The girl loves those kisses (from left): at American Idol finals, the 2008 Oscars, the Soul Train Music Awards, a party in New York, a New Year’s Eve bash in Miami, and the 2007 Oscars


Determined to be a singer since she was seven, Chicago native Jennifer Hudson has followed her dream from Englewood to a star-making, Academy Award–winning role in the movie musical Dreamgirls. Hudson, who turns 27 in September, finally releases her first solo CD at the end of the month. Chicago talked to her about her early days singing in a South Side church choir, the making of her new self-titled album, and the controversy it has already stirred up.

Q: What are your early memories of singing?
When I was a little girl, Whitney Houston came out with "I Will Always Love You." I would sing along with the record, but I would put it in harmony and do it as a duet. She’s still one of the people I would love to sing with today.

Q: Like a lot of other soul singers, you sang with your church choir [at Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church at 4526 South Greenwood Avenue]. How did that experience influence your vocal style?
It teaches you how to connect to your music emotionally and make whatever you’re singing have substance. That’s the most meaningful place to sing from, when you’re actually singing about something.

Q: What are you trying to accomplish with your first record?
I want my music to have substance and meaning and bring real music back. A lot of music today is bubblegum and pop and mainly about a catchy melody. I sing about things that’ll make you think, things that’ll help somebody out.

Q: An entire team of hit makers contributed to the record—Ne-Yo, Timbaland, Diane Warren. How much input did you really have in the songs?
For the most part, I picked the subjects of the song. I didn’t write them, but I chose what I wanted to talk about.

Q: After you finished seventh on American Idol, you beat out that season’s winner, Fantasia Barrino, and more than 780 other women for your role in Dreamgirls. How did you land the part?
I asked the director, Bill Condon, that all the time. He said, "Out of all the auditions, yours was the one I felt something from. It moved me. I felt something behind it."

Q: You played a sixties soul singer in Dreamgirls. Do you see yourself as an old-school singer?
I do, actually. I don’t even listen to the radio, and I grew up that way.

Q: Your record hasn’t even been released yet, but already people have taken issue with the cover photo, saying that it has been altered to make you look thinner and that it sends a bad message about women’s body sizes. What’s your response?
Image is everything in this field. Who doesn’t Photoshop pictures at this point? The album cover is close to my true size. I want to be as real and natural as possible. I don’t want to be a size 2 or a size 4. I don’t think being thin is flattering.

Q: You do seem to like the red carpet, though. We’ve got all these photos of you blowing kisses. How did that become your signature?
I just realized that’s my signature, too. I guess I blew a kiss one time, and ever since then the paparazzi keep saying, "Jennifer, blow a kiss!" And I love photos. It’s hard to keep me off the red carpet.

Photography (from left): Kevin Winter/© 2007 Getty Images, Frazer Harrison/© 2008 Getty Images, Maury Phillips/Wireimage, Ray Tamarra/Getty Images, John Parra/Wireimage © 2007 John Parra, Vince Bucci/© 2007 Getty Images