THE JENNIFER LOPEZ I LIKED (WHO DID NOT LIKE ME)

Lopez photographed by Greg Williams from British Vogue

I originally interviewed Jennifer Lopez for ELLE magazine.  She had been suffering from the flu after giving birth to her twins just a few months earlier.  She was in a vulnerable state.  She had already cancelled a previous appointment the day  I arrived at her home on Long Island when she was still married to Marc Anthony.  Alas, I had not gotten the message that she wanted to cancel yet again since she still wasn’t feeling well.  But she was a good sport and agreed to see me that day since I was already there.   She didn’t have to it, so I was appreciative of her willingness to go through with the interview once I later discovered that she had wanted to cancel it.  When I look back on it, I do wonder if she were suffering from a bit of postpartum if one can indeed suffer just a bit of such a thing just as it is said one can’t be just a little bit pregnant.  I remember thinking what a sport she was to see me that day and what a pro she was – and how moved I was by her willingness for me to see her in such “realness.”

I had been told by my editor at ELLE to go in and get the story because we had so far only booked  that one day to do the interview.  Back in those days one often had more than one session with a subject, especially for a cover story.  There was often two or three visits stretched out over a week. I followed my orders from ELLE; I went in to get the story.  Lopez never went off the record and was willing to answer all my questions, some of which were, yes, a bit impertinent and probing.  But that was sort of my trademark as a cover story writer.  I never wrote hit job.  But I could fashion a story into an impertinent puff piece.  Impertinence and puffery were my calling cards it seemed.

Lopez, however, didn’t take to my line of questioning and contacted ELLE and wanted me to be removed from the story as a way to kill the impending puff piece that was a bit too impertinent for her taste regarding her image.  I assumed ELLE – since I had just been doing what I was told to do – would stand by me.   Instead, they stood with Lopez against their own writer and fired me from the story at her behest.

I was not happy.  I checked my contract.  I saw that I owned my notes and tapes and I was contractually not allowed to sell a story to another print publication.  This was before the avalanche of digital media and a digital outlet was not mentioned in the contract.  I had already been consulting with my former Vanity Fair boss, Tina Brown, on the launch of her new endeavor back then, TheDailyBeast.com, and saw a way to get the story published.  I called Tina.  Told her what had transpired.  And told her we had a story for the launch week of her site.  ELLE, in the meantime, published some sort of jejune short piece to run with their Lopez photos since she had held out the extra photo shoots needed as leverage to get me fired or she would not do the extra days of shooting.  After ELLE wouldn’t stand by me, I lay low for a couple of months waiting for the story I had planned to write to appear on TheDailyBeast.com‘s second day of its launch.

Word finally began to leak though that I had planned to publish the story somewhere else. I got calls from Lopez’s PR people telling me I was not allowed to publish in any other magazine.  I let them vent knowing they were just doing their jobs.  But I told them I was within my rights.  I never mentioned a digital format.

But then it was figured out what Tina and TheDailyBeast.com and I were up to.  I received threatening letters from Lopez’s legal team telling me I would be sued for $1 million if I published even on this digital platform.  Tina and the Beast’s lawyers were backing me up, however, and we called their bluff.  They promised me they had my back.  And they did.  Tina and the Beast – and Barry Diller who owned it – were honorable in their word to me.  I felt safe working for them.  I felt protected.

The story caused a bit of a sensation but I never once named ELLE as the magazine I had done the story for nor ever publicly commented on the brouhaha while it was going on.  This is the first time I’ve ever written about it.

This is what The New York Times and the late media reporter David Carr had to say about it all when Tina launched TheDailyBeast.com:

“Ms. Brown does not appear to have lost her touch for creating a stir. On Tuesday, the site’s second day of existence, Ms. Brown published an interview with Jennifer Lopez by Kevin Sessums, a longtime celebrity profiler — an article killed by an unnamed women’s fashion magazine, in which he asks her about Scientology, breast feeding, a nervous breakdown and selling pictures of her twins. Those old magazine connections can come in mighty handy.

