Queen Latifah's New Talk Show: Famous Friends, Sob Stories and One Off-Limit Topic

9:00 AM PST 08/07/2013 by Marisa Guthrie
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The rapper-actress is taking another shot at daytime success -- with help from producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith -- but she insists she's not aiming to be the next Oprah Winfrey and laughs off concerns that another black host will cannibalize that audience: "You'd need about 10 African-American hosts on TV for it to be saturated, but we're nowhere near that."

Today, the core daytime audience -- women 25-to-54 -- is looking for "optimism," explains Jacobs, a daytime veteran who started out as a producer on Sally Jessy Raphael and went on to launch The View and Dr. Oz. "Women's lives have changed quite a bit in the last 20 years. A lot more women are working; obviously we're living through difficult economic times. Viewers are looking for a safe, fun, happy hour of great entertainment. They don't want to be brought down."

The daytime audience also overindexes on African-American viewers, who make up 13 percent of the population but 18 percent of the audience, according to Nielsen. Steve Harvey and Wendy Williams have built core audiences in the underserved African-American market; a little less than half (49 percent) of Harvey's viewership and 58 percent of Williams' is black. By contrast, 79 percent of Katie Couric's audience is white. And despite The View having two African-American co-hosts (Whoopi Goldberg and Sherri Shepherd), 75 percent of its audience is white.

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Asked whether she's worried that another black daytime host will cannibalize the African-American audience, Latifah laughs. "Absolutely not. There's a reason that Steve Harvey is succeeding. He has a huge fan base. I listen to him on the radio. I watch him on Family Feud. Wendy Williams was a big-time radio host. And that's an underserved market. You'd need about 10 African-American hosts on TV for it to be saturated, but we're nowhere near that."

"Latifah can do it all: sing, dance, write books, she's a philanthropist, she has all these A-list friends," says her executive producer Nelson. "We're creating a show that will allow her to tap into all those things. On her show, on any given day, she can sing, she can have a really interesting conversation with a celebrity. She's going to go out into the field to bring real people's stories to the audience, but not in a heavy way, in a way that pays it forward. She's really a roll-your-sleeves-up-and-get-involved type."

For an increasingly competitive daytime industry desperate for the next breakout hit, the comparisons to Winfrey are inevitable, if a little reductive. And at a July 31 Q-and-A session during the Television Critics Association press tour, Latifah is in fact asked whether she aspires to be "the next Oprah."

"There is no such thing," she answers. "Oprah is Oprah. And she's still being Oprah, in case anyone didn't notice."

Latifah and her brother grew up in an artistic household. Her art teacher mother, Rita, briefly managed a jazz club in Harlem, and her Newark police office father, Lancelot, always wanted to be an architect.

"He was always drawing," says Latifah. "Every time he gave us a speech, a pen and pad came out. He would draw to illustrate what his point was. So it was a very visual household; very creative and imaginative. So I wasn't given those boundaries that maybe some other kids were. I was allowed to imagine and create and be free-thinking."

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She also came to the early realization that she was different.

"For my eighth birthday, I wanted a skateboard," she recalls. She also liked rock 'n' roll. "I realized there was racism because people thought, 'Oh, if you like roll 'n' roll, that makes you like a white kid.' A lot of girls my age were jumping rope and they wanted to play hopscotch and they were digging all through their mom's makeup. Well, I was doing that, too. But for them, it was about clothes and boys. And I was into sports and music."

And when she was in second grade, her father showed her how to fire his gun. "He taught me how to defend myself, and he also taught me not to be a bully. He taught my brother and I all these ways to harm somebody and then told us, 'Do not use this,' " she laughs.

Latifah has come a long way. Today, she owns houses in lush -- and white -- enclaves such as Beverly Hills and Colts Neck, N.J. Hip-hop at heart, she also is partial to NPR and CNN. The key to bridging that distance, she says, was controlling her own destiny.

"Poverty will do that," she says without a trace of bitterness. "When you want something that you can't afford, you do what you have to do. Our goal was to use our creativity to turn it into a business that would change the circumstances of our families. For Shakim and me, once we did it, we realized we were really good at it. We could do this all day. Business is fun. Controlling your own destiny is fun. Creating an idea and turning it into a movie; finding an artist and guiding their career and bringing them to some type of status -- there's joy in that. We didn't go to college. But we're smart people. We're hustlers, we're definitely going to get it done. But we also know where we came from. Nobody wants to go back there. We love the 'hood, but nobody wants to go back who makes it out."

She would become a game-changer in the rap industry. With a successful hip-hop career -- her first album, All Hail the Queen, was released in 1989 and peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hip-Hop and R&B album charts thanks to the feminist anthem "Ladies First" -- Latifah began landing small acting roles. She appeared in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, House Party 2 and Juice, and Smith gave her a guest arc on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But her first starring role was in Yvette Lee Bowser's semiautobiographical Fox comedy Living Single, about a group of young, black, professional women. The comedy lasted five seasons and consistently was among the top-rated series among African-American viewers -- at a time when there actually were broadcast series aimed at African-Americans.

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"Just before the show started, Dana lost her brother, and I think being able to dive into the work was really good for her," recalls Bowser. "She was so determined. She just would not fail."

The death of her brother, on a motorcycle she gave him, still haunts her. "I know what it is to really lose someone, and the devastation that it causes and the confusion and the helplessness and the desperation and utter grief," says Latifah. "There's nothing closer to me than my brother. That was my foundation. Mommy, Daddy, my brother, from the moment I was born, they were in my life. But I also know some of the little things that can trigger your emotions. You may smell something that reminds you of that person, and it will just flood all of these emotions through you. And it just comes back and you don't even expect it. Sometimes it's not only the big knock-you-over-the-head things, it's the subtle things."

But the exigencies of daytime TV -- she will tape 175 shows in her first season -- will keep her occupied. It also means she'll be doing less of the things that made her a household name. "I'm not as young as I once was," she laughs. "Unlike the last time, I really understand that [a talk show] requires a lot of energy, time and work."

She continues to write music; she has a studio in her Beverly Hills home. "I have so much music banked right now, it's ridiculous. I could go in the studio after a full day's work on the set of this talk show and that would be like relaxation for me," she says. "Music is second nature."

But acting for now will have to take a backseat to her talk show.

"I have to be realistic about what I can and can't do," she says. "So whatever I do has to really be worth it. I like to master the things I do. Making this show great, that's my focus right now. I want to bring some positivity to daytime TV."

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