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“I Just Said, Fuck It”: How Jennifer Lopez Broke All the Rules to Get to the Top

She was a striver from the Bronx who made it all the way to the A list — but she’s had to fight every step of the way
Chrisean Rose for Rolling Stone.

O n a warm December day in her West Hollywood offices, actress, singer, dancer, producer, mogul, brand, and multi-multimillionaire Jennifer Lopez was trying not to say too much. “I’m trying not to say too much,” she says, verbatim, as she sits on a leather chesterfield wearing a serene expression, a loose ponytail, and a white sweatsuit that exposes several inches of midriff. “I’m really happy. I don’t want to say anything else.”

It wasn’t always thus. For a brief and beautiful moment in time, saying too much was kind of Lopez’s thing. Hearken back to the late Nineties, when she was married to some waiter no one had ever heard of and would meet reporters in a bikini top by her Beverly Hills pool and let loose with things like: “This two-bit town isn’t big enough for me.” And: “I was like a rocket, he was like a rock.” And: “I have the ‘stardom’ glow.” And: “The fear of being alone drives my life.” She’d talk about how Oliver Stone smelled of spicy lavender and how Woody Harrelson flicked his tongue (“very nasty”) and how Madonna should just stay in her lane and stick to singing. Asked about Gwyneth Paltrow, she had this to say: “Tell me what she’s been in? I swear to God I don’t remember.”

So it’s clear that Lopez knows how to dish, that she could dish if she wanted to. And, on a meta level, you’d think she might, considering that the task at hand is to discuss her latest film, Marry Me, which she produced and starred in and for which there is a soundtrack that she also developed and performed on, meaning that it is a Lopez project par excellence. The movie concerns a certain Kat Valdez, a global superstar who is moments away from getting married in front of millions of fans when she learns that her fiancé (Maluma, steamy) has been unfaithful. In a panic, she does what approximately zero people would do at that particular moment and instead marries some random guy from the crowd (Owen Wilson, very adept at being “some random guy”). Moderate hilarity ensues, though maybe not as much as you would imagine for a movie that also features Sarah Silverman.

To put a fine point on it: Jennifer Lopez, a global superstar who has (allegedly) been cheated on time and again and who was (possibly) left if not at the altar then adjacent to it by Ben Affleck — who, in a magical twist of fate, she is dating again some 18 years later — is playing a global superstar who blah, blah, blah, you get it. Art imitates life. You are ready to dig into the emotional resonance.

“There’s a lot about [Kat] that only somebody like me could understand, right?” Lopez concedes. “I had to keep reminding myself: You know what it’s like to be onstage in front of an arena full of people and something embarrassing happens. That’s happened to you. What do you do? What does it feel like when it all falls apart and you go home and you’re on the TV and they’re making fun of you as if it’s not painful? How does that feel? You know what? You’ve cried in a puddle on the floor too. That’s what it feels like. Or going underwater at that point where you feel like you’re drowning, suffocating in your own decisions that you know are not the right ones.”

You concur that certainly all that feels not great, though perhaps the not-greatness is obscured cinematically by all those beautiful rooms and designer clothes and product placements and impeccable lighting. That’s why it might be nice to talk about these things in a more personal way. For example, those decisions that she knew were not the right ones — would she care to elaborate on those?

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Jennifer Lopez photographed in Los Angeles on Dec. 13th, 2021, by Chrisean Rose. Director of Creative Content Catriona Ni Aolain. Fashion direction by Alex Badia. Produced by Brittany Brooks. Hair by Chris Appleton at the Wall Group. Makeup by Mary Phillips. Nails by Tom Bachik at A-Frame Agency. Tailoring by Mia Paranto. Styled by Rob & Mariel. Suit by Balmain. Cuffs by Tiffany. Earrings by Jennifer Fisher.

She would not. At least not directly. “You start realizing there are no rules,” she says obliquely, feet propped up on the chesterfield and two caramel tendrils of hair falling into her perfect face. “There’s only what you feel is right for you. Because that’s the person you’ve got to live with at the end of the day. Any time I’ve gone against my gut and my instinct, I’ve ended in misery.”

OK, but what is an example of a time you ended in misery?

