Queen Latifah's New Talk Show: Famous Friends, Sob Stories and One Off-Limit Topic
This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"I remember praying for peace all the time as a kid," says Queen Latifah. The admission causes her to laugh, just a little, perhaps at the thought of a child earnestly asking God to make the people of the world stop killing one another.
On a Monday in early July, Queen Latifah -- born Dana Owens to a high school art teacher mother and police officer father who taught her to fire his service pistol when she was seven years old -- is in a fourth-floor conference room on the Sony lot, discussing with producers her upcoming daytime talker, The Queen Latifah Show. They are considering a possible segment about an Afghanistan war veteran, Purple Heart recipient and grandmother, whose own daughter endured a painful divorce and moved back home with her two daughters in tow. She is living in a tiny apartment in the South and commuting two hours each way to her job at a computer company. Since she returned from Afghanistan, she has worked with other female veterans, helping them to reenter civilian life, assistance that was unavailable to her when she herself was honorably discharged. Supervising producer Jack Mori is pitching a piece on her that may involve a significant home improvement project. But we can't reveal it here lest we spoil the surprise.
"The idea is, you go, get her backstory, see her family," says Mori.
"In her tiny apartment," adds executive producer and showrunner Corin Nelson.
"Do you like her?" asks Nelson.
Latifah likes "the idea," but she wants to know how she got her Purple Heart and exactly what kind of work she's done with female vets.
Nelson hands Latifah a photo.
"Are these her kids and grandkids?" she asks. "That's her? She looks gooood. She looks like Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam."
The room erupts in laughter.
"I love it," declares Latifah. "So we're going to go help them. Is there a chain saw involved in this I could get ahold of?"
Since she was schooling MCs on the streets of New York and New Jersey, Latifah, 43, has defied easy categorization. A platinum-selling hip-hop pioneer and Grammy winner, she began early, rapping about female empowerment in a genre dominated by misogyny. ("You put your hands on me again, I'll put your ass in handcuffs," goes one line from her 1994 hit "U.N.I.T.Y.") In 2003, she landed a spokesmodel contract with CoverGirl despite being "a little girthy at the hips," she says. She has emerged as a versatile actress capable of odd-couple comedies (Bringing Down the House with Steve Martin), dramatic roles (The Secret Life of Bees) and straight-up romance (Just Wright). And she has become a sought-after musical star, earning a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for Chicago. She has struggled with her weight (she's been a Jenny Craig spokesperson; in 2003, she had breast-reduction surgery to relieve years of back and shoulder pain), suffered personal loss (her older brother, Lance Owens, was killed in a 1992 motorcycle accident), endured money problems (she was on the brink of bankruptcy in 2000, the result of growing her management company too quickly) and, for all her success, has not forgotten -- or forsaken -- her roots in urban northern New Jersey.
"I've known Dana since she was in the ninth grade," says her business partner Shakim Compere, who met Latifah when he was placed in her mother's art class. (She adopted the "Queen Latifah" moniker in 1988 when she signed her first recording contract with Tommy Boy Records.) "She has not changed one bit. She's always been the person who would give you an ear. We've missed flights because somebody had a story to tell Dana about one of her movies. I've seen her take a homeless person off the street and give them shelter and money to buy food for their kid. She doesn't try to be anything other than who she is."
With the Sept. 16 launch of Sony Pictures Television-produced The Queen Latifah Show, she now embarks on her latest career incarnation: daytime talk-show host. And it's not her first time: More than a decade ago, she attempted to enter the fray with another eponymous chat show. That one was an issues-driven talker that on some days had her interviewing inner-city parents whose teenagers were the victims of drugs and violence. For Latifah, who grew up in Newark and Irvington, a disadvantaged neighborhood just west of Newark, those conversations had a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God familiarity. The Telepictures-produced show lasted only two seasons, but it "had enough great moments that I'm not completely turned off toward doing a talk show again," she explains.
At her core, Latifah remains one of the most accessible personalities in Hollywood, something Sony -- which first approached Latifah more than a year ago -- is counting on.
"Lah is every woman," says her friend Jada Pinkett Smith, who co-starred with Latifah in the 1996 hit Set It Off. Pinkett Smith met Latifah in 1987 when she introduced her as the opening act for Public Enemy at Baltimore's Palladium. Pinkett Smith was a 16-year-old high school student and aspiring musician and actress at the Baltimore School for the Arts, and Latifah was a 17-year-old MC making a name for herself.
"I remember seeing her in black-and-white photos," recalls Pinkett Smith. "She was barefoot and wrapped in this African garb with this African headpiece. I was so inspired by the courage of this young female MC." Twenty-five years later, Pinkett Smith is among the producers on The Queen Latifah Show (along with her husband, Will Smith, James Lassiter and Miguel Melendez). "There's a certain trust that women have in her," she says.
