Inside Jennifer Lopez’s pop culture empire20 min read . Updated: 19 Nov 2020, 12:07 PM IST
- After an acclaimed role in Hustlers and a showstopping performance at this year’s Super Bowl, the star is back with new music and a new movie, Marry Me. Next up, a beauty line and a plan to build her brand into a global business.
Jennifer Lopez is sitting at the table in her kitchen in Los Angeles, palm trees soaring outside the picture window behind her, and I’m in my kitchen in New York, and it only takes a second of getting the angles just so before it feels like we’re both sitting in the same kitchen, across from each other, having a normal conversation. Once we’re settled, I notice that Lopez is shuffling a stack of papers, like a lawyer who doesn’t want to forget her talking points during a hearing.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in early October and because Lopez has just finished working out, she’s wearing a black sports bra. “Let me put a sweatshirt on so my boobs don’t assault you," she says as she reaches out of the Zoom frame. The hoodie she grabs is emblazoned with a smoldering photograph of Lopez and Maluma, the Colombian pop star with whom she’s recently made a movie and an album, both of which were supposed to come out this fall but because of the pandemic have been pushed to February—just in time for Valentine’s Day, in fact, a spot on the winter calendar that actually means something to an unreconstructed romantic like Lopez.
At 51, Lopez has built one of the sturdiest careers in show business as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars (global box office receipts estimated at $4.3 billion) and one of the most successful pop singers on the planet (roughly 70 million records sold worldwide). Although the new music (the first two videos with Maluma, sung mostly in Spanish, dropped in late September) and new movie are what her fans will be buzzing about in the coming months, there is other big news in J. Lo’s world—and the reason she’s got talking points in hand: a new beauty line launching any day now (details of which are being kept under wraps); a pending IPO for a startup in which she’s a key investor; and perhaps most tantalizing, persistent rumors that she and A-Rod, to whom she is A-ffianced, have been in a bidding war to become the next owners of the New York Mets.
Lopez has never been afraid to show off her boss moves—and has always evinced the aura of la jefa, a woman who thinks strategically, especially when it comes to her career—but get her talking about how she’s juggling the intersecting parts of her portfolio and she goes full C to the E-O. “There’s the entertainment silo," she says. “There’s the investment silo. There’s the building businesses silo. And in the entertainment silo, there’s a producing silo, an acting silo, a performing silo and the music silo. And everything needs to be managed and looked after properly, right?"
The biggest piece in the entertainment silo right now—her new film, Marry Me—is, on its face, a romantic comedy, because Lopez is an incorrigible lover and maker of romantic comedies. Long since women like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon have aged out of the genre, Lopez soldiers on as one of the art form’s last great practitioners. Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas has been Lopez’s producing partner these past eight years; she co-wrote Lopez’s 2018 romantic comedy, Second Act, and was both her and Julia Roberts’s agent during the golden age of the genre. Those films remain a sweet spot for Lopez, she says, because she is a girl’s girl. “There’s an authenticity about her that is deeply touching," says Goldsmith-Thomas. “She doesn’t root against anyone. She sees the good in people. She doesn’t judge. For all of the glitter, gloss and sparkle, what’s underneath is an authentic, honest, good friend."
“We love these movies," Lopez says. “These movies are necessary. Elaine and I have kind of built a career on, you know, incorporating romantic comedies into our lives in a very real way. You can watch people find their way and figure it out and fall in love over and over and over. It never gets old."
Lopez seems to never get old either—and not just in that she looks younger than her years. There has always been an endearingly naive, almost immature aspect to Lopez, most obviously exemplified in her chaotic romantic life. She still has a girlishness that for most women might be hard to pull off once you’re the mother of 12-year-old twins (a daughter, Emme, and a son, Max, from her relationship with ex-husband Marc Anthony) and on the cusp of your fourth marriage. But in a nod to reality—a capitulation to the fact that, despite all physical evidence to the contrary, J. Lo is indeed in her 50s—in Marry Me she plays a pop star approaching middle age.
