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Jennifer Hudson still standing strong

The Oscar-winning actress and Grammy-winning singer seemed to have it all until her life was shattered by unimaginable violence. Now as she heads out on her first tour, and tries to move forward in her life.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

Jennifer Hudson sits inside an L.A. recording studio, her eyes hidden behind large sunglasses, her braided pigtails peeking from under a pageboy cap. Eight days from now she will kick off a national concert tour, and today is her first rehearsal with a new band. But while the musicians warm up, she doesn't say much, keeps her head down, fidgets. She's so unassuming that her backup vocalists, two glitzy gals with easy laughs, seem like the only divas in the room. And then Jennifer Hudson begins to sing, and all doubt is erased. It's not just her voice. The music seems to transform her, elevate her. ''In church we call that the Anointing, that's what you're feeling,'' she says. ''Music is my home. When I'm trying to find my inner peace, when it seems like everything is overwhelming, I put music in my ears.''

For most of 2008, Hudson seemed on top of the world. After winning an Oscar in 2007 for her performance in “Dreamgirls,” she had two movies in theaters last year: the summer smash “Sex and the City” and the fall drama “The Secret Life of Bees.” Her debut album, Jennifer Hudson, landed at No. 2 on the Billboard chart, and on her 27th birthday in September, her boyfriend, David Otunga, a Harvard Law School grad and reality TV star (“I Love New York 2”), proposed. ''I don't think I've ever been happier,'' she told a magazine that summer. And then the world turned upside down.

On Oct. 24, Hudson's mother, Darnell Donerson, and brother, Jason, were found shot to death in her mother's South Side Chicago home. Her sister's 7-year-old son, Julian, was missing. Three days later, the boy's body was found in the backseat of a white SUV. Police have charged William Balfour, the estranged husband of Hudson's sister, with the crimes. (He has pleaded not guilty.) In the four months that followed, Hudson made no public statements or appearances, remaining in seclusion. But her first steps back into the spotlight earlier this year were showstoppers: More than 98 million Americans watched Hudson lift the roof off the national anthem at the Super Bowl on Feb. 1. One week later she won a Grammy for Best R&B Album, and delivered a performance of her power ballad ''You Pulled Me Through'' that pulled the crowd to its feet. ''I was in the audience, people were crying, and I was thinking 'How is she going to get through this?''' says the song's writer, legendary composer Diane Warren. ''To live through what she's lived through...where do you get that strength?''

Hudson is now embarking on a 27-show tour, co-headlining with singer Robin Thicke. All this work may seem like too much too soon, but for Hudson it's quite the opposite. The music is clearly helping her. ''This is what I love to do, and I hate to sit still,'' she tells EW in this exclusive interview. ''I have been active for the past four or five years, and to be working like that and then to just stop and all you hear is the clock ticking...'' She shakes her head. ''That will drive you crazy.''

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It would be easy to spend hours with Hudson and have no idea what she's been through. Sitting on a deep purple sofa inside a quiet room in an L.A. photo studio, she chats about Whitney Houston or her three Pomeranians (Dreamgirl, Oscar, and Grammy) in her usual plainspoken, unpretentious way. But if the conversation strays into sensitive territory, she becomes quiet. Ask about her Grammy performance of ''You Pulled Me Through,'' for instance, and she says, ''I like to be led by the emotion of a song. I want the audience to experience what I'm feeling.'' But ask why she chose that song — a song about being rescued from darkness and despair, about a faith lost and then restored — and her warm brown eyes go blank. ''I don't know what to tell you,'' she says flatly.

Hudson still does not talk about the murders, even with those closest to her. ''I try not to say anything about it,'' says her childhood friend and longtime assistant, Walter Williams III. ''She's okay as long as people don't bring it up. She's trying to put all of that behind her.'' But Williams has no doubt why Hudson performed ''You Pulled Me Through'' at the Grammys, or to whom she was singing. ''She was singing to God,'' he says. ''God pulled her through.''

God, family, and music are the three interwoven, inexorable strands of Hudson's life. When she was growing up, her world revolved around Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, where her family had prayed, and sung, for generations.

“'We were what you call ‘born in the church’,” Hudson says, smiling. “I would go with my grandmother and my mom, and when I was little, I would fall asleep on their laps in the choir stand.” In what has since become family legend, Hudson, the youngest of three children, sang her first note while sitting on her godmother's lap at choir practice. She was less than a year old. “She hadn't said a word, and all of a sudden she hit this soprano note, such a beautiful, clear, high-pitched note,” says her godmother, Debra Nichols Windham. “I jumped up and ran to the front of the church and said, ‘This baby's going to sing!’”

