She still lives in Chicago, though most assume she’s fled for Los Angeles.
Among women who have shaped her: her mother — murdered on Oct. 24, 2008, along with her brother and nephew. And Aretha Franklin, at whose funeral she sang on Friday.
And while she doesn’t talk publicly of the murders, Oscar- and Grammy-winner Jennifer Hudson says not a day goes by she doesn’t think about her mother. She lives her life today adhering to wisdoms her mom imparted.
“Chicago has shaped me in many ways, which is why I still live here to this day. People are always like, ‘You live in L.A.? You live in New York?’ I’m like, ‘No. I live in Chicago,'” Hudson told an audience of about 800 women at last weekend’s Create & Cultivate conference, at House of Vans in the West Loop.
“Chicago is a very real place, and it keeps me grounded,” Hudson said.
The 36-year-old artist, who amazed many observers with her stoic response to the unimaginable tragedy befalling her 57-year-old mother, 29-year-old brother and 7-year-old nephew, headlined the entrepreneurship conference.
Her talk capped a day of panels promoting women’s empowerment and offered rare insight into the singer whose public persona is positivity.
“My family supported me, especially my mother. She would always say, ‘Whatever makes you happy is what I want you to do’,” said Hudson, who currently can be seen on NBC’s singing competition show “The Voice.”
“My mother used to tell me, ‘You know, Jenny, what I love most about you is no matter how negative things may be, you always seem to find a positive.’ At the end of the day, we have no choice but to keep on going,” Hudson said.
“In her life, my mother was really quiet. But now that she’s gone, there’s not a day goes by that I don’t say, ‘My mama used to say.'”
Hudson who turns 37 on Sept. 12, grew up in Englewood, singing in her church choir. Graduating from Dunbar Vocational High in 1999, she spent a year singing on a Disney cruise ship before auditioning for FOX’s American Idol.
She placed seventh in that 2004 season — Fantasia Barrino won — with star maker Simon Cowell proclaiming Hudson “out of her depth.” Those were words he’s eaten. Hudson went on to star in Dreamgirls in 2006, snagging both a Golden Globe and Oscar for her best supporting actress performance. Her debut album then won a 2008 Best R&B Album Grammy.
Women who have inspired her? “First, my mother. I come from a family of very, very strong women. And my sister. And there’s Oprah and Aretha Franklin, who just passed … and Beyonce,” she said.
Hudson’s mother, Darnell Donerson, was murdered nearly 10 years ago, as were Hudson’s nephew, Julian King, and her brother Jason Hudson. William Balfour, the ex-husband of Hudson’s sister, was convicted of the murders and sentenced to life in prison.
“I lost my family here in Chicago, which was my mother, my brother and my sister’s son, and my sister would shop six months in advance for his Christmas and birthday presents. Imagine all of that stopping,” Hudson said.
“Imagine you can no longer look forward to your mother’s birthday, or your brother’s birthday, or nephew’s birthday. I remember thinking, ‘OK Mom. I don’t know how I’m supposed to find a positive in this,'” Hudson continued.
“But I remembered what she said. And that’s how the Julian D. King Foundation came about. I wanted my sister to be able to look forward to her son’s birthday again.”
Hudson, who took a career break to heal after the tragedy, re-emerged just over a year later, to sing the national anthem at Super Bowl XLIII. She recently separated from fiance David Otunga, to whom she’d become engaged just before the tragedy. They have one son.
In between her Grammy and “The Voice” were movie roles, including “Sex In The City” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” She released her sophomore album and starred in a Winnie Mandela biopic in 2011; served as Weight Watchers spokesperson from 2010 to 2014; and in 2012, started her own clothing line and published a book, “I Got This: How I Changed My Ways and Lost What Weighed Me Down.”
A third album came in 2014. The following year brought a recurring role on FOX’s Chicago-filmed “Empire” and a starring role in Broadway’s “The Color Purple,” which won a 2016 Tony for Best Revival, earning her a second Grammy for the soundtrack.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to achieve everything I wanted to by the age of 30,” said the artist,who will play her musical heroine in an upcoming Aretha Franklin biopic.
As for her own legacy, “I’ve always wanted to be seen as a human being and for people to know my heart,” Hudson said. “My awards are just mountings on my wall. They don’t amount to who I am as a person. I would like that to be my legacy, for people to say, ‘Jennifer had a beautiful heart.'”