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Vida Lopez

"Jennifer Lopez is from New York. Do you hear an accent?" complained Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek to the New York Post. "Her grandparents or her parents -- maybe. But her Spanish is very bad."

But the language of Grand Avenue is only sometimes Spanish; the boys on the corner say they can barely understand their grandparents. ("But do you still consider yourself Puerto Rican?" "Hell, yeah.") Spanish is the echo language of signs, of ads, of abuelas calling children in when the humid afternoon claps with thunder ("¡Ven aquí!"). "It's funny," says Lopez, "as you grow up in this country, you don't think about it, but you're influenced by everything. I listened to salsa and merengue, but I also listened to Cher."

Her own grandparents came from Ponce, Puerto Rico's second-largest city (population 300,000). Her father, David, was a computer technician for an insurance company in Union Square; her mother, Guadalupe, a kindergarten teacher. They struggled raising three daughters (sisters Leslie and Lynda -- a D.J. -- are now part of Lopez's sometime entourage of homegirls) and only moved from the Bronx last year, after one of their girls appeared in a film opposite George Clooney.

"It was my parents," Lopez says, "who instilled in me that even though we were from where we were from and were who we were as far as nationality went, we were just as beautiful and smart and intelligent as anybody else in this country -- that I could do anything.

"I think about that all the time," she continues, purring. "I think about it as I'm driving around in my car -- I have a nice car, a Mercedes 320 convertible -- and I'm driving down to my video shoot. . . . I know what it means; I know the impact I'm making."

How did she make it?

Jennifer Lopez rose from the ashes of Selena (Selena Quintanilla Perez), the Texas-born Tejano singer who was gunned down at age 23 by the president of her fan club, Yolanda Saldivar, a dowdy boutique manager and embezzler. Selena was a phenomenon when she died in 1995; she had filled the Houston Astrodome with an attendance record of 61,000. She'd just begun to "cross over" -- the expressed goal of her management before her death -- having won a Grammy and recorded her first English-language album. Selena's death -- a huge story that struck the mainstream press with its ignorance of just who she was -- had an effect on the Latino community akin to that of the murder of John Lennon, because Selena was a folk hero, the electrifying girl next door who made it big despite the odds stacked against her.

"She did cross so many different barriers and made so many things happen just by being her," Lopez says sweetly. "The more I think about her and talk about her, the more I realize much bigger things were accomplished with her life and her movie" -- that is, Lopez's 1997 movie Selena -- "than she could ever think."

In Selena, Lopez -- who until then had been known primarily as one of the dancing Fly Girls on Keenen Ivory Wayans's In Living Color -- seemed to merge with the lost Selena. They looked so much alike, moved and sounded so much alike (well, Lopez was lip-synching Selena). It was a performance up there with George C. Scott's Patton, in perfect pitch, and it made Jennifer Lopez a household name -- at least, in Latino households. "It connected me to the culture," says Lopez, "and opened up a lot of things to the Latino culture in general -- to not be so closed to the Latin culture."

"There's a bigger purpose," she adds languidly, meaning to her own -- and of course, Selena's -- success. She took up, in a sense, where Selena left off.

Abraham Quintanilla, Selena's father in real life, says he was surprised at Lopez's state when she came off the stage -- "breathless" -- after shooting a scene in which Selena performs at the Astrodome before a sea of screaming fans (or in Lopez's case, extras). Lopez loved the rush of being in front of such a crowd. "She said right then she wanted to do what Selena did, for herself," Quintanilla told the Los Angeles Times.

Jennifer!" "Jennifer!"

Benny Medina, Lopez's controversial talent manager ("If I am the master of my destiny, he is the executor," Lopez says grandly), reports that Jennifermania has now gone global: "We were in Paris during Fashion Week and had just parked in the Place Vendôme when Jennifer just kind of wandered off by herself in the direction of the Ritz, and suddenly all these photographers and tourists were surrounding and engulfing her."

She's become so big, even Donald Trump is claiming to have a hand in her celebrity -- by never having known her. "She came to the Trump Organization five years ago to interview as a secretary," the Donald says, "and was turned down, and because of that became a star!"

It was Lopez's association with Puffy, however (which seems to have started some time in 1997), that pushed her into the gossip-column spotlight. There were Puffy and Jennifer "openly canoodling" in the pool of Miami's Delano Hotel; jetting off to Paradise Island (they had apparently wanted bottles of Cristal and boxes of Cap'n Crunch for their rented hideaway); there were Puffy and Jennifer vehemently denying there was anything to all the "rumors."

He, after all, was still living with Kim Porter, the mother of his son Christian; and she was married to Ojani Noa, a former model and waiter -- now the manager of L.A.'s Conga Room, which Lopez co-owns -- whom she had wed in a fit of high spirits in the wake of Selena. "He's a bit macho and would sooner have me home," she told a newspaper demurely. (She had actually divorced Noa five months earlier.)

"Sean and Jennifer have a lot in common," says someone close to Combs. "They're about the same age, they're both from uptown, both former dancers, and both really ambitious. Ruthless, in fact."

"Why is ambition, like, a bad thing with women?" asks Lopez.

Creeping up to the release of Out of Sight, Puffy and Jennifer were being called "officially an item," and Lopez posed in Vanity Fair, from behind, in -- just -- a pair of drawstring panties.

"I really would like to see an article that doesn't mention it" -- that is, her bottom -- Lopez says.