“Within hours gawker.com was speculating about which magazine had spiked the piece; New York magazine’s site, nymag.com, had teased apart Ms. Lopez’s ‘breakdown’; and popsugar.com was drooling over the interview’s naughtier bits. After a long time on the sidelines, Ms. Brown was back in the middle of the game, or at least the conversation.”

But even convincing Tina to run the story was the last hurdle I had to maneuver.   She initially wanted to run excerpts from the Q and A transcript of my interview.  But I insisted that the story itself run.  What ran – click here – was an edited version highlighted by topic headings.

So here for the first time is the first draft of the story that caused all this cultural tsuris.  I have, in fact, spotted Jennifer Lopez, at parties in the years since and have been tempted to make an amends to her about the trouble I caused, but then I realize I didn’t do anything wrong for which to make an amends.  I did my job really well.  I wrote a lovely story about a lovely woman who was rather vulnerable the day I met her.   There is nothing to regret nor feel sorry about.  I liked Lopez that day I met her for this story.  I still like her.  There have been times I’ve even admired her.   I wish her nothing but happiness and even more massive success.  Here’s the first draft of that first time I met Jennifer Lopez:

                                                   “I was not born to carry a basket!”

                                                legendary Mexican actress Maria Felix to 

                                          Cecil B. DeMille when he insulted her by offering

                                                  her a secondary role in one of his epics

                                                   

                                                      “I don’t come from no Mexico!  I’m 

                                           Puerto Rican!”  Jennifer Lopez as portrayed  in 

                                         all her diva glory on Episode 705 of “South Park”

     

   Driving up to the immaculately manicured grounds of the Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez estate on the North Shore of Long Island I am struck at how grand the property is – yet, at the same time, there is a strange, heightened intimacy about it.  F. Scott Fitzgerald set The Great Gatsby around just such surroundings out here among the rolling acreage that can still be found on this rarified spit of land which he so famously described as East Egg and West Egg in the opening pages of his 1925 masterpiece and which he further detailed as “one of the strangest communities in North America.  It is on the slender, riotous island which extends itself due east of New York and where there are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land … these physical resemblances must be a source of perpetual wonder to the gulls that fly overhead.”

      It is not only Fitzgerald’s voice I am hearing as the property looms in front of me, but also that of his heroine Daisy Buchanan, which was “full of money,”  he wrote of the sound of it.  If Fitzgerald were alive today to behold such an estate as well as its mistress – each the latest tirelessly tended iteration of arriviste splendor – would he have renamed his heroine Daisy  from the Block?

      “Don’t blow the horn,” I tell my driver as we approach the gates.  “I”m sure we’re being watched.  A guard will appear.”

         As if on cue, one does.  The ornate iron gates swing open and a large Latin guard approaches speeding toward us on the silent Segway Human Transporter upon which he stands and guides with only one hand as he holds in the other a walkie-talkie to his attentive ear.   I push the down button on my tinted back window.  “I’m here to see Miss Lopez,” I inform him as he leans in to glare at me, barely able to keep his balance on the Segway.

          “Follow me,” he commands.  

         The huge iron gates do not clang shut behind us but close with the eerie  silence of the Segway as we are led through a  canopy of beech trees and oaks.  We first park behind an Audie Spyker two-seater sports car in one of the house’s drives, the Spyker’s winged doors spread open and upward as if one of the perpetually curious Gatsby gulls has just landed to check out the property.  The car has been in storage but has been taken out this very morning as a kind of $300,000 summer toy for Marc Anthony.  From the driver’s side of the gull-like vehicle,  Anthony unfolds his lithe little body and stands to stare back at me.   In a t-shirt and a pair of clamdiggers that reveal a tattoo on his right calf, he strides into the house through a side door.  In a matter of moments, a beautiful turbaned African American woman scurries toward the car to tell my driver to circle around to yet another drive and she will meet us there where I am escorted into a dimly lit knotted pine study filled with myriad gold records and Grammy Awards and posters for the joint concert appearances of Anthony and Lopez.  “One of the twins has been sick from her inoculation shots,” explains the beautiful woman, telling me that Lopez, who gave birth to the twins Emme Guadalupe and Max David only four months ago, has caught the bug from her daughter and is rather ill herself.  Ever the professional however, she has decided the interview will take place since I have made the trip all the way out here in the late summer Friday afternoon getaway  traffic.  She goes to tell Lopez I am here and while I wait I stare at my reflection in a framed gold album.  A scented candle flickers.  Time does not fly.

