Giving Sparkle some Jordin Sparks

With a little angst, Jordin Sparks went from American Idol to a movie with Whitney.
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BEVERLY HILLS—Jordin Sparks is a 22-year-old former American Idol winner who’s wearing a diamond stud so tiny it looks, after much surreptitious observation, like an accidental, sparkly fleck on her nose. She has long, glossy hair, the lower half of which is crimson, and she is, reportedly and believably, six feet tall—and that’s before the stiletto pumps. She’s able to speak many sentences for many minutes without seeming to breathe at all. Well, singers are supposed to have strong diaphragms, aren’t they?

Maybe everyone in Hollywood is poolside on a hotel rooftop when they get important calls nowadays. When Sparks answered her phone at 4 o’clock one afternoon during a late lunch meeting and heard she’d officially landed the lead in Sparkle (which opens Friday [August 17] ), other people around her were busy “laying out”, catching some rays. “I screamed so loud I think one of the girls fell off the tanning bed,” she recalls.

She had never acted in a movie before. But when you’re the youngest person ever, at 17, to win American Idol (her fans were called “Sparkplugs”), you’ve dropped a couple of albums that landed neatly on Billboard’s charts, and you’ve been nominated for a Grammy, who’s worrying? Yet even the fact that she’d already released her own perfume called Because of You (another, Fascinate, came out this past spring) didn’t help her nerves. Then her idol, Whitney Houston, joined the cast.

“She signed on to play the mom and the pressure just became, like, 100 pounds heavier,” Sparks says. “I was like, ‘Okay, I can’t go in there and be horrible; like, I just can’t.’ ”

In the movie (a remake of the 1976 Sparkle, in which a singer-songwriter forms a 1968 Motown-style girl group with her two sisters), Sparks plays, well, Sparkle. The sisters must deal with greedy record labels, drugs, violence, and lots of sequins and false eyelashes. Houston (who died last February) was an executive producer on the movie when she decided to play Emma, who has already been down the road her daughters are on. Bad men have nothing on a disapproving mother.

Sparks had already behaved “strangely” in Houston’s presence once. It was several years before, at a party thrown by famed music producer and industry exec Clive Davis. Perhaps Houston wouldn’t remember? “All of these amazing artists that I’d grown up listening to were all around me,” she says. “But I’d heard Whitney was there, and I said, ‘I don’t care what we do tonight, I have to go say “Hi.” ’ ” She recollects that the conversation went something like “ ‘Hi, my name is Jordin.’ And she was like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, have a good night.’ And I, like, turned around!”

Maybe it wasn’t the most auspicious meeting. Nevertheless, on the Sparkle set, things went swimmingly. “Working with Whitney was a lot of fun,” Sparks says. “She was so down-to-earth. She just wanted to sit and talk with us and get to know us. She could have been, ‘I’m going to do my scenes and go back to my trailer.’ That wasn’t how she was.”

When Sparks had to sing “I Will Always Love You” in tribute to the singer at the Billboard awards ceremony last May, it was “the scariest thing I have ever done in my life”. She had never actually sung the song before. “I was like, ‘Lemme sing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, because nobody’s gonna get mad at me for singing that.’ ” She imagined she heard Houston’s voice in her head, saying, “You got this. You got this. It’s gonna be good.” She pulled it off.

Now, she’s doing an R & B album, “not like slow grind, slow jam, but more light, like early Mariah, early Whitney”, and playing an “Afro Latina from, like, the Bronx” in a new movie. But she’s still a fan of American Idol and its cousins. “That’s where I started, so I’m all for, you know, an everyday person just walking in and all of a sudden blowing up.”


Watch the trailer for Sparkle.

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