“So many things. I can give you a small example. Just, like, anything in fear. Anything where you’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I should do this because if I don’t, people won’t see me for a while.’ Then you’re just, ‘I shouldn’t have done that. That was a stupid move. That didn’t turn out well.’”

Is there one specific situation that didn’t turn out well?

“I’m trying to think of something specific.” She pushes back a tendril. She scratches her leg. “It’s so hard.”

What about her relationship with Affleck? Is that finally, belatedly, turning out well?

“I won’t talk about it a lot. We’ve both grown. We’re the same, and we’re different. And that’s what’s nice.”

Nice? Nice?

“Yeah … having a second chance at real love  … yeah.” Now the leg is shaking. “Like I said, we learned a lot. We know what’s real, what’s not real. So it’s just — the game has changed. Again, I’m trying not to say too much.”

In fairness, there is much that Lopez is willing to discuss, if we rewind a bit. She is happy to share that she was around eight years old when she set her sights on something bigger than the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx where she grew up, attending Catholic school and watching Happy Days and tacking Menudo posters on the light-pink walls of the room she shared with her younger sister, Lynda. “I wanted to accomplish things,” she says. “I had that competitive kind of spirit.”

Her father was a computer-repair technician, her mother a kindergarten teacher who would come home from church on Sunday and record the Top 40 countdown on cassette tapes. Jennifer, the middle of three girls, would dance in front of the mirror in her room, pretending she was Rita Moreno in West Side Story. Her first job was earning $10 to sweep the hair and clean the sinks of a beauty shop owned by a family friend. Later, at 15, she sold bootleg perfume from “a bootleg kind of perfume store behind the gas station.” As a girl, she dreamed of owning one of those large Barbie styling heads, but when she tried to steal a Barbie from her cousin, she tripped and fell down the stairs. “It was almost like something pushed me down. God was like, ‘Don’t ever take a Barbie from this house.’” She gives credence to things like that, “psychic ability and premonition and things being meant to be.”

As a kid, Lopez was not a special snowflake. She was the daughter of Puerto Rican parents who were hard on her because the world was hard on them. Her mother, Guadalupe, had wanted to be an actress. People told her she looked like Natalie Wood. Then she had three kids in four years and began selling Tupperware for extra cash. She was not a natural nurturer. She was not a hand-holder. She expected her daughters to excel, but also made them aware of their limitations. She would sometimes slap them around. “It was that type of mentality: That’s how you keep kids in line,” says Lopez. “That’s how they were raised, and that’s how I was raised. Listen, my mom was also a fun mom. My mom was also the mom who got me into musicals and introduced me to all kinds of music. I am an entertainer because of my mom. But I’m also able to survive the things I’ve survived in this business because my mom was tough. I don’t think she could realize what she was preparing me for, but she did.”

“I’m an underdog. I always feel like I was scrapping from the bottom. Always. That’s part of being Puerto Rican and from the Bronx and a woman.”

Lopez mostly toed the line until she turned 16 and started dating a neighborhood kid named David Cruz. He took her to prom. They started sleeping together. Lupe worried Jennifer would get herself pregnant, so Lopez took to sneaking out her second-story window to meet up with Cruz on the sly. Returning home required stealth use of a ladder. “I was good at sneaking out,” she says. “But when I did get caught, it was bad.”

Not quite as bad, however, as the fight that went down when she informed her parents that she had dropped out of college to devote herself to dance full time. “They definitely had their doubts. I mean, I would too. Listen, if we were growing up in the Bronx right now, and one of my kids came to me and said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ I’d be like, ‘Okaaaay.’ You’d just think to yourself, ‘Oh, really? How are you going to pull that off? You’re going to call a rich Hollywood producer and they’re going to put you in a movie? You’re going to get discovered? Like, get real.’” She laughs out loud at the absurdity of landing where she has. “When you grow up in those neighborhoods, to dream bigger is only to set yourself up for disappointment.”

Lopez left home for good, hastily throwing some things in a bag and sleeping for a time on the sofa of the Phil Black studio. She lived off small dancing gigs — $25 here, $50 there — and dollar pizza and Cup Noodles, treating herself every so often to waffles at a joint called Good Enough to Eat. In 1991, she joined In Living Color as a Fly Girl, though she hadn’t actually booked her L.A. audition. “Keenen [Ivory Wayans] told me he let the girls pick because he felt like I was such an obvious winner,” Lopez says. “The cameras were there. He was like, ‘Let’s have a vote,’ and they all picked this other girl.” Afterward, Wayans called her. “He said he and Rosie [Perez, the choreographer] were going to make it right. So they let her finish out that season, and then the next year they brought me in.”

