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Jennifer Lopez: Homegirl, Working Woman, Empire Builder


November 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 


Jennifer Lopez as a maid, Tyler Garcia Posey as her son and Ralph Fiennes as a patrician Senate candidate in the romantic comedy "Maid in Manhattan."

PHOTO: Barry Wetcher/Columbia Pictures


AT an hour when most people had long since left work, the atmosphere in the control room at the Hit Factory, the Midtown Manhattan recording studio, was just heating up. It was after 9:30 p.m. when Jennifer Lopez, dressed in a Miu Miu poncho and her own J. Lo Rider jeans, leaned against the console, closed her eyes and blissfully sang along to the sound of her own voice.

The song, "You're Perfect," was one she wrote for her coming album, and as it filled the room, her record producer and her voice coach, both dressed in sweatsuits bearing the Sean John label of Ms. Lopez's ex-boyfriend, the impresario Sean Combs, leaned back, rocking out to the music. Her assistant Tiana; her hulking bodyguard, who goes by the name B-O-B; her manager, Benny Medina, and an assortment of hangers-on watched in approval.


Jennifer Lopez in "Maid in Manhattan", opening in December.

PHOTO: Barry Wetcher/Columbia Pictures


Ms. Lopez, the sultry actress, singer and entrepreneur who presides over a one-woman entertainment empire, had begun the day at 7 a.m. in Philadelphia, where she was filming "Jersey Girl." After working out with her personal trainer for an hour, she helicoptered to the Chelsea Piers to be photographed for the album.

After putting some finishing touches on the new album, "This Is Me . . . Then," she was to fly back to Philadelphia at midnight. She planned to use the time in the air to decide what she would wear a few days later, when she would accept the Most Influential Artist of the Year prize at the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards on Oct. 15.

Then there was "Maid in Manhattan," a movie developed in part by Julia Roberts's former longtime agent, the producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. It opens on Dec. 13, and Ms. Lopez's handlers hope this romantic comedy, about a hotel maid from the Bronx who finds love with a patrician Senate candidate (Ralph Fiennes), will break her recent string of disappointing films and do for her what "Pretty Woman" did for Ms. Roberts.

"It's a lot, I know, and I'm tired," Ms. Lopez said of her breakneck schedule. Then she added, laughing, "But I love it." It is packed through next June, and involves not only movie and music careers but a clothing line, a restaurant, a new perfume and her production company Nuyorican Films, which will oversee two of her future movies and is developing an NBC sitcom that Ms. Lopez will produce. "People think I'm superhuman," she said. "I'm not. I just work really hard."

Ms. Lopez, a paparazzi favorite who was involved with Mr. Combs (also known as P. Diddy) before his brush with the law over a nightclub shooting in 2000, denies that her acting career has suffered because of her recording career or her business ventures. Yet that very morning, a newspaper reported that she had abruptly dropped the agency that had represented her, International Creative Management. The item placed the blame on the lack of box office for recent Lopez films like "Enough," "Angel Eyes" and "The Cell." But, Ms. Lopez said, "I don't regret any of them." She added, a bit wryly: "It's occurred to me that writing is really important. But I choose my scripts; at the end of the day, I make those decisions. Nobody forces me. I can't blame an agent for that."

Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas was herself Ms. Lopez's agent until late 1999. They had worked together for several years before Ms. Lopez fired her. "I was so hands on, I was insistent about what I wanted," Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas said recently in New York. "We were two strong personalities."

After they parted, Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas said, the two did not speak for several months. "But then," she said, "we missed each other and got back in touch. Jennifer is actually really fun to hang with. Her drive is both wacky and inspirational."

Last year, when Ms. Lopez was a guest at Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas's house in Los Angeles, Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas told her about an idea she had for a movie based on a script by John Hughes ("The Breakfast Club") called "The Chambermaid." Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas then wrote a 40-page outline of the movie she envisioned, renamed "Maid in Manhattan," and Ms. Lopez promptly signed on.

"It was more of a fairy tale in the beginning," Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas said of the Hughes story. "I wanted it to be more realistic. I had just moved to Manhattan, and I was struck with the idea of this island surrounded by boroughs, as if they were populated by people with their nose pressed up against the window. People who serve Manhattan but can't afford to live here."

