One of the most enduring images of this year’s Super Bowl halftime show occurred just past the halfway mark: Jennifer Lopez hoisted herself above the ground, gripped a pole with her thighs and lay flat in the air, with only one hand holding on for support — a move that fans of her stripper-heist film, Hustlers, might know as “the tabletop.” Coming off of awards season buzz for her starring role in the 2019 movie, it seemed like the then-50-year-old multihyphenate was reminding the show’s estimated 103 million viewers that there wasn’t anything she couldn’t do.
In reality, Lopez had only recently decided to stop worrying about others’ expectations. “It really came to fruition for me when I got snubbed for an Oscar” that January, she says. “Because it did hurt. But I realized I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Look at my life right now. All I do is try to do something more exciting, more creative and more impactful than I did last time.”
It’s an attitude that has defined this year’s Billboard Women in Music Icon from the start of her career, as a Fly Girl on In Living Color who dreamed of success in both music and film at a time when many industry gatekeepers believed women could only pick one. “Icons wind up changing the zeitgeist a little bit,” says Lopez. “They do something different than how anybody has ever done it. From the minute I started in this business, I wasn’t going to be put in a box.”
What does being an icon mean to you?
I think of an icon as somebody who defines a moment or an era. [Someone like] Barbra Streisand, a singer, actor, producer and a director who wound up defining movies in a different way, because her beauty wasn’t typical. When I started working in my early 20s, it was size 0 models on the cover of magazines. Tall, blonde, white, sometimes Black. But never Latina. I didn’t shy away from being from the Bronx, I didn’t shy away from my humble beginnings. I embraced all of it to be who I was and offer something really different.
You’re a singer, dancer, actor, producer, businesswoman. Are there any career missteps you’ve learned from?
You can look them all up! I definitely have my ups and downs. When Elaine [Goldsmith-Thomas, Lopez’s production partner at Nuyorican Productions] came to work for me, I had had the babies [12-year-old twins Max and Emme], hadn’t worked for a while. My last record hadn’t done well. I got offered American Idol. Everyone said, “Don’t do it.” But I followed my own instinct, and it turned out to be right. Once I did the reality TV route, even though I was making good money and had reintroduced myself to the public, my movie career was nowhere. Elaine said, “Wow, no one wants to hire you for anything. You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to create our own projects.” And right now my movie career has never been better.
So many women were inspired by watching you dominate the Super Bowl stage at age 50. Did you anticipate it would mean so much?
As a woman, people want to write you off: “Who’s the next hot girl?” When you’re an actress, you’re always waiting for that. I decided I’m not going to let that happen. I’m going to keep surprising everybody, and I’m going to keep surprising myself. In 2018, we did a sweet movie called Second Act, and I did a song for it called “Limitless” that Sia wrote. It became my mantra. I went on the It’s My Party Tour [in 2019] and I sang that every night. I got to celebrate with my family and my fans and tell them, “You’re limitless.” This message you’re trying to give everyone really becomes a part of you.
How do you want to be thought of 20 years from now?
I will always be Jenny from the Block. I’m the people’s icon. I’m the person that you look at and say, “I can do that because she did it.” I am the person that people relate to, the person who’s down to earth, who’s loving and cries and is caring and tough — all the things you would expect this little Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx to be.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2020, issue of Billboard.