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Jennifer Hudson Fulfills Her Destiny in Playing Aretha Franklin in 'Respect'

The film and music star on the Queen of Soul, Whitney Houston and her mom's enduring wisdom

spinner image singer and actress jennifer hudson
Emily Shur/August

Seeking Whitney

When I was a kid and saw Whitney Houston, I was, like, I want to do that. I want to be like that. Role models teach you what to do. But you can also learn what not to do, you know?

It's gospel

In church you learn to sing with a purpose and for a higher being, other than yourself — you learn how to sing with a message, with substance. That's what gives music the power to help people, to comfort, to change, to resonate with others. Without that connection, it's just sound.

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Destiny's child

spinner image Jennifer Hudson performs as Aretha Franklin in the film Respect
Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in "Respect."
Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

I believe in destiny. I sang Aretha Franklin's “Share Your Love With Me” for my American Idol audition. To play her was a dream of mine. I met her 15 years ago, and she said, “I want Jennifer to play me.” While filming Respect, I'm, like, This is actually happening. It manifested!

Being famous

Everyone used to say, “Jenny's got her grandmother's voice!” My grandmother Julia Kate could have been a gospel star like Mahalia Jackson, but she never wanted to be famous, “because you have to sing when you don't feel like it!” Sometimes I feel like that. But when it's a passion and a love, even when you're tired, you push through and go out there and perform.

That before this

Everything prepares you for what's next. You may not understand in the moment why you're going through something, but it's molding you. My dream was to be a singer — I didn't know about acting or what the Oscars were. But I won an Oscar before I won a Grammy, and I did a film before I did an album. Sometimes things pick you.

Mother's wisdom

I have a whole room in my house dedicated to all the sayings of my mother when I was growing up. [Hudson's mother, brother and nephew were shot to death in 2008.] I put them on the walls as an homage to her. My own saying is “You never know how much a parent loves you until you have a child to love.”

Gun violence

People think, Oh, [gun violence] can't happen to me. But it can happen to anyone. I know that all too well. We have to build awareness and put a stop to it by getting out and marching and using our platforms to make a difference.

Hometown girl

I go where my work leads me, but Chicago is my home. It's where my feet can touch the floor. When your career is of a fictional world in Hollywood and celebrity, you need balance. Chicago keeps me real, normal, centered and sane. I like to think I'm still sane!


Last year was the longest I've ever been at home in my entire adulthood. My 11-year-old son, David, and I had a lot of “cereal days.” To be so still gives you a new lens to look through and an appreciation of the simplest things, like just leaving your house. David used to say, “I don't want to go to school.” After being at home, he's was, like, “Oh, my God, I can't wait to go back to school!”

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The voice

David is very musical. He sings and plays the piano. He's a rapper and writes songs and beautiful poems. We sing together. The other day I told him, “You don't understand how much you inspire me!"

What ‘chill’ looks like

I love the sun. Drawing. Chocolate. And sitting at the piano — certain chords of music calm me. I love being with my son and my animals. I find it soothing to get in a car, put on music and just drive. It's an escape. I don't even want a destination, just to drive. Like Aretha, I love road trips.

Looking forward

By 50? I want my JHud Productions to be a staple in the industry like Oprah's Harpo Studios and Tyler Perry's studio and Walt Disney's. I want to keep doing what I love to do. And I want to give kids and dreamers opportunities.

—As told to Natasha Stoynoff

Oscar–Grammy–Golden Globe winner Jennifer Hudson, 39, appears as Aretha Franklin in the upcoming biopic, Respect, in theaters Aug. 13.

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