'We're conditioned to think, as women, that it would be over by 50, but I find myself growing and getting better every year'
Jennifer Lopez's latest role, playing a scammer stripper in Hustlers, is her most daring yet. She talks to Jane Mulkerrins about getting older and her wedding plans with baseball star Alex Rodriguez
Jennifer Lopez says of a jaw-dropping scene in her new film, Hustlers, in which she plays a stripper intent on scamming New York's richest men: "It was a really scary thing for me to do." In it, she pole dances with the prowess of an acrobat born to the podium, and with the kind of unrivalled sexiness that only J-Lo could carry off, in a tiny, shimmering gold leotard.
I use the word 'leotard' very loosely; it's barely a string, and barely covers any part of her body. "I'm used to being on stage in sexy costumes, but I have three layers of tights and fishnets and a bodysuit," says Lopez. "It was a brand-new feeling to come out practically naked, in front of all those men - 300 extras hooting and hollering - and dance for money." She exhales, and shakes her perfectly blow-dried, shoulder-length mane. "There's something liberating and empowering about it, but you're really out there, physically, emotionally and psychologically."
Somewhat inconceivably, Lopez turned 50 in July. And, without wishing to be reductive, her body on the big screen and in person is so toned, sleek and powerful that it leaves you in a state of slight disbelief. To prepare for the role she trained intensively for two months, climbing and spinning on the pole - all in six-inch platform heels - with the Cirque du Soleil choreographer Johanna Sapakie.
To hear Lopez admit that the film made her nervous feels like something of a revelation; fear is not a quality one generally associates with one of entertainment's most enduring icons and now multi-millionaire businesswoman. Since the dancer, singer and actress first stormed her way into show business as a 'Fly Girl' on the sketch comedy show In Living Colour almost 30 years ago, she has firmly remained there, consistently smashing boundaries and setting records. She was the first Latin American actress ever to earn more than $1m for a film (Selena, in 1997); the first woman to score a No 1 album and No 1 film in the same week (an achievement still not equalled); she launched a line of perfumes, beginning with Glow in 2002, with sales now exceeding $2bn (£1.6bn); and, in the course of her recent 120-date residency in Las Vegas, she grossed an unprecedented $1m for a single show. She also brought the MTV Video Music Awards to a standstill last summer with her relentless medley of hits to celebrate her prestigious Video Vanguard award for lifetime achievement. She is a perennial fixture on Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world list for a reason.
We meet in a hotel room in Beverly Hills; Lopez is elegant and utterly flawless, wearing a short, fitted cream minidress by David Koma and heels by Christian Louboutin. This is our fourth encounter and I can report that her entourage today is bigger than ever. One of them is toting an enormous, jewelled cup emblazoned with the words, 'JLo - It's My Party'. "Don't leave it there, in front of the British press," squeals Lopez. Her assistant hurriedly moves the cup out of sight, but it's a reminder that, in spite of how far she has come, the J-Lo of the early 2000s, with all its bling and high glam, is never too far away.
In Hustlers, undoubtedly her most talked-about film for years, Lopez takes on the role of Ramona, a money-hungry stripper who dreams up a scheme to con New York's richest men, alongside a hard-hitting cast including Cardi B, Lizzo and Constance Wu. The film, says Lopez, is "a gangster girl movie, like Goodfellas, but from a woman's point of view", and is based on the true story of a group of New York strippers. Following the financial crash of 2008, and the subsequent downturn in trade at their club, the women started a scam, drugging men with a mixture of ketamine and MDMA, then stealing thousands of dollars from them. It was the perfect crime; what man would readily confess that he'd been fleeced by a stripper?
The legend of Lopez needs little recapping: the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, born in the Bronx, she left home at 18 to make it as a dancer. While her career continued to build exponentially, at times her roller-coaster personal life threatened to overshadow her professional achievements. She was married briefly in her 20s to Cuban waiter Ojani Noa; for nine months in her early 30s to former back-up dancer Chris Judd; then for 10 years to salsa singer Marc Anthony, the father of her twins, Max and Emme (11); and has had high-profile, tabloid-catnip relationships with P Diddy and Ben Affleck, to whom she was engaged. She is now engaged to the baseball star Alex Rodriguez.
You can't help but admire Lopez for wowing Hollywood for as long as she has. "Ambition for sure, and also toughness," is how she describes her survival strategy. "This business is not for the faint-hearted - it eats people up. To survive in it for as many years as I have, you've got to have a tough skin." She has talked about her #MeToo moment - being asked by a director to remove her shirt and show him her breasts was a low point to say the least. "I was terrified," she has said. "I remember my heart beating out of my chest, thinking, 'What did I do? This man is hiring me!' It was one of my first movies. But in my mind I knew the behaviour wasn't right. It could have gone either way for me. But I think ultimately the Bronx in me was like, 'Nah, we're not having it'."
In Hustlers, Ramona comments: "We have to stop dancing sometime." Does that apply to J-Lo? "Maybe, not anytime soon," she shrugs. "Did I think I would be doing this at 50? I didn't think I'd stop, but I didn't know that it would be the best moment of my life. We're conditioned to think, as women, that it would be over by now. And the truth is, it's not like that at all. I find myself growing and getting better every year and that's exciting."
Following ongoing immigration raids, the continuing separation of families at the US-Mexico border and the recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, Lopez signed an open letter, alongside Selena Gomez and Eva Longoria, to the Latin American community. It began: 'If you are feeling terrified, heartbroken and defeated by the barrage of attacks on our community, you are not alone.'
And she is aware of the change her success has helped drive. She has, she says, "always been trying to push for more Latin women in lead roles. I've been doing romantic comedy leads since I was in my 20s - and those are always, traditionally, a certain type of actress that plays those roles - and that moves the needle a little bit. We want to keep moving towards things in movies looking the way they are in real life."
"How long is it going to take until it's really, truly equal?" she asks, rhetorically. "I don't know. All we can do is keep trying to move in that direction, keep forcing the issue."
Last time we met, Lopez was clearly deliriously happy with Rodriguez, whom she has been dating since February 2017. Today, she's sporting a square-cut rock that takes up an entire finger joint. Wedding plans, however, have had to take a back seat due to the pair's demanding careers. "I have a movie I'm shooting in October (Marry Me, with Owen Wilson and Sarah Silverman) and the movie has an album that goes with it, so I'm just a little bit busy right now, and until October, he has the World Series in baseball. We're going to have to pick a day, pick a time and block it out, but we're definitely talking about it," she assures me.
Marriage is, says Lopez, "important for both of us. Alex and I come from traditional Latin families and we both want that.
"Everyone wants somebody to grow old with.
"At the end of the day, how much work can you do, how much money can you make, and what does it all matter? It doesn't, really." I almost believe her.