Such details go a long way toward explaining the friction Lopez faced after moving to L.A. in 1991. Her first week on the job, one of the girls told her they’d had to postpone a photo shoot because they were waiting for Lopez to lose weight. Plans to turn some of the Fly Girls into a group that would have predated the Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child fizzled. Bored and adrift in L.A., she started taking acting classes and found out that she had a real knack. In 1996, with videos for Janet Jackson and the New Kids on the Block under her belt, as well as parts in a handful of TV shows and a couple of movies, Lopez beat out 22,000 other women for the role of Selena Quintanilla in a biopic of the beloved Tejano star. Her performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination and made her the first Latin actor to earn more than a million dollars for a role. Within a few years, she had filmed Jack, with Robin Williams; Blood and Wine, with Jack Nicholson; and Out of Sight, with George Clooney. She was, as she said at the time, edging into “the bottom of the A list of actresses.”

So she did what approximately zero people would do at that particular moment and decided to record an album. One of the musicians who had been in Selena — and in the real Selena’s band — gave her a song to use as a demo. The Work Group, a division of Sony with which she’d signed, didn’t pay the demo much mind until it landed on the desk of Sony chairman Tommy Mottola, who had allegedly had a falling out with another Latina artist and was looking to make a point. He set Lopez up with a room in the St. Regis Hotel and the mandate to get an album done, pulling earworms from lesser-known artists and gifting them to her. It worked. On the 6 (named after the subway line Lopez would take to get from the Bronx to Manhattan) went triple platinum and sold more than 8 million copies worldwide, to the surprise of many. “She wasn’t on the radar,” says one Nineties pop star who ran in the same circles. “But she was a workhorse, single-mindedly hellbent on success. She was going to get there one way or another. I don’t think she had any other intentions than to be a global superstar.”

“She wasn’t very good in the beginning, but she got better,” says Maria Christensen, who wrote and recorded “Waiting for Tonight” with her band 3rd Party and then licensed the song to Lopez. “The engineers thought she was a never-give-up kind of person. They would comp vocals, do a bunch of takes and put them together. She would just work so hard, sing it over and over. She would just go until she couldn’t go any more.”

That worked, too. Lopez’s second album, J.Lo (titled after a nickname given to her by late rapper Heavy D), debuted at Number One the same week that The Wedding Planner was the number-one box-office movie in America. No one had ever held those two slots simultaneously before.

So then she made some more movies (31 and counting) and some more albums (nine, with Marry Me) and a world tour and a Vegas residency and many appearances as a judge on American Idol and several clothing lines and countless brand partnerships and a skin-care line and a set of twin humans and roughly one million perfumes, and despite it all, she still feels like her success has been “slow and steady.” She thinks back to the moment she knew that her life had changed for good, a night in the late Nineties that she spent jet-lagged, pacing her London hotel suite and staring at the many pairs of designer shoes lined up against one wall. “I was like, ‘I remember having holes in the bottom of my sneakers,’” she says. “I was just like, ‘Is this happening?’ It was almost like a fucking fairy tale. And it wasn’t about the wealth of it. It was about the change, the disparity in it. That hotel suite was bigger than the house I grew up in. Way bigger.”

By now, she’s no doubt gotten used to the wealth, but the disparity sticks. “I think I’m an underdog,” she continues. “I always feel like I was scrapping from the bottom. Always. I always felt like I wasn’t the one that was supposed to be in the room. That’s part of being Puerto Rican and from the Bronx and a woman. You know what I mean? All of that stuff. Not being born into a family with money. Not knowing anybody in the business. I just went out there and said, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to just try. I’m going to try to get in here.’”

