Living the Dream

When Oprah Winfrey phoned the hotel room, Jennifer Hudson refused to take the call. "Tell her I'm not talking," Hudson told her makeup artist, who had answered the phone. Relaying this story a week later, Hudson laughs. "I was resting my voice, and I thought it was my manager playing around!" she says. "It took about 30 seconds before I realized, 'Oh, my God, this is Oprah for real!' " Winfrey had just seen Hudson's debut in "Dreamgirls," the film adaptation of the Tony- winning Broadway musical about the rise of a 1960s girls singing group. Hudson plays Effie White, a big woman with a big attitude and an even bigger voice. The movie stars Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx, but Effie is its soul, and Hudson more than delivers. She dazzles. Winfrey was calling to tell her so. "She said my performance was like a religious experience," Hudson says, and looks down at her lap. "She said words were not enough to define it. She said, 'I'm so proud of you'."

"Dreamgirls" is a story about stardom, a commentary on who gets anointed and who does not. As the movie opens, Effie is the powerful lead voice of the Dreamettes, but she's forced into the background because she doesn't look the part--thin enough or light enough--of a star. Although the stage musical opened on Broadway in 1981--amid speculation that it was based on Diana Ross and the Supremes--the story has greater resonance today, when you'd be hard pressed to find a pop princess packing more than 2 percent body fat. Hudson herself learned how image trumps talent when she was booted off the third season of "American Idol," prompting criticism from fans, including Elton John, that "Idol" voters were racist. (The crown went to a black woman, Fantasia Barrino, who later auditioned for Effie and lost, along with 781 others.) Hudson has never speculated about why she got the "Idol" ax. "It just meant that wasn't the place for me," she says. "I figured if they couldn't accept me for the talent that I am, then I didn't need to be there." In person, Hudson, 25, the youngest of three kids raised by a single mother in southwest Chicago, gushes with gee-whiz wonder at her success. Yet she seems completely unsurprised by it--even though she's never acted before. She's confident without being arrogant. It's an endearing combination that makes you want to root for her. But, like Effie, she has gotten her knuckles rapped for refusing to soften her style. "The 'Idol' judges told me, 'Everything about you is too much'," she says. " 'Your voice is too much. Your look is too much. Your hair is too much.' I didn't understand. Isn't that what a star is : bigger than average?"

We're about to find out. Almost everyone who has seen "Dreamgirls," which opens on Christmas, agrees that it will launch Hudson into the stratosphere. It has already landed her a recording contract and generated deafening Oscar buzz. Hudson's rendition of the wrenching, defiant ballad "And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going)" is one of the most thrilling film moments of this, or any, year (review). All that praise doesn't seem to have gone to her head: "It's a relief, " she says, laughing. No kidding. Hudson endured seven months of auditions and endless waiting before getting the call from director Bill Condon. The reason it took so long was that she wasn't tapping into her inner diva. "There was something tentative about her," Condon says. "She needed to be a force of nature, and something in that rock-solid confidence of hers had been battered by the ['Idol'] experience."

Hudson has clearly regained her power, and she'll need it. Despite all the hype around her, there's no escaping that she is a size-12 woman entering a size-2 universe. Whether on the charts or on the screen, she's going to be competing with the likes of, well, Beyoncé. Her size is already becoming an issue. Hudson has lost weight since making "Dreamgirls," but the filmmakers want her to keep her Effie curves while promoting the movie. "But the music people are, like, 'You look great. Keep losing'," she says, and shrugs. Condon says that struggle is like watching the themes of the movie play out in real time. "I would hate to see Jennifer try to be molded into something," he says. "People who become genuine stars are slightly odd in some way, and then the world changes around them." That sounds like Hudson's plan. "Why should I feel like the minority when the majority of America is a size 12?" she says. "Plus, a lot of singers don't sound the same when they lose weight." She grabs a handful of flesh below her belly. "I have a little singer's pouch, and that's where the voice comes from, so you're all just going to have to get used to my jelly." She laughs. "Hey, somebody has to represent the big girls. Why not me?"

We love to watch a star rise, and that's part of the reason "Dreamgirls" was a Broadway sensation 25 years ago--and is likely to be a hit today. "It's about the American Dream," says Loretta Devine, who played "Dreamette" Lorrell in the original production and has a cameo in the film. "That's why 'American Idol' is so successful. It touches everybody." For Hudson, all of this is pretty heady. "This is beyond my dreams," she says, beaming. "I have always wanted to sing, but ... this cannot be real!" Her smile is as wide as the room. "I mean, Oprah called me. Come on!" Luckily, she took the call.