• Image about Jennifer Hudson
Hudson beams after winning an Academy Award in 2007 for her performance in Dreamgirls.
Everett Collection
Hudson even wrote a song for her grandmother before she died in 1998, entitled “To Love Somebody.” In the unreleased song, which has been posted online, the emotion in Hudson’s distinctive powerhouse voice comes through as she bellows, “It hurts to love somebody when you know you have to let go.”

“She was my biggest inspiration,” Hudson says. “She’s why my faith is so deep-rooted and I know where I come from.”

Indeed, Hudson remains close to her family and friends — those who have long supported her and encouraged her to make the most of her talents. One of them is her assistant, Walter Williams, a childhood friend whom Hudson describes as “her biggest fan” and who used to book talent shows for her to perform in.

In 1999, upon graduating from Dunbar Vocational Career Academy, Hudson — who had been working on and off at a Burger King for two years — began to book gigs at assemblies, graduation ceremonies and clubs. It was then that she realized she had a marketable gift. And she’s never looked back.

“I was getting $75 for the events,” Hudson says. “I was making the same amount slaving at Burger King. I promised myself then that I would make a living with my talents and gifts. I’ve been doing that ever since.”

Williams continued to help push Hudson, first landing her a job singing on a Disney cruise ship and then setting her up to appear on the third season of American Idol — an experience that, despite her seventh-place finish, would become her launching pad. After her baffling Idol rejection, her fans thought a record contract was imminent. But Hudson returned to Chicago, doing what she had done before: singing for weddings and events in hopes that someone would recognize her talent. If no one did, she figured, she could go into real estate.

But a year later, she heard about an audition for a part in the film adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls and decided to try out. In true underdog fashion, she won the role of Effie White, beating out 782 hopefuls who auditioned, including Fantasia Barrino (the Season 3 winner of American Idol who would later become a friend of Hudson’s and record a duet with her on Hudson’s debut album). In the film, Hudson overwhelmed audiences and upstaged star Beyoncé Knowles, not only with the natural depth of her nuanced acting skills but also with her cover of Jennifer Holliday’s transcendent and soul-stirring song, “And I Am Telling You,” the crescendo of which famously features a 15-second note that Hudson capably belted out.

“She has the soul of Aretha Franklin, the power of Whitney Houston and the class of Barbra Streisand,” says her manager, Damien Smith. “I’ve seen her sing for Neil Diamond. I’ve seen her sing with Barry Manilow, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin — and she delivers it. There’s no one like that nowadays who can appeal to so many different people. She’s one of a kind.”