No. 5: Jennifer Lopez

Downsizing for “American Idol,” even for a judicial chair, was a risk. The pop-culture phenomenon, stale and at a crossroads, was increasingly irrelevant. Past wins didn’t seem to translate into long-term success. The best days, people thought, were in the past.

Wait, the Fox reality singing competition or Jennifer Lopez? The celeb broke out across all platforms early in her career, going platinum for her albums and earning box-office credibility. Lately, though, she’d been stagnating, and her determination to stick to working-class roles in an era of fantasy blockbusters wasn’t paying off — especially during the dark Ben Affleck period.

Women of a certain age
Add that the music and movie industries aren’t particularly gallant to women of a certain age. A 2011 film study found that speaking roles went to men 67% of the time, and the ratio of men to women in behind-the-scenes creative power was 5 to 1. A lawsuit was even filed in October against Internet Movie Database (IMDb) for publishing the birth date of an actress without her permission: “In the entertainment industry,” the complaint reads, “youth is king. If one is perceived to be ‘over-the-hill,’ i.e., approaching 40, it is nearly impossible for an up-and-coming actress, such as the Plaintiff, to get work as she is thought to have less of an ‘upside.'”

Music is even more lopsided: Women make up less than 5% of all music-industry producers and engineers, who can make an artist’s sound and shape his or her career.

Small-screen gamble
But taking a small-screen gamble was one that many 40-something actresses take, and it paid off this year for Lopez. Despite Steven Tyler’s snaking the limelight, Lopez helped revive the show’s rating, dampened her diva rep (especially with an “Idol” breakdown), ended her Billboard Top 10 dry spell, snagged endorsement deals, was named People’s Most Beautiful Woman of 2011, and ramped up her average daily buzz about 56% — and that was just in the first quarter.

The second quarter wasn’t so kind. Lopez announced her divorce days before her 42nd birthday. The rumors focused on Marc Anthony’s relationship with his “Hawthorne” co-star Jada Pinkett Smith, which he denied. The ending of Lopez and Anthony’s 7-year-old, turbulent marriage, appeared to be part of a painful readjustment, and she stuck with filming her two high-profile movies and renewing her “Idol” contract. More confirmation of her comeback and middle-class appeal: Even after the separation, her clothing line (separate from Marc Anthony’s) helped the bottom line at Kohl’s.

Lopez ended up on magazine covers, including Vanity Fair and Glamour, which named her one of its women of the year. In an interview with Jane Fonda, she revealed that she fired a manager who told her to lose weight: “‘I was just so infuriated that somebody said you couldn’t have a little extra meat on you — because I was by no means fat!

That kind of outspoken accessibility, as well as the occasional sentimental outbreak, may be the key to the Bronx-born celebrity’s liability. Her net worth is valued at $250 million and reflects not inheritance, but a hard-working ethic that a working stiff can understand.

The Yahoo! Year in Review editorial lead for five years running, Vera H-C Chan dissects news events, pop-culture idiosyncrasies, and online behavior to probe the “why” behind what’s hot online. On Yahoo!, her articles can be found in News, TV, Movies, and her Shine blog Fast-Talking Dame. Across the Net, there are remnants of contributions to a cultural travel guide, martial arts encyclopedia, movie criticism, business profiles, and A&E/features reporting.