The script is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Bobby Crosby and was initially in development as a television show at Lopez’s production company, Nuyorican, before they decided to turn it into a movie. “The character Jennifer plays has been married many times," says the film’s director, Kat Coiro. “She’s had ups and downs in the press. There’s a mention of a sex tape. She’s been in the public eye in a very vulnerable way." When Coiro talks about the film, the line between the character and the star gets blurry. “I think that if people can persevere through that kind of scrutiny and, you know, manage to stay on top and stay positive and keep working, it eventually fosters a lot of good will, because there’s a realness to that. They end up being very beloved."
Sound familiar? “It was very meta," says Lopez of playing a character so close to herself, shooting footage at Madison Square Garden and the Hammerstein Ballroom, her Bronx-to–Manhattan superstar stomping grounds. “It was a cathartic experience, and I had to constantly remind myself: Put everything that you’ve lived here. I play a pop star who has her own brand and has been around for a while and has been in and out of bad relationships. I would say to myself, You don’t have to act here. You just have to show your pure essence and it’s gonna work. It’ll be right."
Marry Me is a musical in the way that A Star Is Born is a musical: a movie about a pop star who sings and dances her way through several scenes of live concert performance, many of the songs playing out in their entirety. In A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga brought her enormous gifts of singing and songwriting to a character that wasn’t Lady Gaga, but she was also playing an ingenue, a woman at the outset of a journey. Lopez’s Kat Valdez is world-weary from getting it all wrong—A Star Has Been There, Done That. Lopez sings most of the songs on the album—a bilingual soundtrack, with Maluma recording a few of his own. “I’m really proud of the music," says Lopez. “It’s super-authentic. At the same time, I had to perform music that I loved and responded to, but it wouldn’t be a J. Lo album."
But this is a J. Lo movie, which means if it’s a comedy centered on a romance, it must have a happy ending. Enter Owen Wilson, who plays the Brooklyn math teacher whom Lopez meets cute. Because of his all-around normal-guy decency, the superstar winds up humbled and humanized and, presumably, happy ever after. Wilson’s big takeaway from working with Lopez (aside from what a “formidable person she is") is not so much about Lopez as the fuss she inspires. “I don’t know if I’ve ever worked with anyone where there is that much curiosity from my friends, wanting to visit the set so they could see Jennifer Lopez," he tells me. “Part of it is that she looks so great, and I think women really admire how she’s so strong and beautiful. I was surprised by, you know, my mom, but also almost all of the women I’m friends with—they really want to see her with their own two eyes."
Marry Me fires all of J. Lo’s cylinders at once and serves as a reminder that she has always been both ahead of her time and a quadruple-threat who cycles through various phases of surprising her audience, being underestimated by them and then surprising everyone once again. Right out of the gate, her Golden Globe–nominated performance in Selena in 1997 was followed three weeks later by Anaconda (which has a 38 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and also co-starred Wilson). If historians were asked to pinpoint the precise moment of the J. Lo Event Horizon—when her nova went super—it would be January 2001, a month when she had both the No. 1 movie (The Wedding Planner) and No. 1 album (J.Lo) in America at the same time—the only woman to do so.
As the Harvard Crimson pointed out last year in an earnest/hilarious pitch-perfect essay, “This Year in J-Lo History: 2001," it was also when—after breaking the internet with a green Versace dress that she wore to the 2000 Grammys, the incident that became an impetus for Google’s invention of Google Images—Lopez founded her hugely successful clothing line, J.Lo by Jennifer Lopez. At the press conference for the launch she said, in an early burst of prescient confidence: “It’s time for the world to wear my look." As Amelia F. Roth-Dishy wrote in the Crimson, the sporty chic clothing line “cemented Lopez’s status as the aughts’ supreme arbiter of mass culture in nearly every conceivable realm—the stage, the screen, the radio, and the all-important closet." It gets harder every day to keep the history of this sort of pop culture effluvium straight—with a firehose of celebrity news on social media—but women like Kim Kardashian West, Rihanna and Beyoncé have clearly taken a page out of the original J. Lo playbook.
