Queen Latifah Explains How She Got Her Royal Name and Why Women Love Her as 'The Equalizer'

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"I wouldn’t have chosen the name if I couldn’t live up to it!" —Queen Latifah

She was born Dana Owens. That’s also the name displayed on the screen when she logs in for her Zoom interview. But it only takes Queen Latifah eight seconds to establish her true identity: “You can call me Queen,” she says matter-of-factly.

You better believe she exudes the confidence required to back up her lofty title. First Latifah, 52, shares how she boosted her self-esteem starting from a young age and learned to embrace her full-figured body. When her acting coach arrives on the scene during our Zoom, she instructs him where to sit until she finishes the conversation. Asked to name her favorite celebrity from her home state of New Jersey, she replies, “Me!”

Spoken like a superstar who has reigned supreme for more than 30 years.

Latifah, after all, wasn’t content with simply being one of the first successful female rappers of her era. Or with co-starring in the hit sitcom Living Single in the 1990s. She went on to make her presence known across all movie genres—edgy thrillers (Set It Off), romantic charmers (Last Holiday), ribald romps (Bringing Down the House, Girls Trip) and dramatic biopics (Bessie). She scored an Oscar nomination for her brassy performance in the 2002 musical adaptation of Chicago.

And now she’s vigilante extraordinaire Robyn McCall in her latest smash, The Equalizer, an updated version of the 1980s TV series (and subsequent Denzel Washington films). Each episode features Latifah’s ex-CIA officer using her razor-sharp skill set to dole out swift justice. She’s an avenging angel helping people who have nowhere else to turn, while raising her headstrong teen daughter (Laya DeLeon Hayes). Since its post–Super Bowl premiere in February 2021, the CBS drama has garnered a large fan base, which includes Latifah’s grandmother, “NaNa,” and her aunt Virginia.

“A lot of women love the action,” she says. “And they love that I’m playing this badass character. They want to see some justice delivered in a really cool and entertaining way.”

Latifah, also an executive producer, is tight-lipped about what’s in store for season three (premiering Sunday, Oct. 2, at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS). Given that the series has already been picked up for season four, we assume Robyn survives her kidnapping, as seen in the season-two cliffhanger. (“Maybe there’s another realm and it becomes a sci-fi show without me in it!” she jokes.)

However, she is game to talk about almost everything else with Parade.

Related: The 12 Best Queen Latifah Movies, Ranked

<p>Michael Greenberg/CBS</p>

Michael Greenberg/CBS

Why was it important for your Equalizer character to be a mother?

We wanted to show how a woman walks the tightrope of the world she’s created. Some of those choices can be difficult. So let’s see what life is like for a woman who has to balance work and parenthood and herself. At the same time, we don’t see enough women on screens who aren’t 22.

Robyn is indeed a heroine on many levels. As a youngster, who did you look up to on the screen?

Oh, gosh, Diahann Carroll was one of my heroes. So was Pam Grier. And Nell Carter. I loved Dolly Parton because of the way she carried herself in her body. That was important to me because I was always trying to figure out my body back then. I also watched a lot of TV on PBS like Sesame Street, The Electric Company and this show called Zoom. There was a cute little girl on it who looked just like me, with this bushy ponytail. I was outgoing but still a little shy, so that meant a lot to me.

How did your childhood in Newark differ from what you saw depicted on TV?

I grew up a lot of different ways. I moved to East Orange when I was 12, which gave me more of a middle-class upbringing and a place to breathe. I also had stops with family in Maryland and Virginia, where [nights are] pitch-black and you learn to sleep to the sound of cicadas. Then you go back to the city and get used to the car lights moving across the ceiling and music blasting out of windows. I was really prepared when I finally went out into the world.

What’s the origin story of your stage name?

Latifah [Arabic for “pleasant”] has been my nickname since I was 8. When I signed my first contract at Tommy Boy Records when I was 17, [the executive] was like, “What would you like to be known as professionally?” My crew and I tested a lot of names. There was MC Latifah and Latifah Love. We landed on “Queen” because it defied a lot of the rampant misogyny going on in hip-hop at the time. I knew I could make that work.

Wasn’t “Queen” a lot of pressure to put on yourself?

