It’s not easy for Jennifer Lopez to blend into a crowd—especially when she’s dressed in a blue “Value Shop” vest making the rounds of your local superstore followed by a film crew. But as someone who spent three years shooting in public on the streets of New York for her TV show Shades of Blue, Lopez was completely unfazed by the presence of strangers on the set of her new movie, Second Act. “All of the scenes from the store were shot inside a real superstore [in Queens], so people were actually shopping while we were filming,” she says. “The paparazzi were everywhere,” says longtime producing partner Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. “In scenes where the actors were speaking quietly, you could sometimes even hear them in the background whispering ‘J. Lo! Over here!’” Ever the professional, Lopez simply tuned out the shutterbugs when they got too intrusive, effectively treating them like background noise. At one point Goldsmith-Thomas noticed that some of the photographers had stopped taking pictures and were shopping too. “They were buying Entenmann’s, getting produce,” she says. “So, in the end, some of the paparazzi made it into our movie!”

Poetic justice? Perhaps. Throughout her career—and several high-profile relationships—Lopez has wrestled with the paparazzi and struggled with the constant pressure and unwanted scrutiny of living life in the public eye. “You’re trying to do your best and people are putting you down, or trying to make believe you’re not a nice person, or you’re a diva,” she says. “I’m always like, ‘Who are you talking about?’”

A more accurate picture of the star comes from actress Leah Remini, Lopez’s best friend in both Second Act and real life. “When I first met Jennifer [in 2004], it was at a film premiere. As I approached her, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, she’s stunning.’ And I thought, ‘Well, maybe she’s dumb or self-absorbed, maybe she won’t have a sense of humor.’ So I walked up to her and said, ‘Oh, fuck, you’re pretty.’ And she started laughing, and I was like, ‘Oh, so you have a sense of humor too. This is annoying.’”

In the film, Lopez plays Maya, a 40-year-old big-box employee who is passed over for a promotion because she doesn’t have a college degree. Remini portrays her best friend, Joan, whose teenage son creates a false identity online for Maya, which leads to a fancy corporate job and other surprises. Relationship subplots notwithstanding, the movie is primarily a workplace comedy about implicit bias and the power of believing in yourself, a theme that resonated strongly with Lopez. “From early on in my career, I felt like people wanted to put me in a box,” she says. “You will play these sorts of roles, do this type of thing. Or you will only act. You cannot sing and act at the same time. I felt very confined by that because I knew I was going to do different things. I was at least going to try!”

Her determination has paid off. Nowadays, Lopez, the mother of 10-year-old twins Max and Emme (with ex-husband Marc Anthony), oversees a multi-pronged empire that spans music, TV, film, live entertainment, and style. Since the start of her career in the early ’90s, she has released eight studio albums, appeared in 30 movies, served as a judge on American Idol for five seasons, and written a New York Times best seller. Her three-year Las Vegas residency, All I Have, grossed more than $100 million, and her beauty company has launched 29 fragrances. “I feel very proud that I’ve survived as long as I have in this business,” Lopez says. “At this point in my life, I’m trying to give myself more credit. It’s hard when people are always telling you that you’re not good at things or saying, ‘Why is she successful?’ You get a lot of that when you’re a successful woman. You don’t get that as much when you’re a man. The thing about people, women especially, is that you can have 12 people telling you you’re amazing, but that one person kind of putting you down, that’s the voice that sticks in your head.”

We’re talking in the “glam room,” which is tucked into a corner of her production offices on the NBCUniversal lot. Dressed in a fur-trimmed beige cashmere lounge suit, Lopez has just finished filming a segment for the upcoming third season of World of Dance, the competition series produced with her company, Nuyorican Productions, on which she serves as both judge and aspirational icon. “I think sometimes people try to make you feel like you’re a fraud,” she continues. “And maybe you’re afraid you’re one too. Then finally you go, ‘Wait, I’m not lying. I’ve been doing this a long time. This is not a mistake. I worked hard to be here.’ And you know what? Congratulations to myself. Not in an arrogant way, by any means. It’s like, ‘You’re doing good, baby. Give yourself a break.’”

If Lopez seems to be standing a little taller these days, it may have to do with another big development in her life: She is wildly in love. But her much obsessed-over romance with former New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez (“Are they or aren’t they engaged?” The answer, for now, is no) is just the beginning. The real love, the emotional evolution that primed her for a relationship with someone she has called her “dream man” was more of an inside job. “For me, the relationship journey has been very up and down. But it didn’t have to do with anybody else but me—it was about me figuring out me. Until you learn to love yourself, you can’t completely love [someone else] in a way that is pure and true. Once you do that, you can have relationships that are based on love and respect, that are supportive and nourishing. There’s an evolution there that had to happen for me. I feel like I’m in a better place now.”

