As a newcomer with pipes of gold, Jennifer Hudson won audiences over on American Idol. But even as the talented singer and actress catapulted to stardom, her personal life quickly became an interminable nightmare. Despite enduring the most unspeakable familial tragedies and romantic heartache, Hudson continues to prove herself as a pillar of unwavering strength.
1. She Grew Up On Gospel
Hudson grew up surrounded by her family's favorite music. Born on September 12, 1981, she lived with her mother, her two older siblings, and her grandmother in a small Baptist household on the south side of Chicago. Her grandmother, a soloist in their church’s choir, taught her gospel music and hymns, while her mother introduced classics like Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, and even Whitney Houston.
But although she enjoyed a warm childhood, Hudson's adulthood promised a world of tragedy.
2. She Stole The Show
Hudson’s made her grand singing debut at only six years old while watching her grandmother perform during a church choir practice. The choirmaster asked the group to sing a note that they just couldn’t hit. So Hudson, watching from her godmother’s lap, sang it for them, leaving the choir speechless. Her godmother turned to Hudson’s mother and told her, “This girl is gonna be a singer.” It was prophetic.
3. She Sang Through Her Grief
From the age of seven onward, Hudson had a dream that no one and nothing could shake—she was going to be a famous singer. She practiced everywhere she could: With her grandma in the church choir, participating in community theater, joining her high school talent shows. When she lost her grandmother in 1998, singing became not only her dream but her greatest comfort.
In times of hardships, music became her soft place to land. The only problem was, Hudson had no idea just how many curveballs life would throw her way.
4. She Worked On A Disney Cruise
By 2004, Hudson had already found some success as a singer—she had a five-year record deal with a small independent label and she had landed a gig playing one of the Muses from Hercules aboard a Disney cruise. Working as a cast member on the Disney cruise line gave Hudson the opportunity to practice her singing and choreography.
Unbeknownst to Hudson, the opportunity of a lifetime lay just around the corner.
5. She Sailed Through The Audition
Leaving her small record label and her Disney cruise, Hudson arrived in Atlanta with 1100 other hopefuls to audition for the third season of American Idol. Once again, Hudson’s voice set her apart from the crowd. She quickly made it through the first two rounds of auditions and easily impressed Paula, Randy, and Simon.
She headed to Hollywood with her head held high, but the road to success was much harder than she ever expected.
6. Her Elimination Shocked America
Hudson quickly became a fan favorite on American Idol, earning the highest number of votes for her “Top 9” performance of Elton John’s “Circle of Life”—so when judges eliminated her after her “Top 7” performance, both audiences and Hudson herself were left dumbfounded. “You’re out of your depth in this competition,” said Cowell after voting her off. Of course, he’d come to regret those words.
7. She Opened For A Legend
Hudson left American Idol with a variety of new opportunities at her fingertips—and one of those opportunities put her in the crosshairs of a legend. Hudson scored a gig opening for Aretha Franklin herself, one of Hudson’s own inspirations. Following the performance, Franklin seemed to recognize Hudson’s immense talents and superstar potential and held onto her number.
8. She Auditioned For The Role Of A Lifetime
Hudson knew that she could do more with her new-found American Idol fame—so when she found a casting call for a film adaptation of Dreamgirls, she didn’t hesitate to throw her name into the hat. She competed against hundreds of other singing actresses in a series of auditions that took over six months, waiting patiently for weeks and weeks between each callback. After each one, she held her breath.
When she finally got the news, she couldn't believe it...and neither could some of her competitors.
9. She Beat An Old Competitor
Finally, after many anxiety-filled months and mixed messages from producers, DreamWorks announced that Jennifer Hudson would take on the role of Effie White in Dreamgirls—beating her former competitor and American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino. Though she joked that Hudson had “stolen her role,” Barrino celebrated and supported her friend as she launched herself into stardom.
But Hudson soon realized that playing Effie proved far more challenging than she'd expected.
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10. She Transformed Herself
Producers expected Hudson to change herself inside and out for the film. Not only did she gain 20 pounds for the role, but she also worked one-on-one with director Bill Condon to perfect her diva persona, which did not come naturally to the unpretentious Hudson. Condon told her to show up late to rehearsals and speak rudely to the crew, which she agonized over.