I wouldn’t have chosen the name if I couldn’t live up to it! I’ve had more of the Queen in me than I ever thought. I come from a family of really varied, powerful women and men who listen to them. My mom [Rita] raised me to be a queen and taught me that all women should be treated as such.

Queen Latifah and her mother, Rita, in 2016<p>Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images</p>
Queen Latifah and her mother, Rita, in 2016

Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images

How else did your parents influence you?

My father [Lancelot] was a tactical police officer in Newark. He would build me up and say, “You will learn how to do this.” Then my mother would be so smooth with my edges and say, “Here, let me polish this diamond.” She was so unique and elegant. She was an art teacher at Irvington High School, but her students got so much more than art from her. They learned how to live and dream and carry yourself and have self-esteem and handle conflict without violence. I lost her in 2018 [from the autoimmune disease sclerodoma], and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

Related: Everything We Know So Far About Queen Latifah's The Equalizer Season 3

When did you really sense you had made it?

I went to college for a year [at the Borough of Manhattan Community College] and was really scrounging. I had $1.50 for lunch every day, and I’d eat 50-cent hot dogs and a quarter soda. So when I could buy my mom a house, that was a beautiful moment.

For your screen debut, you played an outspoken waitress in the 1991 drama Jungle Fever. How did you end up in the film?

[Writer-director] Spike Lee was a visionary and knew that hip-hop was not just a fad. He wanted a rapper to play that role. My friend Monie Love actually got [the role], but she got pregnant and couldn’t do it. I was the second best.

Were you nervous to move from rapping to acting?

Nervous? Freaked-out was more like it. I was already trying to get accustomed to being onstage in front of big crowds. In terms of acting, I’d only done school plays. And here I was acting in a scene with Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra! I tried to use my instincts and take direction. I also learned what it means to hurry up and wait.

You’ve also done many comedies, starting with the [1993–98] sitcom Living Single. Are you a naturally funny person?

I would say that I am! The character was tailored for me. But Living Single wasn’t given to me. I had been touring with Will Smith, and when he got The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, I thought, Oh, if Will can do a show, we can do a show! I helped connect the dots behind the scenes. We got Kim Coles, Kim Fields and Erika Alexander, who were some of my favorite actresses and so comedic. I was in awe.

How did your nomination for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Chicago affect you?

When you get nominated for an Oscar, your whole world changes. Everybody knows who you are. Obviously, you can make more money. But what it afforded me was the opportunity to work behind the scenes and produce everything that I was starring in. And I didn’t even win!

Well, you lost out to your Chicago co-star, Catherine Zeta Jones. What else do you remember from that night?

We won Best Picture, which was amazing! But I was so mad and crazy that Rob Marshall didn’t get Best Director. He took such good care of us on that set and made sure all the actors’ egos were in check. We worked so hard on that movie.

Your biggest box-office hit was Girls Trip in 2017. What’s the update on the sequel? 

From what I understand, it’s going to happen. I can’t tell you when. Now whether we’re going to be girls or old ladies is another story.

Now that you’re settled and calm in life, are you relieved all that struggle is behind you?

Who told you I was settled and calm? I’m doing stunts and shooting and driving every day!

Then you’re not nostalgic for the old days?

I am to a degree. I miss the camaraderie with my family and friends, because when you blow up, you don’t get to see everyone like you used to. But honestly? I shot a movie years ago called Life Support. [The 2007 HBO drama depicted a mom who overcomes a crack addiction.] It was filmed all over Brooklyn. When I was a wild teenager, I used to run those streets. And going to back to those places made me thank God that I was blessed enough to survive some of the choices I made back then. I had angels watching over me and praying for me.

Is that how you attribute your successes?

You know, I was constantly inspired by other people. And I kept looking forward and moving forward so I never got stuck. Now it’s a new level of creating and thinking.

So what’s next for you?

My job at this point is to keep moving in the way I’m supposed to and stay open and creative. I want to help the next generation trying to get their leg up and get them to a special place. That is what’s always given me joy.

Related: Queen Latifah on Why the Music of the Clark Sisters Takes Her to an Emotional Place

Living Like a Queen

Favorite childhood movie: “The [1976 musical] Sparkle with Irene Cara. I also loved the [1974 romance] Claudine.

