Jennifer Lopez: ‘I want what I deserve,’

After Bennifer, American Idol and a few billion in sales, JLo is back on cinema screens

JLo: the star says Hollywood hasn’t given her her fair share. Now she’s fixing that. Photograph: Natalia Mantini/NYT

JLo: the star says Hollywood hasn’t given her her fair share. Now she’s fixing that. Photograph: Natalia Mantini/NYT

 

It is supposed to be Jennifer Lopez’s day off. Cue visions of her lounging by her infinity pool in Bel Air, friends hanging, tunes turned up. Instead the performer, producer and branding maven holds a half-dozen business meetings at her home there, from early morning until sundown, on ambitious ventures ranging from real estate to fitness.

A studio head is here, some developer types, marketing people, her TV and film producing partner, her manager and Alex Rodriguez (aka A-Rod), her boyfriend. The couple are hoping to have dinner together, but “you see what goes on around here”, she says, unapologetically, as they go over the day’s agenda.

A gracious Bel Air mansion, complete with miniwaterfalls (yes, plural), fireplaces blazing in even empty rooms, and two bunnies that belong to Lopez’s 10-year-old twins, might seem an unlikely spot to transform into an executive suite. But when Lopez moved in, two years ago, she designed an office like a boardroom, complete with big conference table. It just happens to be next to the couture-filled space where she gets her hair and make-up done. And so she whisks in, half-dolled up, to present her opinions and outsize ideas, and she sells them: JLo Inc, in action.

Like a lot of people in her world who have experienced Hollywood inequity, what Lopez is demanding, vocally all of a sudden, is her fair share. ‘I want what I deserve,’ she says

And now, at the end of this non-day off, she strides over on glossy 10cm Louboutins, with the posture of an equestrian and a chief executive’s firm handshake, to crisply discuss how her latest movie, Second Act, fits into her new entrepreneurial strategy. It all hinges on an acknowledgment of her power bossness.

Here’s what the 49-year-old has recently come to realise: that JLo – the artist, the brand, the astonishingly dewy face and buffed physique – is even more valuable than the entertainment industry has given her credit for. Which is not to say she is after a bigger pay cheque, exactly – although, as the chorus of her recent single with Cardi B and DJ Khaled goes, “Yo quiero dinero.” But, like a lot of people in her world who have experienced Hollywood inequity, what she is demanding, vocally all of a sudden, is her fair share. “I want what I deserve,” she says.

To hear her tell it, that stance has been hard-won. Over the past few years, as a divorced parent, she has taken painstaking stock of her trajectory and decided she can level up.

“Understanding my own worth and value as a person made me understand it differently in my work, as well,” she says. It “has been a long journey for me. And so I’m very proud to stand in the shoes of, yes, I think I do deserve more. All artists do deserve more. We are the scarce asset. They can’t do anything without us. They have no product. So we have to understand that.”

That Lopez now openly mentions private equity as breezily as other actors discuss character development may be thanks to her 43-year-old boyfriend. The baseball player turned sports commentator is a long-time investor with a sizable property portfolio spread across 14 states – A-Rod Inc. He has organised several of her meetings today and some for himself.

Their partnership – they have been blissfully dating for a year and a half and are the furthest thing from shy about proclaiming it – has given Lopez’s already bustling empire a new momentum, she and her partners agree. “He just opened up our vision to other ways of doing” business, she says, “that were not only more lucrative but gave us more freedom, gave us more control over our own image and our own ideas, instead of giving them away.”

She is in a sitting area near her breakfast nook, propped up by a fleet of white throw pillows stitched with inspirational sayings – “Life is short, live your dream and share your passion,” “Start each day with a grateful heart,” “My favorite place in the world is next to you.” You’ve seen them all at a home-furnishings store near you. More of the same messaging adorns the walls and tables. “You can’t touch music, but music can touch you,” reads the ceramic dish in front of me. These are not just totems of cosying decor. Lopez, a devotee of the motivational author Louise Hay, believes deeply in the power of daily affirmations and speaking the success you want into the world. (And if intoning “I am youthful and timeless” is responsible for her look, Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company, should worry, especially because Lopez is also starting a skincare line.)

