Jennifer Lopez Gives the Lowdown on Marriage, Movies, and Ben’s Big Night Out

On the eve of her wedding, Jennifer Lopez speaks out about her past few tumultuous months–from the recent tabloid furor and the Gigli debacle to romantic infidelity, the beauty business, and, of course, Ben.

by Aaron Gell

Photo by Michael Thompson.

Jennifer Lopez would rather not talk about the worldwide code-red state of emergency that is her personal life – the pending nuptials, the estranged former manager, the possibly misbehaving fiancé, et cetera.

Who can blame her?

“It’s our life, its not a television show,” the actress, singer and powerhouse multihyphenate says plaintively, sitting sideways on a creamy leather sofa in a set trailer in Winnipeg, Canada, where she’s filming the romantic comedy Shall We Dance? Her nut-brown skin is flawless as usual, her hair is pulled back, and she’s wearing a pair of grey sweatpants from her clothing line, JLo by Jennifer Lopez, and a white Cosabella T-shit – all to casually devastating effect. (Her engagement ring is, for the moment, stowed in a nearby safe while she works.) “Believe me, I’d like nothing better than to sit here and shoot the s— with you,” she adds, protectively hugging a throw pillow between her knees like a plush teddy bear, “but I also want to live a happy life.”

So, no. As to the particulars of the gown or the ceremony or the centerpieces, she ain’t saying. For that matter, she’s not about to admit whether she and Ben are having a spat, either.

Lopez, who turned 33 in July, ascribes this reticence to the breathless tabloid free-for­-all – complete with expert body-language analysis, handy relationship flowcharts and extreme telephoto close-ups of the most famous ring since Frodo’ s – that surrounds the couple’s every move and had, in the weeks preceding our interview, gone thermonuclear. “Literally, there’s someone shooting into my house with cameras,” she says. “I go out, and I’m going to be followed by six cars. All day long. You say to yourself, ‘It will pass. This is not who I really am. ‘But you’ re a person, and it hurts.”

Doing the occasional interview is fine, she says, part of the job. “But if you’re in the paper every damn day, people are like, ‘Who cares?’ And then nobody goes to see your movie!” She’s referring, of course, to the ill-fated Gigli, in which she and Affleck costarred. “It’s like, ‘Why should we? We see her every day,’ and then you’re like, ‘Wait a minute! That’s the only reason I’m doing this!’ “

“So we made a decision,” she continues, shaking her tight ponytail resolutely. “I’m just not going to talk about any personal stuff.”

That’s the plan, anyway. But there’s a problem. Well, two. The first is that Lopez’s personal life has always been so thoroughly intertwined with her work that it would take a team of arthroscopic surgeons to separate the strands.

Take for example, her new fragrance, Still Jennifer Lopez, the forthcoming launch of which is the sole reason her solidly built but affable bodyguard, B.O.B., has allowed a reporter to cross the carpeted threshold of her trailer in the first place. Not only does the perfume share its name with a love song from Lopez’s latest album, This Is Me…Then, but it recalls the chorus of the record’s hit single “Jenny From the Block”: “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got/I’m still, I’m still Jenny from the block” In addition to which, the scent’s advertising tag line, “In the eye of the storm, I am still Jennifer Lopez,” is an explicit reference to her rather remarkable poise amid the flurry of activity that – now more than ever – surrounds her. And the bottle’s elaborate packaging, featuring a removable faux-diamond ring perched on its neck, immediately brings to mind the $6.1 million pink bauble, custom-designed by Harry Winston, she received upon her engagement to Affleck. While insisting that the bottle design is not a reference to her own betrothal-“Why didn’t we make it pink, then?” she asks – Lopez concedes that the similarities are striking. “It did kind of occur to us later on,” she says with a laugh.

Such interconnectedness is the essence of Lopezland, a supremely polished multi­media hall of mirrors in which every facet seems to reflect in every other, endlessly amplifying the star’s own light. To wit, her four multiplatinum albums are largely auto­biographical, brimming with direct references to her romances with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs (who also produced her debut, On the 6), Cris Judd (who danced in and choreographed her TV concert special, “Let’s Get Loud”) and Affleck (who appears in the video for ”Jenny From the Block” and is the subject of “Dear Ben”). Meanwhile, such films as Selena, The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan have-perhaps unintentionally bathed Lopez’s own oft-repeated biographical story in their fairy-tale Hollywood glow.

