Jennifer Hudson

She graduated from cruise ships to cinema stardom in the flash of an eye, making Simon Cowell eat humble pie en route and winning an Oscar by the age of 25. No wonder bus driver's daughter Jennifer Hudson can't believe her luck.

Jennifer's journey to fame and fortune began on Chicago's gritty South Side, a long way from the Hollywood Hills. Born the youngest of three children on September 12, 1981, she first discovered she had a singing voice at the age of six. "The story goes that I sat on my godmother's lap at church during a choir rehearsal, and when she couldn't hit the right note, I sang it for her," Jennifer recalled. "She told my mother, 'This girl is going to be a singer'."

Her mum Darnell and bus-driver father Samuel - who passed away when she was still a teenager - brought her up with a strong sense of traditional values focused around family and the church. Like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Dionne Warwick before her, Jennifer sang gospel music in her church choir and from the age of seven often sang at weddings, baptisms and funerals. At school, meanwhile, she was taking part in musical productions and talent shows.

The powerful mezzo-soprano went on to hone her voice at Langston University in Oklahoma, followed by Chicago's Kennedy King City College. After a stint working at Burger King she won her first professional singing job on a Disney cruise-line which gave her the opportunity to perform in front of a big audience. While her career could have been limited to singing on the high seas, Jennifer's mother had other plans. After noticing an advert for 2004's American Idol auditions she persuaded her daughter to fly to Atlanta and try her luck.

Despite reaching the final 12 Jennifer was voted off, famously failing to impress judge Simon Cowell, who has since admitted: "I would like to eat a massive dose of humble pie." The chance to make a career out of her voice hadn't been entirely scuppered, however. In November 2005 the indefatigable talent went on to audition against 783 other contenders for the break of a lifetime - playing Effie White in the film version of hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls.

In an ironic twist, she beat eventual Idol winner Fantasia Barrino to the coveted part. "I've never met anyone with as much raw talent and openness as Jennifer," enthused director Bill Condon. Despite a stellar cast that included Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx, it was newcomer Jennifer who stole the show - prompting standing ovations in cinemas with her on-screen rendition of And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going.

Following the film's release the awards came in thick and fast, from the New York Film Critics gong to a Golden Globe and, finally, the big one - an Oscar. In February 2007 she joined an elite group of actors who had won an Academy Award for their debut film. Suddenly Jennifer was the next big thing and, in March 2007, became only the third African American celebrity to grace the cover of US Vogue.

Her meteoric rise has made her determined to see other women follow their dream. "I hope that I can be an inspiration," she says. For Jennifer at least dreams clearly do come true. She has signed a record deal with Clive Davis - the man who mentored the career of her idol Whitney Houston. And just like the lyrics in the song that made her a household name, she's been telling us she's not going anywhere. "I want to be around for a long time, singing and making albums and movies," she says.
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