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NEW ORLEANS – It’s been two years since singer Janet Jackson performed on a concert stage and her fans say that’s been two years too long.

Jackson marks her stage return Friday with an opening night, first-time performance at the Essence Music Festival inside the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

“I’m excited, we’re excited,” Jackson said in an interview prior to her appearance. “It’s been awhile since I’ve been on stage and we’re just excited to get back out there.”

Fans got a glimpse of her new, sassy, short-cropped hair and her signature, shapely figure on the finale show of American Idol where she rocked classics like “Again” and “Nasty” and her latest release, “Nothing,” from the soundtrack of the movie, “Why Did I Get Married Too?,” which she also starred in.

Will Bias, a frequent fest-goer from New Orleans, said he is definitely looking forward the show.

“I’ve never seen her perform live, only on TV, so I’m just wondering what to expect,” he said. “I know it’s going to be good, though. She’s been away for so long, she’s probably got some surprises in store for us.”

Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., was as excited as fans to be able to hear Jackson sing some of her hits in person. She said festival organizers had extended invitations to perform numerous times over the course of the last 15 years and this year she finally accepted.

“Prayer works,” Ebanks said laughing.

The festival is celebrating the magazine’s 40th anniversary this year and Ebanks said they wanted to do so by putting the spotlight on strong, powerful female artists. In addition to Jackson, the lineup includes Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Monica, Keri Hilson, Chrisette Michele, Lalah Hathaway, Melanie Fiona, Estelle, Ledisi, Laura Izibor and New Orleans’ own Irma Thomas.

“It means a great deal for me to be in the company of such wonderful women, women who I have the pleasure of knowing personally,” Jackson said. “I’m especially honored to be able to play on a stage that also hosts Gladys Knight. She watched me grow up and I remember her being around the Motown family when I was a kid. It’s definitely an honor.”

Jackson, 44, said she has wanted to come to the festival previously but a jam-packed schedule didn’t allow it.

“It didn’t really permit me this time either, but because I really wanted to do it, we’ve worked it in,” she said.

Rehearsals have been squeezed in between her other projects.

“On my days off from filming, I’m in rehearsals. It’s 24 hours, seven days a week, but we’re having fun and I’m looking forward to it,” she said.

Jackson also is preparing for another movie collaboration with actor-director Tyler Perry, starring in his upcoming film adaptation, “For Colored Girls.” She plays the “Red” character in the film, which is based on Ntozake Shange’s 1975 Tony Award-nominated play, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”

“I’m finally living my dream of acting,” said Jackson, who’s also starred in Perry’s film, “Why Did I Get Married?”.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful for all that God has bestowed upon me as far as singing is concerned, but I never thought I would be a singer,” she said. “My father wanted me to sing. I wanted to act. And, now, I’m finally living that dream.”

Still, Jackson said she has no plans to stop performing or making music but does see writing and developing scripts in her future. “I’m really drawn to the action stuff and I love sci-fi. That really drives me crazy,” she said.

The role of “author” also soon will be attached to her name. “True You,” a book that chronicles Jackson’s lifelong struggles with weight and self-esteem, is set for release this fall.

“It’s not an autobiography, but I tell anecdotes about my life from when I was a kid to now,” she said. “Things happen that can affect a child for the rest of their life and I didn’t want to just speak to adults about these issues, so the book reflects that.”


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