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Jennifer Lopez's 50th birthday is a chance to celebrate a rare superstar who's remained down-to-earth

J-Lo has maintained her widespread appeal through a unique blend of classic superstardom and contemporary authenticity.
Image: 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards - Inside
Jennifer Lopez performs during the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 10, 2019.Kevin Winter / Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Happy birthday, J-Lo! America’s favorite Fly Girl dancer turned pop star turned A-list actress turned soon-to-be Mrs. A-Rod turns the entire concept of turning 50 on its head.

She’s still smoking hot, still on network television some 25 years after her debut on “In Living Color,” still dominating the tabloids with her engagement news and still toiling away at self-promotion by keeping Instagram abuzz with photos and video from her “It’s My Party” tour. J-Lo has pulled this off with a unique melange of classic superstardom and contemporary authenticity that is worth celebrating along with her milestone birthday.

This is a woman who knows her strengths and plays to them at every opportunity, shrewdly choosing mainstream projects in keeping with her brand.

I first fell in love with Jennifer Lopez watching her no-nonsense, Chanel suit-wearing U.S. marshal character Karen Sisco fall in love with the courtly bank robber (played by George Clooney) whom she’s intent on returning to prison in 1998’s “Out Of Sight.” “Oh, I really like her,” I thought, quickly followed by, “That woman is a star!” Lopez was already a small-screen niche favorite from being one of the Fly Girls, the dance troupe that performed on Fox’s ground-breaking majority-Black sketch comedy hit “In Living Color.” And her early film output — which also included her star turn in the beloved-by-fans biopic “Selena”— put viewers on notice: When J-Lo is on the screen, she’s who you’re watching.

From that period forward, her filmography has had two modes: sexy badass or charming romantic comedy lead, both reinforced by and reinforcing her seamlessly integrated artistic and public persona as someone you always root for. “Second Act,” about a woman in her 40s pursuing a second career, was a modest hit at Christmas in 2018. This week, the trailer dropped for “Hustlers,” a strippers-get-revenge-on-the-wolves-of-Wall-Street true crime comedy slated for release in September.

True to form: a romcom lead, followed by a sexy badass. I doff my cap to her consistency. This is a woman who knows her strengths and plays to them at every opportunity, shrewdly choosing mainstream projects in keeping with her brand. It suggests — however jaw-droppingly lavish her lifestyle becomes — a certain careful conservatism in her approach to her career and life as a whole, something that keeps her both down-to-earth and larger-than-life at the same time.

The release of her multiplatinum-selling debut album “On the 6” 20 years ago instantly crowned her as a triple threat, able to move from the dance studio to the sound stage to the radio without so much as a stumble. Meanwhile, she used her lyrics and music video visuals to establish herself as a hardworking Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx in fancy sweats who just wants the men in her life to be as real with her as she is with them. Lord, why is that so hard?

She recently shared a clip of a promotional interview from that period on her lively Instagram account. Wearing the large gold hoops that remain a signature part of her look to this day, the singer explains how she wanted her music to say, “This is Jennifer, this is who I am.” It was and remains a winning combination of earnestness and determination.

She has also cultivated that authentic persona off-camera with a series of relationships that have both enhanced her glamour and kept her relatable to the many fans who have weathered the grief of breakups. Like Elizabeth Taylor before her, Lopez has always pursued an idiosyncratic ideal of romantic love, jumping into relationships wholeheartedly and extricating herself as needed. Since 2017, her relationship with baseball legend Alex Rodriguez has captivated her fans’ hearts, in part because their blended family is one that many of us see in our own family portraits.

Almost three decades in the spotlight has also allowed J-Lo to buff out the rougher edges that helped propel her tabloid appeal during her early stardom — the 1999 nightclub shooting and the subsequent trial of then-boyfriend Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, her off-the-rails romantic exploits with Ben Affleck and brief marriage to backup dancer Cris Judd — so that they fit more neatly into her overarching narrative of being a driven artist and hopeless romantic. By the time she divorced fellow music star Marc Anthony, she was able to fold successful co-parenting with an amicable ex-spouse into her public image.

And then, of course, there’s The Dress.

That diaphanous green jungle-print confection was a depth charge that Jennifer Lopez used to excavate and immediately take command of more space for herself within the narrow strictures of white standards of beauty. (It was such a successful charge that when she recently shot a video about it for her YouTube channel, she could easily afford to do so looking like a hot comparative literature professor in oversize glasses and a cowl-neck knit as she analyzed its effect, including the fact that it was the impetus for the creation of Google Images.)

America was already well acquainted with J-Lo’s lushly pulchritudinous posterior by this time, but The Dress was a power move. We all felt it, and we happily made way for more.

Lopez boldly claimed space for a general and well-overdue embrace of thickness as a mark of beauty, not a bodily flaw to be hidden beneath extra fabric.

The results are decidedly mixed. She boldly claimed space for a general and well-overdue embrace of thickness as a mark of beauty, not a bodily flaw to be hidden beneath extra fabric. Before J-Lo, you'd never have seen a magazine cover like Kim Kardashian on a 2017 issue of Paper Magazine. That Internet-breaking image recreates a photograph of 1980s gender-bending actor-singer Grace Jones, and both regrettably call to mind infamously exploitative 19th-century illustrations of Sara (or Saartjie) Baartman, a woman from South Africa forced to work as an oversexualized freak show attraction.

Lopez’s iconic progeny also include noted booty ambassadors Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. These powerful women are wonderful at the same time that they are still working within beauty standards that assume and cater to a male gaze. Are they all leveraging their bodies as well as their talents to get what they want out of their careers? Yes. Are they doing so within a framework that sets nearly impossible standards for women to meet, having contributed to making those standards even more complex and challenging? Also yes!

At 50, Jennifer Lopez has grown fully into her image. She is, to borrow a phrase from one of her many cultural heirs, Cardi B, a spicy mami hot tamale who is also a divorced mom of tweens, currently planning a wedding to her best guy, who just happens to be a retired New York Yankee. We have had no choice but to stan this nonstop empress of popular culture since 1998; here’s to many, many more years of J-Lo’s perfectly relatable, wildly aspirational glamour.