Yes, we watched Lopez make her way through the Puffy phase (rapper and entrepreneur Sean “Diddy" Combs), the Bennifer spectacle (actor Ben Affleck), the “Get Right" Marc Anthony cool-down period. Sure, she was sublime in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, but there was also the spectacularly awful Gigli. We were treated to the delightful Judge Jennifer era of American Idol, when at long last America got to really be with her, to finally see that she’s a lover, not a fighter. Then she seemed to disappear for a few years: into a Vegas residency and the concomitant Shades of Blue, a forgettable, two-star cop show on NBC that you probably didn’t watch.
And then came 2019. Lopez began the year working out like a madwoman so she could believably, comfortably shoot the thrilling stripper-pole opener (her idea) for Hustlers last spring. As soon as they wrapped she began rehearsals for a tour, which lasted most of the summer. Once that ended, she flew to the Toronto International Film Festival in early September, after the studio, based on wildfire word-of-mouth that movie producers dream of, decided to fast-track Hustlers. It opened to raves for Lopez as Ramona, the stripper with a heart of a gold brick.
Lopez was born to play Ramona, the man-eater in a big fur, partly because it’s a character she’s toyed with over the years in her public persona, but also because she is Jenny from the Block, that gum-snapping tough girl with the door-knocker earrings whom you might not want to cross. I was once in a nightclub in Manhattan in the late ’90s when Puff and J. Lo (both in big furs) made their entrance—as if Bonnie and Clyde themselves had arrived to part the sweaty masses.
“When I read the script for Hustlers, I knew that there was a character there that was a f—ing badass that I hadn’t really done," says Lopez. “I understood Ramona. Being a mom and being the mother-bear figure and stuff like that. But there were parts of her that I had to delve into and, you know, figure out. She’s a ruthless character. She really doesn’t give a shit about anybody or anything—except money. And I know people like that. They seem kind, and you’re drawn to them; they’re like, the center of attention, the life of the party. But they’re also like, Don’t f— with my money!"
Award nominations rained down on Lopez (though not the expected Oscar, a big letdown, she admits). “I was really taken aback by the reaction," she says. “Not that I didn’t think it was good. I was proud of my performance. But that hadn’t happened to me since Selena. It’d been more than 20 years since I’d gotten those kinds of accolades."
If Lopez’s stripper-pole voodoo bolstered her status as an avatar of a kind of timeless, ageless, all-around Latina moxie, her Super Bowl performance a few months later burned it more deeply into the cultural consciousness. It was more than just how she looked: It’s that she suddenly seemed to stand for something. When I put the question to her longtime manager, Benny Medina, he says, “She has just started to get a sense of who she is and what she represents: the limitless potential of women and how they can work hard, stay focused, multitask and not accept a shelf life—even if they get knocked down or ridiculed or fail. I think she became a bit of a poster girl for that resilience combined with her own cultural and ethnic pride combined with being a mother." Or as Goldsmith-Thomas puts it, “I think she’s become the symbol for Why not? If you want more, do more."
It is a truism that female entertainers are quietly indoctrinated to believe an expiration date applies to them that does not exist for their male counterparts. Which is why some can seem almost in a panic to stay relevant. There is an impatience that can tip over into trying too hard, a kind of brittleness that exhausts audiences. The one-two punch of Hustlers into her triumphant Super Bowl performance has delivered Lopez from this fate. She seems to have relaxed into herself. As Owen Wilson says, “I think if you sort of stay around long enough and continue to produce the way she has, you sometimes enter into—I almost hesitate to say it—national treasure territory, and I think she is a woman who has entered into that realm. You know how you put things in a time capsule and send it off to Mars or something? She would be one of those people."
