She's still Jenny from the Block

MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 08:20 29/06/2014
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STILL GOT IT: Jennifer Lopez performs in Dubai earlier this year.

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DANNY MOLOSHOK / Reuters
JENNY FROM THE BLOCK: Lopez at the American Idol XIII finale last month.

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My iPhone rings on the way to work. The number's American. My heart skips a beat.

"Hi," an accented female says. "This rarely ever happens, but Jennifer Lopez is back from an event and running 15 minutes early. I think it's 15 minutes. What's the time there?"

We still have a good 45 minutes by my clock. I madly scribble last-minute questions. The subconscious part of my brain doesn't help things as JLo's tunes that I listened to in high school - Love Don't Cost a Thing and I'm Real - come flooding in.

Thirteen years on from those songs, JLo's just released her 10th album A.K.A. and I'm interviewing her about it. I'm nervous.

"Hello? Hello? Hello!" It sounds like the caller's standing under a waterfall. Then it's quiet. The phone buzzes again. "Oh hello, that sounds better. I have Jennifer Lopez here on speaker phone. You have 15 minutes. Will you keep time?"

Ah, sure. Smooth, rounded vowels and a warm, somehow familiar New York-Latino accent pipes up - "Hello" and, with the clock ticking, we are straight into it.

The cover image of A.K.A. has Lopez's breasts strapped into nothing but a red gun holster. At 44, is she feeling the pressure to maintain a certain level of "hotness"?

"Heh, hehehe," she laughs softly. "I don't feel pressure. "This is an expression of who I am and what I wanna do. As an artist you really want to be who you are and not put myself in a box," she says.

"Of course there's pressure and it's not the most fun to be in the public eye."

She's still tucking her trademark booty into bodysuits and twerking and gyrating against male backup dancers on stage. But Lopez's personal life is spent being mum to her six-year-old twins with singer Marc Anthony, Max and Emme.

She says she doesn't feel the need to hide her raunchy side from them. "No, I don't feel the need to protect them from my career, but from the media I do. I'm not one to really parade them in the media."

But she doesn't exactly hide them from the spotlight either. Emme sat in on a recent Lopez interview with USA Today, shyly showing off her natural singing voice and relishing being in the makeup chair.

"They're becoming very aware now," Lopez told the paper. "Just this past week, one of them said to me, 'You're famous.' 

"They've seen me do shows on the road and notice that people like to sing along, take pictures. It's different than being on a movie set, which is closed."

But Lopez says she isn't afraid of the attention that comes from being one of the world's biggest stars. "I'm not really paranoid; I feel pretty safe."

Lopez recently performed We Are One (Ola Ola) alongside her Latin-American rapper buddy Pitbull at the opening of the Fifa World Cup in Sao Paulo.

"There were all these people watching and the energy in the stadium was so electric, it was a surreal moment. It was four minutes but it was great."

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She didn't need a second to consider Pitbull's proposal to accompany him onstage for the opening. The duo are tight, having famously performed a sexy medley at Univision's 10th annual Premios Juventud (Youth Awards) in Miami, Florida, last year and collaborating on the dance hits On the Floor and now Booty.

"He called me to do the World Cup song, saying he'd written a song and would I perform it with him? It's not a thing where you go, let me see, I'll check my schedule. He calls and I say yes and when I call, he says yes."

Lopez earned US$52 million in 2012, according to Forbes.com. Her judging duties on American Idol earned her US$12m while her Dance Again world tour grossed US$1m per night. She donates some of it to charity projects benefiting women and children through the Lopez Family Foundation.

"It's not something I think about, the money," Lopez insists. "I'm just trying to do good work." So are her famous lyrics, "Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got, I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block . . . No matter where I go I know where I came from [South-Side Bronx!]," still ringing true?

"Hehehehe, I guess so." 

NEW ALBUM

Her album A.K.A. opens with the declaration she's "not the girl you used to know". Rumour has it the line is a dig at ex-husband Anthony.

"It took you too long to find out what you want right now," the boppy song continues. "You don't know me now."

It's the first record Lopez has made since their divorce. There's an almost Madonna-esque, Like a Virgin feel to this album with the girlish vocals in Never Satisfied and in the heavy eyebrowed, push-up bra album imagery.

Her soft voice sings that she wishes she met a subsequent love before all the others in First Love. But she recently split from her back-up dancer, choreographer boyfriend of two years, 27-year-old Casper Smart. So maybe she spoke too soon?

