Vida Lopez

They call her J-Lo – “That’s the ghetto shit,” I’m told by one of the boys standing on the corner of Grand Avenue and 181st Street in the Bronx on a hazy Sunday afternoon. J-Lo is Jennifer Lopez, and this is the neighborhood where she lived, long before she became a Hollywood movie star, an MTV-anointed singing star, the face of L’Oréal, and the first Latina ever to become the No. 1 sex symbol in America – not to mention, the girlfriend of Sean “Puffy” Combs. (“Puff’s in love,” says a close friend of the rapper’s. “This is not just about the booty.”)

“If you had my love and I gave you all my ta-rust … would you lie to me?”

J-Lo’s No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, “If You Had My Love” (“No Me Ames,” her duet with Latin heartthrob Marc Anthony, was No. 1 on the Latin chart), floats thinly out of a radio perched at the edge of a fruit stand, where some stricken-looking oranges and bananas are shrinking in the sun. At the first-ever Teen Choice Awards this month, “If You Had My Love” was named Song of the Summer; it was the song kids got sunburned to, and made out to.

“I love yoooo!” Lopez called to her manager, Benny Medina (Puffy’s former manager, too), from the stage as she accepted a giant surfboard trophy.

The boys on the corner of Grand Avenue and 181st Street are sweating, shirtless, and have tattoos, shaved heads, or cornrows. “Trying not to be inside,” they say. “We don’t have no air-conditioning.” At first, they want to know “Are you a cop?” until Jennifer Lopez is mentioned. Then they grin. “Yo, tell her they call me Hot Chocolate.” “Tell her I can dance, I wanna be in her video.” “She’s the Puerto Rican princess,” one says, and claims he knows her. “You is dreamin’,” the others say.

When J-Lo lived on Grand Avenue, she says, her apartment was “cold in the winter and hot in the summer.” Her journey from there, one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, has the stunning quality of a defied impossibility. She says the flavor of the neighborhood still haunts her. “When I moved to Los Angeles, I found that the things I clung to the most were things from my culture,” Lopez says in her gentle, sleepy voice. “That was the music that I wanted to hear and the food that I wanted to eat. I wanted to be around people who reminded me of home.” She’s in L.A. now, making her tenth movie, The Cell – a thriller in which she plays a forensic psychologist; she makes it clear that she would not like to be typecast in “Latino roles.”

“The kind of career I always aspired to was very much from the musicals I used to watch when I was young – Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Bette Midler,” says Lopez.

“She’s very important to my daughter,” says a woman sitting on a stoop on Grand Avenue, braiding her 10-year-old daughter’s shiny black hair.

“I like Britney Spears better,” says the girl.

On Grand Avenue, Puerto Rican flags hang in every other window, their bright stars dotting the drab brick buildings with hopeful-looking constellations. The boys on the corner are remembering this summer’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, when J-Lo was the grand marshal; she was late, steaming up Fifth Avenue past the mayor to take her place at the front of the cavalcade, almost causing a traffic meltdown. “She drove right by me,” one of the boys on the corner brags. “I saw that boonkie.”

“I saw,” Lopez says, “a lot of proud Puerto Rican people.”

Shake it, shake it.

“I remember being 2 years old and being put on the table and – in Spanish they say menéalo, but it means ‘shake it, shake it,’ ” says Lopez. “I think I was probably dancing out of the womb. We are a very musical people, a very passionate people – “

“What do you think of the term Latin spitfire?” a reporter at another magazine asked Lopez recently. Since she became the Jennifer Lopez, she’s been inundated with questions about what it means to be a Latina – whatever Latina may mean. She herself points out that ethnicity, race, are issues with which Meg and Gwyneth and Julia rarely have to grapple. (“And they ain’t even got the booty,” one of the boys on the corner says. “Julia got some,” another observes.) “Do you think you’re the most famous Lopez?” one interviewer asked, calling Lopez a “tantalizing tomatillo.”

She tried to oblige: “Nancy Lopez, the great golfer?” “What does Lopez mean?” the interviewer probed. “I don’t know,” said J-Lo, then challenging, sly: “Would it tell me something about myself?”

There was Desi, dressed in the same pajamas as “Loo-cee”; Xavier Cugat; Tito Puente; Rita Moreno; Chita Rivera … The number of Latino superstars America has allowed for can be counted on one hand, maybe two (don’t forget Freddie Prinze). But America is changing; in 30 years, Latinos will outnumber every other minority group in the country, and with that, the faces on magazines, in movies, and in front of news cameras are sure to change. The recent craze for things Latino (“Riiiiiicky!”) may be no fad but a harbinger of an America to come; and the success – the Meg-, Gwyneth-, and Julia-size success – of Jennifer Lopez may represent the dawning of a new era of pop icons. Jennifer Lopez – full-bodied, hip-hop J-Lo – is the face of the future of glamour and beauty. And she – or perhaps this – has gotten under some people’s skin.

“On Monday, March 22,” read page 2 of the Daily News, “in the context of a review of the fashions at the Academy Awards, the Daily News made an editorial error and captioned a photo of Jennifer Lopez with the wording, Reformed Tramp… .”

“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.