“There is something in me that wants to endure," says Lopez. “I feel youthful and I feel powerful and I want to show women how to be powerful. There was a lot of symbolism in the performance at the Super Bowl. I wanted to be at the top of the Empire State Building, like King Kong, beating my chest: ‘I’m here!’ You know? It’s a very powerful thing to use your femininity and your sensuality. We are here and we matter. We deserve to be equal. You have to count us."
At one point, Lopez tells me a story about a meeting she had with her fragrance company several years ago. “I had been challenging Benny for a while on our business stuff. Because I just felt like we weren’t doing it right. I realized this when I sat down with my perfume company and they showed me all these numbers. And they said to me, ‘We’ve made a billion dollars.’ "
She stared at me and blinked a couple of times. “A billion. Dollars." She let out a mordant chuckle. “And then they said, ‘We have a plan to get to $2 billion and this is how we’re going to do it and we want to re-sign you.’ I’m sitting there going, ‘You made a billion dollars? I came up with the perfume. I came up with the name. I’m marketing it. It’s my face in the ads. I didn’t make that kind of money. Where is the billion dollars?"
Early in her career, she says, Lopez intuited that “people want to smell like their favorite pop star or they want to look like their favorite actress or they want to wear what their favorite models wear. There are brands to be made here from these people. But we were in a licensing model. And the licensing model doesn’t really make you any money."
In the past year she’s done deals with everyone from Versace and Coach to DSW and Guess, a high-low mix that has always been her signature. But it was in that fragrance meeting a decade ago when the seeds of discontent were planted, which ultimately led to a wholesale re-engineering of Lopez’s business ventures, what Medina describes as “ramping up of our investment profile with the idea that we’re going to start to not just be an endorser of things, but more a partner in all of our businesses. That is the pivot: She is no longer just putting her name on things and then going out there and singing and dancing." Now, he says, “a lot of people come to us initially for endorsement; some come to us for investment; but in all cases, if we decide to endorse, we’re usually going to invest."
This new approach puts her in a league with other celebrities who have leveraged their image and lifestyle—notably, the Kardashians—into astonishingly lucrative empires. Indeed, her hope is to try to capture a slice of the estimated $100 billion beauty market in the U.S. with her own line of cosmetics, JLo Beauty. It’s all part of a master plan: to be that wiser, older (but still youthful) role model for women who want to take control of their bodies, their beauty and their sexual health. “The whole inspiration of: If I can do it, you can do it," says Medina.
The biggest move Lopez has made since she’s committed to this new strategy, with Alex Rodriguez as her co-investor, is with the health and wellness brand Hims & Hers. The couple are not just the face of it; they stand to see a windfall as investors (they would not disclose the size of their stake). Among other things, Hims & Hers facilitates telehealth and offers subscriptions to dermatological, sexual-health and hair-loss remedies. “It’s really about bringing health care to everybody online at an affordable price," says Lopez, “which for me and Alex is very on-brand because we grew up in those neighborhoods where you didn’t always have access to everything and certain prescriptions were too expensive." (Hims & Hers filed to go public through a merger with Oaktree Acquisition Corp., a special-purpose acquisition company; the deal could be valued at $1.6 billion, according to the two companies.)
Lopez has also made investments in energy drinks (Super Coffee), sports (NRG Esports) and virtual entertainment/social media (Wave; Community). The larger goal of this flurry of investing is that she and Rodriguez have had something much bigger in mind: buying the Mets. “We have a plan for the Mets and the city and the fans," says Lopez, “but we’re still waiting in the wings. They’ve chosen who their first bid is, and that person still has to be approved, so we’re kind of hopeful." Part of what makes the possibility of Lopez in the owner’s box potentially game-changing is that most of the individuals who currently own teams are white men, with relatively few minorities or women. “We would be honored to be the first Latino couple." A big smile spreads across her face. “We’re not giving up!" (An agreement to move forward with a rival bid, from billionaire hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen, was announced by the team in September and expected to close in November.)
