South Side of Chicago native Jennifer Hudson, 7, gets her start singing in the Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church choir. As a teen, she works at her local Burger King before starring as the muse Calliope in Hercules – A Muse-ical Comedy aboard the Disney Wonder cruise. She considers her six months on the cruise her test for American Idol. "I said, 'If I can get through the ship, that means I'm cut out for Idol,'"she tells the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Hudson declines to renew her contract with Disney to audition against 11,000 other hopefuls for season three of American Idol in Atlanta. Appearing confident, with a head full of curls, Hudson sings Aretha Franklin's "Share Your Love With Me." Judge Randy Jackson calls her audition "brilliant," and she makes it into the competition.
With LaToya London and Fantasia Barrino (who later wins the title), Hudson lands in the week's bottom three spots (left). A media firestorm ensues as Elton John calls the results racist because all three are black and widely considered the show's most powerful vocalists. In the end, Hudson is sent home. "Whatever it is, it was meant to be," Hudson says. "If it was based on talent, I know I was robbed."
After six months' of auditions and two screen tests, Hudson beats more than 780 competitors to land the part of Effie White in the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls with Beyoncé Knowles (right). "I have never worked with anyone in my entire career with as much raw talent and openness as Jennifer," director Bill Condon tells Vogue, "She came to the project with such confidence." The following year, music impresario Clive Davis, who has made stars of Whitney Houston, Kelly Clarkson and Alicia Keys, signs Hudson to his J Records label.
Critics begin buzzing about Hudson's upcoming debut and tabloids report a rivalry between Hudson and costar Beyoncé. But the women don't feed into the alleged catfight. "If Beyoncé had not taken a part in this movie, it would not be as big as it is," Hudson tells the San Francisco Chronicle. Beyoncé, who says "I'm Jennifer's biggest fan," adds, "They're not starting a rivalry between [costars] Eddie [Murphy] and Jamie [Foxx]. They're starting it about the women." At the Oscar ceremony (left), they perform a medley of the three nominated songs from the film.
Dreamgirls grosses more than $150 million, and Hudson's star-making debut is compared to legends Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. New York Times critic A.O. Scott says, "When was the last time you saw a first-time film actress upstage an Oscar winner, a pop diva and a movie star of long standing? Ms. Hudson is not going anywhere. She has arrived...to see Ms. Hudson tear into it on screen...brings the goose-bumped thrill of witnessing something new, even historic."
Hudson steps out with long-time boyfriend and childhood friend James Peyton, a maintenance engineer: "Well, [James and I have] been together forever, eight years now. We grew up together. He was my brother's best friend." Later that year, the New York Post reports seeing the singer in Manhattan with New York Jets' safety, Kerry Rhodes.
After winning the Golden Globe and the SAG Award for her role in Dreamgirls, Hudson, 25, wearing Oscar de la Renta, wins the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In addition to thanking Tony winner Jennifer Holliday, who created the Effie White role on Broadway, in her acceptance speech, she credits her grandmother: "I have to just take this moment in. I cannot believe this. Look what God can do. I didn't think I was going to win. If my grandmother was here to see me now – she was my biggest inspiration. She had the passion for it, but she never had the chance."
After Halle Berry and Oprah Winfrey (who was told to lose weight), Hudson is the third African-American celebrity to appear on the cover of Vogue. Editor-at-Large Andre Leon Talley, who advocated for the unconventional cover girl, says, "When she sings, people of all ages and all races and all persuasions respond to her in an emotional way. They find in her voice, hope...to embrace Jennifer's success and give her a cover that is absolutely historical and unique in the 115-year history of Vogue Magazine." Later that month, Hudson is paid a reported $3 million to be the face of Avon's Imari fragrance.
Hudson begins filming the long-awaited big screen version of Sex and the City. The Oscar winner, who plays Sarah Jessica Parker's assistant, will also appear in the crime drama Winged Creatures with Forest Whitaker and Kate Beckinsale. "I don't want to just do musicals. I want to experiment and do different things and exercise that acting muscle," she tells Variety.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Splash News Online; Ray Mickshaw/WireImage; Ray Mickshaw/WireImage; David James/Dreamworks; Mark J. Terrill/AP; David James/Dreamworks; Axelle Woussen/Bauer Griffin; Danny Moloshok/AP; Annie Leibovitz/Vogue magazine; New Line