Hudson says her faith has shaped every aspect of who she is. “The church has given me balance,” she says. “Too often we look at things through human eyes. But when you look at the world spiritually, it makes far more sense. I don't think I would be here without it.”

You can hear the gospel influence in almost every song Hudson performs, from her soaring, cathedral-high vocals to her choice of material. “I like to have songs with me that have substance,” Hudson says. “That's missing from a lot of today's music. You might hear a song with a catchy beat, but what's it about? It's not empowering or helping anyone.” Her album brims with anthems to self-belief (“Invisible”), self-determination (“Spotlight”), and defiance (“And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going”). The final track is a hymn, “Jesus Promised Me a Home Over There.” “It's a song that my grandmother used to lead in church,” Hudson says. “I wanted a tribute to her.”

Of course, there's a playful, secular side to Hudson, too, and you see it most clearly in her relationship with Williams, who has been her friend and champion since they met in sixth-grade choir.

“She was always sticking her hand under my shirt and rubbing on my chest,” Williams says, laughing. “We shouldn't be doing those things in grade school, right?” After high school, Hudson's music career was going nowhere, so Williams became her manager. Kinda. '“I would take her to the gay clubs and they would have these talent competitions, mainly for drag queens, and I would put Jennifer in them as the only real female,” he says. “And she would win all the time and take all those drag queens' money. They were so mad!”

Hudson and Williams even stuck together through every minute of her “American Idol” audition in Atlanta in 2003. “I paid for the hotel room and she paid for the car, I think,” he says. “I'd buy her clothes on my American Express card and then she'd perform in them and I'd return them the next day.” He never stopped believing in her. “I promised her that I wouldn't stop until the whole world saw her,” he says. She placed only seventh on Idol, but she was on her way. “You know, out of all this, all the press and the accolades, she has remained true to herself,” Williams says. “She's still the same sweet girl I met in grammar school. She's still Jennifer.”

It is tempting to view Hudson now only through the lens of her family tragedy, to imagine we hear her grief in every note she sings. Her rich, soulful voice has always elicited strong emotions from her fans, but now the effect is heightened. Since Oct. 26, sales of her album have almost doubled, according to Nielsen Soundscan, and downloads of her song ''You Pulled Me Through'' skyrocketed after her Grammy performance. In a cruel irony, her private suffering has only increased her public profile. She's getting recognized, and approached, more often. ''It's one of the most beautiful things, to see that love from fans, but it can be a bit much,'' Hudson says. ''I don't like it when people get all emotional and cry. I don't want you to cry. It makes me uncomfortable. The other day this lady came up to me and got really close to me, and I thought, 'What is it that makes people want to...embrace me? And how do I react to it?''' To protect herself from that, she'd need to build the very walls that her music brings down.

At the tour rehearsal in the recording studio, the session has moved into its second hour, and Hudson seems more at ease. The sunglasses have come off, her shoulders are pulled back, she smiles. As always, she hits impossibly high notes as easily as if she were sighing. Those moments, she says, ''feel like a celebration, like a huge outburst of emotion. It's like taking a huge exhale.'' But she's still finding her voice as an artist. ''I would like to evolve and find myself more in the music,'' she says. ''I want to plant my feet strong, like a tree, and grow. I'm just getting started. I'm not done yet.'' After her tour ends in May, Hudson isn't quite sure of her next steps. She has set a wedding date with fiancé Otunga but is keeping it a secret, and she needs to decide what city she will call home. After “Dreamgirls,” she had purchased a condominium on Chicago's Magnificent Mile to be near her family. Now she's selling it. ''I don't live in Chicago anymore,'' she says.

Those closest to her worry about her, of course, but they have faith in her ability to survive. ''It was so, so horrible what happened, and she's still hurting,'' Williams says. ''But she's a strong girl, and she knows her family is in a better place. I really think she's going to be okay.''

In the studio, Hudson and the band are rehearsing a 1972 Mac Davis song that has been performed by probably every grade school in the country. It does not require a powerful, or even a beautiful, voice. The melody and the lyrics are simple and sweet — ''I believe in music, I believe in love'' — but as Jennifer Hudson closes her eyes and begins to sing, the words sound more like an incantation, almost like a prayer.