Latifah, however, points to her other advantages. At 43, she has aged into the late-afternoon demographic of female viewers. She expects she’ll also bring some outliers along. Given her career as an ’80s hip-hop star, a ’90s sitcom player and an actress with more than 20 post-2000 film credits (not to mention her contracts with CoverGirl and Pantene), she says, “I see myself crossing three generations, easily.”
She shows up on the Sony lot dressed to take care of business. Her hair is pulled into a tight bun, exposing a clutch of vivid blue butterflies tattooed behind her right ear. Two more flutter across her left wrist and thumb. She is in basic black—pants, cardigan, tee—and a pair of sturdy brown tie shoes. Over the next few hours, she will maintain focus by crunching on cinnamon Altoids and a cupful of ice. As she snaps the mint tin shut, Latifah admits to a chronic antsiness: “It’s a bit of a challenge for me to just be still.” For stress release, there is also a regulation-size basketball court beneath the rainbow, and she’s itching to lace up and get out there. Pity the fool from accounts payable trying to guard a five-foot-ten-inch dynamo who honed fierce playground moves with her homeys in East Orange, New Jersey.
The Queen Latifah Show, however, is no casual pickup game. Its expensive yearlong development bespeaks deep confidence in a bankable star. Two hundred employees are counting on this Jersey girl so unprepared for her first brush with fame at 18 that she blew the royalty check for her hit song “Princess of the Posse” on gold caps for her teeth—but they were cheesy snap-ons rather than the kind a dentist affixes. The caps, and her earnings, were lost in a few days.
There were few other female rappers on the scene when Dana Elaine Owens, daughter of a New Jersey police officer and a high school art teacher, crowned herself Queen Latifah and hit the road during her year and a half at Borough of Manhattan Community College. And she didn’t know the first thing about acting when her hip-hop touring buddy Will Smith gave her two guest spots on his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The show’s director, Ellen Falcon, taught Latifah the basics, then directed her in the starring role on the series Living Single. It ran for five years and is still in syndication. When Broadway veterans voiced doubts about a rapper singing a showpiece solo in the 2002 movie Chicago, Latifah dug in and nailed it, along with an Oscar nomination.
“I love a challenge,” she says. “Trying things that scare the hell out of me and pushing past that fear, doing it anyway—that gives me a thrill.”
It doesn’t worry Latifah that this is her second shot at the talk show market. Her first afternoon program premiered in 1999. After two years, neither the ratings nor Latifah was solid. Some of the sad stories that landed on her show didn’t help. “There was too much heaviness, too many serious topics,” she says. “I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I was not happy with my life. I was not fulfilled. The money wasn’t enough, the slot on television was not enough.”
This was a moody, uncertain period for her. Over this long, sunny afternoon, Latifah takes us through what has amounted to a career and lifestyle remix. Just as recording artists remake and renew earlier songs, she’s been amplifying the good vibes in her life and deleting any sour notes: “I do feel that I am in a healthier place. I’ve had to grow in many ways, and I’ve faced fears, emotions and things that maybe I would not have dealt with before—or dealt with in ways that weren’t healthy.”