     “Jennifer is so at ease with her femininity that it makes her totally seductive and earthy at the same time,” designer Diane von Furstenberg has told me and such an alluring combination  occurs to me when Lopez, wearing an orange Scoop t-shirt dress and an exceptionally large vintage orange stone pendant around her neck that DVF herself might have worn in the 1970s, appears in the doorway.  I turn when I hear her money-filled voice and am struck at how small and square-bodied she is.  In all that orange – her illness seems to have literally deflated her – she appears to be an unsuccessful  pumpkin souffle concocted by a neophyte chef.  Her unwashed hair is pulled severly back and there is a slight frizz to it that forms a kind of halo of fuzz around the crown of her head.  I stare at her makeup-less face.  Her eyes are glassy with her her flu-like symptoms.  Her feverish cheeks are aglow.  Again I think of Fitzgerald’s description of Buchanan and how her own face was “sad and lovely with bright things in it.”

       Before I can fully apologize for putting her through an interview, Max begins to cry upstairs.  Lopez excuses herself and returns with both twins in her arms.  Emme’s ears are already pierced with tiny gold hoops in them.  Max is wearing a gold bracelet with his name on it and a black onesie with an array of sequins on its back.  He cranes his neck about the room soaking in all his parents’ awards.  Emme, folded in the crook of Lopez’s left arm, only has eyes for her mother.  The three sit behind the study’s massive desk.  It’s now Emme’s turn to cry.  Max squirms at the sound of his sister’s tears.  Lopez doesn’t lose her grip on them or the situation.  A stranger is sitting in her study but that’s just part of her job – like looking after her own kids.

       Refusing to have a nanny for the first four months of her childrens’ lives, she has finally  ceded that she may need one. “I’m trying out my  first one today,” she whispers.  “But I still can’t stand the sound of  my babies crying without tending to them myself.”

       She looks completely exhausted by the last four months – and yet it is the grateful fatigue one sees on the faces of  mothers with much less famous lives.  “Have you had any postpartum depression?” I ask. “I know you must have never been this tired.”

       Maybe it is the grandness of her exhaustion, but Lopez – like the estate in which she is now ensconced –  begins to fall into the strange and heightened intimacy that such a place is able to conjure.  “No.  I’ve had no depression whatsoever.  People kept telling me, ‘Oh, you’re going to get depressed. You’re going to get postpartum.’” she says with a slight giggle as Emme begins to fall asleep against her chest.  Max quits squirming and watches his mother talk.  “What happens is a chemical reaction because your levels drop so quickly.  People kept prepping me for it, but it didn’t happen.  It is sort of amazing how scientific having a baby has become.  They can tell you exactly what’s going on every day of your pregnancy – like on this day your toenail is going to hurt and your toenail hurts.  So at the tenth day after giving birth all that chemical stuff did peak – that hormone thing – and I did cry a lot that day because I was having so much trouble moving.  I had a c-section.  Have you ever seen a c-section?  It told them I didn’t want to know anything, but afterwards they told me they had cut six layers.  That’s why you can’t walk afterwards.  So on that tenth day I did have some depression and cried a lot because I couldn’t get up fast enough to feed the babies.  I got out my book and sure enough it said on that tenth day I’d be emotional.  They call it the ‘baby blues.’  It went on for about three days but after that I was fine.  Marc was helping out a lot and I was crying and crying and going, “Oh, Papi …they’re going to know everybody more than me,’” she says and begins to pretend she is sobbing. “’They’re going to love everybody more than me!’” she continues the performance and it begins to seem as if she really is about to shed some tears.   Emme senses it too and wakes up to check on her mother.  They stare into each other’s eyes. “Don’t worry, baby. I was just acting,” Lopez softly says as the loveliest of laughs makes its way past a cough in her throat. “Mommy is an actress and she does dramatic things.” 

