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J. Lo, The Realest Diva: How Jennifer Lopez’s Hustle Keeps Her in the Game

Ethan Miller, Getty Images
Ethan Miller, Getty Images

When Jennifer Lopez branded last month “#JENuary” via social media, it was easy to roll your eyes.

But in the case of J. Lo, the term felt more than fitting as she launched an array of new projects: The splashiest of those was undoubtedly high-octane Las Vegas residency (All I Have), along with planting herself firmly into network TV at the judging table for American Idol’s final season and a starring role in NBC’s new police drama, Shades of Blue.

But how does Jennifer Lopez, the multi-hyphenate powerhouse and larger-than-life celebrity, compete in a rapidly changing entertainment landscape? Eyebrows could be raised at a star with a name as big as Lopez’s retreating to TV and the bright lights of Vegas instead of going on a world tour and releasing a single featuring the hot rapper of the moment. But a closer look shows that Lopez not only knows where the money actually is, but that she wants to widen the understanding of her talent as a performer.

Few stars can have a nickname stick with them their whole career. J. Lo’s brand, the over-the-top diva who swears she’s just like you, is both her calling card and her biggest stumbling block.

Although mightily successful now, 15 years ago, Lopez managed a record-breaking feat: In January 2001, her second album J.Lo landed at the top of the US Billboard 200 charts, while her rom-com The Wedding Planner topped the box office that same weekend — the first star to take both slots at the same time. She enjoyed an undeniable hot streak from a slew of hit singles, later sending a remix album (J! to Tha L-O!) to the top of the charts in 2002.

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Her late ’90s breakout, which saw her go from acting success in films like Selena and Out Of Sight to pop sensation with a chart-topping debut single, was paying off. Jennifer Lopez was the rare star to have both music and movie success, harkening back to the yesteryear success of Barbara Streisand and Cher, while having an image and colorful public persona that was very much of the now.

While Lopez’s hits took over the charts and her films pulled in big money, the diva image and celebrity status seemed to almost overshadow her talents. Lopez reached a tabloid press peak when she and then-squeeze Ben Affleck become the celeb power couple, Bennifer (the first couple to really help the “joint couple combo nickname” thing take off) which gave them much press, but little in the way of respect, including a high-profile flop in their movie Gigli.

While J. Lo still managed to produce chart hits, including the self-aware smash “Jenny From the Block,” the sense of fatigue with her alleged diva extravagances and the overexposed nature of Bennifer in the media meant she was soon facing diminishing returns. By 2007, her album Brave became the worst performing of her career, while 2008 saw her departing from Epic Records, the label that made her one of the biggest pop stars in the world.

After a decade as a big name star, it was obvious Lopez wasn’t going to roll over and accept diva defeat. Her subsequent rebranding focused on a mix of her down-to-earth-but-hyper-glam star power…and her ability to dance up a storm.

2010 saw Lopez sign on for her one-off stint as a judge on reality TV juggernaut American Idol, which debuted on TV screens in early 2011. The move turned out to be a smart one for Lopez: Sure, she wowed with her fashion sense, but it was her warmth and sense of humor that felt new to audiences. Suddenly, the human being behind the hard work was far more obvious than any amount of “I’m from the block!” posturing had made us believe.

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Beaming into millions of homes weekly allowed Lopez to re-establish a connection with fans. 2011 also saw Lopez capitalize on Idol’s TV debut with the soon-to-be massive “On The Floor,” an assured cocktail of synths, Latin influences and a monster chorus, which would go on to re-establish Lopez as a performer who could still break out choreography with the best of them.

Releasing her greatest hits in 2012 (Dance Again…The Hits) also saw Lopez undertake her first world tour. Unlike her pop contemporaries who toured regularly with every album, Lopez had never embarked on a worldwide jaunt. Along with hitting the road, Lopez began to turn up the heat with numerous TV appearances, from show-stopping performances of whatever single she was promoting on Idol to wow-worthy tributes to Selena and Celia Cruz at awards ceremonies. Lopez was showing that her real skills lay in being a hard working performer — not just a tabloid figure.

We knew she was famous, and we sort of figured she had talent, but watching Lopez turn up at your typical music TV awards show (and promptly burn the house down) made you sit up and take notice in a whole new way. For all her fame and stature, Lopez seems to revel in taking gigs that other might balk at and then knock them out of the park.

Whether it’s the tricky task of the award show tribute gig or even last year’s hosting gig at the American Music Awards, Lopez took what is frequently a tough sell for even the most experienced star and made it a parade of outrageous outfit changes and frenetic dance numbers. Gleefully twirling her way through 2015’s biggest hits, Lopez out-danced stars half her age with an ease that suggested she wouldn’t be giving into ageist demands to slow down anytime soon.

As Lopez hits the promo trail for a slew of new ventures, it’s easy to remember that she’s still not guaranteed a hit, as the underwhelming performance of 2014’s A.K.A. album showed. Lopez may not have had an “On The Floor”-style smash in a few years, but she’s not letting that slow down her attempt to make the public focus on her talents as an actor and performer.

Lopez’s Vegas show, All I Have, follows the lead of Britney Spears‘ own residency, utilizing the same venue as part of Las Vegas’ rebrand as a destination to see big name chart stars and successful DJs. Unlike Spears, Lopez goes all in with the references to Vegas history past and present, indulging in the kind of glitz and glamour that typified the showgirl of yesteryear before ending in the EDM-tinged haze that tips the hat to the sound beloved by the Vegas’ new younger audience.

It’s a show that plays to Lopez’s appeal across demographics, in the way her award show performances often segued from whatever glitzy pop hit she was singing to a throwback track that allowed her to just vamp and throw down with her backing dancers. It’s a star vehicle that lets Lopez dance up a storm, look back at the peak of her celebrity brand, and blend nostalgia with an eye on her next move.

Unlike the costly demands of a world tour, Lopez can bask in the good reviews and focus on the live show while letting TV highlight her other strong points: American Idol has seen diminishing ratings over the years, and may not bow out with the kind of high viewer figures that it once had, but Lopez’s final season is an important part of the journey of her career. She can say goodbye to the show that gave her a second wind, while also acknowledging that week-after-week appeal allows people to really connect with a star in a way a two-hour trip to the movies can’t.

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That same logic underpins Lopez’s first acting role on television in cop drama Shades of Blue. Reviews of the show itself are mixed, but many are citing Lopez’s ability to turn down the mega-watt star glow and actually act as the show’s calling card. Lopez isn’t the first big name to end up on a TV series, but using the medium to tell a female-driven story in the traditionally hyper-male world of TV cop dramas is a reminder of why she’s there in the first place. Shades of Blue had a strong debut for a NBC, a network that still struggles to launch new dramas, and its full season order means the show has time to find its legs in a crowded marketplace.

Today’s stars, from YouTubers to the artists topping the Hot 100, have to be down-to-earth, relatable and always “on,” reflecting the way we all offer a filtered, somewhat idealized version of ourselves through social media. Jennifer Lopez, with her celebrity image and her willingness to focus on her core strengths, is both a star of the now and someone from a different age: No standing still with a guitar and singing about boys not texting you back, no attempt to shy away from the glamour that comes from wearing head-to-toe Versace, and no attempt to deny the hard work that goes into a two hour concert spectacle. Lopez is proof that a true star stays on their hustle and remembers just why we fell for them in the first place.

If January became #JENuary, there’s a strong chance the rest of 2016 could easily go that way too.

See photos of J. Lo kicking off her 2016 Las Vegas residency, All I Have:

Next: J. Lo Proves She's More Than a Pop Star on 'Shades of Blue'

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