Early musical influences: “I loved watching Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 perform on variety shows.”

First album I bought: “The Purple Rain soundtrack. The record had a poster of Prince on the inside!”

Favorite queen in history: “Hatshepsut of Egypt.”

Favorite meal to cook: “Scrambled or fried eggs.”

Favorite place to eat in New Jersey: “Let’s go with Libretti’s restaurant. It’s Italian, and it’s going to close in January.”

Favorite encounter with fellow Jersey native Bruce Springsteen: “I’ve met him a lot because we used to both live in Colts Neck. I’ve since moved, but I love it very dearly.”

Favorite souvenir from a set: “The cigarette lighter from Set It Off. I can feel myself clicking it right now.”

Last time I asked for an autograph: “The only one I can remember was Muhammad Ali. He has a boulevard named after him in Newark, and I was at the unveiling because of my dad. I got his autograph, and then he smiled and waved at me.”

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Role Call

The artist formerly known as Dana Owens has done it all.

All Hail the Queen (1989): After dipping into the rap world with a few singles, Latifah released her debut album at age 19. “I had to earn it,” she says. It peaked at No. 6 on Billboard’s hip-hop/R&B albums chart and includes the feminist anthem “Ladies First” with Monie Love.

Jungle Fever (1991): Her very first film appearance was in a single scene in Spike Lee’s searing drama about a doomed interracial love affair. But it’s a pivotal one. She’s the waitress who doesn’t want to serve the couple (Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra) in a Harlem soul food restaurant. “I had a cold that day, so I’m a little stuffy,” she says.

Living Single (1993–98): Before Friends, there was this hit sitcom about six unattached Black 20-somethings trying to make it in New York City. “The character was tailored for me,” she recalls. Also featuring Kim Fields, Kim Coles and Erika Alexander, the show enjoyed a healthy run on Fox.

Set It Off (1996): The acclaimed action crime drama focused on four L.A. friends who plan a bank robbery spree. Latifah was the biggest name in the cast at time, but the film helped launch the careers of co-stars Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise.

Chicago (2002): For the big-screen adaptation of the Broadway smash, Latifah took over the role of the wry and intimidating 1920s prison matron “Mama” Morton. “There was so much rehearsal, but we pulled it off!” she says. The performance led to a Best Supporting Actress nomination. (Alas, she lost to co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones.)

Bringing Down the House (2003): Though Latifah and Steve Martin didn’t seem like an obvious pairing, they delivered the goods in this screwball romantic comedy about a refined newly divorced lawyer who inadvertently falls for an escaped female convict. (But she swears she’s innocent!) Their first meeting is still bust-a-gut funny.

Last Holiday (2006): Proving again that she’s a stealth rom-com force, Latifah headlined a hit loosely based on the 1950 classic. She’s Georgia Byrd, a former department store clerk who jets off to Europe to live out her dreams after she’s told she only has a few weeks left to live. Her love interest: fellow rapper-turned-actor LL Cool J.

Hairspray (2007): Her singing and acting chops are on display in this rollicking movie adaptation of the campy Broadway musical. As DJ and record shop owner “Motormouth” Maybelle, she showcases her feelings about 1960s social issues with numbers like “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Her co-stars: John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken.

Bessie (2015): Latifah beautifully captured the essence of larger-than-life 1920s blues singer Bessie Smith for his HBO movie. It chronicles how the legendary performer went from struggling young artist to one of the of the highest-paid entertainers of the day while dealing with depression and addiction. She earned a SAG award and Emmy nomination for her gutsy portrayal.

Girls Trip (2017): Hey there, Flossy Posse! Latifah teamed with Tiffany Haddish, Regina Hall and Jada Pinkett Smith in this riotously raunchy comedy, in which four longtime friends who reunite for a bonkers trip to the Essence Fest in New Orleans. Latifah’s character is a journalist turned celebrity gossip blogger desperate for an exclusive.

Hustle (2022): Latifah plays the supportive wife of “my sweetheart” Adam Sandler’s character in this warm Netflix comedy (released over the summer). Plot: He’s a down-on-his-luck NBA talent scout who risks his reputation for an untested Spanish recruit.

Related: Queen Latifah on That Time She Almost Drifted Out to Sea