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How Soul Queen Jennifer Hudson Went from American Idol to Aretha Franklin

The EGOT-winner's unbelievable talent always steals the spotlight.

By Jessica White

With one of the most jaw-dropping voices in the industry, Jennifer Hudson is an unstoppable force of talent.

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The EGOT — that's Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony — winner has led a packed career, radiating showmanship within every project. She pours equal parts passion and power into everything she does, whether that's belting her heart out on stage or breaking hearts on the big screen.

RELATED: Jennifer Hudson's "I Will Always Love You" Cover Brought Whitney Houston to Her Feet

Rising to fame on American Idol and later establishing a red chair reign as a Coach on The Voice, Hudson is a tour-de-force of entertainment can do everything: An accomplished singer, actress, author, producer, and talk show host.

Hudson is the definition of a renaissance act; a triple threat to her core as each of her dynamite portrayals highlights her vocal prowess and impeccable star power. 

Jennifer Hudson on American Idol

Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino, La Toya London and Diana DeGarmo perform on stage at the American Idol Season Three Grand Finale

Before earning fame as a contestant on Season 3 of American Idol in 2004, Hudson grew up in Chicago, performing in her church choir and graduating from Dunbar Vocational Career Academy in 1999, according to Biography. When she auditioned for American Idol, Hudson told the Judges she had been a cruise ship performer on the Disney Cruise lines. Proving her talent surpassed maritime venues, Hudson soared through the competition, garnering widespread adoration with her Top 9 performance of "Circle of Life" by Elton John. 

RELATED: Blake Shelton Got Jennifer Hudson’s Son the Wildest Christmas Present

One of the biggest shocks of Idol Season 3 was when Hudson was eliminated after the Top 7 performances, despite being viewed as a frontrunner. The Season 3 champion was Fantasia Barrino Taylor, but fret not — Hudson's career was only picking up steam.

Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls

Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx attend the 64th Annual Golden Globe Awards.

Hudson's breakout role was in the 2006 film adaptation of the musical drama Dreamgirls. After giving a gripping audition against hundreds of performers, Hudson was cast alongside Beyoncé, Anika Noni Rose, Jamie Foxx, and Eddie Murphy. Hudson played the soulful Effie White, delivering a sensational rendition of the show's hit song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going.” 

“I felt like I sang that song for about six hours straight,” Hudson told EW in 2016. "And I remember them saying, ‘Her voice was the only voice that sustained all the way through.'” 

Hudson's Dreamgirls performance earned her the 2007 Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, as well as a Golden Globe, BAFTA Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award. The riveting role catapulted Hudson into superstar status, swiftly joining the ranks of vocal greats like Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin. 

Jennifer Hudson's Albums: Jennifer HudsonI Remember Me, and JHUD

Shortly following Hudson's breakout fame on American Idol and Dreamgirls, she began recording her debut studio album, Jennifer Hudson. Dropping the album in 2008, Jennifer Hudson debuted at No. 2 on the US Billboard 200 and gifted fans with the saucy single "Spotlight."

Hudson's first album showcased her preternatural singing capabilities and earned her four nominations at the 2009 Grammys, where she won the award for Best R&B Album.

In 2011, Hudson released her sophomore studio album, I Remember Me. The release featured an impressive lineup of collaborations, including team-ups with now-fellow Voice veteran Alicia Keys, Ne-Yo, Harvey Mason Jr., Diane Warren, and Rich Harrison. The album's lead single, "Where You At," was a chart climber, hanging out on the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks upon release.

Inspired by her love for the sonic 1970s, Hudson released her third and most recent album to date, JHUD, in 2014. Like her albums before, Hudson teamed up with several icons to make the magic happen, including producer and now-fellow Voice alum Pharrell Williams on the feel-good single "I Can't Describe (The Way I Feel)," and the Timbaland-produced track "Walk It Out."

