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Once upon a

Once upon a


Being voted off American Idol may have been her ticket to Oscar gold. Jennifer Hudson has arrived. And you, and you, and you, you're going to love her.

"I met Whitney last night," Jennifer Hudson tells me, wide-eyed. "I was just sitting there and she came up and she waved at me and said, 'You're the one! You! Are! The One!' And I was just stunned. I even forgot to get up."

What Hudson is leaving out of this story, one she's telling me over breakfast at the Beverly Hilton hotel, is why Whitney Houston approached the 25-year-old star of the upcoming film Dreamgirls. The night before, Hudson had appeared at the Carousel of Hope, an annual Beverly Hills benefit for children with diabetes, spearheaded by socialite Barbara Davis. Hudson performed the song "I Am Changing" from the movie and by all accounts blew the roof off the place, causing the assembled famous--Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, Teri Hatcher, Sharon Stone, Jay Leno, Halle Berry--to go a little nuts. Houston reportedly leaped from her seat, screaming Hudson's praises. This is the kind of thing you expect to hear about a singer who's just won American Idol and is still in the first blush of that show's mania, not about a former Idol contestant who came in seventh three seasons back. Anyway, the "I was just sitting there" thing doesn't come off as fake. It's what I will come to understand in our early-morning interview over bacon and eggs, as Hudson's trial-by-the-fires-of-reality-television confidence and quietly defiant determination, tempered by a truly real good-girl decency and still-kind-of-shell-shocked disbelief at what's happening to her and how really awesome everything is right now. It doesn't hurt that she's also squeezably adorable. Whitney might have just wanted a hug.

What's happening to Jennifer Hudson is Dreamgirls, a $70 million stage-to-screen glamorama, adapted from the late Michael Bennett's Tony-winning 1981 musical, directed by Oscar-winning gay writer-director Bill Condon (Chicago, Kinsey, Gods and Monsters), and starring African-American Hollywood's A-plus list: Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Beyonce Knowles. It's a fictionalized take on Diana Ross and the Supremes' rise to stardom--compromises, bitterness, and sky-high wigs intact. Hudson plays Effie, the lead singer who gets left behind when mainstream success comes calling. And for her first leap into the Hollywood movie pool, she couldn't have picked a deeper one for diving practice: a beloved musical with a big budget and bigger box-office and Academy Award expectations riding on its Christmas release date, while acting and singing opposite some of the most potentially intimidating costars that pop music and film has to offer. One such star, Jamie Foxx, describes her as "an incredible artist," who is "bold, honest and fearless." But fearless enough to step into the now-legendary shoes of Jennifer Holliday, the woman who created the role of Effie on Broadway when Hudson was 3 months old and delivered what is, 25 years later, a still spine-shocking rendition of the show's biggest song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"? No pressure.

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Dave White