Medina tells me that at first Lopez was taken aback to discover that many of the boardrooms where she’s been spending time recently are filled mostly with men. “She said to me, ‘They’re thinking about how to sell us, they’re thinking about how to buy us, but they’re not thinking like us,’ " says Medina.
It’s been yet another life lesson for Lopez leading to her late-blooming maturity. “I’ll be sitting there with 20 people," she says. “Men! From the ages of 30 to 70 sometimes. You know what I mean? Men who have been doing it for the longest are not used to having a girl in the room. You see them test you with, like, the first time they throw the boy talk in there to see how you react. You know?" Medina, who often accompanies Lopez to these meetings, says that you can tell a lot from who’s the most surprised. “ ‘Oh, we’re just blown away with your business acumen and your savvy and your focus,’ and we’re like, ‘Dude, how do you think she f—ing stayed on top for 25 years? What did you think was going on all this time?"
Medina also points out that Rodriguez has been “a major influence on Jennifer’s business thinking," and that eventually, as a team, they both completely (edited) embraced it. “When Alex came into my life," says Lopez, “he was like, ‘Let’s build your skin-care company. This is a dream of yours. Let’s do it together. Let’s own it.’ It’s like when somebody opens up your eyes to something new—it’s like a broadened horizon."
The couple started dating three years ago “and realized we could help each other really grow to another level," says Lopez. “I think where we’re twin souls, or whatever term you want to use, is in the way that there are no limits. That we’re limitless. That’s my thing, but he helped me realize how true that is. We can do anything. We both have that DNA—like, why not? Why can’t we build not one multibillion-dollar business, but three or four? Why can’t we own the Mets?"
Toward the end of our Zoom call, I hear a dog bark. “That’s Lady," says Lopez. “A white Lab. She’s a little bit older now. But she is everything her name implies: She is beautiful and she is the sweetest—the perfect lady. And then we have a brand-new dog, Tyson. He’s our pandemic puppy. I call him a menace to society. He eats garbage." When one of the twins comes into the kitchen with some kind of electronic device blaring, Lopez shouts. “Max! I can’t hear, baby. Thank you." Later, she tells me, “The twins are 12 now. It’s crazy. I’ve got to get them off those electronics for the rest of the day. I let them have them in the morning on the weekends but then I’ve gotta snatch ’em."
It was one year ago when the shoot for Marry Me wrapped in New York City during the week of Thanksgiving and Lopez flew to Los Angeles and went straight into two months of rehearsals for the Super Bowl on February 2. “I filmed another season of World of Dance right after the Super Bowl," says Lopez, “and on our last day, I flew to Miami and stayed there for the quarantine." Like several other stars, Lopez and Rodriguez were dragged on social media for the tone-deaf celebration of blended family life inside their luxurious bubble. I ask Lopez what she’s learned from quarantine.
“I actually loved being home and having dinner with the kids every night, which I hadn’t done in probably—ever. And the kids kind of expressed to me, like, the parts that they were fine with about our lives and the parts they weren’t fine with. It was just a real eye-opener and a reassessment, to really take a look at what was working and what wasn’t working. You thought you were doing OK, but you’re rushing around and you’re working and they’re going to school and we’re all on our devices. We’re providing this awesome life for them, but at the same time, they need us. They need us in a different way. We have to slow down and we have to connect more. And, you know, I don’t want to miss things. And I realized, ‘God. I would have missed that if I wasn’t here today.’ I feel like everybody aged, like, three years during this pandemic. I watched them go from kind of young and naive to really, like, grown-ups to me now. When did this happen? They’re not our babies anymore. They’ve been given a dose of the real world, with the knowledge that things can be taken away from you and life is going to happen no matter what. They had to grow up." She gets distracted for a second by something off-screen but then refocuses. “So did we."
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.