The JHUD song "It's Your World" earned a Grammy nomination at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards

She also sang her way through much of Aretha Franklin's catalogue for the soundtrack for the Queen of Soul's biopic Respect.

Jennifer Hudson and The Color Purple on Broadway

Jennifer Hudson, David Otunga, and their children attend the "The Color Purple" Broadway Opening Night After Party

Hudson made her Broadway debut as a performer in New Amsterdam Theatre's production of Hair in 2004 and, in 2006, starred as Jewel in the Broadway production of Whorehouse in Texas.

But her breakout Broadway role was Shug Avery in the 2015 revival of the musical of The Color Purple. The show was based on Alice Walker's 1982 novel and the 1985 film adaptation. (The 2015 revival also inspired a 2023 musical film adaptation produced by Oprah Winfrey.)

The musical won a 2017 Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.

Jennifer Hudson's Film Roles: Secret Life of Bees to Monster

Alicia Keys with the cast of The Secret Life Of Bees during at TIFF 2008

In 2008, Hudson appeared in the feature film version of Sex and the City as Carrie Bradshaw's tech-savvy assistant, Louise. The same year, Hudson starred in The Secret Life of Bees as Rosaleen, a makeshift mother to star Dakota Fanning's Lily Owens. (Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, and Keys also starred in the film.)

In 2009, Hudson starred as Kathy Archenault in the psychological drama Fragments (alternatively titled Winged Creatures), alongside Fanning, Josh Hutcherson, Guy Pearce, and Forest Whitaker.

In 2012, Hudson took on the role of Sister Rosemary in the film adaptation of The Three Stooges. Hudson has since starred in several dramas, including The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete (2013), Lullaby (2015), Sandy Wexler (2017), and 2018's Monster.

Jennifer Hudson's Musical Films: Sing, Cats, and Respect

Jennifer Hudson attends the world premiere of "Cats"

Hudson's larger-than-life vocal talent has naturally led to several roles in movie musicals and film adaptations of beloved Broadway classics. In 2013 Hudson starred in the musical drama Black Nativity as Naima Cobbs. In 2015, Hudson upped the ante as Irene in Spike Lee's musical crime dramedy, Chi-Raq. In 2016, Hudson took on a much more whimsical role in the children's musical comedy Sing as the voice of the young Nana Noodleman, a sheep who becomes an acclaimed theatre superstar.

In 2019, Hudson added yet another legendary Broadway role to her resume after being cast as the banished feline Grizabella in the 2019 film adaptation of Cats. Despite performing alongside fellow icons Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Ian McKellen, and Taylor Swift, Hudson was the standout after delivering a heart-wrenching rendition of the show's iconic song "Memory."

Hudson then scored her dream role after being cast as the late Aretha Franklin in the 2021 biopic, Respect. Hudson recorded a glorious lineup of Franklin's most notable tracks for the film, as well as an original song titled "Here I Am (Singing My Way Home)."

The film had been in development for years without traction, with Franklin refusing to move forward with production before finding the right candidate to play herself. 

Hudson revealed in a 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey that she'd had breakfast with Franklin after Dreamgirls, which is when the conversations about her potential casting began. Hudson shared she felt her 2014 BET Awards tribute performance to Franklin was the unofficial audition for the role. Franklin attended the riveting performance and bopped along with approval to Hudson's take on her greatest hits.

Franklin made the final casting call after seeing Hudson in The Color Purple

"She told me, 'It is you, young lady, who I want to play me,'" Hudson revealed to USA Today in 2021 while chatting about her last conversation with the vocal titan. "She did remind me that she was the Queen of Soul, and just as long as we had that understanding. I said, 'Yes ma'am, I know my place, and I respect that.'" 

Jennifer Hudson's Television Roles and Daytime Talk Show

Jennifer Hudson attends the 50th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards

Hudson's Broadway tenure and musical filmography have led Hudson to appear in a variety of television series, many of which highlight her angelic pipes.