Luckily, the crew accepted her apologies easily. But this wasn't the hardest part of shooting.
11. She Destroyed Her Voice
Condon planned to spend one final day filming the climactic scene of Dreamgirls when Effie White sings “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” But after four hours of singing so forcefully, disaster struck: Hudson’s voice gave out, and she couldn’t lip-sync convincingly with injured vocal cords. Filming of the scene stretched out over four days until the scene was perfect.
Hudson prepared herself for the film’s release—but could never have imagined the magnitude of its reception.
12. She Raked In The Awards
After its first screening in New York, Dreamgirls received a standing ovation; critics everywhere marveled at Hudson’s talent and knock-out voice, and she received 29 critics awards for her performance, as well as a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and a SAG. Simon Cowell even called to publicly admit his failure to recognize Hudson’s star potential: “What you have done is literally extraordinary.”
Luckily for Hudson, the milestones just kept coming.
13. She Was The First
Amidst her many honors and awards, one stands out as marking a first in representation: Hudson became the first Black singer to grace the cover of Vogue fashion magazine. Following only two other Black women to become Vogue cover girls, Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry, this was a huge deal for Hudson. Still, her days of glory were far from over...The greatest honor was yet to come.
14. She Took Home Gold
Most importantly, Hudson became one of the very few actresses to receive an Academy Award for their breakout performances. As she accepted her Oscar, tears in her eyes, she thanked her family, her director, her castmates, and all the people who believed in her. “If only my grandmother could see me now!” she exclaimed. Life would never be the same again.
But as her career took flight, Hudson's love life took a heartbreaking nosedive.
15. She Couldn't Go The Distance
Sadly, some changes are happier than others, and Hudson breaking up with her fiancé definitely counted as a less-than-happy change. Hudson had met James Payton when she was only 18, and as long-time sweethearts, it seemed that they were made to go the distance. Payton proposed to Hudson shortly after her Oscar win, but it wasn't meant to last...
The couple soon broke things off for reasons that Hudson never discussed publicly. On the surface, however, it seemed like Hudson's heart healed rather quickly...
16. She Fell For A Reality Star
Hudson didn’t remain single for long. In fact, one gentleman, in particular, caught her eye. The man in question? David Otunga, WWE champion and contestant of a short-lived reality TV show, I Love New York 2. After the show finished filming, a mutual friend of both Otunga and Hudson introduced the two and sparks began to fly.
17. She Worked With A Legend
By 2006, Hudson achieved what her personal heroes Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston had done before—she signed with famous producer Clive Davis in what would become a lifetime collaboration. Davis, who produced for both Franklin and Houston respectively, felt blown away by Hudson’s powerful vocals and excitedly began working on her first record.
18. She Released Her Debut Album
Hudson’s new relationship helped inspire her as she worked on her debut album. The first single, “Spotlight,” reached the top of Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop charts shortly after its release in July, garnering two Grammy nominations in the process. The album itself, released in September, sold a whopping 217,000 in its first week. And that wasn’t her only success.
19. She Kept The Good Times Rolling
Hudson followed her debut film with a starring role in The Secret Life of Bees alongside Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, and Alicia Keys. The film explored different elements of race, gender, and familial love, forcing Hudson to develop herself as an actress more than ever before. The film ended up being wildly successful. But even as she basked in these successes, poor Hudson had no idea that tragedy lay on the horizon.
20. She Said "Yes"
Hudson’s relationship with Otunga progressed quickly, and by September 2008—less than a year after they met—Otunga felt ready to pop the big question. So on Hudson’s 27th birthday, he kneeled before her with a Neil Lane diamond ring in hand and asked her to marry him. Hudson was absolutely ecstatic and celebrated her engagement with friends and family.
Sadly, this was one of the last times they would all be together. The very next month, a disaster ripped her family apart.
