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June 01, 2018

Life Unlimited

With two very different series on NBC — the reality competition World of Dance and the cop drama Shades of Blue — Jennifer Lopez is bolstering her rep as a powerhouse performer-producer.

Mark Morrison

It's showtime on stage 22 at Universal studios.

A warm-up announcer shouts, "Are you ready for another amazing performance?" The audience of more than 300 mostly young people shrieks feverishly from partitioned quadrants that surround the LED-lit stage. Concentric circles of bright turquoise lights loom above, and a whirring camera orbits the arena on an aerial track. More lights flash. Fans in the front rows pound the wood dividers, revving the frenzy.

Nine barefoot girls enter from the wings, their hair in topknots, their hands in black gloves. The stage goes dark, then explodes with purple and aqua LED stripes as the Calvin Harris hit "Blame" plays and the group breaks into a full-on dance number. When the song peaks, the girls' gloves emit green laser beams that flood the arena and punctuate the routine.

The audience goes wild, and the girls wait — exhausted, anxious, hopeful, tearful. Now, it's time for them to really face the music. Sitting watchfully beside the stage is a panel of judges. On the left, in a black fedora, is the always affable Grammy-winning R&B artist Ne-Yo. On the right, in a gray satin tuxedo, is Derek Hough — six-time Dancing with the Stars winner and two-time Emmy winner for outstanding choreography.

On the middle throne is the judge whose words arguably matter most. Here, Jennifer Lopez holds court in a pink Gucci mini-dress, assorted bling and hair that cascades below her shoulders.

Having mentored this dance group, she's been studying their performance intently. Sphinx-like, she appears to see all and know all, missing nothing. Her manner is poised, intent, focused. She taps polished pink fingernails on the desktop and sips water from a tall, bedazzled cup that bears her logo: JLo. And everybody holds their breath.

Welcome to World of Dance, the NBC series that returned for its second season on May 29 and has already been picked up for season three. Billed as "the world's largest dance competition show," it features skilled dancers from around the globe, all battling for the life-altering prize of $1 million and the title "Best in the World."

Lopez is not only the star and main attraction, she's also one of eight executive producers (along with her longtime manager, Benny Medina, they include her producing partner Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Kris Curry, Matilda Zoltowski and Alex Katz as well as two principals of the international competition the series is based on: David Gonzalez and Matthew Everitt).

If Ne-Yo is the resident charmer and Hough the cutup next door, Jennifer Lopez is, well, Jennifer Lopez. She's the icon, the triple-threat performer, the ultimate authority who lets the others ham it up while she composes her thoughts. Dance is serious stuff to her, and the show is a return to her roots, her first love.

Twenty-seven years after she moved to Los Angeles from the Bronx to join the Fly Girls dance squad on Fox's In Living Color sketch series, she brings decades of experience to her TV homecoming. And she is here to give back as well as to create great entertainment.

While her career may have endured as many ups and downs as a carousel pony, it's impossible to ignore her many achievements. Lopez has starred in more than two dozen movies, including Selena, Out of Sight, U Turn, Maid in Manhattan and The Boy Next Door (a 2015 potboiler that was made for $4 million and grossed $52.4 million worldwide).

She has worked for such eminent directors as Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, Bob Rafelson, Michael Apted and Lasse Hallström.

In 2001, she became the first woman in the U.S. to have the number-one album (J.Lo) and film (The Wedding Planner) in the same week. She has sold more than 80 million records globally, earns a reported $350,000 per show for her Las Vegas residency at Planet Hollywood (now in its third and final year) and was named the highest-paid Hispanic performer in history.

As an entrepreneur, Lopez released her first signature scent, Glow by JLo, in 2002; it remains one of the bestselling perfumes of all time. In 2011, she launched the Jennifer Lopez Collection for Kohl's, and in April she introduced a makeup collection for Inglot Cosmetics. This year, at 48, she has become the face of Guess Jeans — a campaign that has been known to feature glamour girls less than half her age.

Clearly, Jennifer Lynn Lopez has nothing to prove. Her workhorse reputation and extensive résumé precede her, and when she speaks, everyone listens.

