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Evening Standard
El Hunt

The incredible rise of Jennifer Lopez: her 7 biggest career moments

Ahead of J-Lo’s upcoming new film This Is Me…. Now – a surreal-sounding project that takes viewers through the megastar’s “journey to find love”, here’s a look back at how Jenny from the Block became one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.

Crashing on studio floors

Long before the starring roles and smash singles, Jennifer Lopez got her start as a dancer. Initially, she crammed in night classes in jazz and tapped around a business degree and a secretarial job at a legal firm, but she dropped out to go and enroll at New York’s Phil Black Dance Studio instead. Her parents deeply disapproved of her choice to sack off business school and asked Lopez to move out of their house in the Bronx; for her first few months in Manhattan she crashed on the floor of the studio office. Eight months later, Lopez extended an olive branch to her mum by buying her tickets to see Barry Manilow.

Soon, the gamble paid off when Lopez started landing gigs as a backing dancer for the likes of New Kids on the Block and MC Hammer, as well as a handful of roles in regional productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Oklahoma! Her first break came when she moved to LA in order to join The Fly Girls; the in-house dance troupe on the sketch comedy show In Living Color. After appearing in Janet Jackson’s video for That’s The Way Love Goes, Lopez was offered a spot on her world tour, but had reached a crossroads between dancing and her other big love, acting. She picked the latter.

Her breakthrough as Selena

Over the next few years, Lopez landed more small roles; parts in the short-lived TV dramas South Central and Second Chances paved the way to her first major part in the 1995 indie flick Mi Familia, a film about the Latino community in LA. Starring opposite big names like Robin Williams (Jack) and Jack Nicholson (Blood and Wine) helped to establish her in Hollywood. It was the next casting, though, that changed everything: Mi Familia’s director Gregory Nava asked her to play the late singer Selena in his 1997 biopic.

Known as Queen of Tejano Music, the Mexican-American star is one of the most influential and popular Latin musicians of all time, but was shockingly murdered on her way to the recording studio when she was just 23-years-old. Lopez made it through a demanding audition process to land the starring role, and spent time with Selena’s family in Texas before taking it on. The performance didn’t just secure her first Golden Globe nomination; the process of recreating a Selena performance for a real-life crowd of “30,000 to 40,000 people” made Lopez fall in love with music.

“For me as an actress, at that moment, I had learned how to really become a performer and give everything I had to the audience. That really freed me up, and it was a very powerful moment,” she told Billboard.

That Versace dress

Imagine wearing a dress so iconic that it caused the creation of Google Images? J-Lo’s been there and done that; after the green Versace number she wore to the 2000 Grammy awards became the engine’s “most popular search query" of all time, they decided to invent a new way of looking for things online. Now, she’s left with quite the claim to fame.

Designed by Donatella Versace, the infamous green dress features a tropical leaf motif, a quartz-studded crotch and a low-cut neckline that hangs decadently, like an incredibly glam dressing gown. It was all that anybody, in fashion at least, could talk about; but Lopez was fairly nonplussed. "It was a nice dress,” she said. “I had no idea it was going to become such a big deal.”

A year on from the release of her debut album On the 6 ‒ a R&B and Latin-infused first record ‒ the millionaire movie star was starting to gain traction as a Serious Musician. Though she (understandably) lost out to Cher’s Believe, her song Waiting for Tonight was nominated for Best Dance Recording at that year’s award show.

Spare a thought, though, for Geri Halliwell, who wore the same dress about a month before Lopez without causing any kind of stir.

(Getty Images)

The double number one

A year later, J-Lo made history when she became the first woman ‒ ever ‒ to land a number one record and a box-office topping film at the same time. The movie in question was the rom-com The Wedding Planner, which saw her starring opposite Matthew McConaughey as a wedding planner suffering from very poor work-life boundaries and a near-death experience involving a dump-truck and a hunky love interest yanking her out of harm’s way. Its success coincided with the release of 2001’s album J.Lo: host to now-signature songs like Love Don’t Cost A Thing, Ain’t It Funny, and I’m Real.

And in 2002, following that historic double whammy, she starting hitting headlines for another reason: Bennifer. One of pop culture’s best-known portmanteaus referred to Lopez’ well-publicised relationship with the actor Ben Affleck, who starred alongside her in the music video for Jenny From The Block, and was named by Lopez as the creative muse behind her album This Is Me... Then. The pair first got to know each other on the set of the 2001 film Gigli. Speaking of which….

The critical pannings

So, while Gigli ended up turning out rather well for Bennifer in the end ‒ they got the last laugh when they reunited and remarried twenty years later ‒ it was a bit of a disaster at the time. Flopping so hard at the box office that it became one of the most expensive movie bombs ever made, it was critically panned and made the cut in multiple places as one of the worst films of all time. The only place it was a hit? Arguably the Golden Raspberry awards, where it totally swept the board.

Afterwards, the media took great relish in poking fun at the super-famous couple, and the scrutiny apparently grew too much. Affleck and Lopez had been due to marry in September, a month after Gigli’s release, but called it off at the last minute. Four months later they split, but continued being complimentary towards one another in interviews over the next two decades.

From here, Lopez’s career took a downturn; she has described how the overall backlash left her feeling “eviscerated”. Though films like El Cantante, Monster-in-Law and Shall We Dance? were all moderately successful, other projects were panned, and while her album Rebirth charted at number two on the Billboard 200, its initial popularity soon tailed off.

"I lost my sense of self, questioned if I belonged in this business,” she said of this period. “[I] thought maybe I did suck at everything. And my relationship self-destructed in front of the entire world. It was a two-year thing for me until I picked myself up again."

The comeback

Then, in a time when Lopez was "not getting offered a whole bunch of movies" she tried something different: accepting a place on the panel of American Idol where she replaced Simon Cowell. It ended up being a savvy decision, and in her new role as a judge viewers saw a compassionate, emotional and human side to the star they’d seen on screen so many times before. As well as crying over her favourite contestants, Lopez also did an admirable amount of flirting, treated viewers to a duet with her then-husband Marc Antony on the show, and even did some telenovela-worthy acting. In other words, she got stuck in.

The comeback paved the way to a new record deal with Island, and one of the greatest Eurodance tracks in recent memory, the Pitbull-assisted On the Floor. With the help of Mr Worldwide himself, Jenny from the Block was officially back in business.

This Is Her…. Now

In recent years, the J-Lo train has kept on chugging. Between 2016 and 2018 she played a mammoth 120 shows during an epic, three-year Las Vegas residency ‒ making a cool $100 mil in the process ‒ and then the following year she starred in (and executive produced) Hustlers. The acclaimed film follows a group of Manhattan strippers who set out on a mission to con a bunch of wealthy men whose faculties are clouded by horniness, and as well combining crime with comedy, it’s widely regarded as one of her best performances to date. When the Oscars thought otherwise, many saw it as an unfair snub. Still, Lopez whizzed straight onto the Super Bowl, where she and Shakira hosted one of the greatest half-time shows in recent memory, complete with crowd surfing, hits galore, pole-dancing, and even tongue-wagging (yes really, Shakira’s gesture, known as zaghrouta, was the talk of the town for days).

And now, happily reunited as one half of Bennifer, J-Lo is gearing up for the sequel to an album she dedicated to Ben Affleck, all those years ago. Nawwwwh. Out on February 16, This Is Me…. Now (see what she did there) comes with an accompanying film. An intriguing prospect to say the least, it promises “an intimate, fantastical and narrative-driven reflection of Lopez’s journey to find love.”

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