the stage, looking like a football coach calling out plays to the event producers, who every few seconds would hustle over to him and nod their heads obediently as he gave orders. Ms. Lopez periodically looked his way as she smiled through sunny sound bites. When it was time for Ms. Lopez’s all-important exit, and there was confusion about how she would leave the stage, Mr. Medina shouted to one frightened-looking minion: “I don’t care what they say! Just do it!”

Standing a few feet from Mr. Medina, Joe Francis, creator of “Girls Gone Wild,” said: “Normally, he’s more hands-on. With Mariah, he’d be up onstage, telling her what to say.

“With J. Lo, he gives her a little more leeway,” said Mr. Francis, who was texting Kim Kardashian (whom he said he “idolizes” and who “wants to be” Ms. Lopez).

The star, however, seems to have learned that she can’t control everything. In her trailer, when asked what the biggest disappointment in her career had been, she didn’t hesitate: her failed fashion lines.

“That was sad for me,” she said, as she pushed a strand of stray hair back in place. “I just felt like I never got a fair chance to do it right. And on top of it, I felt like I was trapped in a situation I couldn’t get out of, and my name was stamped on things that I didn’t believe in.”

As for what went wrong — the sportswear line, which had its debut in 2001, was criticized for being overpriced and cheaply made — Ms. Lopez said she “didn’t understand the business well enough” and didn’t have enough creative control. More crucially, she didn’t seem to understand how to translate her iconic red carpet style — the navel-plunging green Versace gown she wore to the Grammy Awards in 2000; the mink eyelashes — to an off-the-rack business. The Kohl’s partnership is an attempt to rectify this with a Jessica Simpson-like “lifestyle brand” oriented toward the bargain shopper.

“The difference this time around is that Jennifer is fully engaged with a company that is professionally staffed to really develop anything she wants, from towels to knee-high suede boots,” said the fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger, a partner in the deal (his younger brother, Andy, oversaw Ms. Lopez’s original line). “Literally, her wish is their command.”

And he has no doubt she’ll succeed.

“She lives fashion,” Mr. Hilfiger said.” She sings about and says it’s the most fun thing about getting ready for ‘Idol.’ Her eyes light up when you ask her what kind of shoes she’s wearing. Louboutins, naturally.”



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