21. Tragedy Struck Her Family
Everything changed for Hudson on October 24, 2008, when Hudson’s sister Julia found the bodies of their 57-year-old mother Darnell and their 29-year-old brother Jason shot inside the family home. Quickly notifying the police, Julia realized with horror that she couldn’t find her seven-year-old son anywhere. By 1:30 AM, Jennifer flew in to identify the two bodies, and the two sisters grieved with each other.
Little did they know, the worst was yet to come.
22. Her Nephew Went Missing
By the next morning, officers sent out an AMBER alert to help find Hudson’s missing nephew, and before long, the FBI became involved. The Hudson sisters publicly pleaded for any information about Julian, even offering $100,00 as a reward. But it was all too late. Three days later, the FBI managed to find the boy’s body in the back of Jason Hudson’s stolen car...He had suffered multiple bullet wounds.
Devastated, Hudson focussed on the task ahead: Finding justice.
23. She Knew The Suspect
Both Hudson sisters had a suspect in mind; they told officials that they believed William Balfour, Julia’s jealous ex-husband, took the lives of their relatives. Balfour had a complicated history with the law and resented Julia’s every attempt to move on with her life. He often threatened Julia’s family, wanting to make her suffer. Officers quickly took Balfour into custody, but it would take years for Hudson to finally get the closure she needed.
Despite her overwhelming grief, Hudson vowed to transform her pain into something positive.
24. She Made A Difference
Left with only each other, the Hudson sisters decided to channel their grief into creating something beautiful—they created two foundations in the names of their loved ones. The Hudson-King Foundation offers grief counseling and financial support for a slain victim’s family, while the Julian D. King Gift Foundation provides support for low-income families.
Both projects helped the Hudsons recover from their trauma and honor their family’s memories.
25. She Said A Tearful Goodbye
On November 3, 2008, Hudson and her sister put their relatives to rest in a private funeral. Mourners included co-star Queen Latifah, Fantasia Barrino (who sang a gospel song during the service), and even Hudson’s ex-fiancé James Payton. Even though her grief seemed endless, Hudson knew that better things were on the way.
26. She Hid A Secret From The Public
For a while after her family’s tragedy, Hudson took a step away from the spotlight. In part, she wanted to process her grief and work on her charitable projects. However, she also wanted to keep private a recent life-changing discovery—her pregnancy. She and Otunga rejoiced at the news that they would soon be parents, knowing that life would never be the same.
27. She Was Nervous
When she finally stepped back into the action, Hudson decided to make the biggest splash imaginable: She agreed to sing the national anthem at the 2009 Super Bowl, her first performance since the tragedy. Facing the largest live venue that she’d ever come across, Hudson felt her knees shake and her teeth chatter. But once the music started to play, the tension melted away.
It's safe to say that she walked away every inch the superstar.
28. She Won At The Grammys
The next time that Hudson performed in public, she proved to everyone her superstar status by achieving her personal dreams. Not only did she win “Best R&B Album," but she accepted the award from the hands of her personal hero, Whitney Houston. In a black-and-white dress designed to hide her growing belly, Hudson performed “You Pulled Me Through” and wished her mother could see her.
29. She Had A New Responsibility
On August 10, 2009, Hudson and Otunga welcomed their son into the world, a healthy baby boy weighing seven pounds and 14 ounces. With a strong pair of lungs and a face just like his father’s, the couple decided to call the baby David Daniel Otunga Jr. Baby David helped Hudson cope with the remainder of her grief, giving her life a new purpose and perspective.
But motherhood wasn't the only new chapter for Hudson. She had yet another drastic lifestyle change on the horizon.
30. She Made A Huge Change
With a new baby in her life, Hudson began looking at herself and re-evaluating her choices—she wanted to be healthier and live longer for her son. She joined a Weight Watchers program and dedicated herself entirely, even becoming a company ambassador in the process. Overall, she lost a full 80 pounds after the birth of her son; it was a labor of love.
With a slimmed-down look and a new outlook on life, Hudson was ready to unveil her new chapter to the world.
31. She Honored Her Hero
Hudson stepped out onto the 54th Grammy Awards stage with her brand new look. And that wasn't the only momentous part of the night. Hudson also had the opportunity to perform the late Whitney Houston’s greatest hit, "I Will Always Love You." Growing up with Houston as a personal hero, Hudson felt honored to pay homage to the Queen of Pop and belt out her famous tune.
