CHICAGO-- Jennifer Hudson had been driven to her high school before, but never with a woman brushing her hair from the SUV seat behind her while another woman sat next to her spraying a bronze mist from an aerosol can onto her legs.
"It's just to even out the tone of the legs," the sprayer explained.
"It makes you look like you have nylons on," said Hudson, the 25-year-old singing star of Dreamgirls and American Idol.
"I wasn't always in the limelight, so that didn't seem to matter then," she laughed. "But now every little impression counts."
The drive from her downtown hotel to the South Side's Paul Laurence Dunbar Vocational Career Academy was a short one, but Hudson might as well have been descending from another planet. The previous night Dreamgirls - director Bill Condon's adaptation of the Broadway musical about a Supremes-like female singing trio - had been screened in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, with Hudson in the audience here.
By morning the Internet was awash with raves about the movie and, in particular, Hudson's performance.
Hudson became famous for using her force-of-nature pipes to blow away the competition on American Idol Season 3 (2004), at least until viewers shockingly voted her off the show while six other singers remained standing. She has more than compensated by landing the prime role of Effie in Dreamgirls - beating out, among others, Idol Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino.
Life will never be the same for Hudson, and she knows it. She speaks with the frequent high-pitched laughter and careful humility of a girl who sees a bounty of presents awaiting her under the Christmas tree. But she hasn't gone Hollywood just yet: She's still someone tied to Chicago who is just as effusive about Denny's grilled-chicken omelets (she has them custom made) as her Oscar prospects.
"She's naive, even today," said singer/actress Felicia Fields (The Color Purple on Broadway), who befriended Hudson when the two appeared in the musical Big River in 2001. Fields was struck by how enthusiastically Hudson responded to fans' shout-outs at the New York Dreamgirls premiere earlier this month. "She's a sweet person and a genuine person. I hope she stays that way."
Hudson, the baby among five full and half-siblings in a family often described as "low-key," said she always knew she wanted to sing before audiences. She began doing so in church when she was 7.
"They would never give me a solo or give me a chance, so I remember sitting in the bathroom at home crying, like, 'If nobody will listen to me sing, I'll listen to me sing,'" she recalled. When she got her first solo, on "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone," "I forgot the words, and the congregation had to help me out."
Things got better.
"I was voted most talented in high school," she chirped. "I sang in the choir. I have 'superior' ratings from city and state school competitions. I sang opera, classical, you know, everything."
Early in Dreamgirls the Dreamettes, the singing trio still fronted by Effie, lift a talent-show crowd into soul heaven, then get snubbed by the judges. "When the curtain goes down on her at the end," Fields said of the scene, "that's the same look she had on her face when she lost [American Idol]."
The multiple parallels with Effie weren't lost on Hudson, either. "Effie's journey, being the talent and then [being] put in the background and not being able to understand ... and then me being kicked off of a talent show ..."
Now, as then, Hudson is careful not to complain about her Idol ouster, instead remaining thankful for the opportunity and faithful in what she calls God's overall plan for her. "It wasn't a big deal for her because one of her dreams had already come true," said Hudson's older sister, Julia. "All she wanted was for the world to hear her singing."
Mark Caro writes for the Chicago Tribune.