Lopez has a history of doing interviews in one of her many perfect homes, but today she had wanted to meet in her office, which was passed off — without apparent irony — as her true natural habitat, the place where she Gets Amazing Shit Done. The bland corporate hallways give pause, but once you’re through the thick, wooden door, the office seems less an office than an immersive experience in extreme luxury. There is a viewing/music room with an acrylic Steinhoven piano, a huge, circular green velvet sofa, and a gas fireplace producing a green flame as if it were combusting legal tender. There is a sleek kitchen with various healthful drinks lined up in the high-end fridge like battalions. There is a mirrored glam room with a blond, herringbone floor and brass accents. There is a holiday gift from Tom Ford sitting idly on the marble ledge of the unmanned front desk, under the gleaming letters BRX — for “Bronx,” of course — and across from a floor-to-ceiling rendering of New York as seen from above. The glass walls that divide the rarefied air are so pristine that at one point earlier in the day, Lynda had walked right into one with a thud. “Pay attention, please,” said Lopez’s longtime manager, Benny Medina, in a tone that may have been joking, though it was hard to tell for sure. He’d been in the middle of explaining how the office is Lopez’s vision because she does everything with vision and taste and the type of control that listens to input but maybe only to a point. “She let me pick my desk,” says Medina as pop music wafts from no discernible direction or source. Everywhere is the scent of Le Labo Santal 26 and a precipitous view.

“Ben and I were together and so in love. It was one of the happiest times of my life. But we were being criticized, and it destroyed our relationship from the inside out.”

Lopez has settled into a sort of listening room toward the back of the office so that she can play the Marry Me soundtrack, and soon she is closing her eyes and rocking her shoulders as she sings along to measured songs about love and heartbreak and loss of control. Less than a week before, Affleck had let slip to Howard Stern that he “probably still would have been drinking” if he had stayed married to Jennifer Garner, and the public had lost its collective mind at the implication that marriage to one of America’s handful of sweethearts might have driven him to regularly “[drink] a bottle of scotch and [fall] asleep on the couch.” Suddenly, access to Lopez had been tamped down. Today’s scene seems designed to display her ironclad control over her brand and her image. The songs are catchy, but the lyrics give little of Lopez away.

Then again, few celebrities have had to deal with the shitty parts of fame to quite the extent that Lopez has — the body-shaming shit, the sexist shit, the racist shit — and the time she spent dating Affleck before probably marked the height of it. “Instead of being celebrated, they criticized. They marginalized. They reduced her. They wouldn’t give it to her, ever,” says her friend and producing partner Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. “Here was a woman who had the Number One movie and the Number One album. That had never happened. And they were writing about Puffy. [A year later] Maid in Manhattan was Number One. But here’s what the press said: ‘Ben Affleck sleeps with the help.’ She just didn’t get the credit that other — I don’t know how else to say it — white actresses got. And I know, because I worked with them.”

South Park called her a “mean-spirited bitch” in an episode that poked fun at her Latin heritage. Conan O’Brien said that, as stand-ins for the couple in a sketch, he’d cast “our script intern” as Affleck and “our cleaning lady” as Lopez. “It was brutal,” Lopez says now. “It was brutal. It’s one of those things that you bury very deeply so you can move on and get about your business.” She was able to compartmentalize, until eventually she wasn’t. “It’s funny because Ben and I were together, and we were so in love. It was one of the happiest times of my life. But also, there was this other thing happening where we were being criticized, and it really destroyed our relationship from the inside out, because we were just too young to understand at that time what were really the most important things in life.”

Some of those things Lopez will talk about. She talks about going to therapy, and about how she’s “become much more spiritual” since having kids. She says that she prays often and repeats affirmations throughout the day (“I am whole; I am good on my own; I love the universe, the universe loves me”). She says that she woke up this morning at 8 a.m. to a swelling of gratitude in her heart. Her sister had flown in from New York a few days back. Her mom was arriving. Christmas was around the corner, and many beautiful gifts had been bought and many beautiful plans had been made. “I try to always live from a place of gratitude,” she says. “But today, especially, if you ask me what my first thought was, it was, ‘Thank you. Thank you, God, for this day. Thank you for my life, what it is.’”