As shocking and heartfelt as the night was, it was nowhere near as shocking as her next project...
32. She Starred In A Controversial Biopic
Launching back into work after the birth of her son, Hudson took on the starring role in a biopic titled Winnie Mandela about the life of Nelson Mandela’s former wife—which ended up becoming a controversial mess. Though Hudson did her best to honor the politician and portray her with all the care and respect she deserved, Winnie Mandela herself objected to the project because filmmakers had not consulted her. Awkward!
33. She Got Personal On Her Second Album
Hudson also started working on her second album, taking a more hands-on approach with production and allowing herself to get more personal. Working with artists like Alicia Keys, R. Kelly, and Diane Warren, Hudson put all her grief and joy from the past year into her work and created a more nuanced sound for her music. Releasing the album in March 2011, she waited to see the public’s reaction.
Hudson did not feel disappointed with the results—in its first week, her album I Remember Me soared. But as cathartic as her album was, this wasn't the only outlet for Hudson's storytelling.
34. She Wrote A Bestseller
Her new venture? Writing a book about her life, her rise to fame, her weight-loss journey, and her inspiration to others. She explored personal moments and reflections as well as a history of her relationship with her body. Hudson released her autobiography in 2012, becoming a New York Times Bestselling author in the process.
However, despite her great successes, the shadow of grief still hovered over her.
35. She Found Closure
By 2012, the trial against William Balfour came to a close, with Balfour receiving a guilty verdict from the judge. Hudson and her family breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, they could walk away with a sense of closure. During the trial, Hudson learned more about Balfour’s dark past and suffering, which led her to forgive him publicly. Her response to the grim affair was downright heartbreaking...
36. She Forgave A Killer
Sitting down with Oprah, Hudson dove into the tragic murders of her family members and shared something that shocked audiences. She said, "I feel like, for the most part, it's not his fault. It's how he was brought up. We tried to offer love, but you were so far gone, that you couldn't even see that. A lot of things came out, that we didn't even know about, from his upbringing, which is like he never had a chance."
37. She Received A Star On The Walk Of Fame
In 2013, Hudson received a star to match her superstar status—she received a star along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Accepting this honor with grace and poise, Hudson couldn't help tearing up at the thought of her mother: "I knew I would get emotional and I'm sure my mom is in heaven like 'Jenny stop crying' but now's the time to cry, Mama, it is.”
Hudson was a shooting star, but even with her many awards and triumphs, she couldn't win them all. When her third album commercially flopped, she decided to switch things up.
38. She Became A Broadway Star
Her new project landed her on a Broadway stage, playing the ensemble role of Shug Avery in The Color Purple with an all-star cast. Critics lauded Hudson for having a “supple stage presence echoed by her velvet voice,” and the production proved to be a smashing hit. Hudson even won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album two years later.
Hudson was the perfect fit for Broadway musicals, but when it came to adapted Broady musicals, well, that was another story...
39. She Was The Only Praiseworthy Cat
In 2019, Hudson starred in the famously infamous train wreck of a film, Cats, as Grizabella. Despite her knockout performance of what is arguably the biggest song from any musical, “Memory,” the film tanked in a big way. But even the harshest of critics recognized Hudson’s accomplishments with the song “Memory” which stands out in the soundtrack.
Compared to her personal life, however, the embarrassment Hudson suffered because of Cats was merely a speed bump.
40. She Thought She'd Found Prince Charming
On the surface, Jennifer Hudson seemed to be thriving; almost everything she touched turned to gold. But behind the scenes, her personal life began to spiral—and it had everything to do with her marriage. Hudson and her fiancé Otunga seemed like a match made in heaven, and she even made him out to be her knight in shining armor...
41. She Could Have Been A Victim
You see, Hudson claimed that if it wasn't for her relationship with Otunga, she, in all likelihood, would have been at her mother's Chicago home at the time of those horrific murders. The only reason she hadn't been in the line of fire was that she'd flown out to Florida to be with him. Otunga sounded like a complete blessing—but the truth was far more sinister.