Due in January, Second Act, the movie Lopez stars in and produced with her company, Nuyorican Productions, is built on a similar self-helpy maxim: “The only thing stopping you is you.” Lopez plays Maya de la Vargas, a 40-year-old assistant manager at a big-box store in the New York borough of Queens whose life hasn’t unfolded as she imagined and who now dreams of better opportunities – opportunities usually not afforded to 40-plus women of colour. The story dovetailed with Lopez’s world view that it’s your attitude rather than your status early on that determines your future. Nobody bet that the Bronx dancer who started in the Fly Girl troupe on the sketch series In Living Color, in 1991, would go on to become a powerhouse Hollywood entertainer and retail mogul.

In Living Color: Jennifer Lopez (front, centre) in the US sketch show’s dance troupe, Fly Girls, in 1992
In Living Color: Jennifer Lopez (front, centre) in the US sketch show’s dance troupe, Fly Girls, in 1992
JLo photographed by Natalia Mantini/New York Times
JLo photographed by Natalia Mantini/New York Times
Over the past few decades, Rodriguez says, JLo has sold several billion dollars’ worth of consumer goods, with nearly $2 billion grossed in fragrances alone

To anyone who has crossed paths with Lopez since, her determination is unmissable. “She is the master of shattering the word no,” Rodriguez says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” He reels off her career transitions: dancer to actor, actor to singer, to producer, to businesswoman, opposition at each step. “She keeps breaking through,” he says, sounding awed. “She’s one of the most powerful brands on the planet.”

He’s a stats guy, so he has the maths to back it up: over the past few decades, he says, she has sold several billion dollars’ worth of consumer goods, with nearly $2 billion, or €1.75 billion, grossed in fragrances alone; her bestselling Glow line jump-started the contemporary market for celebrity scents. “She has over 150 million followers on social media, and over 75 percent of those are millennials,” Rodriguez continues. “She’s able to see around corners and connect with the masses at a level that I’ve never seen anyone connect with. She innately has that DNA that understands how to land her points. That’s just maybe being a great communicator.”

The film, which costars Lopez’s real-life BFF Leah Remini as her on-screen BFF and Milo Ventimiglia as her (ahem) itching-to-get-hitched baseball-manager boyfriend, puts Lopez back in the sights of the kind of broad fare that cemented her stardom: romantic comedies about hypercompetent strivers from the wrong side of the tracks who move (or, rather, marry) up. It was developed and cowritten by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Lopez’s producing partner, who conceived it before the two even began working together. She was also a producer of Maid in Manhattan, Lopez’s 2002 blockbuster.

Second Act is more of a workplace comedy, with a dramatic family subplot; for once the relationship is secondary to the character’s evolution, which Lopez loved. “The thing is her,” she says. “She realises that she hasn’t been treating herself well and that the little mistakes she thought made her not worthy were actually the things that led her to her purpose.”

Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez photographed at the Lincoln Center in New York by Rebecca Smeyne/NYT
Social media: Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez at the Lincoln Center in New York. Lopez has more than 150 million followers. Photograph: Rebecca Smeyne/NYT

It sounds like a description lifted from Lopez’s 2014 memoir, True Love, in which she chronicled the tumultuous year after she announced her divorce from the singer Marc Anthony, father of her daughter, Emme, and son, Max, and did her first international concert tour. At Remini’s urging, she went to therapy, too. “I discovered I had low self-esteem, which I had never really pictured myself as having,” she wrote.

And she realised that she didn’t prioritise her own needs enough, compared with those of the men in her life; growing up, she had internalized some Cinderella fantasies. When Emme suggested not long ago that she might not marry, Lopez took it as a parental victory: “I’ve always been trying to tell her, love yourself. You don’t need anybody to complete you.” She added: “She don’t need no fairy tale.”

That could be a message of Second Act, too. But it also glosses over the institutional and social hurdles that a character like Maya might face. To Lopez, that is another instance where mind-over-matter determination should prevail. She was a Puerto Rican from the middle-class Bronx with aspirations far beyond that and a tenacity that made it happen. “There is racism. There is sexism. There is ageism. There is all of this, and you know what, that’s still not going to stop me,” she says. “I believe that 100 percent, to the bottom of my soul.”

