Anyone invited to Latifah’s studio couch can be reassured that the host has deep reserves of empathy and a long “Honey, I’ve been there” list: sexual molestation by a babysitter at age five, her parents’ difficult divorce when she was eight, the motorcycle-accident death of her beloved brother Lancelot “Winki” Owens when he was 24 and she 22, alcohol and drug use, a brief flirtation with drug dealing, survival of a carjacking at gunpoint, a marijuana-possession and weapons arrest, long-term struggles with her weight and the shock of going flat broke in 2000.
It’s all good now—almost. “I just want to have a party in the afternoon,” she says of her talk show goal, adding that she sees an advantage to having been “on the other side of the couch.” Latifah has always been the gamest of guests, tearing around the studio in a bike race with Jimmy Fallon, comparing skin tones with tanorexic Pauly D of Jersey Shore on Leno, talking heavily bleeped trash with Wendy Williams in a parody of Mob Wives. She says she is ready for anything: “If Tom Cruise jumps on my couch, I’m gonna make sure I’ve got a backboard and a basketball in case he wants to jump higher and dunk,” she says. “Have a blast! We’ll just make sure we’ve got some good springs in that couch.”
She’s certain there will be some pratfalls. “This is a learning experience. I’m not going to pretend to be Oprah Winfrey. That woman built a 25-year show. I’ve got to get through week one, then month one. I expect to make mistakes and learn and grow.”
She has imposed one basic commandment on herself and her team: “Keep it real.” There are a few hard-won corollaries, all essential to the Latifah remix:
Rule one: Family and friends first.
Latifah did not agree to do the talk show until her mother, Rita Owens, agreed to move from New Jersey to live with her. “If my mom wasn’t going to be in, then I wasn’t doing it. My mom is extremely important to me. I trust her with my life, and she’s had some physical challenges. I want her by my side in this.”
Rita Owens said she was all for it; then a medical emergency—Latifah prefers to keep the nature of her mother’s illness private—speeded up her move west. Flying her mother to California would have been stressful and problematic, so Latifah found a better way. She laughs as she describes the crew that rolled across the heartland on a tour bus: “I brought my mom, my grandmother, my Aunt Angel and my Uncle Jimmy, the dog—a boxer. They had a good old time, and they got a nice little view of America. It was really cool.”
Now that her mother is in residence, “it’s been wonderful, praying every night together,” Latifah says. “My mom has really helped increase all of our faith just because of the challenges she’s faced. I’ve had to get on these knees a lot and pray. And believe.”
Rule two: Have faith but leave all your options wide open.
In interviews, a memoir and an advice book, Latifah has been frank about the life-changing effect of losing her brother. But she has rarely spoken of her climb out of the despair she experienced, as well as the survivor’s guilt of having bought him the sleek Kawasaki Ninja ZX7 motorcycle he died driving.
“Jada was the first person who got me to go to therapy,” she says. This was during the shooting of the 1996 chick bank-heist movie Set It Off. “I was really having problems dealing with the loss.” She found she could tell Jada some of the scary things that had been happening since the accident. It went like this: “I didn’t feel. It was like I had a circuit breaker. When I felt any emotion too much, whether it was joy, fear, love, it would turn right off. So that was scaring me. I thought I was about to live my life not living my life. I was doing things to numb whatever was left or looking for little rushes of some sort. Going through the motions, doing my job, showing up for work but not feeling.”