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Jenny's Image On the Block

Woman of the entertainment world: Clockwise from top, Jennifer Lopez on MTV's
Woman of the entertainment world: Clockwise from top, Jennifer Lopez on MTV's "Total Request Live," dishing with Jay Leno about "Monster-in-Law," and feeling the love after showing her fall collection at Fashion Week in February. (By Seth Wenig -- Reuters)

But it seems to be a burden Lopez undertook, by luck or by design, probably both. (Lopez's publicist didn't respond to requests for an interview.)

In 1999, she told a journalist that she thought her first album would appeal to "my generation of people, who grew up in America but had Latin parents or parents of a different ethnicity. . . . That's what I felt like I needed my music to reflect." Three years later, talking about filming "Maid in Manhattan" in her childhood neighborhood, she was quoted as saying, "Rita Moreno never came to the Bronx when I was growing up. . . . I think it's important to do that, so people have that [inspiration] in their lives."

In his recent book "Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame," author Michael Joseph Gross hypothesizes that the emotion one feels toward a celebrity is, essentially, the act of confusing feelings for a piece of work-- a set of song lyrics, a role they played in a movie -- for a connection with a real person. Validated by the song "Beautiful," for example, someone might imagine a kinship with Christina Aguilera. Or believe they understand Salma Hayek because they wept watching her portrayal of the artist in "Frida."

Lopez, Gross believes, is "very conscious" of this dynamic. But in her case, he says, the connection is "not about her work -- it's her story."

To begin with, her biography, which she repeats in every interview, reads like an immigrant archetype: Raised in a working-class part of the Bronx by a computer technician and a kindergarten teacher, Lopez started out as a backup dancer and, by dint of hard work and determination, became a powerhouse -- a $12 million-a-picture film star, a recording artist who's sold 35 million CDs, an entrepreneur whose clothing line and fragrance businesses People magazine estimated to be worth $350 million.

Her first CD, "On the 6," she told interviewers, was named after the train that took her, symbolically, from the Bronx to Manhattan. Her hit 2002 song, "Jenny From the Block," distilled immigrant success into a couple of catchy lines: "Used to have a little / Now I have a lot." That same year, "Maid in Manhattan" found her playing a hotel maid who, Cinderella-like, catches a senatorial candidate's eye. Now in "Monster-in-Law," she's a Latina temp and dog-walker who wins a surgeon's heart.

In other words, Lopez plays an average Latina -- under the very best, luckiest conditions.

To some, this is inspiring.

"She reminds me of many of the neighborhood girls I grew up with in the Latino neighborhood of Chicago who had a dream to make it big," writes Lopez fan Celso Cardenas, 23. "She is the epitome of the American Dream. . . . Many of our families come to the U.S. to prosper and she was able to pull herself up from her boot straps and make it huge."

To others, infuriating.

"When she first came out, it was electric," Mulligan says. "I was in college and to see someone with a wide nose and a big [rear] -- I felt like I was being born. That simply didn't exist before in popular culture. But I've been so disappointed."

She cites Lopez's relative lack of activism compared with Latino actors such as Jimmy Smits and Edward James Olmos and suggests the entertainer pales next to tour-de-force Rita Moreno.

"I just had a long conversation about this in Los Angeles. . . . "

And that continuing conversation is something that, at least for now, few other Latino stars can compete with.

"What Latina performer has a story as great as J. Lo?" Gross asks. "Salma Hayek turns in good performances in good movies. How boring is that?

"Stardom takes much more."

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