In Out of Sight, Lopez emerged as perhaps the sexiest screen presence since Sharon Stone, and earned respect as an actress (“Being Latin wasn’t even an issue,” she says). Lopez and Clooney both brought a sultry maturity to the encounter of a man and a woman (or in this case a bank robber and a federal marshal) that has woefully been lost in the chipper romance of Hollywood movies of the nineties.

“I had followed her film history closely,” admits Tommy Mottola.

Mottola, the powerful head of Sony Music Entertainment, took a personal interest in the development of On the 6, Lopez’s debut album (so named for the train she took home to the Bronx). “I had heard she wanted to make a record,” Mottola says, “and I asked for her demo tape. I listened to the tape, and I wrote a memo: ’Get her on a plane.’

Sony, which already had the biggest Latin-music division of any recording company (Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, etc.), had its hands on the world’s hottest Latino actress – not to mention that Puff Daddy was onboard as one of her songwriters and producers. It was a “win-win”: And we’ll throw on some hip-hop, and we’ll throw on some salsa, and we’ll get Emilio Estefan and Marc Anthony on some tracks, and put lots of pictures of Jennifer on the CD … (Nine pictures, six with booty.)

“She exudes charisma,” Mottola says.

(Mottola gets a little heated, by the way, when asked whether there’s anything to rumors that at some point, he and Lopez were also “dating.” “I think it’s a mistake for you to even go there,” he says intensely. “I don’t think it is true,” says a music producer at another record company. “But too bad for him, know what I’m saying? Jennifer’s got a lot more flavor than Mariah.”)

If there is any identifiable sound to On the 6, it’s the highly polished sound of people wanting Jennifer Lopez to succeed. There are people – people like Mottola; music people, who are always way out ahead of movie people – who know just what she means: She’s the future of entertainment, among other things, and that means the future of how people will want to spend their “disposable” incomes. (Note: Puffy dances wrapped in a Puerto Rican flag in his latest video.)

It’s strange – because now Kim Porter has moved out of Sean Combs’s house and back home to Atlanta with their son – but Puffy’s still denying he and Jennifer Lopez are together. “We just be kicking it,” he told a Boston radio station recently. In the current issue of Puffy’s magazine, Notorious, the two self-conscious icons (whom a hip-hopper friend calls “Ken and Barbie for the millennium”) take the game a step further. “They’ve written a lot of stuff about us,” Puffy says, playing celebrity interviewer to Lopez. “Do you think it could be true one day?” “Yeah, I like you. Do you like me?” Lopez says coyly.

“Puffy bought Jennifer a $60,000 Franck Muller watch and that diamond cross she always wears,” relates a female friend of the couple’s. “That says it.”

“He took his mama to her birthday party” in July, at the downtown club Halo, another friend of Combs’s says, adding, “Now, a black man doesn’t take his mama all dressed up to a woman’s birthday party unless it’s real, I-will-die-for-you, tattoo-your-name-on-my-ass love. I’ve never seen Sean like this about anything. Actually, I think they’re both in love with each other – that’s my impression.”

Lopez just purrs: “He’s a friend, a good friend.” She’s being very careful now. She says, “You have to be careful.”

It wasn’t always this way. back in the perhaps simpler days, before the glaring

stare of real fame, Jennifer Lopez spoke her mind frankly, and people kind of liked her for that. “Do I think Madonna is a great actress? No,” she was quoted as saying in Movieline magazine in a now infamous interview. She implied that Gwyneth Paltrow had used her relationship with Brad Pitt to get ahead (well, who doesn’t think so, really?), and that Wesley Snipes had come on to her on the set of Money Train. (Snipes denies it; Lopez says she was misunderstood.)

And now she seems to be watching herself. Interviewing her is a pleasant enough experience, like eating vanilla custard. She’s also taken steps to broaden her appeal; one of the interviews for this story took place during her visit to a Jewish camp in the Adirondacks, the Berkshire Hills-Emanuel Camps. “Just to see the impact you have,” Lopez said breezily after dancing the hora, “it makes it all worthwhile.” She has become a big star, and like all the other big stars, she is very “nice.”

“She’s plowing the mainstream a little hard for my taste,” says someone in the hip-hop business.

It isn’t fair, but now people are saying that “nice” is all part of Jennifer Lopez’s new image – which also includes blonder hair and a smaller posterior. shaking her booty – suddenly, there’s a lot less of jennifer lopez, the New York Post observed recently. If the veiled suggestion in all this is that in order to widen her market, Jennifer Lopez is trimming down, trying to seem less of a “Latina,” then the question again becomes … what is a Latina? Can’t Jennifer Lopez just be a diva?

“I’ve actually changed the way I talk, I’ve changed the way I move my hands,” she has said of her acting efforts.

“Things do still have to change,” Lopez tells me. “That’s just the way society is right now. It has gotten better; I’ve gotten better opportunities, and I can only speak from my point of view.” And clearly, that is the point of view of one who knows how to make use of her opportunities. But perhaps that’s just what it takes to realize her plans in a society in which Meg and Gwyneth and Julia still command more on the bottom line. One day, Lopez says, she wants to make her own movies. “There are different stories and stuff that I want to put out there,” she says. “All in due time,” she adds.

In the video of “If You Had My Love,” a little dark-haired girl in pigtails stands watching, dancing, enthralled, as Jennifer Lopez makes her moves. The girl may be white, she may be Latino or something else entirely – you really can’t tell.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” says Lopez.

Vida Lopez