Toward the end of her big night as both the host and musical guest of the Feb. 10 broadcast of Saturday Night Live , Jennifer Lopez appeared on the Rockefeller Center studio set as one of the co-anchors of Good Morning Bronx , a spoof of local morning shows. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Manhattan included, the Bronx might as well be another country, and the intended joke was that Ms. Lopez’s angry-homeboy co-anchor and broadcast team could not mute their Bronx-ness enough to produce a television show that might travel beyond their borough.
Ms. Lopez’s character was slightly more assimilated, though, and as the skit progressed, she became increasingly frustrated over her cohorts’ behavior. When her co-anchor began fighting with his super on camera over unpaid rent, Ms. Lopez got to utter her money line: “You are not,” she told the two men, “going to mess up my chance of being a Puerto Rican Connie Chung.”
While the joke got a polite laugh from the audience, the line surely resonated with anyone who has followed Ms. Lopez’s fascinating career. Ms. Lopez likes to say that she’s just a girl from the Castle Hill section of the Bronx–she did just that at the beginning of SNL –but she long ago learned to both exploit and transcend her home-borough idiosyncrasies in a way that has made her an international brand, tailor-made for this digital age.
Last week, Ms. Lopez was inarguably the biggest home-grown crossover star to hit New York since Barbra Streisand. Her Reddi-Wip of a movie, The Wedding Planner , was the highest-grossing picture in the country until Hannibal showed up; her album J. Lo was roaring through record stores in the city; her magnificent butt was staring out from store windows and street-vendor carts from Yankee Stadium to the Battery; and she mixed it all with coy sightings and non-sightings with her charged beau, hip-hop artist Sean (Puffy) Combs, ingraining her purity with the intoxicating arsenic trace of scandal that has turned a very few gorgeous big stars–from Clara Bow to Lana Turner to Marilyn–into dangerously heated superstars.
“She has all the ingredients of the old stars,” said Thomas D. Mottola, the chairman and chief executive of Sony Music Entertainment, who signed Ms. Lopez to Sony’s Epic label. “She is a movie star. She is a recording star, and probably will be the biggest-selling female act this year. Her movie was No. 1 and probably will open around the world very successfully.” Mr. Mottola paused. “And the good news is she’s just at the beginning.”
But stardom is about a lot more than box office–just ask Helen Hunt, who’s had a hugely successful year in terms of box office but a nonexistent one in terms of visibility–and in the week that led up to SNL , this town seemed to be captivated by Ms. Lopez, even though she seemed too busy to notice. It was one of those rare moments in a celebrity’s life when all of the elements that made her a star align and take on a supernova-like brightness. On Feb. 10 in New York, anybody with the inclination to do so could have luxuriated in the aura of Jennifer Lopez. That might have meant anybody’s turning on the radio to hear her sing, “Even if you were broke, my love don’t cost a thing,” from the single from her second album, which had crested at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, but which had the mind-numbing pleasure-giving quality that only the most insipid gloss can provide. Anybody could have gone to the local cineplex to see Ms. Lopez play a modern Doris Day-equivalent in The Wedding Planner , crawling under desks like Lucille Ball, scissoring her legs in tango swivels like Cyd Charisse. Anybody could have picked up a copy of Rolling Stone magazine and admired the photos of Ms. Lopez’s butter-and-brown-sugar skin busting out of a series of scanty Xena-style costumes. Anybody could–and did–float toward the street vendor on Madison Avenue, who was selling watches and CD’s but using a poster of Ms. Lopez looking over her shoulder and aiming her butt like a Martian death-ray: the most lethal black-and-white sex poster since Raquel Welch wore a torn bikini in One Million Years B.C . Anybody could have sat in a bar and listened to people parrot the tabloids about whether she was still together with her beau, Mr. Combs–the Post says yes, the News says no–or whether her presence at the 1999 shooting that has Mr. Combs on trial for gun possession and bribery will affect her career. Anybody could have gone to Mr. Combs’ Sean Jean fashion show and seen her name among the dedications, as well as a snippet of her “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” video in the presentation. Or turned on Saturday Night Live and watched Will Ferrell declare to Ms. Lopez that he was “deeply and totally in love” with her “jungle rump,” then ogled as Ms. Lopez dropped her robe onstage to reveal the green Versace dress with the steepest, deepest cleavage tumble this side of Victoria Falls.
