When Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck married in a Las Vegas ceremony earlier this month, nearly 20 years after calling off their first wedding, it was a feel-good moment which seemed to prove the old adage that true love is worth the wait.With three failed marriages behind her, J Lo, 53, finally wed the man she calls her ‘soulmate’, saying: ‘Maybe you’ll find the best moment of your life in Las Vegas at twelve thirty in the morning in the tunnel of love drive-through with your kids and the one you’ll spend forever with.’But while the world has been captivated by the romantic tale of ‘Bennifer’ – the nickname bestowed on the £300 million star and her Oscar-winning husband – the news has reopened painful old wounds for one man.
Ojani Noa, Lopez’s first husband, today lives a world away from the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood spotlight. But he, too, was told by J Lo that he was the man she wanted to spend ‘forever’ with – and that, he says with a shrug, ‘was three husbands and five engagements’ ago.‘I wish her and Ben the best, but I’m not convinced it will last,’ Ojani says now. ‘Jen loves being in love but she’s been engaged six times. Ben is husband number four. I was husband number one and she told me I was the love of her life. When we lay in bed on our wedding night, she said we would be together for ever.’Ojani, 48, has rarely spoken about their intense and passionate relationship.
Although they divorced in 1998, they remained friends for many years afterwards. But he is talking publicly now because he is tired of being dismissed as the ‘penniless waiter’ J Lo dumped after just a year of marriage.‘We were together romantically for two years but friends for nearly a decade,’ he says, sitting in the lobby of a Miami hotel a 45-minute drive from the home in South Miami he shares with his two dogs.In person, the 6ft 1in former model still has the rugged good looks which caught the young J Lo’s eye. As he speaks for nearly four hours, it becomes obvious that ‘Jen’ – as he calls her – remains deeply embedded in his psyche, a woman he firmly believes he would still be married to had fame and those he dismisses as ‘parasites who feed off celebrities’ not got in the way.But the very fact that Ojani, who fled Cuba on a blow-up dinghy when he was 15, even came into the orbit of ‘Jenny from the Block’ is remarkable. It’s a fascinating, almost fairytale story.
‘There were many times I felt like Mr Cinderella,’ he admits. ‘She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. In the beginning, I had no idea who she was.‘We fell in love when she was already famous. But during our marriage she became a megastar. For years it was too painful to talk about. I wanted to lie low and live my life. But when I saw she got married to Ben, who is a good guy, the feelings came flooding back.’He adds: ‘There has been so much written about Jen and I, especially in the past couple of weeks, most of it wrong. I want people to know the real story.’Ojani, now a personal trainer, met J Lo in 1996 when she walked into Gloria Estefan’s Cuban restaurant on Miami’s famous Ocean Drive. Then 22, he had arrived in the US illegally seven years earlier after making the perilous 90-mile journey from Cuba to Florida with six friends on a 6ft long inflatable boat. ‘It was a miracle we survived the crossing,’ he says.After washing cars on the tough streets of Miami, he found work as a dishwasher at Estefan’s restaurant, Lario’s On The Beach. ‘Gloria treated us like family,’ he says. ‘I worked my way up to being a waiter. Miami was buzzing. I did some modelling. I hustled. I wanted the American dream – and I found it when Jen walked into Lario’s.’
At 28, the actress was already a celebrity. She had starred as a ‘fly girl’ dancer on the TV show In Living Colour, and alongside Woody Harrelson in the movie Money Train. When she met Ojani she was filming Blood And Wine alongside Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine.‘I had no idea who she was,’ Ojani insists. ‘Our eyes glanced at each other and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She was with her friend, Anita, and Arlene, her assistant.‘They came back the next night and Jen was at the bar. I was bringing French fries over for another customer and she said, “Oh my god, those look yummy.” I handed them to her without saying a word.I was smitten. She was wearing a white top and trousers, and I remember thinking she had the best body I’d ever seen. She later told me she knew that first night she was going to marry me.’
