Why Jennifer Lopez is the most underrated superstar in the entertainment industry

Lopez remains the ultimate “triple threat” as an actor, singer, and dancer 20 years after her defining song. Laura Martin questions why she isn’t paid.

Sing “Don’t be misled by the pebbles I received” to a millennial, and they’ll likely respond, “I’m still Jenny From The Block.” Jenny from the Block, released in September 2002, has 162 million YouTube views and counting.


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— The greatest 21st-century actor

It’s one of Lopez’s most popular songs and possibly her defining one, encapsulating her brand and appeal: yes, she was a stunning and accomplished Hollywood star, but she was also just the girl-next-door. In a famous video, she and boyfriend Ben Affleck roll around in bikinis on a yacht.

Halftime highlighted Lopez’s 2020 Superbowl preparations (Credit: Alamy)
Halftime highlighted Lopez’s 2020 Superbowl preparations (Credit: Alamy)

This is Me’s lead single Andre Deyo was inspired by Lopez’s Oprah interview in May of the same year. “Originally, it was called Jenny from the Bronx,” says Deyo. I wanted to give her a new nickname like J-Lo, so I thought if she’d enjoy Jenny?

It was one of the year’s most talked-about songs, from the video to the infectious flute riff sampled from Enoch Light’s 1975 disco classic Hijack. In the US, it spent 16 weeks on the Billboard charts. The song’s autobiography of Lopez, a second-generation Puerto Rican immigrant who grew up in the Bronx, is addressed 29 times, setting it unique from other mainstream pop songs. “People want to support locations as well as people, so I felt there would be a tremendous connection with Jennifer and the Bronx,” says Deyo. Lopez wanted to link back to her history, which has defined her as a performer since childhood.

Lopez’s ascent to global icon status has been long, but even after 30 years, 80 million records, 8 albums, and 40 films, she still battles to be recognized. Halftime, a Netflix documentary, followed her during a busy professional period in 2019 and 2020, when she starred in Hustlers and performed at the 2020 Super Bowl half-time show. Despite these accomplishments, she still confronts industry criticism. Lopez fails to obtain an Oscar nomination for Hustlers and is forced to share the Super Bowl stage with Shakira, a decision she calls “the dumbest idea in the world.” The documentary seems to ask if Lopez is Hollywood’s most underrated star.

Hard-won climb

From a young age, Lopez has battled skepticism: she’s talked about how her parents David and Guadalupe opposed her when she dropped out of college to become a singer. In the early 1990s, she danced for MC Hammer and New Kids on the Block, which landed her a spot in In Living Colour’s Fly Girls dance team.

From there, he had many modest TV appearances before two high-profile film disappointments, 1995’s Money Train and 1996’s Jack opposite Robin Williams. In 1997, she portrayed Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in Selena. Quintanilla-Pérez was on course to become one of the biggest cross-over Latin American performers in history before she was murdered and killed by her fan club president, Yolanda Saldvar, in 1995. Lopez played Quintanilla-Pérez, a forebear of hers, in the film, which may explain her “incandescent” performance.

Screenshot co-host and film critic Ellen E Jones agrees that Selena is one of Lopez’s defining career moments. Megawatt charm is Jennifer’s superpower. That’s why you can’t stop watching her onscreen. This portrayal positioned her on a par with a cherished Latina figure, suggesting she too was an icon-in-the-making. It also reinforced her Latinx identity and garnered her the loyalty of a large US and global audience. It highlighted her self-knowledge, self-confidence, and strategic nous.”

Out of Sight helped launch Lopez’s career (Credit: Alamy)
Out of Sight helped launch Lopez’s career (Credit: Alamy)

Selena’s director Gregory Nava later said that shooting a scene when Lopez performed as Quintanilla-Pérez to a 35,000-strong crowd in Houston “gave her the inspiration to establish a musical career” It was the first time Lopez’s name was associated with the Oscars, but she didn’t win.

In June 1999, her debut album On the 6 was released, with the lead track If You Had My Love becoming a number one song in the US, followed by Euro-dance blockbuster Waiting For Tonight and Gloria Estefan’s Let’s Get Loud. The album cover portrayed Lopez in panties and a long-sleeved blouse, sitting on a sofa. As with Jenny from the Block, it projected a girl-next-door image to set off her party-girl reputation. A year later, at the 2000 Grammys, she wore a plunging, palm-tree-patterned Versace dress, immortalizing that portion of her identity. It’s one of the most-cited red-carpet ensembles ever.

Similar to the album art, her vocals had a pleasing casualness that some critics appreciated – “Instead of strained vocal pyrotechnics, Lopez sticks to the understated R&B murmur of a round-the-way superstar who doesn’t need to belt,” noted Rolling Stone – while others called her efforts “thin” and “flimsy”.

In Hollywood’s Golden Age, movie-star charisma was abundant, but not like Lopez. – Ellen E. Jones
While her initial album received poor reviews, she was vindicated two years later with J-Lo. In January 2001, she became the only female artist to have a number one album and film at the same time.

While recording On The 6, she was also acting. In her best-known role, she played a federal investigator who falls for a criminal she’s chasing in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. Many felt Lopez and Clooney had old-school chemistry in the greatest way. “Movie-star magnetism was abundant in Hollywood’s Golden Age, but not anymore,” says Jones. “When people talk about Out of Sight’s renowned sexual chemistry (and it’s sizzling), they’re talking about two charismatic, proper movie stars and a savvy filmmaker who understands how to use that energy.”

