Assuring there's always room for J.Lo


Forgive yourself if you are seeing Jennifer Lopez in your sleep. She is everywhere else these days, too.

One can hardly pass a billboard in New York City without seeing her face plastered with advertisements for her new movie, Maid in Manhattan. A week ago, she could be seen on Today, belting out three singles from her new album, This Is Me ... Then. Entire newsstands seem to be devoted to the sole theme of "What Is Jennifer Doing This Very Minute?" On the cover of the December issue of GQ magazine, she vamps for the camera, wrapped only in a clinging white cloth.

Lopez's singing and acting talents have received mixed reviews, but that has not stopped her from becoming a cultural icon. She is one of the most popular female celebrities in entertainment today.

But her popularity has dangers, the main one being overexposure. And Lopez's attempt to branch out from her hip-hop roots is gathering whispers that she could be spreading herself too thin.

Will Jennifer Lopez last?

If she cannot, it will not be because Sony Music Entertainment (parent company of her label, Epic Records, which took up her cause four years ago) has not tried.

The model is Madonna, still going strong in her 40s, through the freshness of reinvention. Lopez's reinvention is the latest in a string of diva creations by Tommy Mottola, chairman and chief executive officer of Sony Music Entertainment, a unit of the Sony Corp.

Mottola and Lopez's manager, Benny Medina, have carefully cultivated and groomed her career, sprinkling her image with a dash of "ghetto fabulousness" here and a dash of middle-class respectability there to give her mass appeal.

Few actresses have made the successful transition to singing. Some think Lopez's best bet for longevity may be to just stay with acting.

"While she is releasing great danceable music," said Stephen Hill, vice president for music and talent at Black Entertainment Television, "the changes in acting are much less volatile than music."

Some music critics have said Lopez's soaring popularity on the pop charts, her glamorous roles in mainstream movies and her highly publicized personal life, highlighted by her recent engagement to actor Ben Affleck, have jeopardized her following within her core fan base: the black and Hispanic hip-hop community.

Carefully shaped path

Her handlers have sensed the danger, Mottola said. They came up with an idea for a new single, "Jenny From the Block," that essentially tells her fans that she is still a home girl even though she is "bling-blinging" - wearing expensive diamonds and furs.

The strategy seems to have worked. The album that includes the single "This Is Me ... Then" sold 314,132 copies last week, her biggest debut ever, according to Nielsen Soundscan, which tracks record sales. Lopez sold 272,252 copies when her last album, J.Lo, went on sale two years ago, according to Soundscan.

It is this kind of loyalty that executives at Revolution Studios are hoping for when Maid in Manhattan opens Friday. The film has a Working Girl story line. Lopez plays a maid at a swanky hotel who is mistaken for a hotel guest by a patrician senate candidate (Ralph Fiennes), and the two fall in love.

Mottola, who was a mentor to Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and most recently Shakira, has helped Lopez's manager, Medina, build her career. The three confer on all matters, from which tracks to put on an album to movie scripts and ways to tweak her image, Mottola said.

Lopez's first break came when she worked as a "fly girl," dancing on the Fox comedy-skit series In Living Color in 1990. After acting in small roles in several television series, she got her first part in a major movie in 1995 with Money Train, starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.

She won another role in the feature Anaconda and got top billing (and $1 million). Then, in 1997, she gained an even wider Hispanic following for her lead role in Selena, the movie biography of the Mexican-American singing idol.

A performance in 1998 in Out of Sight helped her gain greater mainstream acceptance. In the film, which was directed by Steven Soderbergh, she played a tough and sexy deputy federal marshal who was locked in a trunk with an escaped convict, played by George Clooney.

She decided she wanted to sing, and Mottola became involved. He used her momentum to build a strong hip-hop fan base for her music among young blacks and Hispanics, especially in the Bronx.

Full speed ahead

"Back then it all seemed so fast," Lopez said. "Not a week after I signed my contract with Epic Records in 1998, they started doing all this big stuff. I got all of these calls: 'Tommy wants you to come to his office. You are going to meet with your producers.' "

Lopez and Combs became an item - a linkage with serious crossover implications. Evolving into a paparazzi favorite, she earned street credibility when she stuck by her man during a trial over a nightclub shooting in 1999.

Even after she ended her relationship with Combs in 2001, her popularity took on a life of its own, and Sony and Lopez began force-feeding her image to the public. They also timed the release of films and CDs to gain maximum publicity benefit. The strategy paid off in January 2001, when she had the No. 1 movie, The Wedding Planner, and the No. 1 album, J.Lo.

Lopez has capitalized on her popularity to promote her clothing line, J.Lo, and her fragrance, Glow.

The clothing line, which got off to a rocky start last year, is performing exceptionally well, said Ronnie Taffet, a spokeswoman for Macy's at Herald Square. In August, Glow was the store's second-largest women's launch in seven years.

So, continue to expect Lopez everywhere. Sony is negotiating a deal to run a Jennifer Lopez prime-time television special on Feb. 12, Mottola said.

Gone are the days when artists could just record a CD, pose for a magazine or billboard promotion and be finished with a record. Internet piracy, greater media choices and declining CD sales have forced music companies to work harder to persuade consumers to buy music.

Artists must go on exhaustive promotion campaigns, showing up on morning news shows and prime-time specials. They must be more open to fans than they were a decade ago. As a result, artists are more willing to risk overexposure.

"Today, artists are coming at you from all directions, but they want that," said Howard Stringer, the chief executive of the Sony Corp. of America. "It's no longer just do your music, sell your CD and goodbye. Piracy and problems in music companies have forced everyone to think outside of the box."

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