Having expressed that gratitude, she says she slipped on her Gucci slides, padded into the bathroom, slipped off her short set, and turned on the shower, resolved, as always, to be her best self today. “I will always try to be manifesting that in my life, to be doing the best I can and make the world a better place,” she says. Also: “I’m really happy, probably more than I’ve even been in my whole life.” She connects that happiness to Affleck, though she won’t specify what about him makes her happy or what made her less happy before. Or rather, she will specify some of those things, but she asks me to turn my recorder off before she says them — an act that seems calculated to show the calculations she’s making. She talks about reading You Can Heal Your Life, which taught her that she could control how she thought about things, even if she couldn’t control the things themselves. She says, “For me, it’s always been very important to figure myself out.”

Part of that process of figuring herself out has involved figuring out how much of herself to share, especially now that her public persona reflects not just on her but on her children. “It’s a real juggling act,” she says. “People can be super judgy. You know, you let them into your house and then they talk about your fireplace or, you know, ‘Oh, is that real? Did they stage that?’” But it has also involved some soul-searching on her three divorces (to Marc Anthony, most recently) and her two called-off engagements (to Alex Rodriguez, most recently) and the multiple breakups she has had to undergo in the public eye and what it says about her that she hasn’t been able to create the nuclear family she’s always wanted. “When I was in my forties,” she says, “it was like, ‘Well, you’re not really loving yourself. You’re allowing things to happen in your life where you’re overachieving in your work, and your personal life …’” She pauses. “‘Is not…’” She trails off again. “And it fueled my artistic life, which is great in a lot of ways, because it made me want to overachieve. It made me want to feel better. It made me want to do better and be successful and be better as an artist and grow, and I have. But also, you just want to feel good in your life.”

She looks about the room and then decides to go on about why maybe she didn’t. “It’s not really even your first love that teaches you what love is,” she says. “It’s your mother and your father, what you were taught as a child that life is and love is, through how your parents are with you. Those are the things that you have to go back and work on and examine, when you are having relationships and repeating patterns and going, ‘Oh, what is this happening for?’” Her parents divorced when their children were grown. She doesn’t want to go into too many details, but whatever transpired, she does want it known that she feels she’s moved on. “I don’t begrudge it,” she says later. “I really feel like [my mom] did the best she could. And when I think of it that way, it’s easier to get past the punishments and the spankings and things that happened. I don’t want to raise my kids in that way, but I understand.”

“There’s a club I just wasn’t a part of. And I always acted like, ‘I’m good. I’m OK.’ But it hurts not to be included. I don’t know if I ever will be.”

Then again, she’s not sure her parents understand her. “How could they?” she asks. “I think they are confused by my life.” And they are not alone. “When one person becomes famous in a family it causes a lot of discord. It can be complicated for both sides. It got complicated for me, like, ‘Is this still, you know, my family who loves me and accepts me and understands me and feels like I’m the same person, or do they see me as different as well?’ For them, it was like, ‘OK, well, now she’s this, and what does that mean? How much do I expect? How much do I ask for and how much do I not?’ There’s confusion. There’s resentment and very mixed, complicated, adult feelings. You know, ‘What is all this?’”

These are all heady feelings to try to capture in a musical rom-com, which is probably one of the reasons Lopez felt that Marry Me would be a good, safe project for her, one in which she could comment on some parts of her life without having to say too much. The movie is certainly an unexpected follow-up to Hustlers, in which her electric performance as stripper-turned-criminal Ramona earned her a Golden Globe nomination and much acclaim. But Lopez says that she had long wanted to do a movie and soundtrack simultaneously (she refers to the Marry Me album not as a Lopez album but as a Kat Valdez album), and anyway she still isn’t often considered for gritty, hard-hitting parts. “I don’t even know half the movies when they come out at the end of the year,” she says. “I have the top agents in the world, but [those projects] don’t come to me.” She founded Nuyorican Productions — which produced both Hustlers and Marry Me — specifically to “take my career in my own hands.”

In fact, one of the defining features of Lopez’s fame is that, despite the wealth and luxury it has provided, there is still that disconnect — between where Lopez came from and where she is, but also between where she is and where she thinks she could be. One year she was on the cover of 46 magazines. Her music has helped make Latin pop mainstream. But she never won that Golden Globe. Nor was she nominated for an Oscar despite near-universal consensus that she should have been. It wasn’t even that long ago that she was basically broke. This was when her twins, Emme and Max, were toddlers and she was in the process of divorcing Anthony and her label had dropped her and her album sales were lackluster and she was over 40 and no one would cast her in their movie and she wanted to trade in a car. “And my business manager was like, ‘Nope, you can’t do anything right now,’” she says. “I was like, ‘Really?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, let’s not make any moves right now. Let’s just wait until you can work again.’”

