You might think that adopting a royal title is a little cheeky, but Queen Latifah can pull it off. With her no-nonsense attitude and voluptuous figure, the brazen first lady of hip-hop is perhaps an unlikely movie star. So, hats off to the sassy 35-year-old for earning her place on the Hollywood movie map while still playing by her own rules.
She was born Dana Owens, and, at eight, was given the Arabic nickname Latifah, meaning "delicate and sensitive". She was actually a streetwise New Jersey-reared chick. She enjoyed her first taste of the spotlight as a teenage "human beatbox" with an all-girl rap group. A blink of an eye later, and Latifah got the role of Khadijah, the magazine editor, in the 1990s sitcom Living Single, and went on to be an Oprah-inspired talk-show host and win a Grammy.
She recently went back to her roots, releasing The Dana Owens Album, performing covers of jazz and R&B classics. The breadth of her appeal is exemplified by her fan base, which ranges from residents of Bel Air mansions to inhabitants of inner cities. Today, she's in LA, hyping the comedy Beauty Shop, in which she stars (and that she co-produced), an oestrogen-laced spin-off from the two successful Barbershop films.
Dressed in faded jeans and a sheer blouse, her hair in a ponytail, she moseys into her hotel suite as if it were her own living room. A motorcycle key dangles from a chain - a reminder of her brother, a policeman, who was killed in an accident on a motorcycle that had been a gift from her.
Best known for her portrayal as the sassy prison matron Mama Morton in 2002's Chicago (earning her an Oscar nomination); and the escaped convict who wreaks havoc in a white upper-class home in the 2003 comedy Bringing Down the House, Latifah is the first to admit that she's "larger" than your regular ingénue. "Hey, I could never be like those skinny actresses," she guffaws. "That's just too slim-Jim for me. I mean, they're naturally like that, I can't even imagine what it's like to be that lightweight. I would feel weak, like I didn't have any muscles. Not for me. I'm used to being big, thicky icky. I like myself the way I am. I get to eat, to have a good dinner and keep it right in there until it is ready to go!"
Looking a lot slighter than her busty Mama, Latifah comically rolls her eyes and bellows: "I definitely didn't want to lose weight for Chicago. Mama was supposed to be big and buxom. But I dropped some weight for Bringing Down the House - maybe 25lb. It was just a little change around this area." She points to her breasts. "I wish every woman would love themselves and embrace what they've been handed. I've been fortunate to have the career I want without changing the way I look."
Latifah was proud to become the face of Cover Girl cosmetics. "They needed a girl like me, to be honest. I was like, 'Now you're cooking with gas. You're hip, you're getting cool points, Cover Girl', but it was still a bit of a gamble."
She continues "It's good that they have somebody who looks like me, because I didn't have a role model I could relate to when I was growing up. Us girls are sensitive, we can get twisted up on our body image, because we don't have someone who kinda looks like us. Do you know, there are 50 million women in this country who are full-figured?"
As a baby, Latifah would bang on pots and pans, and sing into spoons before she could walk and talk. She inherited her fearlessness from her father, who gave her and her brother lessons in karate and guns. "I'm not afraid of too many things, and I got that invincible attitude from him," she says. "Dad taught us how to shoot 'em, unload 'em, and where not to point 'em."Doing a cowgirl accent, Latifah slurs: "The paparazzi don't come near my house in Jersey, I shoot them some bitch - better get off my property!"
Her father was a policeman, her mother a high- school art teacher who sang in the local choir. As a teenager, Latifah worked at Burger King, starred in school productions and sold records at the Whiz record chain in her hometown of Newark, New Jersey. Her rap breakthrough came in high school when she formed a rhyming group, Ladies Fresh, with two girlfriends, ultimately winning a school talent contest. By graduation in 1987, a DJ friend had put her demo tapes in circulation and, in true showbiz style, they landed in the hands of the renowned MTV host Fab 5 Freddy, and, two years later, the bestselling album, All Hail the Queen, was born. It was then that Latifah added the "Queen" prefix.
"My momma told me I was one, and every man should treat me with that respect," she explains. "As a kid, I was lucky not to have the attitude that I was too good to do anything. You know, too good to work at Burger King, too good to go out and earn a pay-cheque. Some people thought they were too good for that stuff, when really they were just too damn lazy."
Cocking her head to one side, she continues: "Those were happy times. I lived and breathed hip-hop. I remember when I was 15 being in this club, Latin Quarters, and I was one of the few people from Jersey there. It was a place where, when they screamed, 'Is Brooklyn in the house?', the whole club would erupt. You didn't want to say your ass was from Jersey or you'd get your ass robbed!
"But right in front of my eyes, the new era of hip-hop was being born - Grandmaster Flash, Salt'n'Pepa, Beastie Boys - I watched them grow, and they inspired me."
Latifah's second album, Nature of a Sista, confirmed her talent in responding to the misogyny of some of her male counterparts, while her third, Black Reign, attracted media attention. The track "U.N.I.T.Y" was a rap song with a positive message, for which she got a Grammy in 1995.
Queen Latifah made her screen debut in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991), and had small roles in Set it Off (1996) and Hoodlum (1997). But it was her role in Chicago that confirmed her as an actress to be reckoned with. In Beauty Shop, Latifah revisits her Barbershop 2 role, as Gina the hairdresser. She trades Chicago for sunny Atlanta, and a swish salon run by the fey Jorge (Kevin Bacon). But there's only so much that the proud single mum can take of the bitchy Jorge, and so, taking shampoo girl Alicia Silverstone with her, she opens her own shop and steals his rich clients (Mena Suvari and Andie MacDowell). As queen of the new salon, Latifah couldn't be more in her element.
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