Beauty Queen

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It's only fitting that Queen Latifah's namesake chess piece is the one that can move in any direction. There's hardly a title this Queen doesn't own: rapper, actor, producer, and the author of two books, including the just-released "Put on Your Crown," a tome on self-esteem that falls somewhere between biography and self-help book. Born Dana Owens, Latifah was a teenager when she won raves for her 1989 debut album "All Hail the Queen," in which she announced her arrival with, "A woman can bear you, break you, take you/Now it's time to rhyme, can you relate to/A sister dope enough to make you holler and scream."

Latifah soon transitioned into acting with a turn in Spike Lee's 1992 film "Jungle Fever." Eager to see a wider range of women represented on television, she co-created and starred in the comedy "Living Single," which ran for five seasons on Fox. Heralded turns in projects like "Set It Off" and "Living Out Loud" followed, but it was her effervescent turn as Matron "Mama" Morton in 2002's "Chicago" that cemented her respect in the film industry—and earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. Despite, in her own words, "not being a size zero blonde," she was soon playing romantic leads in films like "The Last Holiday" and being pursued by Eugene Levy's character in "Bringing Down the House."

Not content to just be in front of the camera and behind the microphone, Latifah has long worked with Shakim Compere on managing other artists and creating projects. Together they run Flavor Unit Entertainment, which produced two of Latifah's recent hits: "Beauty Shop" and "Bringing Down the House." Their latest film, "Just Wright," casts Latifah as Leslie Wright, a die-hard New Jersey Nets fan who is blessed with a great job and family but painfully unlucky in love. Things begin to change when she finds herself brought into the life of star Nets player Scott McKnight, played by rapper Common in a sexy, star-making performance. As Latifah does with almost every role, she brings warmth and wisdom to a wonderful character in a sweet romance that should charm even the most jaded cynics. Just try not to smile when Leslie has her Cinderella moment, descending the stairs in a stunning evening gown. It's an apt comparison, at least for Compere. "It's art imitating life," says Latifah's longtime friend. "When you think about it, Latifah's life has been a Cinderella story."

Back Stage: You're not only the star of "Just Wright" but also a producer. How important is it to you to develop your own projects?

Queen Latifah: I don't always have to do my own projects, but it's kind of what I've always done. My partner Shakim and I have always been entrepreneurs from the time we were teenagers, and we're used to creating things from the beginning. It was about us being able to design our own destiny, if you will. To be honest, in the beginning, it was also about getting our friends out of their terrible contracts. But being able to find or create something from the beginning and guide it all the way through fruition and into success is an amazing thing to be able to do.

Back Stage: Had you always planned on pursuing acting, or did it come about through your music?

Latifah: My mother always told me, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket, and that's how I looked at things. So I wanted to have different options and choices. The acting bug sort of bit me in high school when I did "Godspell" my freshman year. I went to an all-girls Catholic school, and this director came in from outside, and no joke, he was a hard driver. He expected nothing but the best from us. I remember I had to cry in it, and I felt really, truly connected. And that was it; I wanted to do it.

Back Stage: I think it's more acceptable now, but when you were starting out people didn't want to see hip-hop stars as actors.

Latifah: No, they didn't. But I understood; it was kind of difficult when rappers would come out of nowhere and start taking the good jobs. Producers wanted us because we came with a marquee value, and that was worth something, even if our training and skills weren't quite as good as actors who were trained and theater majors. It was easier for us to come in and bring our fans with us than to just hire a no-name actor, I guess. I get why a lot of actors really felt we needed to get up to par. And I respect that. If we're going to do this, we should do it right. So I tried to invest in learning and hiring an acting coach and trying to really develop my ability, to honor those who are doing their best and struggling. It's only right that I do my best to be the best actor I can be, and we all should.

Back Stage: Who did you study with?

Latifah: Richard Lyons. When I was doing "Living Single," he was dating Erika Alexander, and I had to audition for "Set It Off." I wanted Erika to coach me for it, but she had to go back to Arizona, so she said, "Just let Richie do it; he'll get you through it." And he worked with me and did a really great job, and I've stuck with him through all these years. I don't use him for every film; but when I need a tune-up, I'll go see him.

Back Stage: Your first role was in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever." Did you have any training then?

Latifah: None. I did audition for it with Spike Lee, and I actually didn't get the job; I was the second runner-up. He wanted a female rapper to play the role, and Monie Love got the gig. But she got pregnant and couldn't do it. So he gave it to me. So thanks, Monie, for having babies!

Back Stage: I'm assuming you didn't have to audition for "Living Single," since the role was created for you?

Latifah: We created that from the ground up; I just wish we had known we should have put "created by" on the credits, but you live and learn. Will Smith was a great friend of ours, and we kind of grew up on the road together, and when we saw him do "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," we said, "Hey, if Will can do it, we can do it!" So we started badgering our agents and looking at the landscape to see who might be interested, and we connected with Yvette Lee Bowser, who was writing on "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" and looking to create her own show. We just started building the concept; Yvette followed me around for a few weeks, learned how I spoke and some of my little lingo and my style, and created the role of Khadijah based on me.

Back Stage: In your book, you say there were people who wanted you to lose weight for the show. How did you react to that?