The hustle instilled in her, as one of three daughters of a computer technician and a kindergarten teacher, has served her well professionally. Nuyorican, the production company she founded nearly two decades ago, has lately been on an upswing, with TV series – Shades of Blue, a cop drama that she starred in for three seasons, until it ended in August; Good Trouble, a spin-off of her family show The Fosters; and the popular reality series World of Dance, on which Lopez is a judge – and many movie projects in the works.

“She has her fingerprints on everything,” Goldsmith-Thomas says. With a movie idea, “we talk about directors and writers and how we’re going to sell it.” Her 2015 thriller The Boy Next Door, one of only a few movies she has appeared in since 2012, and the first produced by Nuyorican, received poor reviews but earned more than $52 million on a budget of a reported $4 million (or more than €45 million on a budget of €3.5 million).

In Hollywood, says Goldsmith-Thomas, who has been in the business for decades as an agent and studio head, “survival is about your ability to pivot”.

For Lopez, a turning point came in 2011, when she signed on as a judge for the then-top rated American Idol. She considered it a career resuscitation and a way to reintroduce herself to a public that had cooled on her supposed diva reputation, earned in the years of Bennifer and contract riders demanding all-white dressing rooms. With American Idol “people were saying they liked me, which made me realise how many years I’d spent thinking they didn’t, and that affected how I felt about myself”, Lopez wrote in her book. (Bennifer, her failed engagement to Ben Affleck, seems like a tabloid eon ago but exacted a heavy emotional toll; she married Anthony in the aftermath.) Her five-season tenure on American Idol “was the first time in a long time that I felt good about just being me”, she wrote.

Bennifer: Jennifer Lopez at a basketball game with Ben Affleck, her then fiance, in 2003. Photograph: Vince Bucci/Getty
Bennifer: Jennifer Lopez at a basketball game with Ben Affleck, her then fiance, in 2003. Photograph: Vince Bucci/Getty
American Idol: judge Jennifer Lopez with host Ryan Seacrest in 2014. Photograph: Michael Becker/Fox via Getty
American Idol: judge Jennifer Lopez with host Ryan Seacrest in 2014. Photograph: Michael Becker/Fox via Getty

Between therapy and reality TV were the epiphanies that brought her to a new awareness of her cultural clout; to her recently concluded Las Vegas concert residency, when she earned a record $1.43 million, or €1.25 million, in ticket sales on one night and danced her famous butt off for three years; to her energised business mindset; to A-Rod.

Medina, who has known Lopez for more than 20 years, said that with this romance “the personal confidence and comfort level has risen to a high that I’ve never seen before. We’re experiencing a new version of Jennifer Lopez. ”

The couple post first-blush-of-love messages about each other constantly. Both have been burned by the public lens on their love lives before but view this era of social media differently; “We’re just solid,” Lopez says, and sharing that feels natural. Rodriguez describes it as “a chance to have a direct-to-consumer control of your narrative.”

How did I help these people make $1bn and I came home with this very small fraction of that? Should I not have participated in that since it was my name, my idea, my product?

His guidance on her work, she says, started with discussions of his investments, mostly owned, versus her licensing deals, which always “felt imbalanced to me”, she says. “How did I help these people make $1 billion and I came home with this very small fraction of that? Should I not have participated in that since it was my name, my idea, my product?” Rodriguez, who took business classes at Columbia University and counts the investor Warren Buffett as a mentor and friend, has advised Lopez to go “narrow and deep” with her projects – to do less but own more.

Lopez says she hopes to leave a mark on “the world I want my daughter to live in and my son, who’s going to be a man who respects women and understands women and gives them their worth”.

As a professional who carved out a path where there was none, “I’m only with people who understand that we’re in the history-making business,” she adds. “We’re in the trailblazing business, we’re in the break-down-the-walls, kick-the-glass-ceiling business. That’s the business that we’re in. If you’re not on board for that, then we can’t work together.” – New York Times

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