"Beautiful, magical, ethereal and all the 'als' I can think of," she enthuses to one group of contestants wearing fairy-princess costumes.

To an energetic team of young women from Japan, she offers wistful praise: "Guys, you make me tired — and I don't get tired!"

Such poignancy is felt every day Lopez is on the set — which is one reason Meredith Ahr, president of Universal Television Alternative Studio (which produces the series for NBC in association with Nuyorican Productions and World of Dance), says: "We call her the fairy godmother of dance."

The actress-singer-dancer wasn't planning a return to the small screen. "I never saw myself doing television [again]," Lopez says.

After In Living Color, she landed a few forgettable series. But after holding her own opposite Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in the 1995 action movie Money Train, she left TV in her rear-view mirror. She shot Jack with Robin Williams for Coppola and Blood and Wine with Jack Nicholson, and then in 1997 had her breakthrough with Selena.

After two failed marriages and the fallout of her "Bennifer" years with Gigli costar Ben Affleck in the early '00s, she wed singer Marc Anthony in 2004. Four years later, she gave birth to their twins, Emme and Max. (The couple divorced in 2014.)

However, her well-intentioned foray into producing, El Cantante — the story of salsa singer Héctor Lavoe and his wife, Puchi, in which she starred with Anthony — left audiences divided. So, in 2010, Lopez reconsidered the changing entertainment landscape and agreed to be a judge on Fox's American Idol.

Although the move reintroduced her to the public, not everyone thought it was a good idea. "My agents, my lawyers, were like, 'Don't do that; your career will be over,'" Lopez says. "[But] I'd just had kids. And I knew I had something to offer. I love music, I love performing. It was a huge platform — 20 million people tuning in. And I knew that they were going to see me for who I was."

Her gamble paid off. But even after five seasons with Idol, she still wasn't planning to make TV a big part of her career. That's where her onetime talent agent, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas (a producer of Maid in Manhattan), stepped in. In 2012, the two women reunited, and Lopez asked Goldsmith-Thomas to run her production company, Nuyorican (a portmanteau of "New York" and "Puerto Rican").

"When I came on, I said the best stories are on TV now with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu," Goldsmith-Thomas recalls. "And broadcast has risen." She had a script for a crime-drama series called Shades of Blue, about a dirty cop who lies to survive, and she suggested they produce it. "I knew Harlee Santos was a great, complicated, gritty role. Jennifer became so involved in the development of that character that it inhabited her."

In 2013, the pair met with Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment. He said if Lopez would star in the show, he'd give them a 13-episode commitment. "And — boom! — we were doing a series," Goldsmith-Thomas says.

 A dark, twisted show about good people who do bad things, Shades of Blue premiered in January 2016.

Shot in New York, Shades features Lopez as an NYPD detective torn by her conscience, her loyalty to her cop family (led by Ray Liotta), her devotion to her daughter (Sarah Jeffery) and her own sense of self-preservation. In addition to starring, Lopez serves as an executive producer, along with showrunner Jack Orman, Goldsmith- Thomas, Medina, Ryan Seacrest and Nina Wass.

The show averaged 9.9 million viewers its first season; for season two, Lopez won the People's Choice Award for best crime drama actress. A third and final season begins June 17. "Shades of Blue reminded people this girl can act," Goldsmith-Thomas says. It also showed what a dedicated producer Lopez can be — she hosted cast "tweet parties" to help hype the show (she has 45.4 million Twitter followers and 74.6 million on Instagram).

"She understands how important marketing is. It was like, 'Guys, this is a crowded freeway; you gotta tell people you are there.'"

Greenblatt, who also offered Nuyorican a first-look deal in 2013, says, "At NBC, we like to build long-term, multifaceted relationships with our talent, from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to Seth Meyers, Jimmy Fallon and Dick Wolf. I couldn't be happier that Jennifer Lopez is now one of the family."

