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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.”
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.
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.”
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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