42. She Feared For Her Safety
By 2017, Hudson realized that Otunga was not the man who could give her a "happily ever after." After ten years together, they decided to call it quits, but their breakup was far from civil. Shockingly, Hudson needed a protective order against her fiancé because she feared for her own safety, as well as her son's. She claimed that his behavior was extremely aggressive and wildly volatile. But this was only the beginning of the nightmare.
43. She Endured His Accusations
Otunga began making vicious accusations against Hudson, claiming that she'd cheated on him. He even resorted to manipulation tactics by trying to turn their son, David Jr., against her, telling him, "Don't let your mom's boyfriend [expletive] touch you." Allegedly, Otunga thought Hudson had had an affair with one of her producers, and the lengths he went to try to prove this, were utterly despicable.
44. Her Fiancé Spied On Her
Hudson's fiancé tried to spy on her by using their son as a go-between. One day, when Hudson and David Jr. spent the day together at the recording studio, David Jr. got a disturbing call from his father. Otunga gave explicit instructions to David Jr, telling him to record a video of the room. He wanted to know who Hudson spent her time with.
When Hudson found out about Otunga's underhanded move—she was enraged.
45. She Needed Help
Hudson decided to confront her fiancé—but the disagreement soon turned ugly. Apparently, Otunga lunged at their son, grabbing him while using his other hand to shove Hudson into the adjoining room. Terrified, Hudson realized that she needed help. She went to the authorities and sought an order of protection. Still, when it came to her fiancé's misdemeanors, this was only the tip of the iceberg.
46. She Made A Dangerous Claim
Let the games begin. Hudson was out for blood and brought up an alarming piece of evidence. She claimed that Otunga owned a firearm and often used it as a scare tactic: He'd place it on the kitchen table in an attempt to scare her. However, Otunga's lawyer had a pretty good retaliation and said that the threatening object was merely a prop for one of his client's film roles. But the accusations didn't end there.
47. She Had A Long Journey Ahead Of Her
Otunga's lawyer released a scandalizing statement, claiming that Hudson made up the claims of her fiancé's unspeakable behavior and that Otunga had "never abused or harassed Ms. Hudson or their son." But that wasn't all. He even went so far as to say that Hudson was playing the part of the victim because she feared losing custody of her son.
48. She Battled For Her Son
The custody battle for David Jr. was incredibly messy. Unfortunately for Hudson, two years of ongoing trials saw her son shuttled between the feuding parents. Hudson had dodged a bullet by not marrying Otunga. She was adamant about not giving him a single cent of her money and railed against the idea that Otunga should be awarded custody for being the "present" parent. In lieu of that argument—Hudson had the perfect response.
49. She Had The Perfect Comeback
As a strong woman with undeniable star power, Hudson stood up for all working mothers and said that it was unreasonable to suggest that being the "present" parent also meant being "the best parent." Moreover, she said that such insinuations "would do a disservice to working parents" like her. Finally, in July 2019, the couple came to an agreement.
However, as both parents signed a gag agreement, nobody will ever know the details of this long-awaited outcome. Thankfully, in lieu of all this heartache, Hudson's career presented a silver lining—and perhaps—it was the best one yet.
50. Aretha Franklin Sought Her Out
In 2018, Aretha Franklin approached Hudson and invited her to play the leading role in Franklin’s auto-biopic, Respect. Hudson was over the moon. She and director Liesl Tommy worked closely with Franklin until the singer’s untimely demise on August 16, 2018. Now, more than ever, Hudson felt the pressure to give the performance of a lifetime.
She said, "Just thinking about how dear she is to all of us, including myself—I’m a fan first so I understand the task, I understand the figure—it was like, ‘Oh my god. Where do you start?”
51. She Researched Like Crazy
Not only did Hudson have to learn Franklin’s personal history and struggles in order to play this role—she had to learn how women in the 60s carried themselves. She tried to capture the legendary singer’s movements, her micro-expressions, even her speaking cadence. Once again, Hudson gave the role everything she had, showing the world her passion, her dedication, her faith, and her knockout vocals.