Face to Face with Jennifer Lopez
The little Latina girl from the Bronx is all grown up.
Protected and Taught by Her Parents
She's come a long way from the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club. That's where Jennifer Lopez, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, got her start, singing and dancing in neighborhood shows in the Bronx.
Today she's in Vancouver, filming An Unfinished Life, in which she teams up with Robert Redford. She's dressed all in white -- squeaky-clean running shoes and velour warmups she designed herself, with a "J. Lo" insignia over the breast. She's wearing three diamonds -- two rocks on her ears and the extraordinary pink diamond engagement ring from actor Ben Affleck, with whom she stars in the crime drama Gigli, due out this month. In a soft voice with traces of the Bronx, Lopez, 33, talked with Reader's Digest about her working-class roots, what she's learned about life, love (after two false starts), and what it feels like to reach her very own version of the American Dream.
RD: These last few years you've had a hit movie, a couple of hit CDs, launched a clothing line and perfume, opened a restaurant, and you're engaged to the love of your life. It looks like a fairy tale. How does it feel?
JL: It feels amazing, but also scary -- like I'm about to start learning what life is really about.
RD: What was the Bronx like that you grew up in? Was it safe?
JL: It was inner city. To me it was safe. It was all I knew. My mother would send me to the store, and I'd go, when I was like eight years old.
RD: There weren't gangs, or gunshots?
JL: I only found out when I was in my 20s and dated a cop who worked in my neighborhood. I told him I grew up on Castle Hill, and he said, "That's the worst crime area." I knew nothing of it. My parents had three girls and raised us to do the right things -- go to school, get good grades, try to get into college. It was about trying to have a better life. We weren't allowed to hang out on the streets. Parties -- God forbid. I'd beg for weeks to go, then have to be home by 11 p.m., when everybody else was just getting there.
RD: So your parents were protective?
JL: It's like my mother said, "We had three girls." Boys were the enemy.
RD: In one of your movies last year, Maid in Manhattan, your character's mother tells her that she shouldn't try to be anything but a maid. Do a lot of Latino parents have that attitude -- accept your station in life?
JL: Fear of failure. It's a fear of success almost. They don't want to rock the boat. There's food on the table, a place to eat. There's a fear to dream a little bit more, go a little bit higher.
RD: Was that the message you got from your parents?
JL: From the community. I felt very much like we're going to work at Macy's, get married, have kids. If you're really ambitious, then you'll go to college, maybe be a lawyer. Forget being a doctor -- it's way too much school to pay for. Luckily, with my mom and dad, I really did get the feeling that we could do anything if we worked hard enough.
RD: Has being Latina ever been a handicap for you?
JL: I never thought of it that way. I never thought, Oh, I'm not white or blond. I just thought, I could do that.
RD: Did you speak Spanish in your home growing up?
JL: My grandmother spoke Spanish. My mother came to New York when she was two and my dad when he was six. They speak perfect English.
RD: How were you able to pick up the language?
JL: After Selena, I took a beating from the Latin press for not knowing Spanish. I said, "Hey, back off. I grew up in an English-speaking country, and I'm proud of my roots, but at the same time, I never learned the language." Then I married Ojani [Noa, her first husband], who only spoke Spanish. I learned it really fast.
Redefining Hollywood's Definition of Beautiful
RD: Selena was your break. It made you a star. Did you identify with her?
JL: Very much. Edward James Olmos, who played Selena's father, told me, "You'll never have another part like this again, where you're perfectly suited, in the right time in your life, where you understand." When things come into your life at a certain moment, it's for a reason. I had a lot to learn from it.
RD: What did you learn?
JL: To not wait till tomorrow. You just don't know what's going to happen. Selena was 23 when she was killed, and had the maturity and grace of a woman who knew she had to get more done in a shorter amount of time.
RD: You've been called one of the sexiest women in the world. What makes a woman sexy?
JL: Being comfortable with who you are. People think, Sexy, big breasts, curvy body, no cellulite. It's not that. Take the girl at the beach with the cellulite legs, wearing her bathing suit the way she likes it, walking with a certain air, comfortable with herself. That woman is sexy. Then you see the perfect girl who's really thin, tugging at her bathing suit, wondering how her hair looks. That's not sexy.
RD: Though men love the way you're built, women can sometimes be catty because you're not stick-thin, you have a voluptuous derrire. Do you think you've helped change Hollywood's definition of what's beautiful?
JL: I hope so. It's important for all types of women to know that you don't have to fit a prototype of what one person thinks is beautiful in order to be beautiful or feel beautiful.