It's 6:30 p.m. when the World of Dance judges break for the day and Lopez retreats to her nearby dressing room, where she trades the Gucci dress for a go-to uniform of comfy sweats and work boots. Of course, the labels have changed since her years growing up in the Bronx, where she shared a bedroom with older sister Leslie, now a music teacher, and younger sister Lynda, an Emmy-winning broadcast journalist and news anchor for WCBS-AM radio.

Instead of Doc Martens, she's sporting beige canvas Buscemi boots handcrafted in Italy. Her cream-colored V-neck and knit pants are by Italian cashmere king Brunello Cucinelli.

"Want some potato chips?" she offers, ripping into a bag of Ruffles. She talks freely about her early years — the influence of her dance-happy mother, Guadalupe, who introduced her to musicals such as Funny Girl and West Side Story; her short stint in college while working in a law office (she considered becoming a lawyer); her freshman-year decision to drop out and focus on performing.

She recalls training at a Manhattan dance studio and coming home so late that her fretful mother kicked her out. She slept in the dance studio before finding a roommate. After that came gigs that took her to Europe and Japan, then the In Living Color job that took her to L.A. — which she hated, because she didn't drive and was "such a Bronx girl." Then she discovered acting, which "became my life."

 As Lopez talks, something on the nearby muted monitor catches her eye. "Let me see what this is," she says. She turns up the sound as a dance team featuring the popular Kinjaz dance crew and innovative husband-and- wife duo Keone and Mari, all first-season competitors, takes the World of Dance stage.

Their guest performance ends, and the audience is cheering when a dancer removes his mask to reveal it's… Derek Hough. "They should do it over," Lopez says decisively. "The reveal is anticlimactic." A production assistant pops in to get her reaction, and she says they should reshoot Hough's close-up. "When the audience is clapping and he takes off his mask, it's [already] over. Nobody cares."

When it comes to creating a moment, Lopez is an expert. "I was lucky to work with amazing people from early in my career," she says. "Like Jack Nicholson — he'd say, 'You're going to dig through that chest, but how are you going to make it exciting? C'mon, move your hair. Make a moment of your shot.' So I started thinking that way.

"Even working with Puffy," she continues, speaking of former boyfriend Sean Combs. "He came to a photo shoot of mine and said, 'You can't bring her these clothes. You have to dress her like a queen.' It's just that mentality of, like, number one, top, [creating] history, doing things on a level that no one else is thinking about. I was thinking more like an 'artist' then.

"So, I learned all the fundamentals, the technique. But it's show business. You've got to think bigger. You have to add this other vision that most artists don't tap into. Which is okay for some people. But for me, learning those things changed it into something else — I was able to be the artist but also think more like the director or producer, and that combination became, for me, kind of the secret sauce."

Her eyes dart back to the screen, where Hough doffs his mask sooner. "Good! They got the shot," she says. "Much better!" Now she'll push for the director to use this take, but she says she won't demand it. "One of the things that makes a success is, I'm willing to listen, too."

Originally, producing was the only role Lopez intended to play on this show. "We were developing a different dance show with [her]," Ahr recalls. "She was signed on as executive producer. But we felt like that show couldn't scale to the level we felt Jennifer deserved. We had this great asset and a great partner; we felt we could do better."

After some research, Ahr's creative team discovered World of Dance — a southern California–based entertainment brand founded in 2008, which brings together street, urban and hip-hop dancers in more than 25 countries and has a large YouTube following. However, its competitions lacked the million-dollar purse television could provide.

So, the company put together a tape and sent it to Lopez. "Within five minutes," Ahr says, "[Jennifer] called Paul [Telegdy, president of the alternative and reality group for NBC Entertainment], and she's like, 'Oh, my God, that's it!' She knew this organization — that's where she finds some of her backup dancers. It's been an amazing partnership since that first day."

According to Ahr, Lopez has been involved in every aspect of the show, from set design to clearing music to tapping her vast network of talent to give the show dance-world cred. She also made sure the show focused on the competitors' personal struggles and what it's taken for them to get there.

"She feels each one of them has a Rocky story," Goldsmith-Thomas says. "She brings tremendous heart," Ahr says. "She feels a genuine connection with the dancers. This isn't about her need to be on TV; she doesn't need the paycheck. We're trying to create a brand beyond NBC. This is the Olympics of dance."