The second problem with the newly reticent, self-protective Lopez is that, frankly, it’s not her. She is, by nature, a defiantly unguarded person. As anyone who witnessed the sartorial game of chicken she played with that rainforest-green Versace dress at the 2000 Grammys already knows, circumspection is not really Lopez’s thing. “I push myself to the limits,” she says. “I take risks. I keep myself on edge. That’s just the animal in me.”

So, sashaying right up to the edge of her own vow of silence, Lopez eschews any direct wedding talk – refusing to confirm reports that September 14 is the big day – but seems happy enough to chat about the “major transition” about to take place for her. “I’m really excited about making more time for my personal life, and making decisions that aren’t all about me,” she says. “Just having another person; a family to consider; I am so looking forward to that in my life. I have been for a long time.”

From which one might well surmise that her relationship with Affleck is …fine? “Yes!” she affirms with a warm smile. “This relationship is the best thing in my life.”

The question has taken on some urgency of late, after The National Enquirer revealed that Affleck, who spent the summer filming a movie in Vancouver, had visited a strip club on the very night that the actor and his betrothed were seen gushing about their domestic bliss in a very special “Dateline NBC.” To be sure, ogling go-go dancers is something of a prewedding tradition. But it was the other details reported by the paper – that Ben had cheated on Jen with one (or was it three?) of the strippers, and that said dalliance might have been captured on video – that soon had People and US Weekly musing, in lemon yellow 80-point cover type, IS THE WEDDING STILL ON? and WILL J.LO FORGIVE HIM?

“For me, it wasn’t an issue,” Lopez says impassively of Affleck’s night on the town. “We talk every day. I know what he does, he knows what I do. We don’t have those kind of secrets. What they put in the paper is not what happened, so it doesn’t matter. But watching that get so blown out of proportion, I was like, Wow, so this is where we’re at: You can’t walk into a place and hang out with a couple of friends without it turning into a national scandal. It was ridiculous.”

Lopez adds that she never had the slightest doubt that the reports’ more salacious details were “straight falsehoods, straight lies,” as she puts it. “Because I knew he had gone! And I knew [the story was coming out] beforehand. He’s like, ‘Hey, the Enquirer is doing a story, and I called my lawyer today,’ and I was thinking, Oh, God. I knew it was going to be a big deal in the press, but I didn’t know it was going to be like that, the cover of eight magazines at once. It’s like, This can’t be that interesting. But I guess it was. We sat there and read the articles together and said, ‘This is just insane.’ It sounds ridiculous, if you read it. It sounds so stupid! It’s like, If you’re single and 21, you wouldn’t do things like that. It’s just crazy!”

Male infidelity has been something of a leitmotif in Lopez’s work-beginning with one of her first acting roles, on “Second Chances,” a short-lived TV drama in which she played a bride with cold feet. “I do,” she declares at the altar, waiting just a beat before adding, “have reservations.” As gasps erupt from the pews, she berates the groom: ”You slept with a stripper last night!” Likewise, her characters in both The Wedding Planner and Enough deal with cheating lovers, and any number of her songs explore the subject, most prominently her very first single, “If You Had My Love,” with the fierce declaration, “First of all, I won’t have you cheating on me.”

Despite which, Lopez scoffs at the notion that men are somehow evolutionarily wired for infidelity. “They can be faithful,” she says. “They just have to want to. I don’t think it’s natural for anyone, honestly. But it’s considered more acceptable for men to cheat. It’s like men go, ‘Oh, I can’t be with just one woman…,’ But hey, it’s hard for women too, you know? Hel-lo! It’s hard for us too! Which is why I think we give our men such a hard time. It’s like, Hey, if I can [be faithful], you can do it too. Trust me.”

That said, Lopez, who became engaged to Affleck before her divorce from Judd was final, does not consider fidelity to be the only key to a good relationship. “I think you have to be honest, more than anything,” she says. “Communication, fidelity… it’s all very important, but it depends on what kind of relationship you’re in.” Indeed, Lopez has admitted she suspected P. Diddy of cheating on her when they were together, and that she put up with it. “For a little while, yes, but not in the end,” she points out now, narrowing her eyes.

Which is not to say that there aren’t some fundamental differences between the sexes. “It’s the difference between ‘me’ and ‘we,'” she explains. “Men operate from their own universe, and women are focused on family, keeping it together. Because we’re caretakers by nature – we give birth, we have to take care of that baby – and men don’t have that experience. They have to bring home the bacon, that kind of stuff. Those are different sensibilities.”