It is a skill reminiscent of the gold standard of daytime -- Oprah Winfrey, whose appeal runs both rarefied and mass.
"It's impossible not to have immediate affection and respect for her," says her Chicago co-star Renee Zellweger. "Not just for all she's accomplished as a multimedia talent and for her contributions as a performer who redefined opportunities for women in hip-hop, but that she lives with such optimism, generosity and fearlessness."
Craig Zadan and Neil Meron have worked with Latifah on three projects (Chicago, Hairspray and Steel Magnolias). After they optioned Hairspray for what eventually would become the 2007 movie revival, they took Latifah to lunch at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles to pitch her on joining the cast. "She knew just a tiny bit about the Broadway show," relays Zadan. "But she said, 'Sounds great, I'm in.' And we said, 'But you haven't seen the show, you haven't heard the songs, what do you mean, you're in?' And she said, 'After Chicago, if you tell me it's great, how could I possibly question it?' "
And yet, despite her close relationship with Oscar producers Zadan and Meron, she has reservations about the possibility of hosting the Academy Awards. "I don't know if I would do it," she says, though she admits to sitting in the Dolby Theatre "laughing my ass off" during Seth MacFarlane's performance in February. "That is a tough job to do." (Ellen DeGeneres, who will host the 86th annual Academy Awards on March 2, likely was chosen as a palate-cleanser following the controversial MacFarlane.)
Although she has hosted the People's Choice Awards and the BET Awards, the Oscar show requires a level of abandon that she's uncomfortable with. "Comedians can say shit that normal people can't. Excuse my language, but it's true," she says. "Chris [Rock] was mean; I was sitting right there. He was funny. But some of it was just mean. I can't see me having the balls to do something like that. Maybe there is one part of me that does want someone to like me. I don't want to walk past them at Urth Caffe and have them staring at me like they could kill me because of some stupid shit I said at the Oscars."
But if she is prepared to be in the homes of millions of viewers each day, there still are some parts of herself that she's not willing to share. Specifically, she is not prepared to talk about her sexuality, which has been the topic of much debate.
"I don't feel the need to discuss my private life on this show or any other show," she says somewhat wearily as she eats a sushi lunch at her desk. "There's the part of my life that the public and I share together. And there's the part that's mine to keep for myself. And that's mine. For me."
Privacy has become an archaic notion in an era of social media-enabled voyeurism. But executives at Sony support Latifah's desire to keep her personal life off-limits.
"It's her choice what she chooses to talk about," says Holly Jacobs, executive vp syndication and reality programming at Sony Pictures Television. "It doesn't feel relevant to me because we're just making a big, entertaining show and celebrating all of life. There's a difference between talking about one's personal life and one's point of view and perception of the world and how they see it. And I respect that people need to put boundaries to whatever they want to talk about."
Of course, Latifah also will leverage her relationships to glossify the human-interest pieces with big names. The show is planning a field piece with rapper Pitbull as he spearheads the opening of a charter school in Miami. She's reached out to Jay Z. ("He's going to come on," she says.) President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama have an open invitation. (When she performed at the White House in April, "I let them know that they have a personal invite," she explains.) And it's likely only a matter of time before Will Smith hits Latifah's couch. Even the vast midcentury modern-themed set -- which includes a performance space and DJ stand -- has a celebrity provenance: It was designed by Lenny Kravitz.
She also might weigh in on polarizing issues like the George Zimmerman verdict. But don't expect any flame-throwing. "I like that that trial brings up race and people's fears. But I don't necessarily need to sensationalize it," she explains. "I would like to find a more interesting way to talk about it without trivializing it."
The Queen Latifah Show has been sold to 94 percent of the country, including CBS' 16 owned stations, mostly in afternoon time periods. It is the first talk-show acquisition for the powerful station group, which has a daytime slate produced by its own syndicator, CBS Television Distribution (CTD). It gives the CBS stations -- which air top-rated and CTD-produced Judge Judy and Dr. Phil -- their first entertainment-focused daytime talker. And it speaks to the desirability of Latifah's brand. For Latifah, being with a studio -- Sony -- not affiliated with a station group will give her more leverage to win lucrative deals if the show proves to be a hit. Winfrey launched a multibillion-dollar empire off the back of her Chicago-set daytime show. And DeGeneres' show rakes in more than $20 million a year in profits. Asked how much Sony is investing in The Queen Latifah Show, Jacobs will only say: "The show's not cheap. But it's going to be worth it."