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Queen Latifah has never shied away from a battle.
She was 16 years old when she told Michael Kenneth Williams that she wanted to be a rapper. She jokes that the actor didn’t believe her, but Williams says that had more to do with his lack of faith in the industry than in his belief in Latifah.
“Female rappers were relatively taboo, so I was like, ‘OK, that’s cool. Be all you can be!’ ” Williams recalls with a laugh. “But in my wildest imagination, I didn’t think she would really become what she is today, simply because I’d never seen it before. Who makes it out of the ’hood and does that? But she proved me wrong.”
These days, the 45-year-old rapper-turned-actress-turned-mogul sits at the helm of a $100 million business, Flavor Unit Entertainment (named for the group of emcees she belonged to at the start of her career), negotiating deals for herself and others both in front of and behind the camera. She’s been nominated for seven Grammy Awards (winning one), an Oscar and a pair of Emmys, the most recent for her starring role in the HBO movie “Bessie,” about the complicated life of blues legend Bessie Smith, whose hard-driving ways and up-by-the-bootstraps backstory could describe Latifah herself.
“I’ve always been a bit of a fighter,” she says. “I’ve always had an opinion about things.”
Robert Maxwell for Variety
Chairman and CEO of BET Networks Debra L. Lee, who works with Flavor Unit on shows including “Single Ladies,” about three women friends, now in its fourth season on BET offshoot Centric, says Latifah is actively involved in projects at every stage of development. “She comes up with the ideas,” Lee says. “She’s always giving advice.”
As a spokesperson for CoverGirl, for whom Latifah developed the Queen Collection for women of color, she has made sure the cosmetics company spends advertising dollars with BET. “We work to make sure everyone’s connected and everything happens,” Latifah says. “But that’s what you should do. If we all elevate each other, it keeps going.”
Flavor Unit is housed in a prime location on the Sony lot in Culver City, where she and Shakim Compere, her best friend and business partner, oversee 10 employees working on film, TV and music productions. The walls of the office are lined with posters of the movies they’ve produced, from 2004’s “The Cookout” to this year’s “Brotherly Love,” as well as their TV shows, like “Single Ladies.”
Latifah says she knew early on that she would have to take control of her career if she wanted to make it on her own, and enlisted her high school friend Compere to help. “When she first got a record deal, I went to one of her shows, and the promoter wouldn’t pay her,” Compere recalls. “So I went and got her money, and gave it to her. We’ve been together ever since.”
Not long after, she and Compere formed Flavor Unit, with the goal of helping out their friends as well. “We all got signed to record deals, but sometimes with different companies,” Latifah notes. “Some deals were really bad, so the first thing we wanted to do was renegotiate and get them better ones. And that’s how we decided we needed to do a management company. We were taking care of our family.”
It’s been a long, hard-fought journey for the woman born Dana Owens in Newark, N.J., to a high school teacher mother and police officer father. Latifah credits her family with instilling in her a strong sense of self at a young age. She points to the scar on her forehead, the result of tripping over a phone cord and hitting her head on the bathroom door when she was 3 years old. Some magazines have airbrushed out the scar in photographs — and she wishes they wouldn’t. “It’s part of who I am, so I’d like it to be accepted as part of who I am,” she says. “There are a lot of people reading those magazines not unlike myself, who have some sort of scar, too. I don’t think we should try to make everything look perfect.”
Latifah was just 17 when she signed her first record deal and borrowed a cousin’s name to assume her stage identity. She released her first solo album two years later, 1989’s “All Hail the Queen,” which reached No. 6 on the U.S. R&B chart. Her second, 1991’s “Nature of a Sista,” dropped off a bit. But she had bigger aims from the start.
“I felt like if I couldn’t say I was the best rapper — male or female — I wouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket,” she says. “So it was always about trying to expand from the beginning, be it musically, business-wise, or other opportunities.”
Will Smith provided her first big acting break, putting her in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” And Spike Lee cast her in “Jungle Fever” — though Latifah suspects she got the role only because first choice Brit rapper Monie Love was pregnant at the time. “So thank you, Monie!” she says with a laugh.
The transition from rapper to actor was a logical one in her mind. “(Musicians) are hustlers in lots of ways. We have to perform and express different personas for different records,” she says. “So selling it to the camera is a natural progression.”
But she was surprised at the resistance she faced. “Actors did not like it,” she says. “A lot of them talked a lot of smack (at the time) about rappers coming in and taking all the gigs.”
Ever determined to succeed, she enlisted an acting coach to help her prepare for 1996’s “Set It Off,” the surprise hit that would provide her breakthrough role, as the sassy, street-smart member of a quartet of female bank robbers, alongside Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise. Soon enough, other hip-hop stars began to cross over. “Everybody got used to it, because we all started doing it,” she notes. “And once we got started, we weren’t stopping.”
Compere credits another incident for further stoking Latifah’s competitive fire. “There was an agent years ago who told her she should stick to television, because she’d never be a movie star,” he recalls. “Right away, you could see the light bulb above her head: ‘Now I want to be a movie star, because this person told me that I couldn’t.’ ”
Indeed, after five seasons as Khadijah James in “Living Single” on Fox, she graduated to movies like 1998’s “Living Out Loud” and 2002’s “Chicago,” which earned her an Oscar nom as Mama Morton.
She came to understand that “Queen Latifah” had become a brand. “It was a thriving entity,” she marvels. “And when I saw the positive ways it could be used, I was like, OK. Just know every once in a while I’m going to eff up.”
Robert Maxwell for Variety
Still, landing each successive role hasn’t been easy, says Compere, who calls his friend a nontraditional casting choice. “Most writers don’t write with Latifah in mind, so she doesn’t get the opportunities that most actors get,” he notes. “So we’ve gotten in the habit of creating our own agenda and our own projects.”
Not all of them succeed.
“The Queen Latifah Show,” her syndicated daytime talker for Sony Pictures Television, shuttered last year after two seasons. Latifah is still disappointed that the talkshow, her second attempt in the genre, didn’t run longer. Shortly after its cancellation, media outlets reported that she paid some staff members out of her own pocket through the holidays. “I don’t know how that got out,” she says. “Look, I was appreciative of how hard everybody worked, and felt we should be proud of what we did. It was bad timing, holidays were coming, and we wanted to make sure everyone would be OK through the New Year.”
But around the same time, a long-in-the works project was finally coming together.
It famously took 20 years for “Bessie” to make it to the screen. Producers Lili and Richard Zanuck (“Driving Miss Daisy”) first approached Latifah with the project when she was just 22, believing she was the only person who could fully embody the complex Smith.
“She hadn’t done much yet, but she screen-tested and she was incredible,” Lili Zanuck recalls. “At a very young age, she had this gravitas and incredible pride. And Bessie is not a victim in any way. This woman was like a rock ’n’ roller of her time; she drank, she did drugs, she was bisexual. She was so empowered.”
Though Latifah hadn’t heard of Smith at the time, she fell in love with the role. Though the project broke apart at the time, the Zanucks kept it percolating (Richard died in 2012), and Latifah would constantly check in. “We just never gave up on it,” Latifah says. “There were a lot of people working to keep it alive and fighting to make it happen.”
As the years passed and her star rose, Latifah eventually was able to help the film get made at HBO, where she earned her first Emmy nomination with the 2007 AIDS-themed movie “Life Support.” Dee Rees, who found critical success with the 2007 indie “Pariah,” was brought on to rewrite the screenplay and eventually direct. Rees had been a fan of Latifah’s music as a teenager. “My parents were very upright, and hers was one of the few albums they allowed,” she says. “I was excited to work with somebody I had admired for so long.”
Rees was impressed, though not surprised, at how her star threw herself into the role of the troubled Smith, who was raised in poverty to become one of the biggest blues singers of the 1920s and ’30s, before depression, alcoholism and bad relationships caused her to lose it all. “It was a lot to ask of her,” Rees admits. “She did scenes that were very intimate and vulnerable and she gave us everything, take after take. Then she would reach down and give us more.” The production earned 12 Emmy nominations overall — not only for its star, but also for Rees and Williams, who plays Smith’s first husband, Jack Gee.
Latifah, who has been open about struggling with depression after the death of her brother in a motorcycle accident in 1992, says she found common ground with Smith. “I could relate to crawling up out of a bottle. I could relate to being depressed,” she admits. “I could connect to a lot of different experiences that she had, whether it was loneliness, whether it was being hugely successful, (experiencing) heartbreak, love, being in different relationships, being in more than one relationship at one time. All these things made sense to me.”
While Latifah has never discussed her personal life, she’s aware there has been much speculation about her own sexuality, and that doing love scenes with women and playing the openly bisexual Smith could open the door to more questions. But she says she didn’t hesitate in taking the role. “I know what I’m doing in my private life, and I know what I’m not, and I know me. And people who are not privy to that don’t know; they don’t know what they think they know,” she says. “This is Bessie’s story. It has nothing to do with my life.”
She points a finger at reality TV and social media for fueling people’s need to pry into each other’s lives and live through others. “There’s a difference for me between being honest and sharing my business with people who don’t need to know my business,” she says. “So why would I start doing anything differently now because of ‘Bessie’?”
That said, she understands the fascination. She admits that before she was in the public eye, she remembers speculating on the sexuality of famous people. “I think it’s human nature. People have curiosity about people’s sexuality, because we’re curious about sex,” she says. “I think the problem is we don’t talk about it enough. We act like sex is bad sometimes. We act like love is bad sometimes, or makes you weak somehow.”
If Latifah is intensely private, Compere says there’s good reason. “Dana’s always had a close-knit group of people around her, and some of those people have betrayed her in the past,” he says. “It’s the price of fame. So she’s more guarded than she used to be.”
And while she calls herself “blessed” to have mostly avoided the scrutiny of tabloids, Latifah says she purposely avoids anything that could upset her. “At some point I told all my friends, ‘Don’t come to me with negative stuff in a magazine,’ ” she says. “Let them write whatever they want to write. I can’t control it.”
But she does draw a hard line: Don’t write about her family. “Then I’m ready to not only sue you, but put a knuckle sandwich in your mouth,” she says. “That’s where my Jersey roots come out!”
Latifah’s future includes work with those from one of the greatest successes of her past. She’s set to ease on down the road as the title character in a live television staging of “The Wiz,” produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who first met Latifah when they cast her in “Chicago.” “We realized then that she could do everything,” Meron says. “She was a first-rate actress, singer and dancer. She has a star quality that lights up the screen.”
Zadan says she was the first person they pursued for “The Wiz Live” — and credits director Kenny Leon with envisioning her as the first woman to play the wizard.
Switching hats, Latifah’s plate at Flavor Unit is as full as ever. As a producer, she’s hard at work on two new Centric series: “From the Bottom Up,” which premieres Dec. 5, will follow a group of women seeking to rebuild their lives after prison. “Curve Appeal” features Latifah’s longtime stylist Timothy Snell — whom the star says has “always been able to make me look fashionable” — offering advice to full-figured women. “He’s basically taking curvy girls and showing them how to rock their bodies,” Latifah says of the show, which premieres in April 2016. While she adds that anything can be a Flavor Unit project, she and Compere gravitate toward the positive. “The kind of stories people relate to,” she says.
Her colleague, meanwhile, has an idea for Latifah’s next acting gig. “I would love to see her do an action movie,” Compere says. “I think she could carry that.” Count Zanuck onboard as well. “I’ve said we need to find a ‘Salt’ for her, because ‘Salt’ was written for a man before it was given to Angelina Jolie,” she notes. “She would be amazing.”
Just another opportunity to earn some more scars she’d wear proudly.