In 2012, Hudson guest starred in the musical drama series Smash as Veronica Moore. In 2015, Hudson added to her musical drama projects by guest starring in Empire as Michelle White. Hudson also appeared in the 2016 television film Confirmation and guest-starred in the 2023 animated series Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.

Hudson has also performed rousing sets for Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway (2017), Live in Front of a Studio Audience (2019), and in 2020, teamed up with one of her idols, Mariah Carey, for her Magical Christmas Special

Hudson has been the host of her daytime talk show, The Jennifer Hudson Show, since 2022. Serving up a delightful mix of celebrity interviews, music sessions, and topical stories, she scored a 2023 NAACP Award for Outstanding Host.

Jennifer Hudson as a Coach on The Voice

Jennifer Hudson appears during the Knockout Rounds of Season 13 of The Voice

Hudson's American Idol tenure helped her, among other things, Hudson became a Coach on The Voice UK in 2017, where she guided Artists from Seasons 6 to Season 8.

RELATED: The Voice Coaches Through the Years: A Timeline

Later that year, Hudson took her expertise back stateside as a Coach for Season 13 of The Voice alongside Coaches Miley Cyrus, Adam Levine, and Blake Shelton.

RELATED: See Why Chance The Rapper Compared Manasseh Samone to a Young Jennifer Hudson

Hudson returned to the red chair as a Coach for Season 15 of the competition. While Hudson was able to claim the crown in the UK with Season 6's Mo Jamil Adeniran, she's yet to win the US competition.

How did Jennifer Hudson earn her EGOT?

Truly one of the most well-rounded performers in the game, Hudson is a member of the elite group of entertainers who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award — achieving the status in 2022. Hudson is the 17th person to ever achieve the prestigious honor and the youngest female performer to do so.

Hudson's Dreamgirls big break was her first motion toward the honor after claiming the Academy Award in 2007.

She further cemented her legacy in 2009 when her debut album won a Grammy for Best R&B Album.

Hudson scored a Daytime Emmy in 2021 after executive producing the virtual-reality animated film Baba Yaga, which won Outstanding Interactive Media for a Daytime Program.

In 2022, Hudson completed the entertainment gamut by winning a Tony Award as one of the producers of the Broadway musical A Strange Loop. 

In an interview with Late Night with Seth Meyers, Hudson looked back on the exhilarating moment when she earned EGOT status at the 75th Tony Awards.

"That was surreal," Hudson told Meyers, revealing she wasn't expecting the life-changing honor. "You know, I went in support of the cast. And when they said Strange Loop won for Best Musical, I'm up there cheering for the cast. And everyone started chanting, 'EGOT! EGOT!' And I'm like, 'Oh, woah. I just won an EGOT!'"

Jennifer Hudson's Awards and Hollywood Walk of Fame Star

Jennifer Hudson stands onstage as she accepts the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Hudson is one of the greatest vocalists of the century, leading the talented performer to take home several awards and honors throughout her two-decade career. Aside from her Academy Award, Hudson's supernova performance in Dreamgirls earned her over 30 awards from several ceremonies, including the Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and NAACP Image Awards. 

Hudson has been awarded eight Grammy nominations and two wins, the first in 2008 for Best R&B Album (Jennifer Hudson) and her second in 2017 for Best Musical Theater Album (The Color Purple).

Hudson's energizing discography has landed her on the Billboard Hot 100 nine times.

In 2007, in honor of her sprawling acclaim from Dreamgirls and American Idol, Chicagoan mayor Richard M. Daley declared March 6 as "Jennifer Hudson Day," proudly commending her success at a ceremony in her home city. "She's an inspiration to everyone who has a dream," Daley said at the ceremony. "People told her, 'You can't'. And she said, 'I can.'"

In 2013, Hudson was honored with the 2,512th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. "This is an amazing honor as we all know and I did not see this coming," Hudson said at the ceremony, according to E!. "I'm so honored to be here with so many that I love."