By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY
WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — On any given American Idol episode, you can see Jennifer Lopez the personable judge, Jennifer Lopez the music video star and, during commercial breaks, Jennifer Lopez the glamorous spokeswoman for a hair-care line.
Suddenly, Lopez is everywhere again.
"It wasn't some grand master plan we had — it just kind of worked out that way," she says. "I was working on a record, looking at some films. The American Idol thing was offered to me months and months before. I really wasn't considering it. They came back again. Then I started thinking about it."
A fan of the show, she made a gut decision to join Idol.
"All of a sudden, it just got busy. The record came out, the show was on and it's been so much fun. I really feel blessed and lucky."
Lopez's On the Floor music video, which premiered March 3 on Fox's top-rated Idol, has generated more than 30 million YouTube views. The single is No. 2 on Billboard's digital songs chart, with 609,000 downloads sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Her seventh studio album, Love?, hits the streets in April. And Lopez, along with fellow Idol judge Steven Tyler, is part of what many praise as the revitalization of a singing competition that had been in a slump.
Throw in high-profile endorsement deals with L'Oréal and Gillette, along with a Fox deal that includes a movie component, and the spotlight is shining brightly on the singer/actress.
Married to singer Marc Anthony and the mother of 3-year-old twins, Lopez, 41, is at a different point in her life than she was in the '90s as a determined rising star or later as a ubiquitous celebrity whose personal life attracted as much attention as her professional one.
Lopez says the album reflects her current state. "It's very much me, but it's the evolution of me. It's not me in 2000 when I did Waiting for Tonight. It's me today. And I'm very proud of that."Looking, sounding good
Seated in a hotel suite, the ever-fashionable Lopez is outfitted in a royal-blue-and-white floral frock ("a flirty summer dress," she says) with a yellow patent belt and blue suede snakeskin platforms. She's energetic in conversation, raising her voice for emphasis and even breaking briefly into one of her songs — "I was down for the count, feeling like I've come to the end" — to illustrate one of the many facets of love expressed in her new album. One type of love she now knows is that of being a mother to Emme and Max.
"Those babies for me are the most important thing. Their happiness, their health. That's the one thing I lose sleep over, because I am working a lot more now," she says. "It's a balancing act, a juggling act, just like for any working mom."
Benny Medina, Lopez's manager, says her time off to have children, a recent music-label switch from Sony to Island Def Jam and the deal with Fox came at the right time. "The family that she has built has made her a whole human being, a whole artist and a whole force to be reckoned with," he says.
She says she doesn't worry whether that break diminished her stardom. "I just think about evolving and growing, and doing whatever I did this time better than whatever I did last time."
Her recent movie and music ventures haven't had the commercial success of her earlier work. Two 2007 albums, Como ama una Mujer and Brave, sold fewer than 400,000 combined, falling far short of previous multiplatinum releases. Last year's romantic comedy The Back-up Plan earned a modest $38 million at the domestic box office.
"We could politely say she was on a (career) plateau," says San Diego Union-Tribune pop music critic George Varga.
As much as anything, Idol has put Lopez back in the public eye. The Fox singing competition is averaging 25.1 million viewers this season, a much better performance than many expected after the departure of alpha-judge Simon Cowell.
"She looks amazing, she's the heart of the show, she's sincere. It's clear she cares about the kids. She's just doing wonderfully," Fox reality chief Mike Darnell says. "She's the most emotionally connected judge I've ever seen."
Star status hasn't affected Lopez behind the scenes. "She has been a pleasure to work with, always on time, willing to go the extra mile," Darnell says.
Lopez says she's delighted with the work, especially collaborating with fellow judges Tyler and Randy Jackson and host Ryan Seacrest. She views them as the brothers she didn't have growing up. "It's a lot of fun. Taking a journey with the contestants has also been exhilarating," she says. "I know exactly what they're feeling and their hopes and their dreams and what they want to do in that moment."
Such empathy led to some emotional on-camera moments for the judge, who cried after eliminating Chris Medina (no relation to Benny), a contestant whose fiancée suffered a traumatic brain injury.
"I've had very vulnerable moments on the show where I've felt exposed, one moment in particular, but that is who I am. I actually cried a lot more than they showed. They didn't exploit it or make it cheap. They captured the real emotion of what was happening in the moment," she says.
The revelation of a more personal side has benefited Lopez, Varga says.
"Her down-to-earth appeal has pretty well erased the spoiled diva image that had followed her for so many years. And that's something no amount of money can buy," he says.
The human side of me'
Lopez was initially surprised that people saw her Idol persona as a different side of her.
"I always thought people were getting that over the years, but what they were really getting was the entertainer side of me, the performer side of me," she says. Now, "they're actually getting to see the human side of me, because there is no script and there is nothing but me and how I feel and what I think and my emotions, whether that's laughing at the top of my lungs or shedding a tear over a mom who is singing for her child."
She disagrees with those who say the panel isn't critical enough of the singers.
"We do give constructive criticism. People are used to hearing it in a different way, but if they are really listening to the critiques, they'll hear us correcting them," she says. "We just don't feel we need to deliver it in a negative fashion where they're not going to really hear it."
Idol has helped with exposure on the music side of Lopez's career, particularly with the premiere of On the Floor. "Clearly, the American Idol platform gave her immediate visibility that we couldn't possibly have gotten so quickly," says Antonio "L.A." Reid, the album's executive producer. "But then people love the song and people love seeing her in that element and dancing and having a great time. I think she nailed it creatively."
The Idol effect is more than raw viewer numbers, too, says Maxim editor in chief Joe Levy. "She is now in front of what may be the only passionate music-buying audience outside of Lady Gaga's Monsters and Glee fans."
The album is biographical, at least to a degree, and Lopez says she's OK if people speculate about which songs and verses may relate to a life they know so well. ("Well, they think they do," she says with a laugh.)
"This is not a negative album in any way," she says. "It's really a great dance-pop-urban album that talks about all of the different facets of love in all its glory and all its pain."
For that, she credits new label Island Def Jam and producers she worked with, including RedOne, Tricky Stewart and The Dream. "I feel glad to be with people who believe in me and who are just as excited about the rest of my music career as I am," she says.
Ready for drama — film drama
On the movie front, Lopez says she wants to find a good drama.
"I was just saying last night to Marc, 'I am so ready to just bite into some role so hard.' And he said, 'I know, I can feel your creative juice going crazy.' "
As with the public, Hollywood is seeing a different side of Lopez, too, Benny Medina says. "There's a quality of filmmakers and other creative people in the industry that are being drawn to work with her. One of the greatest byproducts of this particular time is this new
introduction of Jennifer Lopez to a community that's always known her but had misconceptions about her."
There are some promising scripts, and he says she could be doing a movie by the fall.
Aside from the high-profile campaigns familiar to Idol viewers, the Lopez brand includes appearing with her children in ads for Gucci's children's collection and a joint project at Kohl's with Anthony, his and hers clothing lines, and a line of home products that will be available in the fall. "We challenge each other in a way that only the two of us could," she says. "It's awesome."
Lopez says she's satisfied as long as she's moving forward. But she likes having a hit, too.
"I'm proud of the things I have done over the years. Whether they've had the biggest commercial success or not, I still feel like I've been on a journey and I've been growing and evolving, and that's exciting," she says.
The success of the single is just "icing on the cake. Big icing. I love icing."