The Fine and Fearless Jennifer Hudson
When it comes to balancing a movie career and motherhood, recording a new album and staying so fit, Jennifer Hudson says she couldn’t do it without the love of her family and the lessons in faith her mother taught her.
BY MICHELLE BURFORD | ESSENCE | JANUARY 2014
Jennifer Hudson is taller than she looks. She strides into an Urban Outfitters store in downtown Chicago sporting a floral velvet maxidress, black ankle-length duster and a pair of gold-accented size 10 Giuseppe Zanotti boots that take her statuesque, brick-house figure to over 6 feet. Hers is a presence that hollers “I’m here” before she ever utters a syllable. “This place is like therapy for me,” she says, roaming from one display to the next. She stops to feel the back pocket of some white skinny jeans fitted on a mannequin she’s towering over. “So cute!” she says. A beat later, she spots the velvet dress she’s wearing across the room. “Look,” she says, sliding her palm down the dress. “I actually bought this here. Isn’t it soft? I could get lost in this store for hours. In here, I can really breathe.”
When it comes to breathing, you could call this Hudson’s season to exhale—that juncture when, as she puts it, “I know who I am, and I got this.” The award-winning performer has already braved an extraordinary journey that has carried her all the way from the Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church choir in Chicago to the glimmering limelight of the world stage. Along the way, she has picked up an Oscar and a Golden Globe (both in 2007 for her role as Effie in Dreamgirls), a Grammy (in 2008 for her debut album), a fiancé (WWE wrestler and Harvard Law School graduate David Otunga) and a cutie-pie son (Hudson and her longtime sweetheart have a 4-year-old, David, Jr.). She has also reclaimed her health: After shedding more than 80 pounds to reveal a fierce figure, Hudson became a spokesperson for Weight Watchers in 2010.
“I see how sharing my story can bring healing. Those who’ve walked in my shoes often say to me, ‘Let me tell you what happened to me.’ When you give your testimony, something powerful happens—you find out that you’re not alone.”
As if simply eyeing that list wasn’t enough to bring on the need for a nap, Hudson recently rolled out a whole new round of projects. In 2013 she mesmerized moviegoers not just once but three different times. First, she delivered a riveting portrayal of South African icon Winnie Mandela; then she transformed herself into a heroin addict; and finally, she sang her heart out as she played a single mom in a holiday musical. In 2014, Hudson will release her third studio album. All this—and the girl’s still only 32.
“I spent my twenties figuring out what I wanted to do, and trying everything,” says Hudson. “But by 30, my foundation was set. I became confident and clear about the path I wanted to take. Now I can just walk into a room and be totally me. I’ve settled into myself. I’m on solid ground. And I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.”
That fortitude has come at a heartrending cost. On October 24, 2008, Hudson’s 57-year-old mother, Darnell Donerson, and her 29-year-old brother, Jason Hudson, were found shot to death in the Chicago home that Hudson had grown up in. Three days later, police found the body of her sister Julia’s 7-year-old son, Julian King. William Balfour, Julia’s estranged husband, was convicted of all three murders and given three life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Such an unimaginable event would devastate even the most resilient woman, and it has indeed left Hudson with a deep wound. “The grief is like a stain you can never get used to—or get rid of,” she says. “You deal with it a little at a time. I still have my moments, like those mornings when I pick up my phone and wish I could hear my mother’s voice. She used to call me every day around 9, and I sometimes find myself waiting for that phone to ring again.”
The passage of time has brought some kind of salve, if only because she has connected with others who’ve survived trauma. “It used to make me very angry when people tried to talk to me about what happened,” she says. “I’m like, Who are you to even ask me about something so painful? But over the last five years I’ve seen how sharing my story can bring healing. Those who’ve walked in my shoes often come up to me and say, ‘Let me tell you what happened to me.’ When you give your testimony, something powerful happens—you find out that you’re not alone.”