As with the Olympics, the competitors' backstories often take center stage; the show also places more emphasis on athleticism than you see on Dancing with the Stars. And the rigorous five-category scoring system — which assigns up to 20 points each for performance, technique, choreography, creativity and presentation (for a potential total of 100) — was designed to keep the judges invested and the standards high.

All of that has helped the show flip the dance-competition genre on its ear. With Jenna Dewan as host, World of Dance was the number-two summer program on broadcast television last year, in both adults 18 to 49 and total viewers, and the number-one new summer series overall. What's more, with an average of 10.1 million viewers in "live plus seven-day" Nielsens, it was the most-watched new summer alternative series in 10 years (since NBC's The Singing Bee).

The next day, Lopez will leave for Vegas to perform her All I Have show on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday, she will fly to New York to work on a venture with her boyfriend, baseball legend Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez, currently an ESPN sportscaster. Called Project Destined, it's "for inner-city kids to learn how to invest their money and buy real estate," Lopez explains. "I love this project. So I'm going to fly in for the day. Then I'll come back here and do World of Dance on Monday."

But right now, she's not thinking about anything except what's in front of her — and that's the secret to how she juggles it all. She knows better than to get ahead of herself and risk being overwhelmed by everything on her plate.

"When I leave here," she says, "I'll go home, have a nice dinner, then I'll go to my bedroom, have a nice bath. I'll have a chocolate cookie with milk, I'll watch TV. And then I'm like, okay, tomorrow is full out. I just take it day by day, because it's so much stuff, and I try not to worry about too much." Unless it involves her kids. Emme and Max turned 10 in February and are living in Miami with their dad while going to school. "All of that [personal] stuff takes priority over the work stuff," she says.

Hough has seen that firsthand. "If her kids are calling or FaceTiming, no matter what is going on, Jennifer picks it up," he says. "She can be in the middle of a comment [on the show], and she'll go, 'Oh, my kids are calling me.' Her priority is her family — it's been a lovely thing to see."

So does that make Lopez a workaholic, a good multitasker — or both? Goldsmith-Thomas explains it this way: "Jennifer looks at life and says, 'Why not?' She doesn't limit herself by other people's definitions of what she should do. For many years, people judged her. 'Oh, she's a dancer; she can't sing.' 'She's a singer; she can't act.' They marginalized her, because she does so many things. Well, the people who criticized her the most are now in her wake."

Hough, who started his career performing to the Lopez hit "Let's Get Loud," says, "We look at Jennifer and see the icon, the superstar, the mogul. But what's been wonderful is just getting to know her . She gets shy; she gets flustered. It's endearing to see her vulnerability."

Goldsmith-Thomas agrees. "The thing about Jennifer that I don't think people know is, she's a girl's girl. She really is a great girlfriend."

In fact, the two producing partners had spent the previous evening at Lopez's house, watching the 1987 movie Broadcast News. "She's most happy at home watching movies on Turner Classics, eating popcorn. We once sat in my house — it was snowing in New York — and we just ordered in from Carmine's and watched a Lucy marathon."

Reconciling Jenny from the Block with the luxury-loving superstar in flesh-baring Versace has always been the tricky part of understanding Lopez.

"I'm good at the showgirl stuff," she explains. "I'm good at being onstage, doing a photo shoot, the stuff I need to be good at for my job. And I enjoy it. I know how to work it and make it work. But I don't need to be the center of attention. I'd rather not talk to people at a party. I'm not that person."

Though she will turn 50 next year, Lopez is not likely to slow down any time soon. "Listen, at some point, I'm going to age," she says, chuckling. "They'll say, She looks old! But, right now, I'm holding it together. The other day, Alex was across the lawn, and I brought him something, and then I ran away. And he said, 'You run like you're 25 years old.' I haven't stopped that pace, so I'm still at that pace, I guess.

"When things start aching more, it'll be different."

Go behind the scenes of emmy 's photo shoot with Jennifer Lopez at

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2018

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