Career

Meet Anjula Kelly, the talented Kiwi dancing with Jennifer Lopez

'People go, 'You’re so lucky,' and I guess there’s an element of luck, but I also left my family when I was 17 and have been hustling ever since.'

By Leena Tailor

It was a long way from practising Jennifer Lopez's dance moves in her Auckland bedroom as a kid to rocking up to the star's Los Angeles mansion to rehearse for her new music video! But for Kiwi dancer Anjula Kelly, the pinch-me moment was only the beginning of a dream-like sequence of J.Lo jobs, including a surreal performance at May's Billboard Music Awards.

"I was just buzzing – it didn't feel real!" Anjula tells Woman's Day. "Coming to LA, Jennifer Lopez was the one person I wanted to work with, but I didn't know if it'd ever happen because she's so huge, so I've had a lot of moments pinching myself, thinking, 'It's happening!'"

While both LA and J.Lo had long been on her mind, Anjula's passion for performing started even earlier, when she took up gymnastics at the age of five.

Then, at 12, she tried dancing to improve her gym routines and got bitten by the bug. After finishing Green Bay High School at 17, she left behind her Fijian-born father Adrian, Kiwi mum Linda and sister Rosanna to pursue dance opportunities in Melbourne.

Starting out with events, she then made the top 40 of So You Think You Can Dance, prompting a move to Sydney, where she worked on The X Factor and with singer-actress Jessica Mauboy.

Anjula strutting her stuff during J-Lo's showstopping performance at this year's Billboard Music Awards.
Anjula strutting her stuff during J-Lo's showstopping performance at this year's Billboard Music Awards.

London called and a planned year-long stay turned into more than three years as Anjula worked on X Factor UK, did a music video with Take That and toured Europe with I'm Outta Love singer Anastacia.

It was a great life, one she was torn about leaving when her US visa came through.

"It was hard heading into the unknown, thinking, 'What if I don't get work there? It could be a disaster!'" Anjula recalls.

"Dancers come to LA from all over – it's filled with the best of the world, so it's hard to make it. But I'm super-driven and good at hustling, so I got straight to it."

Anjula backstage with J-Lo's dance crew.
Anjula backstage with J-Lo's dance crew.

Using industry contacts and pestering her agent, Anjula, 26, soon booked two music videos, then auditioned for Christina Aguilera's creative director Jeri Slaughter, who later booked her for The Voice.

"That was my first major job here. I was working with dancers who I really looked up to. I couldn't believe it when I walked into the room and saw them all."

Anjula on tour in Europe with Anastacia.
Anjula on tour in Europe with Anastacia.

The show ignited a string of gigs, including prancing around Pitbull at the Latin American Music Awards, a promo tour with Australian rapper Iggy Azalea and frolicking across the sandy stretches of the Florida Keys with rapper Future.

But it's J.Lo's video for El Anillo that set Anjula's wildest dreams in motion. Landing the gig without an audition after her agent submitted her tape, she was surprised to arrive at the first rehearsal to find Jennifer already there.

On America's Got Talent.
On America's Got Talent.

"So many artists turn up late and are just along for the ride, whereas she's such a visionary and so inspiring. She picked out the smallest details and would call out dancers if they weren't getting something right – thankfully, not me!

"We had a few rehearsals, then she said, 'I'll see you all on Sunday at my house.' We were like, 'OK!' She's got her own studio, so we had the final rehearsal there. I was already in awe of even being on the job, then suddenly I'm at her house. It was super-cool but also very chilled, just like she is."

Anjula made an impression on the songstress, who then invited her to perform at April's Billboard Latin Music Awards, hand-picking her to join her core group of six main dancers. And the pop queen also wanted Anjula for her Dinero video featuring Cardi B and DJ Khaled.

The double-up meant weeks flying back and forth from rehearsals in Las Vegas, where Jennifer performs her residency show, and shoot days in LA. Anjula continued to make her mark on her idol, with the star booking her for May's Billboard Music Awards.

Reflecting on these whirlwind recent weeks, Anjula says Jennifer's work ethic has further ignited her own "fire inside".

"People go, 'You're so lucky,' and I guess there's an element of luck, but I also left my family when I was 17 and have been hustling ever since. There's constant rejection, and it makes you question yourself and analyse everything, which can be a downward spiral."

While recognising down times are the nature of the business, Anjula's grateful to have had support from her longtime pal and former LA flatmate, Funny Girls star Kimberley Crossman.

"She's been great, especially in that first year when I was questioning things. She gave me advice, but it was more just having the support of a friend who's in the same boat and knows what rejection's like. It was really nice."

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