Though Hudson will always have to reckon with that agonizing chapter, she is clear about one thing: Heartache won’t forever live at the center of her story. Yes, the devastation shook her—but it needn’t define her. Yes, her mom is gone—but that woman’s presence lives on daily in the wisdom she left behind. Yes, Hudson will always feel the impact of the loss—but losing three precious gifts has made her hold on a lot more tightly to the ones that remain. “Family isn’t just part of my life—it is my life,” says Hudson, who maintains a close bond with her sister and extended family. “I don’t know where I’d be without their love. It has literally sustained me.”
As much as others may tend to view Hudson through the lens of the tragedy, she is clearly moving on—not away from the memory of her loved ones, but toward the hope-filled future she’s building with Otunga. There’s a lot to look forward to. She and her beau are still anticipating that day when they’ll finally exchange their vows. Until then, Hudson is savoring every moment she spends with her son, the boy she calls her “angel.” She’s also dreaming up new creative risks she can take in her career.
When Jennifer Met David
Like Hudson, 33-year-old Otunga is an Illinois native. The son of a Kenyan father and a Caucasian mother, he is an attorney who happened to dream of performing even more than using his legal degree. So after Otunga completed Harvard Law School in 2006, he followed his passion to act onto the set of the VH1 reality show I Love New York 2, using the moniker “Punk.” Just as he was wrapping up his time on that show in 2007, a friend introduced him to Hudson. Nine months later, on Hudson’s birthday in 2008, Otunga popped the question.
“I just love being with him. We have so much fun,” says Jennifer. “We’ve shared so many special moments, like when we flew down to Key West last summer for a friend’s wedding. I’m on the road so much for work that I didn’t even want to go—a vacation for me is to stay home. But David convinced me to go and it was just the two of us. We’re usually surrounded by so many people that it’s tough to have privacy. But on this trip we could party with our friends, then just disappear for hours—and we did. We took a boat ride. We went to dinner. We danced at the reception. It was so freaking fun.”
While we’re on the topic of weddings, there’s something the world is eager to know: After a five-year engagement, will Hudson and her man ever actually tie the knot? Back in 2012 when Oprah Winfrey interviewed the couple, she pried a time frame out of them—the big day would happen sometime in 2014. Based on that estimate, the sound of wedding bells should at last be getting closer, but if they are, Hudson isn’t exactly running her mouth about it. “Yes, there was a date set, and that date has come around again every year,” she says. “In fact, the date may keep rolling around.”
With each passing month since their engagement, some have speculated that the delay in their nuptials is a signal that they’re in an on-again, off-again romance. Hudson insists otherwise. “We’ve never broken up,” she says. “When I’m ready to be married, I will be married. It’s that simple. Everyone should just chill. Our relationship is very strong. We’re both huge family people, and I’m only going to get married once. So I’m not rushing into anything.”
“There’s a song on my new album that says, ‘If you think you’ve seen it all, just keep on living,’ ” says Hudson. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think that thought and hear my mother saying it. For someone who didn’t do a lot of talking, my mother sure did a lot of talking.”
Until then, there’s work—and apparently much of it. Back when she first agreed to the humongous challenge of portraying Winnie Mandela in the 2013 biopic (Terrence Howard plays Nelson Mandela), Hudson wasn’t yet a mom. So, three years ago, when the time rolled around for her to actually begin work on the film by relocating to South Africa for a few months, she could hardly bear the thought of separating from either of her Davids—the big one or the little one, which is how she refers to them. “I’m like, Oh my God—you want me to leave my baby and my man?”
But duty beckoned, and even before she jetted overseas, she began a physical transformation. “I was asked to lose some weight for the role so I could play Winnie in her younger years,” says Hudson, who won’t disclose how many pounds she actually shed. She had been a size 12 during American Idol, she says, and she was asked to blimp up to a size 18 to play the voluptuous Effie in Dreamgirls. “When I showed up in South Africa all skinny, they were like, ‘You’re too thin!’ They wanted to put me in a fat suit. I’m like, Seriously? I’d been so worried that I wouldn’t lose enough.”