Arlene told Ojani they were heading to the movie’s wrap party to celebrate the end of filming, but wanted to meet afterwards at a club called Commune.‘When we got to the club my friend Leo took Jen to the dance floor, and I thought, “Oh man, you’re a lucky guy.” Then Anita said, “When they get back, take Jen out there. It’s you she’s interested in.”‘They get back and I take her hand and lead her on to the floor, and a slow song comes on. It was electric. She was shaking and said, “You make me nervous.”‘We could both feel the romantic energy. It was instant and intense. Like it was surging through our bodies. I said, “I feel the same way you’re feeling.” I lifted her chin and gave her a kiss – it was a kiss like we’d known each other for ever.’The actress was due to fly home to Los Angeles the next day. ‘Nothing happened that night, I kissed her goodnight and gave her my pager number. When I was walking her to her car some random guy walked by and said, “Oh my God, that’s Jennifer Lopez from Money Train.” That’s when I realised maybe she was somebody.
‘The next morning my pager goes off. Jen had to see me before her flight. The door goes and I open it and she falls into my arms. We kissed, and as she drove off in her limo, she looked back like in the movies and I thought, “This is it. This is crazy.” ’The pair spent weeks talking over the phone – Ojani using the pay-phone in the restaurant’s kitchen.‘She was coming to Miami for the premiere of Blood And Wine and wanted me to be her date. I rented a cheap suit. We got to the red carpet, there were all these flashing lights and fans screaming. I started to feel sick. I walked down the carpet holding her hand then stood to the side while she gave interviews.‘I heard her say, “Jack, I want you to meet my date, Ojani.” I turned around and she was introducing me to Jack Nicholson. Then she said, “This is Michael” – and it was Michael Caine. I felt like I was in a movie. A few years earlier I was on a dinghy in the ocean running away from Fidel Castro, and now I’m on a red carpet. Michael Caine was lovely. He said, “Don’t worry, you will get used to it.”‘After the premiere we went back to her hotel. That was the first time we made love. It was perfect. She was perfect. We lay there afterwards and she said, “I want you to always be in my life. I love you.” I felt like Mr Cinderella.’
Part of his appeal, Ojani believes, was that he wasn’t starstruck. ‘She’s a traditional girl. She comes from a humble Puerto Rican family. She wanted someone to protect her, someone who would stand up for her. We fell totally in love.‘I quit my job and moved to LA. We lived in a nice apartment. But soon we moved into our first house and then the houses kept getting bigger. She loved that I was a balseros [rafter] from Cuba. I never wanted anything from her. I always worked and had my own money. She talked about her childhood in the Bronx. She loves her dad, David. He’s such a good, sweet guy. Her mum, Guadalupe, is the tough one. She pushed Jen to succeed.’In the new Netflix documentary Halftime, about her performance at the 2020 Super Bowl show, J Lo admits her mum ‘beat the s***’ out of her. Ojani says: ‘She loves her mum and Lupe is very proud of her, but I thought the relationship was toxic. Lupe would scream at her. I didn’t like it. Looking back now, I sometimes think maybe Jen enjoyed the drama.’
The first sign that Hollywood would turn his life ‘upside down’ came when his lover landed the lead role in 1997 film Selena, about the doomed Latina singer gunned down by a deranged fan.It was a breakout role that turned J Lo into an overnight sensation. Offers came flooding in, including a multi-million-dollar deal from Sony to make her first album, On The 6. ‘We’d been together about six months when she got Selena. We went to San Antonio, Texas, for the shoot and every night we’d come back to the hotel and she’d collapse in my arms filled with insecurity. She didn’t think she was good enough. In the middle of the night she would burst into tears. I comforted her and said she was the best, that she was killing it.‘She loves shopping, and when she wasn’t filming we went to the local mall. One day we went into a jewellery store and she started looking at rings. She pointed at one and said, “I love that one.”
‘She left and I pretended I needed to go to the restroom. I snuck back in the store and told the girl to put it to one side. I had money saved up. I’d been working as her personal trainer but also had modelling money. The ring was $15,000 – a fortune back then. I hid the ring in a plastic bag behind the sink.’