Though Lopez and her extended circle are tight-lipped on the status of the couple’s relationship, she is extremely happy by all accounts. “I’ve got two amazing kids and a great boyfriend. I don’t have everything figured out, and everything isn’t perfect. But I feel very proud that with all the things I’ve gone through in my personal life, I’m still optimistic and hopeful.”

Judging from the cozy picture of their courtship on Instagram, Lopez is being sincere. Recent posts show the two dressed to the nines in Qatar (#Dreambuilding) and decorating a giant Christmas tree with the kids (“that time of year,” she had written, followed by a trifecta of holiday-themed emojis). Says Remini, “She’s ecstatically happy, and the family meld that’s happening, Max with his girls [Emme and Rodriguez’s daughters, Natasha, 14, and Ella, 10], the whole thing is amazing.”

Lopez credits motherhood with much of her personal growth over the past decade. “Once I had kids, I realized that I had to be better and do better. Not just for them but for myself. There’s something about being responsible for another human being that makes you go, ‘Okay, what am I doing for myself? How can I take care of someone else if I can’t even take care of myself? How can I teach them how they should be treated if I allow people to treat me in a way that’s not nice? How can I teach them to be hard workers if I’m not working hard?’ I started examining myself from all different angles.”

For the soundtrack of Second Act, Lopez recorded a new song written by Sia called “Limitless,” and she directed her daughter, Emme, in the video. “Emme represents that little girl in all of us,” Lopez explains. “The minute you are born a woman, it’s an uphill battle.” In a behind-the-scenes video, you can hear Lopez shouting directions and encouragement as Emme stands up to an imaginary storm, fighting to move forward: “Good girl. Now you’re bent over. Your back foot is stuck…”

Of all the work she has done, Lopez cites the video as a high point. “It was the most beautiful experience on set I’ve ever had in my life,” she says, a few days after our interview over the phone. “I was terrified to have her do it because I don’t want to push her. But it turned into a really great bonding experience for both of us. I don’t know if she’ll follow in my footsteps, but she definitely has the genes. She’s a natural. Some people, you put them out there and you can just tell. She’s a little me.”

Juggling a production company, a TV show, a beauty business, a high-profile romance, and motherhood may seem daunting to most, but Lopez finds her busy life exhilarating. “People try to get you to self-examine why you do the things you do or are the way you are. But I haven’t really thought like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m a workaholic because I’m trying to fill this hole inside of me.’ At the end of the day I just feel like I have a desire to create and sing and dance and act and make movies and write books and direct and produce and perform. I’m excited whenever I work on a new project.”

“I think she looks at life as an opportunity to live—you rest when you die,” adds Goldsmith-Thomas. “But she’s in a great place in her life.” Goldsmith-Thomas believes that the story that’s been told about Lopez has framed her ambition in a negative light: “We devalue women who do more than one thing. Jennifer has actually been an exception to the rule, but I don’t think she gets the credit she deserves.”

While Lopez’s stamina is impressive and her pace relentless—she also has a U.S. tour lined up for this summer—Remini says that “when she’s off, she’s off.” The Lopez she describes is a loving, domestic sort of person, who cooks homemade rice and beans and chicken for friends, plans surprise trips to Vegas for her mom, and obsesses over every detail of her kids’ birthday parties. “She wants to make sure everyone feels loved,” says Remini. One night when they were shooting until 2 a.m., Lopez invited Remini to sleep over so that she didn’t have to drive all the way home. “Then she made me a lovely bath,” recalls Remini. “She even put rose petals in it and lit a candle—it was beautiful!”

After all these years, Lopez clearly understands the value of a good meditative soak. “Sometimes I get tired,” she admits. “I get tired a lot. But I never think, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I just think I need a break. I really feel like I have a lot left that I want to do. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to a point where I’ll be satisfied and go, ‘I did it. All of it. I’m done. I got nothing else to say.’ I hope that day never comes.”

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This article originally appears in the February 2019 print issue of Harper’s BAZAAR, available on newsstands January 22.

Hair: Lorenzo Martin; Makeup: Scott Barnes for Jennifer Lopez Inglot; Manicure: Eri Ishizu for Inglot; Production: Gaby Schuetz at Select Services; Prop Styling: Belinda Scott.

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