I'm standing at a window of the Four Seasons hotel on the edge of Beverly Hills, waiting not for Godot but for someone who is starting to seem equally elusive: Queen Latifah. The rap star turned Oscar-nominated actress turned fashion and beauty icon is one of the busiest women on the planet, with a new movie (Joyful Noise, costarring Dolly Parton), a new clothing line (the Queen Collection on HSN), a TV series to produce (Single Ladies), another album in the works and those elegant, hair-tossing ads for CoverGirl.
But just when—after three canceled dates—I'm beginning to wonder if this shape-shifting phenomenon called Queen Latifah actually exists, a black luxury SUV squeals up, and here is the Queen, who has driven herself, apparently quite quickly. In a black V-neck T-shirt and jeans, hair tucked up and away under a camouflage combat cap, the almost-six-foot former high school basketball power forward is dressed less like a celebrity than like the gun-brandishing bank robber she played in her 1996 film, Set It Off. I admit my mental RAM is by now in overdrive: I've been hearing about her reading Maya Angelou's poem at Michael Jackson's memorial … her Curvation lingerie line … her America's Got Talent duet with 85-year-old Tony Bennett. There are so many Latifahs (a name she adopted at age eight, from the Arabic for “delicate” and “kind”; she added the “Queen” on her debut album at 19), how do you even start a conversation?
Easily, it turns out. Her hand extends, the famous cheekbones lift in a ready smile, and out comes her surprisingly gentle, beguiling voice, which—forget Barbra Streisand—is like buttah. “I'm sorry I'm late. You've been so, so patient. How about if we sit outside? Is that cool?”
She continues to apologize—“I've been running, just running. Sometimes I feel like I have 10 people in my brain!”—as we slide into a booth. She's warmed up and eager to chat: Today she has been promoting Joyful Noise, about two women who save a gospel choir. “Can you imagine?” she asks. “Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah singing, in one movie? All those breasts! We wish you all the breasts!” (There might have been even more: In 2003, Latifah had breast-reduction surgery to combat shoulder and back pain, taking her from a size E or F to a more manageable yet still generous DD.)
But the first order of business is two words: “Buffalo mozzarell'!” The ending a falls off, the fingers pinch for Italian emphasis. “I've just come from Europe, and the food!” The buffalo mozzarell' is whisked to our table, and Queen Latifah begins expertly prepping and dividing it for us, with detailed Food Network–worthy commentary: “What great basil this is … Oh my God, and the balsamic—did you not get the balsamic? And the vinegar with the olive … and a little bit of pepper … and just a hint of salt … a little flavor, perfect texture … Jeuje it around in the sauce there.”
It's clear that time and space shrink or stretch around Queen Latifah. It stands to reason: At 41, she's at a point in her life and career where she's in the pilot's seat. She calls the shots; from all appearances, it's good to be the Queen. And yet she appears to wield her power so graciously, it's a realm you want to live in. I for one am a happy subject, tickled to have her as my personal chef. Queen Latifah is that unlikely entity: a diva who makes others feel good.