Who is Jennifer Hudson? It’s a question she knows you’ve asked – and one she’s ready to answer with “JHUD,” the “American Idol”-turned-“Dreamgirls” sensation’s third studio album out Sept. 23.
During our candid interview, the Oscar-winning powerhouse went back to her roots – the gay clubs – and opened up about the drag queens who inspired her fierce new outlook (“I’m 32 years old – I don’t think I need your permission”). Hudson, who also answered to those lesbian rumors and chimed in on gay marriage, isn’t kidding when she says, “I’mma be me, I’mma do me.”
When you’re doing Pride events like the ones you did earlier this summer, does that mean you gay it up?
Yes, definitely! It’s just so fun, first of all. I really enjoy myself. It’s something I really wanted to do, and yeah, you can just give it. It’s that type of audience, so you shouldn’t hold back. And I try not to, you know?
You’re able to let your hair down – or what hair you have left, anyway.
(Laughs) Exactly! You said it best.
You performed “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from “Dreamgirls” for the gays in Chicago. What is it about that song that still gets such a reaction out of the LGBT community?
The song has its own spirit. It has an effect on everyone, but definitely on the gay community. I think they relate to it in a different type of way – in a special way. A lot of gay men I’ve met, they’re like, “In my heart, I am Effie.” I relate to Effie, and I think that’s part of the connection. It’s a real situation that we all go through.
What do you think your career would be like without the gay community?
I don’t know if I would have one, to be honest. That’s why I recently did a couple of gay clubs, and I wanted to do more because that’s where I started. I was just literally looking at old pictures a few minutes ago, and I saw a picture of me performing in a gay club and a picture of being dressed. Drag queens used to dress me, and then I would go and perform. That’s where I started, so there’s definitely a connection there. I wanted to make sure that I reconnected.
Having performed in gay clubs when you were a teenager, you connected with the LGBT community at a very young age. What do attribute to that relationship?
What I’ve always admired about the gay community is the independence and the confidence. Just that attitude. I’m so inspired by that, and I feel like, for me, that is my connection. I’ve never understood, gosh, what does the gay community see in me? You know what I mean? Because again, I grew up around a lot of that and that’s the world that embraced me first, so that I’ve never fully gathered.
When it comes to strength, do you see your relationship with the gay community as a reciprocal exchange?
Yeah, I definitely draw strength from them. I love a big personality, and just the self-assurance and the sexiness in it – actually, I think that’s where I got a lot of it from! (Laughs)
What did you learn about how to work a crowd from hanging out with so many drag queens?
Owning it. My kings and queens, they own stuff and give 100 percent. You’re gonna be a queen? Be a queen. If you’re gonna perform, perform. Whatever you’re doing, make sure you’re serving 100 percent.
How did you reconcile performing for gay people with your Baptist beliefs?
Well, I grew up around a lot of people who probably had issues with it, but I never did. People are people. Mind your business, that’s how I’ve always felt. Whatever makes you happy. If you’re happy, I’m happy, so it never really mattered to me. I never looked at it as a… you know what I mean?
As a conflict?
It was never a factor. It doesn’t matter to me either way.
When I saw you perform “Same Love” with Macklemore and Mary Lambert during the 2013 MTV VMAs, I remember thinking, “Is Jennifer trying to tell us something? Is she coming out as lesbian?”
If someone ever questions or thinks that, I don’t care what you think. It shouldn’t matter. And I did get that! People were like, “Is Jennifer trying to tell us something?” Hey, I wasn’t, but if you wanna think that, it’s all right with me. When I got the call (to do that performance), I was like, “Oh my god, I definitely wanna do this. A powerful statement is being made and I wanna be a part of that.”
Does your support of the gay community extend to gay marriage?
Yeah. Ain’t much else to say about that, because what’s the big deal?
You’ve had your share of trials and tribulations. When was a time in your life that you found yourself leaning on a gay best friend?
My whole life! Every day! My best friend (Walter Williams) is my assistant and we’ve been friends since sixth grade. He’s the one I bought the house for this past Christmas, and he’s my life partner. We go through everything together. We’re each other’s backbone every day, and still to this day.
You’re showing off a sexy new sound on “Dangerous,” a single off “JHUD.” You’re also looking sexier than ever. Do you feel sexier than ever?
Mmm, no – I’ve always felt sexy! (Laughs) It’s just the space I’m in right now, and this is what this album represents. I’m just in my moment and I attribute that to my 30s more than anything. I feel settled, and it’s not an issue of what you think, what she thinks, who all says this – I don’t give a damn! The truth is, I’m grown. Before it was like, “Oh, is this OK? Is this all right? What does such and such think?” I don’t care! (Laughs) I’m more settled, more sure. I’m 32 years old – I don’t think I need your permission. Keep it moving.
Spoken like a true drag queen.
And that’s what I’m talkin’ about! That’s exactly what I love. It’s a gift to have that type of attitude. As a black woman, we get that same thing: rejection. People “yay” and “nay” you and things like that, and I’m still walking through life, honey. I’mma be me, I’mma do me, and I’m not concerned about how you feel about it.
Some of this album takes me back to ’70s gay club music. How much did the gay community influence “JHUD”?
That’s a part of me, so it wasn’t necessarily a target in making the album – it’s just me being me, and that’s what I love about this album. I’ve sat back, I’ve listened and I’ve learned – now, can I have a voice? Can I express myself? All of that is a part of me that is coming out through the music, so yes, you will hear songs that are old-school influenced, disco influenced, gay-anthem influenced.
Throughout my career I’ve noticed people don’t have a sense of who I am as a person. They know me from being on “Idol” or being a spokesperson or emcee, or from film – but who is the girl? What’s her story? Through this album, I want people to get a sense of me and what that is. You’re picking up on that. “Oh, I feel a gay influence.” Yes, you do, honey, because that’s where I come from.
As someone whose voice really takes me back to the golden era of female vocalists, how do you imagine your career would be different had you been on the radio when a real voice – a real diva voice – meant more than it does now?
I feel like I’m stuck in the wrong time. I grew up on the Whitneys, the Pattis, the Arethas – the big voices. Today’s divas are just a completely different thing. Though they’re great as well, I still feel like I’m stuck between eras. I love The Pointer Sisters, and I also love Destiny’s Child. That’s why this album is so eclectic. I’m not a person who believes in limits. Nobody can tell me what my potential is other than myself. So (for people) to say, “You only get to do this” – no, you don’t get to tell me that.
Speaking of Whitney Houston, before it was announced that Yaya DaCosta nabbed the role of Whitney for Lifetime’s upcoming biopic, there were rumors of you possibly playing the singer.
Oh, no, no, no. Not Lifetime, no. I mean, I heard my name being tossed around for Whitney, which would obviously be an honor, but as far as that one in particular, that was never the case.
Could you see yourself playing Whitney at some point?
If it was done in the right way, for sure. I’m a fan, and I, like everyone else, want to see her remembered in the way she should be remembered. Whitney – I mean, come on, she made the hugest impact on our industry. Everybody loved Whitney. I want her to get her just, to be done the right way. She gave her whole life to this industry, so give her that.
What would be a suitable way to tribute Whitney?
I wanna see one tribute. I felt the same way with Michael (Jackson). There are all these amazing legends who gave their entire lives to their career, and it wasn’t light stuff – I mean, they changed the game. They changed the industry and how we look at music and performing. So much more should be done for them in their memory and to honor their work.