Jennifer Lopez: 'My Vegas show will be just like a party in the Bronx'
Rehabilitated by American Idol, Jennifer Lopez now has her first big television lead and her first Vegas residency. And that could just be the start, she tells Mark Ellwood
Actress/singer/dancer Jennifer Lopez will redefine her status as a triple attraction this year - in this case, juggling three different shows simultaneously as 2016 begins. She stars in a drama, a reality show, and is embarking on a sequin-spangled live concert series. She seems characteristically unfazed by the workload. "I can tell you - we've got a million ideas," she says.
The first Lopez show is on TV, her debut as the lead in a prime-time drama, NBC's Shades of Blue (think Prime Suspect with a dash of the conflicted loyalties of Olivia Pope in Scandal). Co-starring Ray Liotta and Sopranos moll Drea de Matteo, the 13-episode series is one of those gritty, moral quandary-type shows, where she plays a single-mother NYPD detective who struggles with the obligations of her job.
"It's set in the world of cops, but it's really about human nature - how we're always riding a line of what's right and what's wrong, that slippery slope," Lopez explains, her Bronx twang gloriously intact.
She'll compete with herself as American Idol returns on rival network Fox in the same week. It's her fifth turn as a judge on the Pop Idol progeny that produced Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. The singing juggernaut is slowing - the most recent finale was down three million viewers stateside - so it's concluding with this, its 15th season.
Lopez owes much to Idol - and not just in terms of the enormous pay packet, reportedly around $20m (£14m), that she receives for her opinions. Five years ago, when she first sat behind the Simon Cowell-approved desk, her career was in the doldrums, with flop films (The Back-up Plan) and singles (Louboutins and Fresh Out of the Oven, which also led to her departure from long-time label, Epic Records). Joining the panel offered Lopez the chance to become the firm-but-fair, tough-love judge.
Idol is a show for which she admits she would have auditioned in her teens, and one that has formed the bulwark for her career rejuvenation.
"When they announce the winner, and you see that person's dream come true? It's such a human thing," she says, softly.
Don't expect her to be so touchy-feely when it comes to the other auditions she's overseeing now - for dancers to be part of her back-up troupe in the Vegas show she's set to launch later in January.
There's nobody pickier, and little wonder given that she started as a booty-shaking background artiste for a slew of big stars, from New Kids on the Block, then the world's biggest group, to Janet Jackson (look for J. Lo in a black dress in the video for That's the Way Love Goes).
"I started as a dancer, so I have an eye for it. I've done it my whole life," she explains,
"Sometimes other people might like a person, but I'm, like, 'oh, they're a little bit weak in this part, there's not enough technique'."
Her uncompromising attitude is typical of the girl born and bred in the Bronx.
"I liked my upbringing there and it gave me incentive. Just the street smarts and the savvy," she says.
Both skills have been vital over the past few days while she has been whittling down a huge pool of hopefuls via sweat-inducing auditions. Jen (never call her J. Lo) isn't just assessing their footwork, either.
"They're bringing the story to life, so they're an integral part of the show, acting a little bit, even."
This live gig, which started this week, is arguably the biggest single undertaking for Lopez this year and is one she's expected to shoulder almost solo (well, except for those exhaustively rehearsed chorus kids). Lopez (46) will be an intermittent presence for 20 shows over several months at Planet Hollywood's Axis Theatre in All I Have.
The Vegas residency has become a rite of passage for pop princesses ever since Celine Dion's camp-tastic A New Day at Caesars Palace premiered in 2003. Veterans of a greatest-hits-strewn show on The Strip now include Britney Spears, who has been offering Pieces of Me for the last two years, and Mariah Carey, whose Infinity began last summer. These shows have boomed, Teflon-coated against caustic reviews; The New York Times likened the latter's concert to a can't-look-away car crash as Carey's signature high notes proved more monochrome than coloratura.
Typically, Lopez is determined to beat them both. "I want the show to be a high-energy, Bronx kind of block party," she says. "The most exciting shows make you dance, and scream and jump up and down. I want people to let loose. It's always been my approach to performing, to work, to everything I do in life: I give it all I have. That's why it's the name of my show."
It sounds as much like a threat as a promise.