Latifah: It was some people from the studio who suggested that we all lose weight. Luckily, I have a strong team, and when they told my manager that, he kind of laughed at it and said, "You can't be serious." That would never happen; I would never lose weight because some executive suggested it. We were four women who were meant to represent what women really look like, and real women should have an opportunity to see themselves on television. So why would we all try to get skinny just to purport some idea of what beauty is supposed to look like when we are beautiful just the way we are? Losing weight is a personal thing; it's not about anything else. We were all healthy, we just come in different shapes and sizes, and I felt we were truly representing what people look like. I was like, "I'm from here; I know what we look like. You guys are from Hollywood, and Hollywood has a different idea of what beauty is supposed to be. But this is what the rest of America looks like. You're in a bubble, and I don't represent that bubble. I represent Everywhere Else, USA."

Back Stage
: You've also had arguments with magazines that airbrushed out the scar on your forehead?

Latifah: The first time I saw it, it tripped me out. I was like, "What's missing here?" I'm not ashamed of it. It comes with me; it's part of who I am. It's one of my childhood war wounds, and I earned it. Again, my idea of beauty has nothing to do with a mark on your face. It starts on the inside and flows out. We can accentuate ourselves on the outside, but the beauty comes from within. And I don't like perfection. There's no uniqueness to it.

Back Stage: Your co-star in "Just Wright," Common, is such a revelation. He's sexy and funny and charming, but he'd never played a leading role. How did you know he could pull it off?

Latifah: Because I know him. We're friends, and I know he has those qualities in him. Also, he wanted the gig, and he had my phone number. He called me and said, "I can do this; I will do whatever I have to do." We had him in mind already—he was in our top choices—but once he read it he really fell in love with the character and felt this was something that was meant for him. And he really pulled it off, not just the acting but the physicality. He had to be in tip-top shape to convince audiences he's an NBA player. Poor thing would come in sometimes, and the director, Sanaa [Hamri], would be like, "Lift your shirt up. Nope. Back to the gym!" He really worked hard, and I couldn't ask for a more generous and kind person to work with.

Back Stage: You also have a great onscreen chemistry with James Pickens Jr., who plays your father.

Latifah: That was really important to me, to show that relationship. I had to beg James to do this, too. He's shooting a hit TV show and doesn't have much time off. But I felt the relationship between these two characters was something people needed to see onscreen, and we had the chemistry to pull it off. He saw me after the premiere the other day, and he said, "Thank you so much for making me do this."

Back Stage
: Who are some of the people who gave you

Latifah: There's a few people, but Harvey Weinstein is the one who springs to mind. Harvey really wanted to put me in "Chicago"; he felt I was the right person. But he wasn't going to bully the director, so I had to go earn it. There were so many women who wanted to play that role, bona fide, so I had to earn it. It took me three auditions, but I did.

Back Stage: I know there was heavy competition for that part, including Oscar winners like Kathy Bates.

Latifah: I heard everything from Kathy Bates to Madonna to Barbra Streisand. Kathy was obviously the standout for me; I know Rob [Marshall] really wanted to work with her.

Back Stage: How do you feel about auditioning, as an actor and producer?

Latifah: Auditioning is the worst thing on earth. Plus, sometimes you're reading with people who aren't actors, and they don't really give you much. As an actor, you want an exchange with someone. But that's the process; it is what it is. I think I'm okay at it. As a producer, for me, it's about making people feel comfortable in the room so they can really give it their best.

Back Stage: What's been your biggest challenge as an actor?

Latifah: I think just having to convince people that I could be an A-list actor. Like I said, I'm not that stereotypical idea of what a leading actress is. I had to convince people throughout my career that I could be that person. I'm not the only one, but I think it's been helpful to other people who come with the girth I come with and more to really be seen in that way. I've met a lot of great people who can think outside of the box and see something in me for roles—even roles that might have been written for a guy originally—and turn them into something specific for me.

Back Stage
: You took on roles originally written for men?

Latifah: Yeah, I keep trying to remember which film it was that we flipped the roles. It was either "Bringing Down the House" or "Last Holiday." But the part was originally a guy, and they changed it for me.

Back Stage
: It's interesting, because it's impossible to picture those movies without you.

Latifah: Well, good! But you have to execute these things right. I've had my share of not-so-great movies, so I know what it's like when a team is not completely on point. Things sometimes happen that way. You go in hopeful, but sometimes, for whatever reason, things don't always line up.

Back Stage: In your first book, your mother wrote the foreword. In "Put on Your Crown," you gave her a whole chapter. What was the thinking behind that?

Latifah: With the book, I'm not trying to tell people you should do this and you should do that but just say I did this and I did that and this is what worked for me. People wonder how I keep things together and stay so positive, and my mom is really the catalyst for who I am. So I figure you can get it straight from the horse's mouth. Because when you see my success, you are seeing my mother's hard work and nurturing and guidance.

- Other films include the HBO movie "Life Support," for which she won a Golden Globe and a SAG Award; "Hairspray"; and "Stranger Than Fiction."
- Currently producing a VH1 film-series called "Single Ladies" with Stacey Dash and a show on BET called "Let's Stay Together"; plans to be in the studio this month to record a new jazz album
- Would like to do a sci-fi or action film next: "I haven't gotten to shoot a gun in a while, not since 'Set It Off,' and my trigger finger's itchy."