RD: Well, there's definitely one man who thinks you're beautiful -- Ben Affleck. But what everyone wants to know is...how did you and Ben fall in love?
JL: We met on the set of Gigli. I was with my [second] husband, Chris [Judd], at the time. Because I was married, it removed that element.
RD: The romantic element?
JL: There was no illusion that Ben and I were going to go anywhere, so we just became friends. I'm a very faithful person. If somebody had told me, "Ben's attracted to you," I would have said, "No. I wasn't raised that way."
RD: To be unfaithful to your husband, you mean?
JL: Yes. Chris and I were having problems, but that's one thing Ben and I never talked about. I felt it was too private and sacred -- to talk about that with another man wouldn't have been cool. So we talked about past relationships and his old girlfriends and crazy things he did and silly things I did. After the movie, we kept in touch. Then I told Ben I couldn't talk to him, because by then Chris and I were separated and I didn't want anything to be misconstrued. He respected it and never called me. Then I called him.
RD: He must respect the fact that you weren't open to him in a romantic way until you separated from Chris.
JL: It made a huge difference. He knew that if he was ever involved with me, I would never do it to him.
RD: You've been with some very different kinds of men, from Sean "Puffy" Combs, who you dated before Chris, to Ben. It's like a flip-flop from home-boy to WASP.
JL: I don't look at people and see color and race. I see inside. If you look at the people I've been with, there's no type. Ojani was from Cuba -- different from me, a Latina born here. Puffy and I grew up in the same kind of background, but he's African American. You have Chris, who was Asian, Filipino. Then there's Ben.
RD: You've been married twice, for a little more than a year each time. What makes you think this one is going to be different? JL: I thought I learned the first time, but went and did it again a second time: jumped into something without examining it. I think women crave stability more than men. We're nesters. I really was craving stability, and then you find a wonderful person who's good to you. But it's so many other things that make a marriage work.
RD: Such as?
JL: Communication, understanding, being in the same dynamic. The first time, we never even thought about all those things, and all of a sudden I realized I had all this responsibility. We had this house. He wasn't working. I thought, I'm my father. I remembered that pained look on his face about supporting his family, making sure his girls were okay. I felt like that. What if I didn't work next month?
RD: Obviously you and Ben both have careers. You're more equals. Are you working harder at the relationship?
JL: Yes. We talk about everything, just that brutal honesty -- "I'm scared of this; this worries me." And when you do that, nothing's left to chance. I've done this two times before. It's not a fear of doing the wrong thing again. I won't make that mistake -- because it's devastating, not just to the other people, to yourself. Even if you're the one who wants out.
RD: Do you have a wedding date?
Family and Faith
RD: I read that you are going to be having a church wedding this time. Are you religious today?
JL: Spiritual, very. I went to 12 years of Catholic school and learned the fundamentals of what it is to have faith, which is a beautiful thing. But I didn't use it in my everyday life until I got older. You realize your faith is all you have. Now I'll have my conversations with God every day.
RD: Are you still close with your family? Is there ever tension over money issues and jealousy?
JL: It's hard for them, but it doesn't have to do with jealousy or money. It's hard being associated with someone who's in the public eye. I chose my job; they didn't. Just being known as Jennifer's mother and father, not David and Guadalupe Lopez -- it's tough.
RD: Fame is transient, and particularly with an actress as she gets older -- which is still a ways away for you. Do you ever fear that it could all just one day disappear?
JL: Sure. You work so hard your whole life -- it's hot, hot, hot, and then it's cold. I know that day will come. Sometimes I think I'll be onto a different phase of my life by then.
RD: Is that why you have been branching out into clothing and perfume and restaurants?
JL: It's part of it. I'm not stupid. I would like to have some businesses that grow so I won't have to be out there on the road when I'm 44.
RD: Do you think of yourself as the Latina Martha Stewart?
JL: I would love to capitalize on that whole market. What Martha did is amazing, but with me, a little bit more glamorous is how I like to do it.
RD: Is there someone you really admire?
JL: Barbra Streisand. What she did with her career -- acted, sang, did the whole thing. I love her.
RD: Were you excited to meet Robert Redford?
JL: Yes. Because he made The Way We Were with Streisand. It was a love story about two people, and you see their whole lives. You don't get that in movies anymore. Where is my The Way We Were? I need that before I die. And the music! I loved seeing Streisand with her hair and makeup in every scene, and Redford perfect in every shot. I want to see Ben perfect in every shot. I want to wear the fabulous clothes, I want...
RD: Why don't you and Ben make that movie?
JL: We could...