Jennifer Lopez is sitting by the pool behind her Bel-Air mansion, waiting for two staffers to move an umbrella closer to her chair and thinking about how her life could have turned out very differently. She sends a quick text to boyfriend Alex Rodriguez, takes a sip of ice water, and sits still for a moment while a stylist applies a piece of double-stick tape to the plunging neckline of her Alexandre Vauthier dress so there will be no cleavage mishaps during a TV appearance later in the afternoon. Then Lopez reflects on how close she came to ending up as a bank teller in the Bronx.
“If I didn’t have certain ambitions, I might have gotten married after high school and had kids and decided to get a job at a bank in Castle Hill, like my aunt did,” says the New York native. “It’s just that I had dreams and ideas that were different.”
VIDEO: Woman with Desk and Chair: Jennifer Lopez's Guide to Reinventing Yourself
Lopez, who turns 50 in July, has been pondering her life path a lot lately. It’s partly because in her new movie, Second Act, she plays a character whom she describes as “soooo me” — an outer-borough girl with no connections and no college degree who suddenly finds herself across the river in Manhattan, navigating a world of glamour and power and Madison Avenue shopping sprees. It’s also because Lopez, after almost three decades of relentlessly public highs and lows, now understands herself better than she used to. A mother of 10-year-old twins (with ex-husband Marc Anthony) who meditates daily while juggling the jobs of actor, singer, Vegas performer, producer, reality-show judge, etc., etc., she has developed the kind of confidence that makes it easier to talk about her insecurities. Shortly after her breakout film, Selena, came out in 1997, Lopez remembers, she was speaking with a cousin whom she has known since she was young. “He said that whenever he saw me on TV or in movies, he thought, ‘She’s scared, but she’s doing it anyway.’ And he was absolutely right — I was terrified. But I really wanted to try. I wanted to do it.”
Since then Lopez has been doing it pretty much nonstop, keeping a pace that can seem superhuman. But at a time when women are speaking out against sexism in all its forms, Lopez is less willing than ever to put up with the double standards that persist in show business. “It has taken time,” she says, “but I think we’re in a very powerful moment where women are going, ‘Wait a minute. We’re not afraid to say what we deserve.’ ” For Lopez that includes challenging the old stereotype about multihyphenate performers, especially female ones: If a woman does a bunch of things, the thinking often goes, then she’s probably not serious about any of them. “I don’t understand why you can’t be an actress and a singer and dancer as well,” Lopez says. “Like, that’s how this whole business started. Entertainment! And why can’t you be funny and also be a dramatic actress? OK, some people can’t do both. But if they can, let them!”
The many faces of Jennifer Lopez are on vivid display one afternoon when I stop by a soundstage at Universal Studios, where taping has started for the third season of the NBC reality hit World of Dance. Regardless of where the spotlights are focused at any given moment, there’s no doubt who’s the superstar in the room. Lopez (who co-created the show) sits at the center of the judges’ table in a tight gold mesh Ermanno Scervino top, gold hoop earrings, and shiny gold cuffs — sparkles on top of sparkles. But when she speaks, she seems equally convincing in the roles of queen and commoner, mentor and fan. Although almost all the contestants dutifully profess their love for JLo during the interview portion, Lopez throws the admiration right back at the most deserving ones, sometimes pointing to her goose bumps for emphasis. “You, Josh, are something else,” she tells an 18-year-old Canadian, and the OMG look on his face makes it clear that Lopez has just provided him with enough motivation for a lifetime. During breaks Lopez maintains her Pilates-honed posture, even while munching on a power bar or making kissy faces into her phone as she video chats with one of her kids.
Lopez tells me that reality TV has played a big part in reshaping her public image. Remember the blinged-out diva who seemed to spend most of her waking hours posing on yachts with P. Diddy or taunting the paparazzi with Ben Affleck? In 2010, during a career lull, she took a gig as a judge on American Idol and immediately noticed a shift in how the public treated her. “That show was live — everything was in the moment, not edited,” she recalls. “So finally people got to see that I was actually a person, someone with a heart. I got to speak for myself for the first time, and that changed everything.” In an early episode Lopez broke down in sobs when she had to tell one contestant, whose wheelchair-bound fiancée had recently suffered brain damage in a car accident, that he wouldn’t make it to the next round. (Lopez says that eliminating people from World of Dance remains the most painful part of her job: “It doesn’t get easier — you just know it’s what you have to do.”)
