Queen Latifah Faces Her Fears

As she launches a new talk show, the star talks candidly about reconciling with her father, caring for her ailing mother and confronting things that “scare the hell out of me"

by Gerri Hirshey
queen latifah more image
Carmen Marc Valvo Black Label jeweled gown; Saks Fifth Avenue. Le Vian Chocolate Diamond studs set in 14k white gold; levian.com. Pages 91 and 97: Marina Rinaldi turtleneck; 212-734-4333. Le Vian Chocolate Diamond hoops set in 14k Strawberry Gold; levian.com. Bracelets are Latifah’s own.
Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Queen Latifah is standing by a window in her corner office at Sony Pictures Studios, a bustling 45-acre campus carved into the Culver City section of Los Angeles. A 94-foot metal rainbow dominates what she sees from her desk. The sculpture was commissioned by Sony, partly in homage to The Wizard of Oz, which was filmed here in 1938, when the studio belonged to MGM. The new corporation also hoped that the rainbow would generate feelings of optimism in the latter-day munchkins toiling beneath it.

“Can’t hurt,” says Latifah. She points to the steeple of a venerable church across the street. “Who knows? I just might end up in there on rough days. On my knees.”

Despite her joking, there is no shortage of blue-sky optimism in this suite and on the two huge soundstages currently dedicated to launching The Queen Latifah Show, a new afternoon gabfest–road trip–variety hour that debuted September 16 on CBS. Carpenters are putting finishing touches on a lavish set while a full-time field-production unit is gearing up for a grueling schedule of nationwide location shoots with people doing inspiring things, from keeping inner-city kids in school to supporting veterans and their families.

All of it will be flavored with “the essence of La,” says Latifah’s friend Jada Pinkett Smith, now also her production partner. (The show is the joint venture of three companies: Sony; Latifah and Shakim Compere’s company, Flavor Unit; and Overbrook Entertainment, principally owned by James Lassiter and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.) The two women were teenagers in 1988 when skinny little Jada—a hip-hop kid and dancer—was at a Baltimore club and first beheld the eye-popping phenom who called herself Latifah (the “Queen” came a bit later). “She was barefoot, wrapped in this African garb with the headpiece,” Pinkett Smith recalls. “I was so impressed with this black woman my age who was representing herself as an African queen. It was a bold statement in a very male-dominated industry.”

More than two decades later, Latifah and Pinkett Smith agree there’s nothing sweeter than merging the career successes that still astonish them both. On this TV project, Latifah is surrounded by a mature circle of those who know her best: Overbrook producer Miguel Melendez, who first proposed the weekday show; Compere, Latifah’s closest confidant and her 25-year business partner; and the Smiths. “These are my friends, who are self-made and have become big stars not just in front of the camera but behind it,” she says. “I love the idea of putting all of our brainpower together.”

This inner circle calls her La and assesses all aspects of the new show to make sure they have the Latifah DNA. 

It’s so La.

That’s just not La.

“Do I think that she has the skill set and the spine?” says Pinkett Smith. “Absolutely. We felt she’s the only personality that could replace an Oprah. She gets to the heart of things, but she’s not heavy—like a good combination of an Oprah and an Ellen.”

New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley isn’t as optimistic. She thinks it will be a challenge to -enter—and pull ahead in—a very crowded arena. “Queen Latifah is both regal and immensely likable, and that may prove to be her greatest weakness as a daytime talk show: She has universal appeal in a field that is increasingly niche focused,” says Stanley. “She isn’t nasty enough to compete with a saucy diva of dish like Wendy Williams. And there are already too many celebrities with a common touch: Katie Couric, Steve Harvey and, soon enough, Meredith Vieira. If she’s lucky, Queen Latifah could become a one-stop-shopping choice. But it’s just as easy to fall through the cracks.”

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.”

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.”

Jada knew of a good therapist; Latifah went. She says the sessions were productive, but grief can still ambush her in tentative moments. Her faith has helped, and she has taken an ecumenical approach. The Dalai Lama’s best seller, The Art of Happiness, taught her a lot about the purpose of suffering. The biblical texts given her by a close high school friend, basketball star Tammy Hammond, have long sustained her. “I went to Catholic school,” says Latifah. “Some of my cousins are Muslims; most of my family is Baptist. From the time I was a little kid, I felt I could have a conversation with God and get answers back.” During the period after her brother’s death, she and the Almighty had some difficult discussions.

Picture a twenty-something Latifah alone and blue on yet another red-eye flight between L.A. and New Jersey, commuting for her Living Single job. She’s cocooned in an airline blanket, crying again, asking her brother, “How could you leave me? And Mommy?” Then begging, “Give me a sign.” Suddenly, out the window, there’s a bright shooting star. She says it happened again on another flight. Back home, on her balcony, she challenged him: “Look, Winki, if you really are out there, then shoot across the sky right now.”

