Puerto Rico Profile: Jennifer Lopez
September 8, 2000
Jennifer Lopez is a superstar. In Hollywood, on MTV, on talk shows and newsstands around the country, the beautiful and talented Ms. Lopez is ubiquitous. She commands up to $9 million dollars for each of her movies, the most ever for a Hispanic actress. Her first album went double platinum, topping two million sales and scoring a number one single that knocked Ricky Martins "Livin La Vida Loca" off the top of the charts. She stars in a current movie, The Cell, with two more films due to be released soon.
Beneath all these entertainment-industry statistics, however, is the fact that Jennifer Lopez is the genuine article, a legitimate talent who promises to be around for a long time.
Over the past decade, Lopez, a 30-year-old Puerto Rican from the Bronx, has compiled an incredibly diverse resume. Performers are touted as "crossovers" when they expand their repertoires to reach new audiences in new genres. Jennifer Lopez is a crossover artist in the fullest sense of the term. She has with seeming effortlessness jumped from dancing to acting to singing, from television to film to concert hall, and from Latino to mainstream audiences.
The breadth of her performance is no accident. Speaking of her film roles, she has said, "Since the beginning, Ive always chosen different kinds of roles because I didnt want to be pushed into one category. I wanted to show that I could do anything."
The roots of this refusal to be categorized lie in Lopez experience growing up as a Puerto Rican in the Bronx. She was born on July 24, 1970, the daughter of two natives of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Her mother, Guadalupe, is a kindergarten teacher; and her father, David, is a computer specialist. Jennifer is the middle of three sisters, and they were creative children, performing plays in the familys living room. At an early age Jennifer started taking dance lessons, and she was touring New York City with a dance group by the time she was seven years old.
During these early years, Lopez absorbed the different cultures around her. Walking the streets of the Bronx on the way to Catholic parochial school and dance classes, Lopez could hear the seminal sounds of rap and hip-hop. Back home, she would listen to her parents records of Celia Cruz and Tito Puente.
Lopez developed a love for movie musicals, and an obvious early influence on her was Rita Moreno, the great Puerto Rican actress who won an Oscar for her role in West Side Story. She also drew inspiration from legendary divas like Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Bette Midler. "I want to be the best actress, the best singer and the best dancer I can be," she said recently. "Thats where my ambition lies, and I am relentless."
With that single-mindedness and an intense work ethic, Lopez set out early on the path to success. After a semester of college in New York, she decided to devote all of her energy to a career in show business.
Her first big break came in 1990, when she was cast as one of the "Fly Girl" dancers on the innovative comedy show "In Living Color," the same program that launched the career of Jim Carrey. In subsequent years, Lopez appeared in several short-lived television series and TV movies with names like Nurses on the Line: The Crash of Flight 7.
As her television career began to accelerate, Lopez dropped everything to appear in a small independent film starring Edward James Olmos called Mi Familia. The movies director, Gregory Nava, was shocked at the time by Lopez confidence that her future lay on the big screen. "That was extraordinary to me," he said recently, "because too often in my community we say, Were second-class citizens whats the point? But here was a Latina saying, I want it, and Im going to get it."
The critical success of Mi Familia pushed Jennifer Lopez career to another level. She soon starred in Money Train with Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. Then she was cast in the much-sought-after title role in Selena, a 1997 biographical film about the slain tejano singer from Mexico. For Selena she received $1 million, at that time the highest ever paid to a Latina actress.
Lopez career continued to take off, with starring roles in the surprise hit Anaconda, Oliver Stones U-Turn, and, in 1998, Out of Sight. Although this last movie faltered at the box office, Lopez performance and her chemistry with co-star George Clooney brought her considerable attention in a film critics called among the best of the year.
Once again, however, just as she was hitting her stride, Lopez sent her career in a new direction, taking a hiatus from acting to record an album of Latin and R&B flavored pop music. One of the general rules of Hollywood is to make the most of success as long as it lasts, and her switch to the recording industry was considered by some to mean the end of her emerging movie star status.
The album was released in the summer of 1999. Called On the Six, after the subway train Lopez used to ride from the Bronx to Manhattan for dance classes, it was an instant success. She vaulted to yet another level of stardom, becoming a major sex symbol, thanks in large part to several sultry music videos in support of the album.
On the strength of the albums performance, Lopez resumed her film career this year as a certified leading lady. She is currently starring in the visually stunning psychological thriller The Cell, and she has two other movies coming soon, the romantic comedy The Wedding Planner and the drama Angel Eyes. In fact, making On the Six was such a successful gamble that Lopez plans to take another break around Christmas to go back into the recording studio.
Yet of all the risks that Jennifer Lopez has taken in her career, none have been quite as public or as successful as her choice of "clothing" for this years Grammy Awards. She arrived at the event wearing an incredibly low-cut, diaphanous Versace dress that sent shockwaves through the audience and instantly elevated Lopez to the pantheon of American beauty.
On the surface, Lopez decision to wear that dress might appear to be a crude stunt to exploit her sex appeal. However, Jennifer Lopez, an actress who never does nude scenes and has never posed in Playboy or its like, is smarter than that.
One way to view "the dress" is in the broader context of what Lopez has done to exorcise the Hollywood stereotype of Puerto Rican women - and indeed all Hispanic women - as barefoot, poor, and uncivilized. Rita Moreno complained for years about being consigned to degrading roles in torn, dirty costumes. Now Jennifer Lopez - not just at the Grammy Awards but throughout her entire career - has forced the issue by demonstrating that Latinas can be beautiful, glamorous, and enormously successful with no apologies and without compromising their heritage.