"Usually what's published about my personal life is inaccurate because no one can really know what's going on," Lopez says.

I'm under strict instructions from the US not to ask about relationships, but I push it. After all, they are the core inspiration behind her lyrics.

"My subject matter has always been love on all of my albums," she says. "But I think when you hear this album, for fans who know my songs, they will think they are hearing a new strength from me, a more grown-up voice.

"I think my fans will know the change in my perspective, in having to love yourself before you love anyone else."

A tongue-in-cheek example of this newfound self respect is portrayed in her cheeky video for pop hit I Luh Ya Papi.

In it, JLo and her cohorts are laughing off a bunch of cutesy suggestions about where the video should be filmed - a water park, a fairground or a zoo.

If JLo were a man she wouldn't be hearing such suggestions, her friends in the clip say. Instead of objectifying the women, how about the tables are turned?

Cue Lopez sashaying around a swagger of shirtless, six-packed men who obligingly let themselves be stroked, groped and smirked at.

There's even a cheeky bottom shot when a sailor's togs get pulled down.

Of course Lopez is herself donning the plunging necklines and high-cropped shorts while singing about her "hourglass" and promising to "put it down" and "give it to you right in the car". She's still hot and she knows it.

In the days after news broke of her split with Smart, images emerged of a fresh-faced Lopez in a makeup-free, bikini selfie. "No makeup day! #realface #trueselfie #iwokeuplikethis," she captioned on social site Instagram. Just to rub it in.

But she's pushing herself while naysayers bang at her door.

A New York Daily News reviewer labelled A.K.A. as a "nervous follow up to three poor selling albums" while another claimed divas aren't selling like they used to.

Jezebel.com reported A.K.A. was predicted to sell just 30,000 copies in the first week, following on from Mariah Carey's meagre sales of some 58,000 copies of I Am Mariah . . . The Elusive Chanteuse, this month.

Lopez cracks up when I mention this.

"The way you said it was funny. It's a negative comment by one person but you said it with a happy voice, it's so funny," she laughs.

"It's nothing really, I don't deal with the negative comments. This is the best album I've ever made.

"At the end of the day this is not a sprint, it's a marathon. It's about the next six months to a year as people are discovering the album as it goes along."

Lopez is clearly out to prove she's still got it. She shows 21-year-old pop singer Miley Cyrus how twerking's really done in her video for Booty, where she shakes her hips in leggings, a cap and midriff-baring top. She also made the smart move to team up with 24-year-old Australian model and rapper Amethyst Amelia Kelly, a.k.a. Iggy Azalea, who features in Lopez's single Acting Like That.

Lopez can feel justly smug about realising her talent before she got famous.

"I heard her on a few of her mixtape songs and I wanted a female rapper so I thought, I want Iggy. By the time we were recording, her song [Fancy] went number one in America. I love that she's having her big moment right now. That's the icing on the cake for me."

And no doubt it's convenient timing for Lopez, whose relaxed vocals and vibe are nicely complemented by Azalea's deep-voiced, effortless offerings.

She's also no stranger to talent Down Under. South Auckland hip-hop dancer Paris Goebel choreographed Lopez's Dance Again World Tour after being introduced to the singer through Casper Smart in 2012. Goebel went on to perform with Lopez on the season 11 finale of American Idol, and danced with the eight-strong female crew ReQuest in Lopez's music video Goin In.

Lopez told MTV at the time she had seen ReQuest on YouTube and got them to rehearse for her tour before deciding to hire them for her video. "I always have guys with me but I thought it would be so much fun to dance with these girls," she said.

The hassle of flying the Kiwis over and organising visas was all worth it. "They're so tight, they're amazing dancers."

Lopez is less enlightened about our own vocal offerings though, despite the meteoric rise of 17-year-old songstress Lorde and electronic duo Broods.

"I'm not too familiar with a ton of New Zealand artists and I didn't get down there for my last world tour," she apologises.

But will she do better next time?

"Sure, why not?"

And just like that, time's up. With a throaty thank you, Lopez moves on to another phone interview with another journalist in another continent. And my 14-year-old self is left humming - "Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got, I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block. Used to have a little now I have a lot, no matter where I go I know where I came from, [South-Side Bronx!]."

- Sunday Star Times

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