Has there ever been a star like Jennifer Lopez? Never. What a long, weird, wonderful career she’s built — a whole new genre of celebrity, a one-woman paradigm shift in pop culture. She’s done it all. A little song, a little dance, a lot of movies, some romance.
The world’s most famous Latina. The world’s most famous Gen-Xer. A one-woman assault on cultural clichés. A gangster. A hustler. J.Lo’s career has been packed with glorious highs and a few hilariously disastrous lows, just because that’s how legends roll. There was no Jennifer Lopez before her. There will never be anyone like her again. And she’s never been cooler than right now. So here, we salute this woman and her one-of-a-kind career. Let’s get loud.
In Living Color, 1991
Dig if you will the picture of pop culture before Jennifer Lopez came along. A colder, blander, duller place, just waiting for her to take over. When we first met her, she was a dancer in the hip-hop scene. Her earliest known TV footage: grinding in tights next to MC Hammer circa 1988 on Yo MTV Raps. But she made her big debut as a Fly Girl on the sketch-comedy classic In Living Color. Series creator Keenen Ivory Wayans gave her a special intro: “We got a new Fly Girl! Coming all the way from the Bronx, Miss Jennifer Lopez!” Right from the start, she was already a star.
Her first big movie. She was still an unknown at this point, and some people thought it was crazy to give such a plum role to a rookie — especially letting her play a legend as beloved as Selena just two years after the Tejano singer was murdered. There was controversy over casting a Nuyorican, neither Mexican nor Texan, with no music experience. But the movie was an instant smash. Overnight, people found out Jennifer was a real actress. “I have the stardom glow,” she announced. “See, I grew up watching real movie stars — Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe.”
Oscars red carpet, 1997
The moment she became a true movie star, glamming it up on the red carpet with Joan Rivers. Nobody had heard of her yet — Selena had just dropped a few days earlier. La Lopez walked into the Oscars as just another Hollywood ingenue, but she walked out a legend. She went for old-school allure with Rita Hayworth curls and a lace Badgley Mischka dress. Then Rivers spoke those fateful words: “Turn around for us!” Four seconds that changed the world. Lopez took her swivel, smiled over her shoulder, and hit reset on the whole concept of “glamour.” Anyone watching could tell you she was going to be famous forever.
Biggie and Puffy’s “Been Around The World” Video, 1997
Lopez crashes into the hip-hop world, kicking off her Puffy Era. The video was a typically lavish Bad Boy production, with Puff Daddy acting out his James Bond fantasy over a sample of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” (Biggie raps the hook on the track, released a few months after his death.) Jennifer doesn’t appear until seven minutes in, as a princess who falls under Puffy’s erotic spell. He kisses her hand. They break into a sensual tango. Then she and Puffy became the world’s favorite soap opera.
Her femme fatale breakthrough. Look, nobody thought U-Turn was a great Oliver Stone movie — just another Nineties neo-noir homage, filmed in the Arizona desert. Like all these movies, it had a cynical but sexy drifter (Sean Penn), an evil old rich guy everyone wants to kill (Nick Nolte), and a dangerous lady in a red dress who’s Not What She Seems. Obviously, that’s Jennifer. U-Turn was the first time she got to play a bad girl: She gets to kill Penn, Nolte, and Powers Boothe.
Out of Sight, 1998
Her coronation as an actress, and still her finest performance. The Steven Soderbergh thriller paired her up with George Clooney for an insanely re-watchable crime yarn. As my colleague Maria Fontoura points out, it’s the most onscreen sexual chemistry either Lopez or Clooney has ever had with a co-star. She was more than just an actress at this point, she was a pop-culture phenomenon.
Movieline Cover Story, 1998
One of the top ten movie-star magazine interviews of the 20th century. We were all expecting a typical publicist-guided starlet profile, with the usual clichés. Instead, we got peak Lopez shade, the most inflammatory showbiz interview in years. She explains why she’s so famous (“because I’m the best”) and why she hates every other woman in Hollywood, all while lounging by the pool in her bikini. She rips into Salma Hayek, Cameron Diaz (“a lucky model who’s been given a lot of opportunities I wish she would have done more with”), Gwyneth Paltrow (“tell me what she’s been in?”), Demi, Winona, etc. But she saves her most vicious lines for Madonna — the nerve of a singer trying to act! So insulting for a real actress like Lopez! “I’m like, ‘Hey, don’t spit on my craft!’” Absolute best moment? Interviewer: “What one thing should any woman in Hollywood never be without”? Lopez: “Mace.”
