Jennifer Hudson: A Star Is Reborn

Article excerpt

Byline: Lorraine Ali

The singer's metamorphosis is complete, with a new sound, a new role as Winnie Mandela, a new body, and a new love for life.

After a few days of sleeping in a dank cell in South Africa, Jennifer Hudson started to lose it. In an attempt to channel Winnie Mandela for a new biopic about the controversial apartheid-era icon, Hudson opted to confine herself day and night to the prison set where the crew shot scenes depicting Mandela's 500-plus days in solitary confinement. She wanted, she says, to "experience some of the hell that woman went through." By the third day, hell had arrived. Her hair was tangled, her eyes sunken, and she started having imaginary conversations with her son. Reflecting on the experience still brings Hudson to a dark place. "They snatched her out of her home and she had no idea what happened to her children," Hudson says of Mandela. "Imagine living that? This was her life! This was real. As a woman, I am angry for her, hurting for her. And as a mom? God, being in solitary confinement, away from my son just for five days when shooting those scenes--it was too much for me. I was drained and stripped down. I was changed."

Hudson, 29, does look like an entirely different person from the one we met back in 2004, when she was an American Idol contestant. For starters, the 5-foot-9 singer is 80 pounds slimmer, partly because she lost weight for her role in Winnie, and partly for her role as Weight Watchers spokesgal. But there's more to her metamorphosis than just the obvious. She's now engaged to WWE wrestler and Harvard Law School graduate David Otunga, and they have an 18-month-old son together. "David Jr. could not have come at a better time," says Hudson, whose son was born in August 2009--10 months after the murder of her mother, brother, and nephew at the hands of her sister's estranged husband. "If I could just be half of the mother to him that my mother was to us, I'd be satisfied. He is a huge part of what keeps me going."

Hudson's transformation is also evident in her aptly titled new CD, I Remember Me, which arrives March 22. Though only her second album, I Remember Me is a reclamation of sorts--an attempt to reach back to the girl she was before the fame, the loss, and the influence of a trend-obsessed music industry. Watching Hudson perform her new single, "Where You At?," during a Grammy Awards rehearsal, you can literally see the joy returning to her life. Her son, David Jr., dances in circles and mimics the chorus, stopping every so often to point at the tall, slim, powerhouse of a singer onstage and shout "Mama!" Their unwitting duet--her voice supremely on key, his wonderfully off--exposes a mother-and-son bond forged in the wake of family tragedy and nurtured during the slow, steady process of healing. As she finishes the song, everyone on the set applauds, including her little son.

It's hard not to fall in love with Hudson, or at least her story. Straight from Chicago's South Side, she lost out on Idol at midseason, only to come back and win an Oscar for Dreamgirls. "People often say they feel like they know me," she says later over coffee. "Most of the time, you see celebrities or artists when they're already stars. But my fans came in the side door with me, and were with me through everything--from the beginning to now. It's like, 'What's gonna happen to the girl now? Will she come back again?' It's like a movie, even to me."

Not everything is cinema-perfect in Hudson's world these days. The real Winnie Mandela isn't happy that her life story is about to be splashed across the big screen. The 74-year-old former wife of Nelson Mandela even threatened legal action to stop production. "It is difficult to understand how a production bearing the name of an individual who has not been consulted at all could ever be appropriate or tell the full story of that individual's life, as media reports suggest this production is intended to," her attorneys said in a letter sent to the film's creators, according to several reports in the South African press. …