A private matter stays private

Hudson soldiers on, without exploiting her personal grief over family deaths

March 29, 2009|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

Jennifer Hudson looked radiant but guarded sitting across from Oprah Winfrey, perhaps the only other TV personality besides Barbara Walters who's "warm" enough to get celebrities to open up. The Academy Award-winning performer had just returned to the spotlight after the tragic October murders of her mother, brother and nephew in Hudson's old south side Chicago neighborhood.

Though Winfrey made no direct reference to the killings, she concluded her rather vapid interview by pointedly asking Hudson how she was doing.

"I'm good. I'm really good," the performer said, smile aglow. "I'm just glad to be back, and be back working and just doing what I love to do. It's like therapy. I'm in a very good place, and I pray every morning."

The appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show aired Feb. 27, a little over two weeks after Hudson performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XLIII, her first public appearance since the murders. A week after that, on the 51st annual Grammy Award telecast, she picked up a gleaming gramophone for her self-titled debut and later sang an emotional, choir-backed rendition of her single "You Pulled Me Through."

Hudson's comment on the Oprah show is the most she has said publicly about the loss of her family. The former American Idol contestant said absolutely nothing about it in a recent teleconference to promote her first national tour, a co-headlining venture with Robin Thicke, which stops at the Lyric Opera House on Saturday.

Those of us on the call were told upfront that the singer would not address the tragedy whatsoever. Instead, Hudson, who shared the call with a gregarious Thicke, gave pleasant, if hollow, answers to questions about her music and coming tour. The 27-year-old star, who was so charming and bubbly during promotional interviews for Dreamgirls, was noticeably reserved on the phone.

And that's completely understandable.

In an age of reality TV, gossip blogs and Twitter, where the personal trials and dysfunction of celebrities are routinely exploited, Hudson's decision to stay tight-lipped and dignified about her personal grief is a classy move. It's also an unusual one these days.

Exploitation of the Hudson tragedy could have been spun in a few potentially lucrative directions, especially in today's unabashedly crass pop culture. Perhaps a prime-time "heart-to-heart" interview with Winfrey, Walters or Katie Couric would have helped push Hudson's gold debut to platinum. Or a reality show chronicling therapy sessions with the performer and her older sister, Julia, would have generated big bucks. A Lifetime movie or a book deal could have been made.

Such gross exploitation of celebrity family perils has already worked for some of Hudson's peers. Keyshia Cole, the second coming of Mary J. Blige with her wounded-soul vocal style, immediately comes to mind. Soon after the urban-pop star struck platinum sales with her debut album, 2005's The Way It Is, she launched her BET reality show, the unimaginatively titled Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is.

The show follows the often irrational, sometimes disturbing and always ghetto-fabulous exploits of Cole, her siblings and her mother, Frankie, a recovering crack addict and former prostitute. The Way It Is, now in its third season, is the most successful series in BET's history. The program has undoubtedly helped drive the platinum sales of Cole's last two albums, 2007's Just Like You and last year's A Different Me.

Even if celebrities don't openly cross-market personal pain and dysfunction the way Cole does, pop stars still have a difficult time keeping such matters private under the 24-hour surveillance of today's ravenous pop media. Domestic abuse issues between Chris Brown and Rihanna have been covered so gratuitously in the press lately that you forget what made the two famous in the first place. The recent meltdowns of Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse were inescapable, too.

Hudson, a refreshing talent behind the mike and on the screen, has chosen not to splash her grief all over the place. Given the opportunity and the right material, Hudson, the artist, may channel the pain, anguish and sorrow about the murders into her work. It all may enrich her expressive singing. We'll feel her more in the music and in her acting.

And that is all the public deserves.

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