So Lopez did work. Despite warnings that it would be the nail in the coffin of her career, she took a job on American Idol, beaming herself into American homes two nights a week and comporting herself not as a diva who insisted on being surrounded by white lilies and insured her ass (that’s not a thing, for what it’s worth) but rather as a hardworking single mom who got all teary when contestants soared or failed. She launched her first world tour. Nuyorican picked up Hustlers to the clamorous admonitions of (male) industry types who thought that the strippers should be softened and made more “likable.” Lopez ignored these comments and spent her last prepandemic year learning how to slay on a stripper pole. She shot Hustlers — for which she did not take a salary — in 29 days. When she was asked to perform at the 2020 Super Bowl with Shakira, protestations erupted that NFL bigwigs thought it took two Latinas to do the job of one white man. Lopez took the job anyway and used her platform to fill the field of Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium with Latino children — including one of her own — singing in glowing, white cages as those NFL bigwigs presumably lost their minds. During the pandemic, she has prepped for and shot not one but two movies, orchestrated a documentary about her life, finished postproduction for Marry Me, marched with her children for Black Lives Matter, performed at Biden’s inauguration, broken off her engagement with Rodriguez, rekindled things with Affleck, and spent this past fall in Canada, waking up at 5 a.m. to work out so she could be in hair and makeup by 6:15 so she could be on set for The Mother by 7:30. In between shots, she had parented from afar, FaceTiming the twins on the way to school, hosting Zoom dinners, and imploring them to “Brush your teeth! Get in bed!” from more than 1,900 miles away.

In other words, she has worked so hard. She has endeavored to say only the right things and do only the right things and live in that place of self-love and gratitude. But she still feels that disconnect. “It’s just 20, 25 years of people going, ‘Well, she’s not that great. She’s pretty and she makes cute music, but it’s not really this and that.’ You know, I think I’ve done some nice work over the years, some really nice work. But there is a club that I just wasn’t a part of. And I always acted like, ‘Yeah, I’m good. I’m fine. I’m OK.’ But it hurts to not be included. I don’t know if I will ever be. There is an inner circle, like, ‘We are the great artists.’ And then there’s the pop artists.” Dreaming big can set you up for disappointment. She’s known that since she was just a girl in the Bronx sneaking out the window to meet her first boyfriend.

Not that long ago, Lopez called David Cruz’s mom. He had passed away from heart disease, and when Lopez heard the news, she realized that she still remembered his home number by heart, so she picked up her phone and dialed it. His mom answered. “I was like, ‘Hi. It’s Jennifer Lopez,’ and she was like, ‘Jennifer…’ I said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and she started crying. I was like, ‘You know I loved David.’ She was like, ‘I know. He loved you, too. He always loved you.’” She pauses. “You get lucky, you have a first love like that.”

She reaches for her iPad. Cruz had taken her to prom, and she suddenly wants to see the picture. “I’m just trying to look up ‘Jennifer Lopez prom picture,’” she says, mashing her fingers into the screen and slightly furrowing her brow, assuming that the picture — like most of her life — would be available for public consumption. She’s right: A moment later, she holds up a grainy black and white image of her 17-year-old self, smiling broadly in satin and lace. Cruz stands behind her, sweet-faced and grinning. “I made my prom dress. A pink halter, mermaid. Pink satin with lace on top. I drew it and gave it to this dressmaker in the neighborhood and was like, ‘This is the dress I want to make.’ I had a vision.”

“As opposed to when you used to cut my bangs, which was wrong,” offers Lynda, walking into the room. Lopez shrugs. Not all visions can be visionary.

Then again, she believes in vision, she believes in fate, she believes that things happen for a reason. She trusts that she will one day get her due. She does not foresee another public breakup with Affleck in her future. “I don’t think we would have got back together if we thought that was where it was headed,” she says. “We feel like what we found again is so much more important, and how we protect that and how we live our lives — what to share, what not to share — is the balance that we have now, the benefit of experience and the wisdom that we gained over the years.”

Beyond that, what more can she say?