In the “Dateline NBC” interview, Lopez set eyeballs a-rolling when she declared adoringly that “Ben wears the pants” in the relationship, but in light of the extraordinary power she exercises over her business affairs, Lopez makes no apologies for seek­ing a more traditional female role at home. “It’s about being able to feel safe somewhere,” she explains. “That doesn’t mean I’m not a strong, independent woman. But I think when you’ re in a relationship, you have to submit to a certain extent.”

That attitude is a far cry from that of Ricki, the lesbian organized-crime enforcer she played in Gigli, who jousts relentlessly about the relative merits of men and women with another hired gun, played by Affleck – before, inevitably, falling into bed with him. Given the vehement hostility the film aroused, it might not be out of line to attribute some of the response to the sexual insecurity of male movie critics (still the overwhelming majority) unnerved by the sight of a beautiful woman, in the midst of a rather suggestive yoga routine, comparing their anatomy to a “sea slug.”

Indeed, one of the few critics who dared to say anything nice about Gigli was a woman, Variety‘s Amy Dawes, who says her write-up prompted readers to flood her inbox with hate mail and her boss, Peter Bart, to relieve her of her reviewing duties. “I felt like the Dixie Chicks!” Dawes says. “It’s not like the war in Iraq, it’s a movie – but there was the same intolerance of a differing opinion.”

Lopez suspects that the media obsession with her love life had a lot to do with the film’s poor reception, something she’d feared for months. “I kept warning my mom,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Mom, we’re gonna get killed.”‘

Asked how she thought such immortal lines as “It’s turkey time-gobble, gobble” and “My penis sneezes” would go over with audiences, she laughs. “It’s genius! Look, I thought it was risky, but I also felt it was juicy,” she says. “It was tough stuff to work with.” As for playing a lesbian (albeit a wobbly one), Lopez didn’t hesitate. “It didn’t define who she was,” she explains, “so it didn’t bother me. To be honest, if I actually had to do a love scene with a woman I maybe would have thought twice about it, because I’ve never done anything like that, in real life or on film. That would have been a thing like, Am I going to be able to let go that much? But it wasn’t in the script.”

As for the final product, Lopez thinks it still hasn’t gotten a fair shake. “People are saying there was no chemistry,” she says incredulously. “That’s insane! There’s crazy chemistry! Look, I’m tougher on myself than any critic can ever be. The movie had places where it didn’t work, and that’s fine. Review that. But don’t just be an ass to be an ass, you know?

“I really think it will have a resurgence on cable!” she adds. “Now people may look at me and say, ‘She’s totally off her f—ing rocker,’ but hey, that’s my theory.”

There’s little chance the film will do lasting harm to her career, but Lopez has often admitted feeling that her Bentley convertible could suddenly turn back into a pumpkin. “This business breeds that type of sensibility,” she says. “There’s always somebody there to take your place –they tell you that the first time you walk into an audition. You’re only as good as your last this or that, and you have to have something in the can.” She does: Along with Shall We Dance?, which costars Richard Gere, Lopez will appear in Jersey Girl, again with Affleck, and in the forthcom­ing Lasse Halstrom drama, An Unfinished Life, opposite Robert Redford.

Even so, it’s hardly surprising that Lopez is feeling especially vulnerable these days. In addition to the tabloid rumors and the Gigli mess, she’s in the middle of an acri­monious split from her longtime manager, Benny Medina, whom she says called recently to check in on her. “He said, ‘I just want you to know I’m always your friend and I’m always here for you,'” she says, growing a bit misty. “With all the craziness going on, that really meant some­thing to me. Benny was one of my best friends. Right now the wounds are still fresh-for both of us. It’s a transition period for me and for him to move on to a different section of our lives without the comfort of each other. Business is not easy, but I think it was really important for my own growth to kind of let go of the crutch.”

As it happens, Medina isn’t the only casualty of recent personnel changes in Lopez’s camp. She replaced her publicity firm, Rogers & Cowan, with Dan Klores Communications, a firm known for its crisis-management savvy. And on the agency front, she has raised eyebrows in Hollywood by bouncing from ICM to Endeavor to CM and back to Endeavor in less than a year. “It’s not as complicated as people make it out to be,” she says. “I’ve been doing a little juggling. You have to put the right people in place for your team to feel good. After getting out of that comfort zone I was in for a long time, I have to be a little bit more hands-on about decisions. To be honest, I feel a little orphaned right now, but I think that’s part of growing. The people I’m working with now are really smart and good at what they do.” Even so, when asked if she’s got the mix right, she admits, “It’s too early to tell.”