For all the talk about the pressures of Insta-branding in today’s celebrity culture, Lopez is positive that stars have it better now than they did in the Bennifer days, when supermarket tabloids were battling for scoops about the 6.1-carat pink diamond engagement ring Affleck ordered for her from Harry Winston. “It was actually worse then,” she says. “It was just crazy. Now at least I can show you who I am a little bit. Back then you just believed anything you read on the cover of a tabloid. Many times it wasn’t true, or it was like a third of the truth.” She acknowledges that young actors now face a whole new set of selfie-driven anxieties, “but they didn’t live through the tabloid era,” she says, laughing and shaking her finger while adopting an old-lady voice. “Now I sound like my mom. ‘I used to walk uphill to school, before there were cars!’ ”
Lopez thinks that social media is also one reason she and Rodriguez have avoided becoming perpetual TMZ fodder, even though Rodriguez is easily as famous as Affleck or P. Diddy. “Now people get to see that this guy they thought was this hard-nosed athlete is, like, a goofy dad who loves his kids and celebrates his girlfriend.” Besides, the relationship itself is more serene than many of her previous ones, a fact that Lopez chalks up to maturity on both sides. “When we met, we’d both already done a lot of work on ourselves,” she says. (Rodriguez, a 14-time All Star baseball player, pulled off a tortuous redemption after his 2014 doping scandal.) “Everybody has flaws, and the people I want in my life are the people who recognize that and are willing to work on those flaws,” Lopez says. “It’s super-important: someone who’s willing to look at themselves and say, ‘OK, I’m not great here’ or ‘I could do better there.’ ”
Second Act uses the structure of a crowd-pleasing comedy to explore themes of personal realness, particularly the perils of self-doubt and self-delusion. Lopez’s character, Maya, works in a department store until an overly padded résumé lands her a job as a hard-charging cosmetics executive. The story has many parallels with the 2002 film Maid in Manhattan, in which Lopez plays a hotel housekeeper who semi-inadvertently seduces a rich Republican senatorial candidate (Ralph Fiennes). Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, who produced both films and runs Lopez’s company, Nuyorican Productions, also co-wrote this one for the actress. “Jennifer is Maya,” Goldsmith-Thomas says, adding that Lopez, despite her lack of a college education, is both smarter and more hardworking than anyone else she knows. (She notes that even Lopez’s so-called side projects, like the three-year, $100 million residency in Las Vegas that wrapped in September, tend to break records.) Goldsmith-Thomas has seen Lopez evolve a lot since the Bennifer era. Maid in Manhattan came out the same year as the “Jenny from the Block” video, a winking celebration of big boats and big money that Goldsmith-Thomas thought was ill-advised. (It preceded their bomb of a movie, Gigli.) “Jennifer and Ben were asking for it with that video,” Goldsmith-Thomas says. “I told her, ‘I’m selling you as a maid, and you guys are driving around in Bentleys?’ But now it’s 16 years later. I’m sure Ben Affleck is more mature too.”
Sitting by the pool with Lopez, it can feel strange to discuss the benefits of age and wisdom given that she still looks exactly like her 30-year-old self. It’s not just the flawless skin and hair but also her lithe way of shimmying her shoulders and hips as she quotes a lyric or emphasizes a point. I try to get Lopez to cop to some of the inevitable downsides of aging that people routinely cite as they near 50. Failing memory, flagging energy? Nope and nope. But she does throw me a few bones. Lopez has noticed that she’s been squinting at her phone lately, so she might need reading glasses soon. The middle of her back hurts occasionally. And she’s introduced weight training to her fitness routine after realizing that she now loses muscle whenever she dances too much. But mostly, she credits her looks to the wholesome habits she’s maintained throughout adulthood: no caffeine, no alcohol, lots of sleep. “I’ve taken care of myself, and now it shows,” she says.
Lopez was a forerunner in the trend toward embracing curvier body types — living proof that goddesses (and their butts) come in many shapes and sizes. She says her friend Kim Kardashian West once revealed that she used to wear a bracelet with the slogan “What would JLo do?” But Lopez insists that body image is not something she ever thought much about, since the baby-got-back thing dates to when she was an actual baby. “I didn’t realize what I was doing — I was just being myself,” she says. “In my family, curves were glorified and part of the culture. It was just like, ‘Jennifer has a big butt, and it’s good.’ ” As a teenager, she and her friends never idolized the size 0 models in Vogue because they didn’t even notice them. “We were in the Bronx, like, break dancing.” Bold street fashion, and the not-to-be-messed-with attitude that goes with it, still underpins Lopez’s style, even when she’s wearing head-to-toe couture, which she did — in full looks by Valentino — for this photo shoot. “It’s what I still often wear to this day, the big hoops and, you know, gold jewelry,” she says. “I always like to mix the glam with a bit of the hood.”
Last spring Lopez launched her first makeup collection with Inglot. And JLo being JLo, she plans to follow it soon with her own skin-care line. She tells me this as her assistants and longtime manager, Benny Medina, hover in the kitchen and her Escalade is parked by the door, ready to take her down the road for a TV segment in Beverly Hills. In the next couple of days there will be rehearsals for the American Music Awards and for an upcoming Elvis Presley tribute on NBC, plus more interviews and World of Dance tapings. As she gets ready to text Rodriguez once more before heading off, Lopez acknowledges that her work schedule might seem “obsessive” and that some people will always wonder what she’s trying to prove. But she doesn’t really care.
“When I first started,” she says, “it was always a matter of ‘Am I good? Am I good enough? Do I need to be better? What can I do to be better?’ Now I know I’m really good at this. So I just want to do it.”
Photographer: Anthony Maule/Artists & Company. Styling: Julie Pelipas. Hair: Lorenzo Martin/The Wall Group. Makeup: Scott Barnes/Six K Management. Manicure: Hannah Huynh. Production: Tyler Duuring/Avenue B.
For more stories like this, pick up the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 9.