Every aspect that had made Jennifer Lopez a star–the light, the dark, the Bronx homegirl and the international diva, the sublime, the ridiculous and certainly the carnal–was in play on this February day in New York, and none of them seemed left to chance.
The big problem with post-Internet fame has been that while the global village is vast, the size of the audience makes it just too immense to please completely. The residents of London, Bangladesh, Cedar Rapids and New York may be capable of simultaneously downloading JPEG’s of any actress or pop star, but what are the chances that what they want, or what they need, from that celebrity are the same?
Ms. Lopez–who happens to be the daughter of a computer technician who emigrated from Puerto Rico in the 50’s and always stressed the importance of assimilation to his children–seems to have grasped the pitfalls of digital-age celebrity in a way that few of her colleagues in the acting and musical professions have. If you look at the media onslaught that accompanied her to New York, you will find that there is not just one Jennifer Lopez, but rather a Jennifer Lopez for virtually every demographic and nationality that might have a hankering for her.
This has taken some precise calculation.
And though Ms. Lopez’s relationship with Mr. Combs could be construed as a public-relations nightmare in the making, coming as it does at a crucial moment in her ascent, another argument can be made. That is the one that says the whiff of notoriety that Ms. Lopez gets from having been with Mr. Combs on that fateful night only adds to the complexity–and, therefore, the power–of her appeal. And for those who don’t like it? Well, they can always choose to believe the gossip-column items that say Ms. Lopez has secretly broken up with Mr. Combs. Those that prefer to envision J. Lo as Puffy’s gun moll can focus on the rumors that say the couple is not only still together, they’re talking marriage once the trial is finished. Either way, a portion of Ms. Lopez’s audience is served.
Mr. Combs benefits, too. Funny enough, he was one of the original multi-taskers, a guy who sought the kind of extreme commercial success that knew no racial or class bounds. Mr. Combs made hip-hop albums, produced musical acts, opened a restaurant called Justin’s and started the Sean Jean label. And he began to appear in the gossip-column items with Donald Trump, Ron Perelman and Martha Stewart.
When Mr. Combs and Ms. Lopez first emerged as an item, she seemed like just another one of his conquests, but now that dynamic has changed. Around the time he released his Forever album in 1999, Mr. Combs began to lose steam as a pop star. While Mr. Combs and Ms. Lopez seem to share a similar work ethic, these days Mr. Combs is benefiting more from his association with Ms. Lopez, as his nods to her at the Feb. 10 Sean Jean show suggested. (Ms. Lopez did not show, ostensibly because she was too busy with her SNL gig.)
Talk to anyone who’s watched her in action and they will say that she’s an extremely hard worker, willing to put in insane hours to achieve her goals. “The most coldly ambitious and self-controlled woman I have ever encountered,” said one person who has had dealings with Ms. Lopez.
But of course, Ms. Lopez isn’t doing this herself. She’s got a synergy-minded team that includes Mr. Mottola and the considerable resources of the Sony Music Entertainment juggernaut. There’s her management company, Handprint Entertainment, which is led by Benny Medina (Mr. Combs’ former manager), Jeff Pollack and David Guillod; her agents, I.C.M.’s Risa Shapiro and Robert Newman; publicists Alan Nierob and Beth Katz at Rogers & Cowan; and the small army of stylists and make-up artists who keep Ms. Lopez looking sun-kissed and straight-haired.
For an idea of Ms. Lopez’s marketing acumen, go to her Web site, JenniferLopez.com, where you will find links tailored to 14 different countries (in their native languages), including Austria, Belgium, Greece, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Thailand and a group called “rest of Europe.”
On the site, you will also find a banner declaring Ms. Lopez “Queen of All Media” and listing her numerous magazine appearances and milestones. For hormone-addled boys, Rolling Stone ; for teen girls, Seventeen ; for the older ladies, Allure , Marie Claire and the wedding issue of In Style . Jennifer Lopez also scored a Kids’ Choice award from Nickelodeon.
“Audiences, in their own way, like to typecast and pigeonhole artists. It makes it easier for the audiences to find them accessible,” Mr. Mottola said. “But Jennifer is unusual because she has not been typecast–and yet, she just becomes even more accessible to more people. You tell me the last time it happened.”
