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Born on Chicago's south side in September 1981, Hudson grew up singing at her family's church before pursuing a career in music after college. One of her first stops? A stint on the Disney Wonder cruise ship. "I thought it was great for then," she told W magazine in 2015. "It was great for my age. It was great for me as a talent that was trying to be a performer. And I actually gave myself that as a test to decide if I was going to go for American Idol. Like okay, I’m gonna go get on this ship. If I cannot get through this ship, I do not need to go an audition for Idol. But if I get through it, then I can go. And I made it through it."
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So try out she did, and after impressing the judges in her Atlanta audition, Hudson joined the season 3 Idol cast in 2005, though was shockingly eliminated during the Top 7 week. "Nobody knows what really happened, but I feel like whatever it is, it was meant to be," Hudson told MTV afterwards. "Right now, everybody's just trying to make sense of all this, so there's a lot of [theories] thrown out there. But I don't think we'll ever know … I don't think it was based on talent, but if it was, I was robbed."
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ALL A DREAM
Leaving Idol only helped her career take off, however: she appeared alongside Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé and Anika Noni Rose in the 2006 film Dreamgirls — and her performance propelled her to the A-list. "I feel like we made a classic with that film, and to see how it's a part of everyone, it seems. It's so interesting to me," she told E! News in 2016. "It tickles me every time. It's like, I get ready to sing, 'And I'm Telling You,' and I'm like, 'Really, guys? Again?' But it seems new every time to everyone."
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The role landed Hudson her very first Oscar nomination and win, for Best Supporting Actress. "I just have to take this moment in," she said through tears while accepting the award at the 2007 ceremony. "I cannot believe this. Look what God can do." After touching on her grandmother's inspiration, she ended with, "I thank you all for helping me keeping the faith even when I didn't believe." A bonus? She got a hug and kiss from presenter George Clooney.
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Dreamgirls and the Oscar win opened many doors in Hollywood for Hudson, as she went on to earn parts in Sex and the City, The Secret Life of Bees, Winnie Mandela, Smash and Empire, among other movies and shows.
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Her love life was taking off, too: after less than one year of dating, Hudson and WWE wrestler David Otunga announced their engagement in September 2008. "David is very smart and a very loving person," Hudson told MTV. "[He's] very intelligent, very smart, a complete gentleman, very traditional."
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THE WORST DAY
The star's personal life took a shocking turn, however, on Oct. 24, 2008, when her mother, Darnell Donerson, and brother, Jason Hudson, were found shot dead in their Chicago home. Three days later, her 7-year-old nephew Julian's body was recovered from a car nearby. Hudson's brother-in-law, William Balfour, was arrested for the crimes and is currently serving three life sentences plus 120 years at an Illinois prison. At the time of the murders, he'd been out on parole after serving time for a 1998 attempted murder conviction.
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A TRIUMPHANT RETURN
Hudson — who'd been preparing to release an album and was promoting The Secret Life of Bees — immediately retreated from the spotlight and chose not to address the murders publicly. She resurfaced at the 2009 Super Bowl, however, bringing down the house with her rendition of the national anthem. That August, another happy moment: she and Otunga welcomed their first (and only) child, son David Jr.
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BODY OF WORK
In 2010, Hudson revealed a serious post-baby slimdown, going from a size 16 to a 6 with the help of Weight Watchers — for whom she signed on as a spokesperson — and trainer Harley Pasternak. "I'm in the best shape of my life," she told PEOPLE at the time, adding that the weight loss was in part for her role in a Winnie Mandela biopic. "This is the way I want to be, and the way I want to stay."
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The roles kept coming, too: in 2015, Hudson made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, starring alongside Orange Is the New Black's Danielle Brooks and British actress Cynthia Erivo. Though she earned rave reviews, Hudson didn't score a Tony nomination, but was still thrilled about the experience. "Broadway is, and has always been, a dream I’ve had," she told Time Out New York.
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Hudson's latest big moment was as Motormouth Maybelle in the TV musical verison of Hairspray! While the show itself received mixed reviews, the singer's stirring rendition of "I Know Where I've Been" earned her serious Twitter buzz.
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Most recently, Hudson joined the season 13 of The Voice alongside established judges Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and Miley Cyrus. Her buzziest moment by far came when she threw a shoe at a contestant — but promised that, "Where I come from, that's a compliment."
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A SAD SPLIT
On Nov. 16, 2017, a rep for Hudson told PEOPLE that she and Otunga (seen here with son David Jr. at a 2016 event) "have been in the process of ending their relationship for a number of months. Today, Jennifer requested and received a protective order against her ex-fiancé. Jennifer’s actions are solely taken in the best interest of their son."
Otunga’s attorney, Tracy M. Rizzo, released a statement to PEOPLE on behalf of the former pro wrestler following the split news. “Mr. Otunga has never abused or harassed Ms. Hudson or their son, and it is unfortunate, especially in today’s climate, that she would feel the need to make these false allegations against him. Mr. Otunga looks forward to his day in court and in being awarded the residential care of the parties’ only child,” a part of the statement read.