Whooooosh! She makes an inter-galactic traffic noise and slaps her desk. “I could put my hand on a Bible and tell you that’s exactly what happened. It was the craziest thing.” She describes a fourth cosmic high-five: “I was in my room. It was a really foggy night, and I was going through it, talking to Winki: ‘My show is successful and my record is going gold, and I’d give all this stuff back just to have you...’ ”

Suddenly: “This bird! A freakin’ owl. Flies out of the fog and lands on my windowsill right in front of me.” She laughs at how long it took her to get the message. “I’m like, I must be dumb as a sack of rocks. God is saying, ‘Look, I don’t know how many other ways I can tell you, kid. You’re gonna be all right.’ ”

These days she devours books of the Heaven Is for Real genre. She does yoga—sometimes. Meditates—sometimes. Prays—often. And above all, picks up the phone.

Rule three: If you’re in trouble, holler.

“I can work too much, keep things to myself, maybe not share,” she says. “I’ve learned how to open my mouth and say, ‘Listen, I need a break. Listen, I need help. Listen, I can’t do this by myself.’ Or ‘Listen, I’m in trouble.’ ”

One dark night, she called her dad. There had been a period of estrangement between them after her parents divorced and Lancelot Owens started a new family. He and his daughter patched it up and worked together for years; as an ex–police officer, he handled Latifah’s security. She needed more: “I was like, ‘Look, I need you -really to just be my dad right now. I need to talk to you.’ ” Soon after, a small flower arrangement with a stuffed tiger arrived from him. The card read, “It’s gonna be all right, you little tiger.”

She now feels secure within her closest circle: “I have a strong support system. Great friends, great family.” She has also learned what she must do to defend this new stability.

Rule four: Guard your perimeter.

This means putting the celeb jackals on notice: Do not attempt, with your Internet innuendo, your “gotcha!” paparazzi shots, to penetrate the Queen’s no-fly zone. Do not even consider asking her with whom she sups, sleeps or nuzzles —except for the dog. If anything, she has become even more resolute about setting limits, citing her mother’s advice: “My mom always said, ‘Dana, you need to make your home a safe place for you just to be you. You need to keep your privacy. Be careful who you let in and out of your life, your spirit, your mind, your world.’ ”

The one man Rita Owens trusts implicitly with her daughter’s well-being is Compere, a former student of hers who became Latifah’s good friend. “Her mom believed in Latifah and me as a team,” he says. “She always told us we have to protect each other against all the adversity that’s going to come our way.”

Compere moved his wife and children west to take care of business for Flavor Unit.

Rule five: There’s no place like home.

My mom always made a peaceful home,”Latifah says. For 11 tough months when she was eight, the family endured public housing—the tumultuous Hyatt Court in Newark’s East Ward—then moved to an apartment over a barbershop in East Orange. “Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, it was clean. It smelled good. There was a piece of fabric thrown across a couch, a cool little artwork, something that made it feel loving and safe.”

Latifah furnished her L.A. house years ago, but it could have a hollow echo when she was alone. It’s so much better with a bit of joyous noise from back home. “I’m excited that my mom is with me, and Shakim and his family are nearby,” she says. “It feels like the old flavor.”

Our conversation has lasted more than two hours, and now 20 people are waiting for Latifah in a conference room. There is no question who’s boss when she takes her place at the head of the table. A young woman named Sierra Lindsey hands Latifah a thick packet and begins a breathless exegesis: “Well, this worked well when I did it for President and Mrs. Obama...”

Suddenly, there are theatrical shrieks all around the table, followed by a standing ovation. Latifah is up and clapping hard. Lindsey formerly served as video producer for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, and now a racket ensues every time she mentions her former employers. The affectionate takedown is part of Keeping It Real on team QL.

Now Latifah scans an introduction about a youth choir in Chicago.

“I wouldn’t say this,” she says.

No problem! Rewrite!

“Can you give me some hard facts? Do we have grounds to say this? Chicago is struggling—let’s not make it worse.”

There are a lot of women in the room, across a wide age span. La’s management style is R-E-S-P-E-C-T. After nearly an hour, she looks tired but pleased as she pushes out her chair. “Good meeting,” she says. “We cool for the day?” she asks her team. Then she checks the time and smiles.

“I’ve got to get home and get some dinner for my mom.”

GERRI HIRSHEY profiled Christina Applegate in the November 2012 issue of More.

Next: Woman of Interest: Cher

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First Published Thu, 2013-09-12 11:23

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