Well, Madonna comes to mind. And certainly, if you go back to the earlier moments of her career, you’ll see that Madonna also tried to project different sensibilities. She was the trampy downtowner in Desperately Seeking Susan , the pregnant Catholic girl in “Papa Don’t Preach”; she even played a missionary in that giganto clunker, Shanghai Surprise .
But two things distinguish Madonna from Ms. Lopez. One, the Material Girl turned out to be limited as an actress (indeed, Ms. Lopez once claimed in a Movieline interview that she was a better actress than Madonna, and subsequently got some shade from the pop star when she ran into Madonna at a party that Donatella Versace threw).
But perhaps more importantly, Madonna–having gotten our attention with her sexual derring-do–went off the deep end on that matter. That whole Sex book and wax-dripping Body of Evidence period sure garnered a lot of headlines, but in the end Madonna ended up showing the world more than it wanted to know and destroyed the aura of mystery that keeps a celebrity’s public coming back. Certainly she’s recovered nicely, and built an empire as a music-business multi-tasker. She’s also been famous for a length of time that Ms. Lopez can only aspire to at this point, but right now Madonna is thought of primarily as a pop star and a celebrity whose own most important product is nothing more than her own fame.
Meanwhile, Ms. Lopez’s beauty and sexuality have certainly played a big role in her career. SNL ‘s Mr. Ferrell wouldn’t have been joking about her ass if that wasn’t the case, and Jimmy Fallon wouldn’t have told a reporter at the Wit post-premiere party that Ms. Lopez was “the cutest host we’ve ever had. Too bad I didn’t have many sketches with her.” But it’s a very controlled sexuality. Ms. Lopez’s music videos and movies clearly capitalize on her sex appeal, but if you look closely, the sex–even in the highly charged Out of Sight –is left to the imagination.
Which means she may be a star.
“She is the ultimate sex symbol, but not in a way that turns off young girls or women,” Mr. Mottola told The Transom. “That is why everybody likes her. It doesn’t come off like she’s trying to steal your man. It just is sexy. She can’t help it.”
And watch Ms. Lopez for any length of time and one can’t help getting the feeling that, for this girl from the Bronx, her own persona is the most developed part of the marketing plan. Go to Ms. Lopez’s Web site and, if your computer is equipped for sound, Ms. Lopez’s voice will welcome you. You. And remind you to sign up for her mailing list. And then Ms. Lopez’s voice–her best marketing tool, combining an innocence and carnality as focused as a laser–cuts into you: “You’ll never know,” she says, “what you might miss out on if you don’t.”
We may be in a recession. But buy this stock.
TVT on TV
Remember when rock music sniggered at “attention and fame” and “career, career, career”? That was way back in the 1990’s, before Ringo Starr decorated credit cards, before Ann Powers shilled Montblanc pens, before The Who backed that scary S.U.V. polo commercial.
Back then, TVT Records owner Steve Gottlieb had a vision. He’d made a mint in the late 80’s by collecting and releasing a bargeload of TV theme songs as Television’s Greatest Hits . He was deluged with million-dollar offers to sell the franchise to major labels, but he declined them all. Instead, he decided to invest the profits in his own project: producing indie bands. “I wanted to support every artist, not just a few high-profile ones,” he said. He parlayed the New York-based label into a $50 million business that distributes albums by Nine Inch Nails and Guided By Voices. Now Mr. Gottlieb has returned, triumphant, to his old medium–this time as the unlikely star of his own commercial.
” They contacted me ,” Mr. Gottlieb told The Transom, referring to Credit Suisse First Boston, the investment bank that put him in an image-building commercial that began running around Super Bowl time. “I’ve used them for a long time, and they contacted me out of the blue.”
Mr. Gottlieb admitted the idea initially made him a little queasy. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it–you know, be exposed like that,” he said. “You never know how things are going to turn out. They could have put some really lame, cheesy score to it.”
So, as part of his agreement, Mr. Gottlieb negotiated to have two TVT bands, Red Venom, a pop act from the U.K., and The Unband, a power-chord powerhouse, provide the soundtrack. “I don’t think The Unband has a CSFB brokerage account,” he said of the scruffy musicians, “but now at least they’re getting residuals.”