Despite all the turmoil, Lopez remains a world-class superstar at the top of her game. The well-received This Is Me… Then, has spawned two Top 10 singles. Her first fragrance, Glow by J.Lo, launched last September, is a run­away success. According to Catherine Walsh, vice president of the cosmetics company Lancaster, which markets Glow, the scent is ranked No.1 globally in terms of units sold ”You don’t come across a Jennifer Lopez every day,” Walsh says. Expectations are therefore quite high for Still, which includes notes of sake, Earl Grey tea, honeysuckle and sandalwood. And the fragrances are just the beginning of an ambitious House of J.Lo beauty line, including cosmetics, skin care and hair products. (Not bad for a woman whose fragrance career started at a nondescript shack in a Bronx parking lot – “Like one of those places you see that says FLATS FIXED,” Lopez recalls-where she peddled bootleg versions of Poison and other blockbuster scents of the day.) This fall the company is introducing something called the Glow Kit, a promotional sampler based on the makeup Lopez sports in the scent’s marketing materials. “The idea is to say, ‘You can capture this look,'” Walsh explains. “It’s a way to test the waters.”

Meanwhile, after a shaky start, Lopez’s Sweetface Fashion Co. is beginning to find some traction. The company’s president and CEO, Denise Seegal, describes the line as “sexy, clean, fun, girly clothing,” adding that the recently launched accessories line is doing well and that handbags, intimate apparel, footwear and outer­wear are also on the drawing board for 2004. ”Jennifer has been so successful in the past two years, and that has added a positive halo to the total branding,” Seegal notes. “But the product itself, in order to have longevity, has to be the best. Whatever happens regarding a film or a CD, the brand has to stand on its own.”

Lopez agrees. “When you put the name J.Lo on a piece of clothing,” she says, “you have a lot of stuff that comes along with that. That wasn’t my choice. I fight it to this day. Because ultimately, it’s not about my name, it’s about the product.”

Indeed, from her point of view, the whole J.Lo thing has gotten way out of hand. “I was never like, ‘Call me J.Lo!”‘ Lopez insists. “I named the album J.Lo, but now I think I was crazy. When something sticks like that, you really just don’t quite understand it, and you want your name back. You’re like, ‘Please, call me Jennifer. I was fine with that for 20, 30 years.…’ ”

Besides, ”Jennifer” carries none of the baggage associated with “J.Lo,” which brings to mind the whole music-diva persona that has bedeviled Lopez for years. It’s a reputation her friends and colleagues say is unwarranted. “Sure, she likes her diamonds, and there’s that bling-bling side to her,” says Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, who before becoming a partner at Revolution Films was Lopez’s agent at ICM. “But there’s also a side of her that’s very simple and caring and vulnerable.”

“I like dressing up and being glamorous,” Lopez says. “But for somebody like me, who really didn’t have that much, to have things is fun. It’s just really base and simple! I like looking nice. But I think people want to judge a book by its cover, and they just go, ‘Ugh, what a diva. Just look at her!'”

Notes Goldsmith-Thomas: “If being a diva is getting up at five in the morning, going to a movie set, leaving to go work on an album, then going home and doing the whole thing again, then fine. But I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as her. She worked for every opportunity she’s ever had. She wasn’t given anything.”

As a result, Lopez has an unshakable confidence in her own point of view. Goldsmith-Thomas was herself fired by Lopez after one too many disagreements (among other things, she argued strenuously against The Dress). But the two maintained a tight bond; Goldsmith-Thomas, who produced Maid in Manhattan, brought the film to her former client and still gets together with Lopez for the occasional TV night, including a recent “Mary Tyler Moore” marathon. “Jennifer will listen to other opinions,” she says, “but if you try to tell her the rules, she goes the opposite direction.”

As Lopez says matter-of-factly, “I always try to explain to everyone I’m in business with, the usual rules don’t apply to me. I’m just in a different thing, and I have to go with my gut on every specific little issue. I just make my own rules.” For the most part, the approach has worked marvelously. On the refrigerator in her trailer, Lopez has taped up a collection of supportive clippings sent by relatives over the past few difficult months. One, a newspaper horoscope for her sign, Leo, sums things up fairly well: “Your life is about to change for the better,” it reads. “You are now on the throne and will be able to rule all that you survey. Your patience has been tested, but it will be worth it in matters of love and career.”

Watch a video interview with Jennifer Lopez here: