Solid gold

Image Awards host LL Cool J has his priorities straight and his house in order.

LL Cool J, rapper extraordinaire, charismatic actor and all-around good guy, is humbled by the opportunity to host the 38th annual NAACP Image Awards. "To be given the opportunity to represent your culture and community at an event that honors who we are is an incredible thing," Cool J says. "I couldn't be more proud. I'm tremendously thankful because they could have selected anyone they wanted, and they chose me."

He shouldn't be so modest.

Cool J, after all, is a dude who walks the walk. He's a multiplatinum hip-hop star and actor with oodles of style, to be sure, but he also has the kind of values one wouldn't necessarily expect from a guy whose moniker stands for "Ladies Love Cool James" (he was born James Todd Smith). He has been with one record label (Def Jam Recordings, since its inception in 1985) and one wife (Simone Johnson, to whom he has been married for 11 years and with whom he has four children). He espouses neither violence nor womanizing. And while LL Cool J has grown to become a brand, he is still known as Todd in his personal life. "Keeping it real ain't about carrying a gun or smoking blunts," he says. "It's about being true to yourself and those around you."

Cool J has carved out his career by being a stand-up guy both in his art and in the way he carries himself, taking seriously his role as a black icon. He has been rewarded handsomely, having been nominated for four Image Awards and having received two Grammy Awards, a Soul Train Music Award for outstanding career achievements in entertainment, a ShoWest Male Star of Tomorrow honor, a Billboard Award and ASCAP's Golden Note Award.

"I work hard to utilize everything God has given me," Cool J says. "I make the highest and best use of my talent. Has my being black been an advantage? Who knows? But I've made it work. It's hard to know because I've never been white or Asian."

What Cool J has been, however, is an undeniable showbiz triple threat.

First, there's the music. Cool J released his first hit, "I Can't Live Without My Radio," in 1985 at the age of 17. His first two albums, "Radio" and "Bigger and Deffer," put him on the hip-hop map, but it was "Mama Said Knock You Out" in 1990 that established him as a genuine superstar. Over his career, Cool J has released a dozen albums, with his 13th, "Exit 13," due out in May.

It was in the mid-1990s that Cool J began to expand outside of music to screens both big and small. After having landed small film roles in the 1980s and early '90s, he became a regular on the NBC-turned-UPN sitcom "In the House," a role that garnered him three Image Awards nominations. His feature breakthrough came with 1999's "Deep Blue Sea," for which he won a Blockbuster Entertainment Award. Roles in 1999's "Any Given Sunday" from Oliver Stone, 2000's "Charlie's Angels," 2002's "Rollerball" and 2003's "S.W.A.T.," with Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell, followed.

It's also worth noting that Cool J is undoubtedly the first hip-hopper to become a fitness guru, hitting the New York Times Best-seller List with his book "LL Cool J's Platinum Workout: Sculpt Your Best Body Ever With Hollywood's Fittest Star" (co-written with Dave Honig and Jeff O'Connell), which tells how to both keep it real and keep it toned.

The other secret to his success, Cool J believes, is that while he works hard at keeping his life and career in tip-top shape, he doesn't take himself too seriously.

"You've got to be able to laugh at yourself and not feel superior or inferior to anyone to keep things flowing," he says. "I just feel fortunate to be in the kind of position that I'm in to be able to touch people and give of myself spiritually. I've moved past the feat to a really good place in my life, and the fact that is being rewarded is very gratifying. I'm thankful to God for it."

Color blind: Industry insiders on making Hollywood truly inclusive
Dialogue: NAACP's Bruce Gordon
2007 Image Award nominees
Solid gold: Image Awards host LL Cool J
2007 Image Award honorees:
Chairman's Award:Bono
President's Award: Soledad O'Brien
Hall of Fame Award: Bill Cosby