Jennifer Hudson Stays Close to Roots in Tragedy
Jennifer Hudson never abandoned her home, church, and family.
Long after she was famous for American Idol, and soon after her Academy Award-winning role in Dreamgirls, she returned to sing with the choir at Progressive Baptist Church, the South Side Chicago church her family had attended for years.
A week before the Oscars ceremony, she told worshippers at the church – and outsiders who came just to hear her five-octave voice – that there was nowhere she would rather be.
"I don't do clubs. I don't drink. I don't smoke," Hudson said. "I'm not having no club party; I better have a praise party."
Hudson was back in Chicago this weekend, but not to celebrate. On Sunday she identified the bodies of her mother, Darnell Donerson, and brother, Jason Hudson, both of whom were found shot to death Friday in their South Side Chicago home.
Authorities confirmed Monday that the body of Hudson's 7-year-old nephew, Julian King, was found inside an SUV on Chicago's West Side.
"This is an appalling tragedy," Idol judge Simon Cowell told Extra. "My thoughts right now are with Jennifer and her family."
Echoed Paula Abdul: "I personally can't imagine a greater loss for any family."
William Balfour, 27, the estranged husband of the boy's mother, Julia Hudson, was brought in for questioning Friday night. Police searched his girlfriend's house, located about 2.5 miles from where the SUV was found, after taking Balfour into custody. The Chicago Tribune reported that Balfour denied any part in the killings or the boy's disappearance, but then stopped talking to authorities. He was transferred to a state facility after officials said he violated conditions of parole for a 1999 attempted murder conviction.
The deaths were a stunning change in fortune for the singer and actress who had overcome so many obstacles. For her entire life, Hudson remained close to home, church, and family, until an appearance on Idol – and her five-octave, heart-stopping performance of a single song at the heart of Dreamgirls – propelled her to stardom.
A look at her Web site shows the devastating reversal for the 27-year-old singer-actress. The updates list one accomplishment after another: a rave review from Billboard for her self-titled first album, which debuted Sept. 30; an Ebony cover; appearances on Oprah and Dancing with the Stars; and a new film, The Secret Life of Bees. Then, on Monday, a simple message to fans: Thank you all for your prayers and calls.
Before Idol, Hudson worked as a cook at a Burger King, then as a singer for Disney cruise lines. She was a member of the first group of semifinalists in the Semifinals, but was not voted through to the final round, but returned in the wild card round and became a "Top 12" finalist.
Many expected her to win, but she and two other full-figured African-American women, La Toya London and Fantasia Barrino, repeatedly landed in the bottom three. Elton John, a guest judge, later called the public vote "incredibly racist."
Her seventh-place finish on the show was only the beginning of her success. When she was chosen to star in Dreamgirls, alongside Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy, her performance of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" blew away audiences and Oscar voters alike.
She soon embarked on a solo career, often dressed by André Leon Talley, the Vogue editor-at-large who also helped her become one of the few African-American women to make the magazine's cover.
When asked about her success, Hudson pointed again and again to her church and family, as she did in an interview last month with Australia's Sunday Telegraph Magazine.
"My mum tells this story of when I was a baby in church," she said. "They were teaching the choir a note, and they couldn't hit it. I was just 8 months old, but I hit the note. Apparently, my godmother looked over to my mother and said, 'Mark my words, this child is going to sing.'"
Some people in the family's neighborhood were surprised to learn that they still lived there after Hudson's success. Of course there was money to move. But the family stayed close to each other, and their church, just as they always had.
Neighbors told the Tribune that Hudson would sometimes return as often as twice a month to visit her mother's home. Her father, a former bus driver, died in 1999, before his daughter's success.
"She never had no problems with fans stalking her," neighbor Vanessa Stanton said. "The whole neighborhood block would look out for her."
Reeling from a loss most people can’t even imagine, the family turned once again to God, home, and each other.
"All we can do is pray," said the Rev. Krista Alston of Pleasant Gift Baptist Church, who is Hudson's cousin. "We're a family of deep faith."