AS a child, Jennifer Hudson dreamed of becoming a famous singer.
She grew up singing in churches around her Chicago home. Then, “American Idol” came along, and it seemed the show might be her ticket to stardom. It wasn’t -- she was kicked off long before the final rounds.
But now, two years later, Hudson is living the dream. Tonight, she’ll walk the red carpet at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York for the premiere of “Dreamgirls,” the much-anticipated film version of the Broadway musical that features the 25-year-old singer alongside high-octane cast mates Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy.
And judging from the early industry buzz, “Dreamgirls” -- a fictionalized story about Diana Ross & the Supremes -- will catapult Hudson from fallen “Idol” to overnight sensation -- and possibly an Oscar.
Relaxing in a Manhattan hotel suite a few days before the premiere and speaking by phone, Hudson paused as she attempted to describe the growing hoopla.
“I don’t know -- I feel a little bit of everything,” she finally managed. “But I’m loving it. I’m handling it pretty well, though I didn’t expect all of this. It gets a little overwhelming.”
The film doesn’t open nationwide until Christmas (a special road show engagement starts Dec. 15 at the ArcLight Hollywood), but Hudson is already neck-deep in the relentless star-making machinery that has pinballed her from “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to press junkets in London and several American cities. Pop-music powerhouse Clive Davis, comparing her to “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige, has signed her to a recording contract, and he is soliciting A-list writers to work on her first album.
Her two high-powered William Morris agents -- one on each coast -- have been mulling inquiries for other film projects, and they have already turned down a few.
Although Hudson may find it a bit hard at times to crystallize her thoughts, those who worked with her on “Dreamgirls” or have seen her performance as Effie Melody White, the lead singer of a 1960s black female trio who is unceremoniously dumped when the group starts to achieve crossover success -- are not at a loss for words about Hudson, what she brings to the film and her future.
“I love the entire cast, but we could have gotten everything else right, and if Jennifer wasn’t there and coming through with those feelings, everything else wouldn’t have mattered,” said “Dreamgirls” director Bill Condon.
“When Effie says, ‘But I have the voice,’ it’s the crux of the story. There are a lot of great singers who don’t transfer to film, but her acting comes from such a deep part of who she is.”
The fact that Hudson had the chops to handle the vocally demanding role was not in doubt. But what has surprised those who have seen the film is Hudson’s presence and charisma. At times, she overshadowed her more seasoned costars. She moves easily from sassy songstress to anguished reject to triumphant survivor.
Said Condon, “Jennifer has never done a film before, and two weeks into filming, she’s going toe to toe with Jamie Foxx, and holding her own. It’s astonishing.”
And although Foxx, Knowles and Murphy all have their admirers when it comes to Oscar predictions, it’s Hudson who is mentioned most often. Although her role is both prominent and pivotal in the film, she is being pushed as a contender in the supporting actress category, while Knowles is being backed for best actress.
“I can’t even believe that people are talking about Oscars,” Hudson said. “It’s the greatest honor, the icing on the cake. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. I just say, ‘Are they serious? Thank you!’ ”
Much of the raves center on Hudson’s interpretation of the show’s best-known song, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” Effie’s heartbroken declaration of defiance after she is shoved aside by Curtis (Foxx), her lover and the group’s manager. A devastating rendition by Tony Award-winner Jennifer Holliday, who originated the Effie role on Broadway, was the highlight of the stage version.
For Hudson, “Dreamgirls” is all part of a real-life fairy tale.
“This is something I’ve always dreamed of since I was 7,” she said. “I wanted to be a singer, and I wanted to be famous. My grandmother was a singer, and I fell in love with singing at an early age.”
Singing in church was her main outlet (“I love gospel”) until she decided to try out for “American Idol” in its third season. Hudson, LaToya London and Fantasia Barrino, who eventually won, soon became known as the Three Divas.
Recalled “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson: “Those girls were like the cast of ‘Dreamgirls.’ It was so crazy and weird. But Jennifer had a gift, and that’s what our show is about -- bringing out the natural gift in people. You can’t learn to sing like she can sing.”
Nigel Lythgoe, one of “Idol’s” executive producers, added: “Jennifer was one of my favorites that season, but she chose bad songs, tunes that didn’t show off her voice. The week that she got voted off was Barry Manilow week, and she chose ‘Weekend in New England.’ That’s not a song that showed her at her best.”
Her departure was a personal low point for Hudson.
“I cried all the next day,” she says. “It definitely hurt.”
But the tears dried when a New York casting agency contacted her about trying out for the Effie role.
She was not familiar with the musical -- she was in diapers when the show was a smash hit on Broadway and around the country. “But I was extremely determined and focused, and I vowed to fight to the bitter end, to be one of the last ones standing,” she said. “I just knew I could do it.”
The first audition, where she sang “Easy to Be Hard,” the Three Dog Night song that originally appeared in the Broadway musical “Hair,” was the first step in a six-month roller-coaster ride of tryouts and screen tests before Hudson finally got the role.
She channeled her “Idol” downfall into her motivation for “Dreamgirls.” “Effie was rejected, and she went up against the odds, so I had that to relate to,” she said.
The scene featuring “And I Am Telling You” was filmed over four days on a Los Angeles sound stage. Condon recalled that when Hudson first performed the song, the cast was stunned.
“Jamie just sat there silently, and then he started shaking his head,” he said. “There was this electricity and magic. It was the most extraordinary live performance we had ever seen. In the early takes, there were tears rolling down Jennifer’s cheeks. I said I didn’t want her to go that far, but to always be on the verge of tears. I wanted the audience to feel her rage and desperation.”
If her turn in “Dreamgirls” lands her an Oscar nomination, that will make Hudson one of the most successful graduates of “American Idol.”
And if she’s able to build a successful film and music career, she could soon outshine even million-selling “Idol” alumni Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken and Carrie Underwood.
Said “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller: “Jennifer’s performance in ‘Dreamgirls’ is absolutely sensational ... I am so very happy for her and proud of ‘Idol’ for discovering yet another phenomenal talent that might otherwise have just gone unnoticed.”
Brad Slater and Brian Storm of the William Morris Agency, who represent Hudson, said they have already received “tons of phone calls” and inquiries from executives and studio heads about her.
“Everyone wants her for their next film, but music is her first priority,” Slater said.
Added Storm, “She is starting at such a high level, she wants to be very particular about her next project. She’s going into the studio in the first part of 2007, and we’ll be able to see what’s out there for her. We’ve already passed on a couple of things.”
Davis of Arista Records believes Hudson’s is a unique talent that will require special handling: “She has a great sensitivity that speaks well for her being a great interpreter of material. She’s not going to fit in just anywhere. Radio is very narrow and has not given rise to great vocal talents such as this. We’re not going to go the hip-hop route to fit into that revolution.”
As her dream continues its forward motion, Hudson said she is determined to stay as anchored as possible.
“This is God doing this, not me,” she said. “It’s just a blessing. And when I go back home, I’m reminded that I’m just Jennifer.”