Following The Wedding Planner, which generated over $100 million on a $35 million budget, Lopez filmed Maid In Manhattan, which still holds up 20 years later with its whimsical, mistaken-identity meet-cute between Ralph Fiennes’ aloof politician and Lopez’s hotel maid and single mum from the Bronx. It was released a few months after Jenny from the Block and cemented her identify as a woman who knew “where I came from”

As her star developed, “what was fantastic was the pride she had in her culture and the fact that she wasn’t prepared to compromise or whitewash her cultural and ethnic history,” says cultural expert Isabel González Whitaker. We all dressed like J-Lo because she helped cross cultures. I think she opened the door to Latino culture having a greater appeal because of her beauty, tone, and history.

Many were surprised Lopez wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for Hustlers (Credit: Alamy)
Many were surprised Lopez wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for Hustlers (Credit: Alamy)

Setting up her production company, Nuyorican Productions, in 2001 was also a smart move, according to González Whitaker: “In the US, Latinos go to the movies and stream more than our counterparts, so there is an audience appetite that isn’t being served, and she has been consistent in her output.” This shows her business savvy. In 2006’s El Cantante, Lopez played Puerto Rican musician Héctor Lavoe and his wife Puchi. In 2007’s Bordertown, she played a journalist investigating a rash of killings near the Mexico-US border. The business struck a multi-year contract with Netflix in 2021, starting with Lopez’s flicks The Mother and The Cipher.

Her backlash

In 2003’s romantic criminal caper Gigli, she featured opposite Affleck. Gigli is a bad film with clumsy dialogue and a ridiculous narrative. Bennifer announced their engagement right before the film’s release, only to break it up the following year.

The widely panned film collapsed at the movie office at a time when media coverage of Lopez was at saturation point; she had established a clothing line, fragrances, and a restaurant. Misogynistic tales began flooding tabloids and celebrity magazines, saying Lopez was a domineering “diva” driven by power (For example, one tabloid story alleged she demanded a recording studio change their lightbulbs to low-wattage ones to make her look more “desirable”). When 2005’s An Unfinished Life bombed, Roger Ebert of the Chicago-Sun Times said, “Nobody is satisfied with anything she creates.”

The Superbowl incident was embarrassing for her as a musician, actress, dancer, and producer. Isabel González Whitaker Lopez suffered a “nervous collapse” from stress in the early 2000s. “I honestly believed that I wasn’t good,” she says in Halftime. Why didn’t I leave? I was in a chaotic abusive relationship. I often felt like quitting.

Reflecting on this period on a recent podcast, Affleck – who reunited with Lopez in 2021 and married her in July – laid bare the darker undertones to the backlash against her, labeling it “sexist” and “racist” and referring to things that “if you wrote it now you would literally be fired for saying those things you said”.

Lopez released a Spanish-language album in 2007 and had children with Marc Anthony. In 2011, she became a judge on American Idol and produced World of Dance before beginning a two-year Las Vegas residency in 2016.

Sweet victories

Hustlers showed how formidable she was. In the true-crime drama, which Lopez also produced, she plays Ramona, a stripper who drugged and robbed Wall Street businessmen. Her introductory pole-dance routine is more athletic than any superhero fight scene.

During the 2019-2020 awards season, she was considered a lock for a best supporting actress Oscar nod after the Golden Globes. Halftime is clearly gearing up for Lopez’s nomination announcement during awards season, but that storyline fails to materialize. The film captured another potent story by turning to a shot of the actual nominees: a panel of all-white, primarily blonde actors, a stereotype she’s been at conflict with her whole career.

Lopez’s participation during Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration proved her status as an American icon (Credit: Alamy)
Lopez’s participation during Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration proved her status as an American icon (Credit: Alamy)

Alongside her Oscar bid in Halftime is footage of the star in rehearsals for the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show, in which she is frustrated about having to share the stage with Colombian superstar Shakira – not because of Shakira, but because she believes it sends the public the message that she would not be “enough” on her own.

“If it was a double headliner they should have given us 20 minutes,” she complains in the film. Benny Medina, Lopez’s manager, says it’s an insult to claim two Latinas can do what one can.

González Whitaker says Lopez’s frustrations were “100% reasonable.” “In the greater ecosystem of Latinos in the US, our communities are not recognized as plurals. It’s horrible given her achievements as a musician, actress, dancer, and producer. It sends a clear message by compartmentalizing who she is and who we can be: “There’s only so much space, platform, and exposure for our community, so you have to share the stage.”

Lopez and Shakira gave a bombastic performance. Lopez reminded the audience in half the permitted time that she is a “triple threat” and her back catalogue is full with hits. The organizers overestimated her pull; it was the most viewed Super Bowl half-time performance ever.

Lopez was chosen to play during Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration because she embodies the American Dream. Along with America the Beautiful and This Land is Your Land, she sneaked in a few bars of Let’s Get Loud, which appears to sum up her legacy: battling for her own voice to be heard within the establishment. “No is not an answer, it’s an opportunity” Her next projects include The Godmother, about drug kingpin Griselda Blanco; underestimate her at your peril.

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