      “Have you ever suffered from any kind of depression at all?” I ask.  “You seem like the type who just barrels through any sort of emotional problem.”

       “I don’t have that mechanism really.   I don’t get nervous.  I don’t get depressed.  Blah blah blah.”  She pauses and reconsiders those statements.  Still staring into her daughter’s searching eyes she seems to reach an instant, instinctual decision.  She will start now in this moment not lying in her daughter’s presence.  Obfuscation will not even be allowed. “Well, there was a time when I was very overworked and I was doing movies and music and so many things.  I was suffering from a lack of sleep.  And I did have a kind of nervous breakdown,” she says.  Emme – just as instantly, just as instinctually – relaxes.  She dozes off again on her mother’s chest.  “I froze up on a set,” says Lopez.  “Well not the set, but in my trailer.  I was like, I don’t want to move.  I don’t want to talk.  I don’t want to do anything.  I just froze and got really sad and upset.  It was on that movie Enough,” she says, referring to the film in which she played a battered wife who finally fights back.  She pauses and keeps considering what she’s saying.  “Yeah.  I did.  I had a nervous breakdown.  That day I just froze up.  There were no signs leading up to it.  It was just that day I was really overtired and maybe had too much caffeine.  My heart started palpitating.  I was really overworked.  I was really not sleeping well.  Every time I walked onto the set my heart started to race.  You really don’t know what’s happening at first.  But it’s your body shutting down and telling you that you need to rest or something.  I was going, what’s going on?  My body really didn’t know what was happening because it was so used to the pace I was on.  It was at a time when I was working on a movie and recording at night till midnight or 1 a.m. and then getting back on the set at 6 a.m.  On the weekends I was doing press junkets and videos.  It was a relentless time in my life and everything just caught up with me.  It was about five in the afternoon in my trailer and I just sat there.  I had made it through the shooting day pretty much.  I remember telling my assistant at the time – Arlene – to go get the director Michael Apted and I asked if I could go home because I was feeling so sick and so weird.  I kept saying, ‘I’m not weak.  I’m not weak.’  It’s funny what tricks your mind plays on you.  I just didn’t want people to think I was falling apart.  But when I look back on it now it’s so odd to me that those are the words I chose to say: I AM NOT WEAK.  Michael let me off and when he left I just sat there and started crying and felt frozen.  I didn’t want to move.  My bodyguard who had been with me for many years picked me up and put me in the car and they took me to a doctor.    My manager who was also my friend met me at the doctor’s office.  Right away they want to give you pills.  But I have never liked the idea of pills and kept saying no to that and just kept asking what was wrong with me.  ‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong,’ the doctor said.  ‘You’re sleep deprived.  You’re overworked.  Go home and go to bed.’  I asked if I could take a month off.  But he said no.  It was a Friday afternoon.  He told me to go home and take a long weekend and just sleep.  He told me to go back to work on Monday because if I waited longer that I would only get more panicked about working.  So that’s what I did.  I’ve still never been to a shrink.  I’m not a shrinky type person.”

         “I know a lot of your friends are Scientologists.  Your father has been a Scientologist for about 20 years …”

          “More than that now,” she says.

       “So would you ever seek help from Scientology if you were having those kinds of problems again?  I know Scientologists don’t believe in shrinks.  Would you call on Scientology?”

         “I do know a lot about Scientology.  And I know about the practices.  I know all about what the technology is and all that kind of stuff.  It’s very helpful.  So in a sense, yeah, you do.”

             “Do you consider yourself a Scientologist?”