The spot almost fell through, however, when Mr. Gottlieb got word–he said he doesn’t know exactly from whom–that his trademark ponytail, which is about as hip as cowboy boots these days, had to go. “I mean, not everyone lives in New York and L.A., and they are, after all, a big financial institution,” he said. But Mr. Gottlieb let it be known that losing the dork knob was a deal breaker for him.
When filming commenced in New York, a camera crew followed one of Mr. Gottlieb’s busy workdays and boiled it down to 30 seconds of moving, grooving and armchair philosophy. “If you want to be in the game,” he breathlessly tells viewers, “you have to keep your finger on the pulse.” Over the phone, he gave The Transom a larger piece of his mind. “It’s interesting, you know, how similar the music business has gotten to the investment business,” he said. But then Mr. Gottlieb abruptly trotted out a football analogy. “My artists are the quarterbacks: kind of connected with the public, throwing the long pass. I’m their defensive line. I gotta block, block, block and make sure no one gets by to mess with them.”
He said the commercial resounds with his rockers. “A bunch of them, they say it’s really cool stuff. I got lots of calls. Everyone likes to see their record-company president living large and being a mogul, right?” Even Guided by Voices front man Bob Pollard, who gets homesick for his drinking buddies in Dayton while on tour? “Bob Pollard had no interest in it.” And what about Trent Reznor, who got into some legal wrangling with Mr. Gottlieb a few years back and has since left TVT? “Trent did not call,” Mr. Gottlieb said with a laugh. “Thankfully, there are still artists that have no interest in commerce.”
But what about bands that do? Could Red Venom and Unband lose their highly marketable indie-punk credibility for backing a big bank commercial? Mr. Gottlieb demurred, “I don’t think you know who Red Venom is. They don’t have punk credibility, really. That’s not what they’re about.” Mr. Gottlieb stuttered a bit, then said: “Things have changed. In this climate, who doesn’t want to be in a Pepsi spot?”
Barry Diller’s Funny New Friend
Saturday Night Live cast member Jimmy Fallon must be some conversationalist. Mr. Fallon, who co-anchors the SNL news segment, seemed to hold newlywed USA Networks chief Barry Diller spellbound at the post-premiere party at the Four Seasons restaurant for the HBO movie adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit.
So what the hell was the boyish comedian with the messy hair talking about that was so fascinating? Rupert Murdoch? Bill Clinton’s pardon problems? Actually, the Not Ready for Prime Time Player was discussing–somewhat awkwardly, it seemed–that weird 1999 Christian horror flick, Stigmata , in which Patricia Arquette plays an atheist hairdresser who bleeds a lot.
Mr. Diller seemed engrossed by Mr. Fallon’s cultural perspective, until he was momentarily distracted by a woman who claimed to know him. “I’m easy to find. Just call my office. USA Networks in New York,” the media mogul said, giving her the friendly brush-off so that he could return to the conversation.
By that time, Mr. Fallon had changed subjects–he was now talking about the DVD release of Barry Levinson’s Diner –but he seemed surprised that he was still commanding Mr. Diller’s rapt attention.
Eventually, the chat ended. But half an hour later, in the restaurant’s Pool Room–which was packed with The Sopranos ‘ Aida Turturro, Federico (“Furio”) Castelluccio and Edie Falco , and Sex and the City ‘s Cynthia Nixon and Sarah Jessica Parker (whose bare midriff showed off one scary set of chiseled abdominals)–Mr. Diller and his bride, designer Diane Von Furstenberg, sat down right next to the seemingly startled Mr. Fallon, dinner plates in hand.
When The Transom finally caught up with the Weekend Update co-anchor, Mr. Diller had vanished. Mr. Fallon took his considerable face time with the mogul in stride. “He’s my friend as of tonight!” he said brightly, noting that in a crowd this diverse, it’s easy to find common ground in unlikely places. “I mean, Mike Nichols is here. You can always talk about The Graduate .” The young comic was more eager to talk about how XFL football had delayed the Feb. 10 broadcast of SNL by 45 minutes. “Yeah, I was pissed off about that!” he said. “I mean, as a fan, I would have been pissed, because if [ SNL ]‘s not on my TV set at 11:30, I’m pissed!”