One of her former dance teachers, the late Phil Black, singled Lopez out as the most memorable pupil he'd ever schooled and someone who worked hardest in the most competitive environment. No mean feat, given that he also taught Madonna and John Travolta.
"He said that twenty-something years ago," she says, laughing at the memory, momentarily caught off-guard. Yet the famously clean-living Lopez - "I don't drink, don't like the taste, never done drugs either" - is an unlikely Sin City resident.
The residency wasn't part of her plan until she sang in a sold-out New Year's Eve show in 2014 and in the process realised how a long stint allowed greater creative freedom compared to touring across the world.
"All your creative ideas get pared back, little by little, because it gets very expensive to put everything on a boat to China or Australia. In Vegas, though, you're in one place, so I get to dream - the ideas I have can come to life in a way they never have before. That's why some of the best shows are in Vegas."
Doubtless her mother, Guadalupe, was also a factor: the ferocious former schoolteacher, who nurtured her daughter's ambition - "my mother said I could do anything with my life, I could even be President of the United States" - is an avid gambler.
It didn't hurt, either, that Lopez could also channel her inner Sinatra on the Strip.
"I'm not as gifted a vocalist as some of the girls out there, but I know I communicate," she says. "It's a much more intimate experience, and it's about real performers. Not everybody can really do that."
Lopez plans to switch the set list constantly so each evening will be a unique experience. She's going to take inspiration from whatever she's humming in the kitchen at home. Right now, that's ballads by Sam Smith.
"That song Lay Me Down? I really, really love it."
Lopez, forever the pragmatist, though, knows why fans flock to those Vegas shows: "I'm going to perform all my chart hits, not a bunch of album cuts no one knows."
All I Have may be a musical retrospective, but she won't be revisiting other aspects of her past - like the deeply slashed Versace dress she wore as P Diddy's date to the Grammys in 2000 which ensured her a place on magazine covers across the planet.
"I redid the Versace dress for my Bronx homecoming show [in 2014], so I don't think I'll repeat myself."
Donatella Versace, though, is one of the talents likely to provide costumes for Las Vegas, alongside Balmain and red carpet favourite Zuhair Murad.
Lopez brightens when she talks about clothes and glamour. This is a woman with an entire drawer at home devoted to yellow diamonds, and who has called flicking through fashion magazines and flagging the outfits she wants to buy "my favourite thing to do".
"It's like a fantasy," she coos. "When you think of Diana Ross, Cher or Barbra Streisand, it's their costumes that became their signature."
Indeed, she has cited Streisand as an icon before, telling of how she wanted to work with the perfectionist diva on a movie. Lopez sent her a pair of scripts to review.
When Streisand phoned to give feedback, Lopez was too nervous to take the call so instead her manager answered. "And you know what she told him? 'Jennifer's too good for these.'"
Even for a steely diva like Lopez, a stint in Las Vegas can be gruelling. Another workaholic performer, Dolly Parton, only managed one night of her seven-day residency in 1981 after suffering an attack of Vegas Throat. The dry desert air, combined with omnipresent air conditioning, is brutal on performers' vocal cords (maybe that's why Spears seems to lip-sync much of her show).
"Oh, I've run into that trouble in Vegas before. It's super-dry so you have to take care of yourself and have tons of humidifiers," Lopez says, wryly.
However hectic her professional workload might be, Lopez has managed to manoeuvre her personal life out of the headlines in recent months. Max and Emme, the twins she had with ex-husband number three, Marc Anthony (he followed restaurateur Ojani Noa and dancer Cris Judd), will turn eight in February. Since her divorce from singer Anthony she has been reportedly dating twentysomething back-up dancer Casper Smart, though the relationship has waxed and waned over the last four years.
Lopez has had little time for anything other than work in recent months - she is booked solid for the first six months of the year and will likely be busy well into 2017, since it's expected the Vegas residency will be extended. Her schedule should ease once the final victor of American Idol sings his or her final chorus. Will she miss the show that has been such a major part of the last five years of her life?
"I have mixed feelings. It's a big celebration, but it's melancholy at the same time."
She catches herself, and her signature steely optimism returns.
"But something else will come up.