             “No.”

             “If you were, would you be open about it?”

             “Yeah.  I wouldn’t have a problem saying it because I know what it is.  I have no problems with it and it really actually bothers me that people have such a negative feeling towards it.”

         “That it is too exotic?  Too cultish?”

          “Just negative feelings.”

         “So many Scientologists that I know seem so well honed.  They all certainly seem happy – but it’s such a well-honed happiness. Is your father like that?”

         “No.  He’s a very sweet man.  But my dad is not honed,” she says, laughing.  “He’s a very relaxed guy.”

          “Would you consider schooling Emme and Max in a Scientology school?”

          “Yeah.  I wouldn’t mind.  Not at all.  Because I know that the technologies that they have are very helpful.   A lot of the practices they have are very helpful.  It’s all about communication.  That’s the thing I really don’t like about talking about this.  I do know so many great people who do do it, who choose  it as a lifestyle and really follow it and it is their religion.  And I know my dad and I know  what a great person he is and I know how much he’s had to do with raising me into the woman that I am.  So I can’t see anything wrong with it.  I just wish that people wouldn’t judge it without knowing what it is.”

        “If you feel this way about it, why wouldn’t you become a Scientologist yourself?”

            “Well …. it’s a huge commitment. You know what I mean?”

      “You were raised a Catholic.  Is it like becoming a Catholic?”

            “It’s a  a little bit different than that.  But I am nobody to school you in what Scientology is,” she says and allows a bit of her laughter to surface again.  “I know about it but not that much about it.”

             “Can you be both a Catholic and a Scientologist?”

            “Yes.  That’s what people I don’t think understand either.  My dad is still Catholic but he practices Scientology.  It’s a practice of the mind.  But believe me, my dad could explain this to you much better than I can.  It’s very difficult.  And yet it finally is very basic in the sense that it teaches you the basis of making your life better like having good communication with people and the way you treat people.”

            “Have you ever been cleared?” I ask, referring to the process in Scientology in which a person is freed of engrams, which are unwanted emotions and painful traumas.  

             “No,” she says.  “I have not been cleared.”  Her laughter – all of it now –  surfaces.  “My dad is cleared”

                 “Would you ever allow your children to be cleared?”

               Her laughter continues at full throttle at such a thought but then subsides. She is silent for a moment.  “You try not to mess’em up so that they never have to get cleared,” she says, kissing Emme on her forehead, then Max on his.

            “Mothering has always been very natural to Jen.  She is a natural caregiver,” says her good friend Leah Remini, the female star of CBS’ King of Queens sitcom and who, like Lopez, grew up in a working-class outer-borough of Manhattan.  Lopez’s childhood was spent in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx, Remini’s in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.   Remini and her husband, Angelo Pagan, are two of the most popular and down-to-earth couples in LA’s showbiz axis.  They are also two of the town’s proudest Scientologists.  [Remini since this story in 2008 has had a very public break with Scientology.]  “I first met Jen though Marc and saw her immediately fall in love with his sons and daughter and vice versa,” she says of the now teenage children from Anthony’s first two marriages.  This is the third marriage for Lopez as well, and her stepchildren – Anthony has custody of them in the summer – are roaming around the estate even as our conversation continues.  “What Jen can do on a daily basis with her career as well as being a mom now to twins is mind-blowing,” says Remini.

          Another friend, Victoria Beckham agrees.  “Jennifer has an impeccable sense of style,” says Beckham, no slouch in the style department herself.  There is, in fact, a faint yet modern echo of the Mexican actress Maria Felix to Lopez.  Felix, known as La Donna, was a great favorite of the fashionistas of her day and inspired Dior and Balenciaga to design couture for her.  Cartier even issued  several lines of diamond and emerald jewelry in her honor   Lopez’s take on fashion is more influential and therefore more egalitarian. “As a music star she continues to set fashion trends  which are not only chic but relevant,” says Beckham.  “She is a strong influence on young women today.  And she’s able to handle it all.  She is an intelligent and successful business woman all the while being an amazing mother to  Emme and Max.”