Grammys Red Carpet, 2000
Her Versace silk-chiffon dress was an era-defining fashion coup. We could argue all day about Lopez’s red-carpet power moves, but this dress was the most controversial. She came to the Grammys with Puffy as her date, but nobody noticed the guy. The fabric was so sheer, it was like Donatella just sneezed through a green napkin. And as for the neckline… well, there wasn’t one. That knot tied at her waist was doing a lot of heavy lifting. J.Lo was the only thing about Grammy night that anyone remembered the next day.
“Waiting for Tonight,” 2000
OK, the music career. Some ups, some downs, right? At first, it was bewildering that such a brilliant actress — someone who wanted to be the next Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner — was wasting her time trying to be the best disco singer in the Bronx. Yet nobody could doubt J.Lo’s commitment. “Waiting For Tonight” is still her best song by a mile, a tribute to the NYC-Miami Latina freestyle explosion of the Eighties. Wonder how Madonna felt?
Part of what makes Lopez a true star: When she flops, she flops on a legendary scale — and gets right back up. And her long-running Bennifer saga is one of the all-time great Hollywood love stories, especially their 2021 reunion. The way she bounced back from A-Rod to her shoulda-been Ben Affleck was a damn inspiration. Gigli was their first attempt to capture their connection on film, but it came to symbolize their breakup. Now Bennifer 2 is heartwarming proof that it’s never too late for romance, especially the adult, don’t-give-a-fuck kind. The very definition of “couple goals.” Viva amor, you crazy kids!
American Idol, 2011
The big comeback. Nobody expected a thing from J.Lo at this point. But on American Idol, she got to be her most charming self, taking over the Paula Abdul role as the designated crier. She cheered, she wept, she got up to dance, she made everybody adore her again, and she even survived a couple years of sitting next to Steven Tyler on live TV. Finally — her redemption arc! When J.Lo left, Idol hired… Mariah. (Hmm — do these ladies know each other?)
Meryl and Jennifer at the Oscars, 2015
By now, Jennifer was a fixture at award shows — who can forget the 2012 Oscars, when she and Cameron Diaz made a chummy comedy duo, staging an ass-waving contest for the camera. (Maturity award to Cameron for forgiving the whole “lucky model” thing.) But her best moment was the 2015 Oscars, where she sat next to Meryl Streep and they screamed their hearts out for Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech/plea for gender equality, spawning one of the iconic feminist GIFs of our era.
This changed everything about the J.Lo story. Not just her best movie role in 20 years, but a paradigm shift where J.Lo the celebrity finally fused with Jennifer Lopez the actress. Like Brando in The Godfather or Pacino in Scarface, she was a veteran legend coming on hungrier than ever, playing a stripper taking over the crime world. Lopez, Keke Palmer, Cardi B, Lizzo — this whole cast deserved Oscars. Hell, the Academy should have revoked all previously awarded Oscars and forwarded them directly to the Hustlers crew.
Super Bowl Halftime Show with Shakira, 2020
The world’s two most famous Latinas win the Super Bowl with an instant-classic showbiz blitz. This was the “Heat” diner scene of Latina pop, with Shakira and Jennifer Lopez giving an athletic display far more impressive than the actual game. It was pure Gen-X excellence, with both queens making a nationwide live TV audience gasp out loud. Who can step to Lopez as a fiftysomething bombshell? Brad Pitt ripped off his shirt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but did he dare to writhe on a stripper pole? Nope. Best moment: J.Lo made a pointed political statement by strutting her stuff to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” then whipping off her cape to reveal the Puerto Rican flag.
Inauguration Day, 2021
President Joe Biden’s inauguration was a nationwide celebration, but it wouldn’t have been complete without Jennifer, right? After four years of an America-hating Scott Baio fan in the Oval Office, we all needed this. The star of Hustlers celebrating the defeat of fascism by singing “This Land Is Your Land” at the White House? And reciting the Pledge of Allegiance en Español? Peak America. And peak J.Lo. Hail to the chief.