“I was nervous coming here today,” said Jennifer Lopez, as she turned the corner onto a residential street in the Bronx. It was a cool afternoon in late spring, and Lopez was wearing a loose bright pink jogging suit and sequined platform sneakers. She is a kind of physical wonder: small but strong, narrow everywhere except for her famous perfectly round derriere. “This is the house I grew up in,” she said, stopping in front of a white two-story surrounded by an ornate metal gate. It was set apart from the rest of the houses on the block by an alley in the back and a vacant lot next door. Across the street, in a kind of homage to Lopez, there was a banner for the Rising Stars School. “I didn’t go to that school,” Lopez said, still staring at her former home, where she lived with her parents and two sisters. She pointed at a back window that faced the empty lot. “I would look out that window to see if my boyfriend was coming, and then I’d run out the door,” she said, laughing. “I’m the middle sister. All three of us girls shared a room. I was into sports and dancing. I ran track. I have a lot of stamina.” Lopez laughed again. “I was built for the long run.”
Her longtime manager, Benny Medina, who has been the greatest constant in her life and who was with us that day, was curious to know if she had gone to a nearby school, across the boulevard from the house. “Is that the way you went to school?” he asked. “No,” Lopez said, looking in the direction of a giant building two blocks away. “But that’s the way I came back from school.” She laughed again and then grew quiet when Medina asked if she wanted to knock on the door of her childhood house. “No. I don’t want to go inside,” she said. “The last time I was in there was when my mom and dad called us home to tell us that they were separating after 33 years of marriage. I think that’s why I was nervous about coming here today. It’s like seeing someone from the past—you’re afraid to run into them because you never know if it’s going to be ‘wow’ or very difficult. This is a combination of both.”
Lopez moved out when she was 18—26 years ago. She had studied dance at the Ballet Hispanico and at the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club, and she wanted to pursue it as a career. “My mom and I butted heads,” Lopez told me later over the phone from Los Angeles. “I didn’t want to go to college—I wanted to try dance full-time. So she and I had a break. I started sleeping on the sofa in the dance studio. I was homeless, but I told her, ‘This is what I have to do.’ A few months later, I landed a job dancing in Europe. When I got back, I booked In Living Color. I became a Fly Girl and moved to L.A. It all happened in a year.”
Lopez found that she missed the Bronx. “I hated L.A.,” she said. “I was asking, ‘Where’s the store for milk? Don’t you guys walk on the street?’ Now I love Los Angeles, but it doesn’t give me strength the way the Bronx did. All the strength that I needed for life, I got from that neighborhood.”
And, apparently, a tremendous work ethic. Lopez works hard. Around the time of our shoot, she was promoting her new hit single, “Live It Up”; making a video in Miami Beach; performing the Beatles anthem “Come Together” with Mary J. Blige at the Sound of Change Live concert for women’s rights in London; attending a joint conference at the UN for women and children; overseeing her line of clothing for Kohl’s; making final selections for the ad campaign for her 20th fragrance, JLove; and rehearsing an appearance for the American Idol season finale. She is also a mom: Her 5-year-old twins, Max and Emme, travel with her and her boyfriend, Caspar Smart. “I think a lot about teaching my kids to work hard,” Lopez said. “I’ve learned something about kids—they don’t do what you say; they do what you do. I watched my parents. My dad worked nights, and I was aware of how much he was doing for us. My mom was a Tupperware lady and also worked at the school. I always felt that I couldn’t let them down. And I had a natural discipline from early on. I was always training for something.”
The Bronx may also have given Lopez a conceptual idea about celebrity. Throughout her career, she has been attracted to razzle-dazzle, a kind of big-time glam approach to being famous. Like Elizabeth Taylor, whose performance in Butterfield 8 as an alluring prostitute with an uptown-downtown schism inspired these photos, Lopez has a stunning public persona, linked to the likes of Sean “Puffy” Combs (as he was known when they were together), Ben Affleck, and Marc Anthony—and rife with thrilling red carpet moments. But she outdid herself when she appeared as a presenter at the Grammy Awards in 2000. She wore a cut-to-there sea green chiffon Versace gown that clung to her curves and left little to the imagination. “We had looked at a few dresses, and nothing was right,” Lopez recalled. “My stylist said, there’s this one dress, but other people have worn it. I tried on the Versace and decided to wear it anyway. But I was still surprised by the reaction: When I came onstage with David Duchovny, who was the biggest star in the world then, he said to the audience, ‘Nobody is looking at me,’ ” Lopez said, laughing. “This loud sound started from the back of the room—it was kind of like a roar, over me in the dress. When I went to my seat, I said, ‘What’s the big deal?!’ Puffy and Benny were waiting, and they said, ‘You have to take pictures in that dress.’ ” And so she did.
Whether Lopez learned from her boyfriends or the brilliant Medina (or both), she is an old-school mix of diva and down-to-earth. America seems to prefer its stars to be that combo: glitzy with a resemblance of the real. Instinctively, Lopez gets that balance. She may wear sweats, but she has rhinestones on her sneakers.
“I can remember dancing and singing in front of the mirror in my bedroom,” Lopez said that day, still looking at her former home. “I’ve always had dreams—the dreams have just gotten bigger. Benny and I will get together and plan what we want to do for the next six months, the next year. He knows I love gypsy life—I love to go. Holidays always seem very long to me. After two weeks off, I start saying, ‘Let’s get back to work.’ And I’ve always been that way.”
She turned away from the house and went to her dressing-room trailer, where she would be transformed into the star she had dreamed of becoming. An hour later, she was swathed in a mink coat and high black patent-leather stilettos, her hair styled in a shoulder-length wave. Lopez walked the street as if it were a runway. She asked an assistant to hold up a full-length mirror so she could watch—and direct—her performance for the camera. Eventually, she posed in front of the house that made her. Two children, who live there now, ran into the yard behind her. Lopez turned and smiled. I was you, she seemed to be saying. And now I’m me.