            Her mothering skills and business acumen merged when she and Anthony sold the rights to the newborns’ photos to People magazine. Did she have any sort of internal debate that she was using her babies as a commodity?  “No.  No.  I think one of the reasons that the price went so high is that we didn’t want to do it for so long,” says Lopez.  “We weren’t into it.  I was like, no, I don’t really want to.  No.  No way.  But then it got to the point that you go, well, now you’re being stupid with these offers.”

       “The figure one hears is you sold them for 6 million dollars.”

      “Yeah.”

      “So that’s correct?”

       “I’d rather not say.   But the point is I thought I can set them up.  I can put this away just for them.”

      “Did you give any of the money to charity?” 

       “We gave  a little bit and I saved the rest for them.”

     “Don’t their parents make enough money?” I ask.  “I mean, according to Forbes you’re the 9th richest female working in show business.”

      “Hmmm .. “ Lopez pouts, the glassiness in her eyes flattening even further into an angry glare.  She catches herself.  Cooing again at her adorable twins, she calms.  “I wouldn’t believe everything I read,” she tells me and giggles at how quickly that glare of hers can come into focus.  

       If one does believe most of the business stories about her, however, it would be safe to estimate that her empire – she is more empress than diva when it comes right down to it – could well be worth close to half a billion dollars when one factors in all of her endeavors.  “There are so few opportunities for Latinos that when you break through you have to become a multi-hyphenate,” says Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote the music and lyrics for Broadway’s hit musical, In The Heights. [Hamilton was still on the horizon when I wrote this story.] Like Lopez, his parents moved here from Puerto Rico and he is a first-generation American.  “Jennifer  has become such a hyphenate that she’s taken on the trappings of a kind of cultural ambassador.  I am always asked two questions.  One: What’s it like to win a Tony?  The other: Has Jennifer Lopez seen the show yet?  She hasn’t,” he sweetly admits.  “But I know she’s been crazy busy with her twins.”

        Lopez’s hyphenates include her movie career which encompasses both her role as an actress and a producer, her music, her television production company, her two fashion lines, her videos, her choreographic career, her sold-out concert appearances around the world with her husband, and her hugely profitable fragrance lines.  “I’m up to seven or eight fragrances now,” she says, having lost count.  “I’m launching a men’s fragrance later this year.”   Indeed, it is her success in the fragrance business  that is the basis of her financial empire.  The genesis for her literally having such a nose for business all started with her selling bootlegged perfume when she was a teenager in a secret shop behind a tire store in the Bronx.

    It is when that tough little teenager still surfaces that can cause confusion to her detractors and the labeling of her as a controlling diva who is too comfortable with throwing her weight around.  She can, some claim, border on being a bully to make up for those times in her life when she was bullied herself.  “I think I’ve always been a favorite to pick on,” she says, still using the terminology of the bullied.  “Once you have a lot of success you become a target in many ways.   But that’s just part of it.  But one of the reasons I think you make it is because you’re a strong person so you have to be able to take the good with the bad.  I just think that the whole diva thing is a misrepresentation of who I am.  I think some of that is because of  where I came from.  I came from the Bronx and a certain background.  I worked really hard.  I kept my focus on the right things.  And still even with that  they find stuff to pick on.”

       Her pal Remini best sums it up.  “I think like most artists who grew up with a lot of love and not a whole lot of other things, we are all driven by what we didn’t have,” she says.  “But there is also an innate feeling that you were meant to have more.”

         When I combine such a cogent thought about Lopez with the fact that she got her start as a fancified kind of bootlegger, there is a realization, sitting here looking at her defend herself against an interloper like me, how wrong I have been about her.  Though she is wearing all that orange, she is another of Fitzgerald’s characters. The one who dared to wear pink.  Whose seductive gaucheness permeated the story.  Who had the newer bank account.  She is not Buchanan.  She’s Gatsby.

      

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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