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Jennifer Hudson worked her way up

  • Story Highlights
  • Jennifer Hudson's rise to fame came the old-fashioned way
  • Hudson's mother, brother, nephew found dead in Chicago, Illinois
  • Singer beat out more than 800 other women for role in "Dreamgirls"
  • Hudson's first national recognition came on "American Idol"
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(CNN) -- In an age when many people become celebrities through looks or connections, Jennifer Hudson's rise to fame came the old-fashioned way: through talent, hard work and a close-knit family.

Jennifer Hudson is in a new movie, "The Secret Life of Bees," and recently released her first solo album.

Jennifer Hudson is in a new movie, "The Secret Life of Bees," and recently released her first solo album.

At a time when the singer is in a new movie, "The Secret Life of Bees," and recently released her first solo album, Hudson is now back in the public eye largely due to a family tragedy.

Hudson's mother, Darnell Donerson, and brother, Jason Hudson, were found shot to death Friday in their Chicago home. The body of the singer's missing 7-year-old nephew, Julian King, was found in an SUV on Monday morning.

Julian's stepfather, William Balfour, was detained over the weekend for questioning in connection with the case, a police spokesperson told CNN. He was subsequently transferred to prison on a parole violation charge, the spokesperson said.

Balfour's mother has acknowledged that her son has been questioned about the shootings, but said he had nothing to do with the crime.

No charges had been filed against anyone in connection with the murders. iReport.com: Reaction to Hudson family tragedy

The tragedy is a sad turn for the 27-year-old actress and singer, who first earned national notice for her performances on "American Idol" in 2004 and won an Oscar for best supporting actress for 2006's "Dreamgirls."

Hudson's singing career began in her church choir in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood when she was a child. She remained devoted to singing all the way through Chicago's Dunbar Vocational High School, where there is now a Jennifer Hudson Room. (She's in good company; Dunbar's alumni include Lou Rawls and two of the Staple Singers.)

"People would say it was unusual for such a small girl to have such a big voice," she told Reuters in 2006. "They would say, 'She sounds like she's grown.' "

After finishing school, she performed in the musical "Big River" at a Chicago-area dinner theater and took a job on a cruise line.

In 2003, she auditioned for "American Idol" in Atlanta, Georgia, and managed to earn her way to the top-rated show with a performance of "Easy to be Hard," the "Hair" ballad popularized by Three Dog Night.

"Idol" proved to be an uneven experience for Hudson. After the show narrowed down its 12 finalists, she started slowly, at times almost being voted off, but eventually her song choices -- including Elton John's "Circle of Life" and Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" -- made her one of the favorites. Sir Elton himself believed she was the "best of the lot." 'Idol' friend speaks out about Hudson case Video

In the end, Hudson didn't even come close to making "Idol's" final two, being voted off midway in the show's run. However, her performances had established her as a talent to watch, and in May 2005 -- several months after finishing the traditional post-"Idol" group tour -- she was contacted by a casting agency about the part of Effie, the tragic soul of "Dreamgirls."

In the musical, which concerns an all-girl trio much like the Supremes, Effie is a weight-challenged musical powerhouse who begins as the group's leader but is dropped as both performer and lover by the group's manager for the more statuesque singer Deena. The role features the musical's showstopping song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," and won Jennifer Holliday a Tony Award when "Dreamgirls" ran on Broadway.

Hudson was unfamiliar with "Dreamgirls" when she auditioned, but she allegedly beat out almost 800 other women for the role -- including her former "Idol" rival, Fantasia Barrino, who had been the third-season winner.

The role's high-pitched emotions were a challenge, Hudson told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2006.

"I had to find a way into it," she said to the newspaper. "[Director] Bill Condon sent me into 'Diva 101.' He told me I was too nice. So I'd come into the room angry, but tell all the ADs, 'Bill told me to do this. This is Effie and not Jennifer.' I had to learn how to separate myself from the character with that attitude. That was Bill's main concern. Effie had to have that edge."

Her performance won her across-the-board raves. Variety compared her turn to Barbra Streisand's award-winning debut in "Funny Girl," among others. It also led to a host of awards, including supporting actress honors from the New York Critics Circle, Golden Globes, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and -- finally -- the Academy Awards.

At the Oscar show, Hudson tearfully thanked her grandmother, whom she described as her "biggest inspiration." Julia Kate Hudson, who sang at Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church, where Hudson got her start, died in 1998.

Since winning the Oscar, Hudson has been a mainstay of celebrity magazines, which have broadcast news of her engagement to "I Love New York 2" contestant David Otunga, regularly singled her out as an example of a healthy plus-sized body type and held her up as an "Idol" made good. She's continued her movie career with performances in "Sex and the City: The Movie" and "The Secret Life of Bees," both of which came out in 2008.

She sang the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention in August at the personal request of Sen. Barack Obama's campaign.

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According to many reports, Hudson has remained humble amid all the attention. She remains devoted to the church -- "Church is where I'm from. It will always be my favorite place to sing, and that's where I'd like to go back to," Hudson told the Sun-Times -- and uses her against-all-odds biography to inspire others.

"I've had a similar journey as Effie," Hudson told the Sun-Times. "Me being a part of 'Idol,' her being part of the group. ... We both go through our journeys, trying to hold on to our dream and achieve our goal. We have hardships, but we prevail at the end."

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