The wrap party for Selena was at the Hard Rock Cafe. ‘They were making speeches. I grabbed the mic and said, “Jennifer, I love you. Will you marry me?” Everyone was cheering. I went down on one knee and gave her the ring. She was crying and laughing and said Yes!
The pair decided to have the wedding in February 1997 in a friend’s back garden on the water in Miami. It was then that the first cracks began to show.
Ojani claims Guadalupe berated her daughter for not holding the ceremony in her native Bronx.‘Jen would be in tears all the time. Her mum was calling and yelling at her, trying to get her to change the venue. So I called Lupe and said, “You need to stop this.” That was a big mistake. From then on there was tension between me and Lupe.’Intriguingly, Lupe has been quoted recently as saying she always believed Ben was ‘the one’ for her daughter. ‘If Ben has Lupe onside then maybe he’s got a chance,’ Ojani tells me with a grin.
Tensions grew as the woman Ojani knew and loved changed.‘She went from Jen to being J Lo, this big business bringing in millions. She had all these new people around her, all wanting to make money off her. I would call and an assistant would say, “Sorry, she’s not available.” ’Things only got worse after the wedding. Ojani was put in charge of launching a nightclub in LA called The Conga Room, part-owned by J Lo, while she went off to make her album in New York. Ojani started seeing pictures of his bride with rapper Sean Combs, known as P. Diddy, who was producing several of the tracks.
‘I rang Jen and asked why she was going out with him on dates and she said, “It’s just business. This is what I’m being told I have to do.” I was jealous and would scream, “But you are married!” ’Their dreams of starting a family also bit the dust. ‘We wanted kids, we discussed having kids. Then she told me she couldn’t have a baby because it would interfere with her career.’Despite the crumbling relationship he says he was encouraged to ‘fake it’ for the cameras when the pair travelled to Chicago to film an Oprah Winfrey interview.‘Oprah knew we were having problems. I was sitting in the audience and thought Oprah would come to me because we had talked about it beforehand.‘Oprah said to Jen, “I hear you guys are having problems.” With that beautiful face and that beautiful smile, Jen said, “No, everything is amazing”, or something like that.’
Ojani says he lost 40lb through stress as he fought to save his marriage, ‘while at the same time our whole life became a lie’.Meanwhile, J Lo’s career went from strength to strength as Selena was flooded with award nominations. ‘We went to the Golden Globes and sat with Jack [Nicholson]. He said, “You guys look so happy.” I told him, “It’s not what it seems.” He told me to hang in there. I never thought I would be getting relationship advice from Jack Nicholson.’The couple eventually split in 1998 and J Lo went on to publicly date P. Diddy shortly after their divorce was finalised. Ojani received a reported $50,000 in the settlement and the couple remained close. Ojani even continued to wear his wedding ring.‘There were times she told me she wanted to get back together. In quiet moments she would say, “I need you in my life. I don’t want to lose you.”’After splitting with Diddy she went on to marry back-up singer Cris Judd. Yet, ironically, Ojani claims he was there when her relationship with Affleck began in 2002 as her second marriage hit the rocks. By then J Lo had opened an LA restaurant, Madres, and had asked Ojani to manage it.
‘Madres had a grand opening. She walked the red carpet with Cris but Ben was waiting round the back with a bunch of red roses,’ he says. ‘Cris and Ben are both good guys. That night I sat on the patio with Ben and he told me what an amazing woman Jen is. I said, “I know.”
‘I’m happy she has gone back to Ben but I have a feeling this won’t last.‘I think she’s someone who will be married seven or eight times. I can’t see her ever settling down with one person. She pushes herself to constantly go forward in her professional life, which is why she’s had a three-decade career, but she also moves on in her private life.’Ojani says the pair finally fell out when he was unceremoniously dumped as the manager of Madres in 2005. He sued for unfair dismissal and the case was settled. Ojani moved back to Miami and has come close to marriage only once since J Lo.‘For many years I felt burned, bruised. I think if she hadn’t had all those people around her then we might still be together.‘But I have my life and I am happy. I still believe in love and I hope Jen has finally found the love she has been looking for.’