It's not Jennifer Lopez's story – but it might have been. Her character, Marisa Ventura, is a single mother, a Hispanic woman born and bred in the Bronx who works at an upscale Manhattan hotel. Through a quirk of timing, the candidate, Christopher Marshall (Mr. Fiennes), mistakes her for a well-off guest at the hotel. They share an afternoon together and, of course, fall in love.

Ms. Lopez, 32, is famously from the Bronx herself. The daughter of a computer engineer and a kindergarten teacher, she grew up in the Castle Hill section. When she goes home, there is no mistaking her for someone else. The movie's first day of filming happened to be in the Bronx, and the director, Wayne Wang, said her fame almost brought the production to a standstill.

"It was pretty scary and amazing," he said. "When school got out, kids surrounded us and almost caused a riot. Jennifer was almost in tears. They love her, but it really got out of control."

Ms. Lopez can cause a stir in Manhattan as well. Mr. Fiennes, by telephone from London, still sounded dazed by the experience. "We were shooting on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum one night," he recalled. "It was lit romantically, and Jennifer was wearing an evening gown, looking incredibly stunning. Suddenly there must have been a thousand people screaming her name. It was like witnessing this icon."

Ms. Lopez is as matter-of-fact about acting as she seems to be about most everything else in her life. "As long as I'm prepared, I think I can do a pretty good job," she said, "and I'm almost always prepared." Mr. Wang said he had been so concerned about her extracurricular activities that he telephoned Michael Apted, the director of "Enough," to find out if she would be difficult to work with. "He told me she was very professional," Mr. Wang said, adding that he had also found it to be the case. "I don't think she even flubbed one line," he said. "She works with an acting coach and rehearses beforehand so she has it down once she comes to work."

Ms. Lopez's rise from Catholic school student to $12 million-a-movie superstar – she made history in January 2001, when she had the No. 1 movie, "The Wedding Planner," and the No. 1 album, "J. Lo" – has been steady and fairly swift. She got her first break as one of the dancing "fly girls" on the Fox sketch series "In Living Color" in 1990; did brief time on series like "Second Chances" and "South Central," and got her first major movie role in 1995 with "Money Train," opposite Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. She followed that with the creature feature "Anaconda" and got star billing (and a $1 million paycheck) in 1997 for "Selena," the movie biography of the Mexican-American singing idol. She made two other movies in 1997: "Blood and Wine," opposite Jack Nicholson, and "U-Turn," directed by Oliver Stone. In 1998 she played the tough and sexy deputy federal marshal who gets locked in a trunk with George Clooney's escaped convict in Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight." Her performance, and their chemistry, got Ms. Lopez her best reviews to date.

While "Maid in Manhattan" seems tailored for Ms. Lopez's core fans, it may also appeal to those who will see authentic parallels between the story, which is more "Working Girl" than "Cinderella," and Ms. Lopez's own life.

Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas said Ms. Lopez has not forgotten her roots. "She so understood this character," she said of "Maid in Manhattan." She mentioned one scene in particular in which Amy Sedaris, playing a rich, haughty guest, makes some ethnic slurs and calls the Lopez character "Miss Cinco de Mayo."

"You could see Jennifer bristle," Ms. Goldsmith-Thomas said, "and it was for real. She's very protective of where she comes from."

Ms. Lopez says she has only fond memories of her childhood. She said her mother told her and her two sisters that "we could do whatever we wanted to in life and not to depend on anyone but ourselves." She enrolled in dance classes when she was 5.

"My mom came here from Puerto Rico when she was 2 and didn't have a lot of advantages," Ms. Lopez said. "So she wanted us to have dancing classes, music classes, whatever we wanted. My mom's a little frustrated actress. I think I'm living her dream."

Ms. Lopez said her father, who was also born in Puerto Rico, worked nights, so the happiest times involved being at home with her mother and two sisters, watching musicals on television. Her favorite was "West Side Story." Her mother, who grew up on East 102nd Street in Manhattan, was partial to it, too. "Every time that movie came on, she'd point out a place in some scene and say, `That's where I busted my head open once,' " Ms. Lopez recalled.

After high school, Ms. Lopez spent a semester at Baruch College in Manhattan but left to immerse herself in dance classes. She got her job with "In Living Color" through a casting call she found in the entertainment journal Backstage. She was soon in Los Angeles, "living high" on her $1,300-a-week salary, renting a two-bedroom loft, driving a brand-new car.

