Jennifer Hudson sits inside an L.A. recording studio, her eyes hidden behind large sunglasses, her braided pigtails peeking from under a pageboy cap. Eight days from now she will kick off a national concert tour, and today is her first rehearsal with a new band. But while the musicians warm up, she doesn't say much, keeps her head down, fidgets. She's so unassuming that her backup vocalists, two glitzy gals with easy laughs, seem like the only divas in the room. And then Jennifer Hudson begins to sing, and all doubt is erased. It's not just her voice. The music seems to transform her, elevate her. ''In church we call that the Anointing, that's what you're feeling,'' she says. ''Music is my home. When I'm trying to find my inner peace, when it seems like everything is overwhelming, I put music in my ears.''
For most of 2008, Hudson seemed on top of the world. After winning an Oscar in 2007 for her performance in Dreamgirls, she had two movies in theaters last year: the summer smash Sex and the City and the fall drama The Secret Life of Bees. Her debut album, Jennifer Hudson, landed at No. 2 on the Billboard chart, and on her 27th birthday in September, her boyfriend, David Otunga, a Harvard Law School grad and reality TV star (I Love New York 2), proposed. ''I don't think I've ever been happier,'' she told a magazine that summer. And then the world turned upside down.
On Oct. 24, Hudson's mother, Darnell Donerson, and brother, Jason, were found shot to death in her mother's South Side Chicago home. Her sister's 7-year-old son, Julian, was missing. Three days later, the boy's body was found in the backseat of a white SUV. Police have charged William Balfour, the estranged husband of Hudson's sister, with the crimes. (He has pleaded not guilty.) In the four months that followed, Hudson made no public statements or appearances, remaining in seclusion. But her first steps back into the spotlight earlier this year were showstoppers: More than 98 million Americans watched Hudson lift the roof off the national anthem at the Super Bowl on Feb. 1. One week later she won a Grammy for Best R&B Album, and delivered a performance of her power ballad ''You Pulled Me Through'' that pulled the crowd to its feet. ''I was in the audience, people were crying, and I was thinking 'How is she going to get through this?''' says the song's writer, legendary composer Diane Warren. ''To live through what she's lived through...where do you get that strength?''
NEXT PAGE: ''This is what I love to do, and I hate to sit still. I have been active for the past four or five years, and to be working like that and then to just stop and all you hear is the clock ticking.... That will drive you crazy.''