Another of her fears: That she wouldn’t quite nail the South African accent. “Once I got into it, I was surprised it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be,” says Hudson, who worked with a dialect coach. “I was so nervous about doing a good job that I started working on the accent a couple months before I even got there.” She continues: “It was an honor to play the role. So much was done to suppress Winnie’s voice, to keep her quiet. Winnie’s story needed to be told.”
By now, you of course know Hudson kept off the pounds she dropped for that movie. Her new curves haven’t gone unnoticed. Ne-Yo, the songwriter and producer who collaborated with Hudson on her second album and other projects, recalls seeing Hudson after she’d overhauled her figure. “I never told her this, but I remember looking at her like, Damn—Jennifer could get it! It’s funny, because although she has always been beautiful, I’d never quite looked at her that way before. I had to compose myself right quick.”
Changing her body is not the only transformation Hudson has undergone. After starring in Winnie as the antiapartheid shero, she pivoted to play a drug-addled prostitute in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, which follows the hardscrabble existence of two kids who suddenly find themselves motherless in a Brooklyn housing project. Hudson, who has never even experimented with recreational drugs, was faced with the task of turning herself into heroin junkie. “I wanted to understand what it felt like to be high, so I went to drug rehab centers and talked with recovering addicts,” she says. “It was huge stretch for me to play Gloria. The drugs, the tattoos, the prostitution—her life is so different from my own.”
Once when her son spotted her reenacting a heroin high on the set, he asked her about it. “He’s like, ‘Mommy, why are you acting like that?’ I’m like, ‘Your mommy is going to play a really bad mommy.’ ” George Tillman, Jr., the film’s director, says it was the stark contrast between Hudson’s real life and her onscreen one that led to an unforgettable performance. “No one would expect to see Hudson play a drug addict—and that’s part of what makes her so amazing in the role. It’s fresh. It’s deeply emotional. It’s real. And she put her whole heart into it.”
Walking in Faith
Hudson ended 2013 on a high note: She lent her vocals to the soundtrack for Black Nativity, which is adapted from Langston Hughes’s 1961 off-Broadway stage musical. The film boasts a cast of superstars including Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Mary J. Blige and Jacob Latimore, who plays Hudson’s son. “I wrote the role for her,” says Kasi Lemmons, the movie’s director. “Jennifer has such a unique combination of fragility and strength. She really exceeded my expectations. As an actress, she’s intuitive. As a professional, she’s a delight to work with. As a woman, she’s just extraordinary. And on top of all that, she has that incredible voice.”
“At the end of the musical, Jennifer and Forest sing a duet of ‘Be Grateful,’ which is an old gospel song by Walter Hawkins,” says Raphael Saadiq, who scored the film. “Many have probably heard this song in church—but I guarantee you that they’ve never heard it like this. It is beautiful—the kind of beauty that just takes your breath away. A lot of singers who come out of the church have big voices, but Jennifer has learned how to really use her voice. Her vocals are masterful.”
The world will get another taste of Hudson’s vocal prowess with her forthcoming album—one on which she collaborated with legendary songwriters and producers Pharrell Williams and Timbaland. “There’s a song on my new album that says, ‘If you think you’ve seen it all, just keep on living,’ ” says Hudson. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think that thought and hear my mother saying it. For someone who didn’t do a lot of talking, my mother sure did a lot of talking.” And here’s what else her mother whispered: Keep family close and your faith closer. “The greatest gift my mother ever gave me was a faith in Christ,” she says. “That’s my stability. My other foundation is family—that’s what Mom taught me to rely on. Everything she said is still with me. It’s like she’s still here. I feel her presence all the time.”
As the hubbub of the holiday season gives way to the hopes and plans of the new year, Hudson thinks back on where she was this time in 2013. “It was a total whirlwind—singing at the Super Bowl with the Sandy Hook Elementary School students, attending the President’s inauguration, preparing for the Oscars,” she says. And what will 2014 bring? “I’ve learned not to put limits on God,” she says. “So I’m going to just sit back and watch Him work.” In the meantime, there’s always shopping—and relishing stolen moments with the two Davids she adores.
Need a celeb cover story on a tight deadline? E-mail me at Michelle@MichelleBurford.com