MS. LOPEZ spent her free time auditioning for commercials. She never got one. "I was terrible at it," she said. "If I don't feel passionate about something, forget it."

Through a contact she made at "In Living Color," Ms. Lopez was hired for the short-lived Fox drama "South Central." A few television roles followed, but Ms. Lopez had bigger plans. She wanted to become a movie star.

"I can remember running on the treadmill every day and saying to myself, 'Only the strong survive,' " she said. "Really cliché things. I was into working out, being the best."

Ms. Lopez says that her reputation as a diva is the bane of her existence, but she clearly has a fearless attitude that has served her well. Though an interview scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Hit Factory did not happen until 8 p.m., because the Chelsea Piers photo shoot ran hours later than expected, Ms. Lopez mentioned mildly that the interviewer was a few minutes late. But when she was reminded how late she was, she smiled good-naturedly.

She's nobody's patsy, however. In 1996 she auditioned for an Oliver Stone movie, "Noriega," which was never made. She felt, she said, that Mr. Stone was not sufficiently attentive, and she called her manager in a rage. "I said, 'I'll never work for Oliver Stone,' " she recalled. "I made all these sweeping statements that were so obnoxious and pompous." When Mr. Stone came calling again, it was to ask her to audition for "U-Turn." Ms. Lopez did so reluctantly. But this time, things went better: "I went in and he said he'd always been afraid of Puerto Rican girls. And I said, `You should be!' He said he used to take the bus in New York when he was younger, and the Puerto Rican girls were so tough. I told him he was silly, and got the part."

Ms. Lopez was no more intimidated when she decided, shortly after "Out of Sight,", to pursue a music career. She met with some producers from a division of Sony Music who, having heard her demo tape, wanted to sign her. She insisted on first seeing the head of the company. She was having her hair done in Manhattan when she got a call saying Tommy Mottola would see her in an hour. "I said, `I'm getting my hair done – can't we do it tomorrow?' " But, she said, Mr. Mottola was going out of town. So Ms. Lopez, mother in tow, went over to meet with him. She said she wasted no time in expressing her annoyance over being interrupted at the hair salon. "He goes, 'What?' " she recalled.

The rest of the meeting went smoothly – at least for Ms. Lopez. "I sat down with Tommy for five minutes, and then he closed the door and said, 'O.K., what do you want?' I said, 'I want the A treatment, I want everything top of the line.' He clapped his hands and said, 'All right, done deal.' I said: 'No way, I've got to call my manager first. He'll call you tomorrow.' "

Ms. Lopez laughed merrily at the memory. "Sometimes it's good not to know too much," she said. "Ignorance is bliss, a little bit."

Ms. Lopez seems too street-savvy to have ever been truly ignorant, but she is certainly not given to shows of introspection or angst. She doesn't even mind, except every now and then, the tremendous interest in her personal life. Since her breakup earlier this year with her second husband, the dancer-choreographer Cris Judd, Ms. Lopez, who is sporting a sizable diamond on her left hand, has been involved with Ben Affleck, her co-star in the coming comedy-drama "Gigli" and in Kevin Smith's "Jersey Girl." (She was married briefly to a former waiter, Ojani Noa, in 1997.)

She and Mr. Affleck escaped on a recent outing to Cape Cod, a rare break for her. "It was a particularly great weekend," Ms. Lopez said. "It was overcast weather; we looked at the ocean and talked. It was really quiet, which we liked. We were staying out at this remote house with Ben's mother, and during dinner we heard someone knock on the door. It was a fan asking if me and Ben were there. Ben's mom just said no. It's hard sometimes when people don't realize I'm also just a human being with a life to lead with someone I'm in love with."

The recording studio also appears to offer a refuge of sorts. She was especially at ease at the Hit Factory, joking around with her entourage in language much tougher than what she used during the formal interview.

The question was posed to everyone in the room: Was she really a diva? Her producer, Cory Rooney, and her voice coach, Kenny Hicks, cracked up. "She whips us!" Mr. Hicks yelled. "She flogs us!" Mr. Rooney said. "I beat them senseless," Ms. Lopez agreed.

She refused to say if she was more partial to music or film. If someone held a gun to her head and made her choose between acting and singing?

Ms. Lopez shook her head.

"You'd have to shoot me," she said. "I could act and sing in heaven." 

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