This post has been a while in coming. Ever since we first started writing about womanly awesomeness on this site, I knew I had to find a chance to give MUCH respect to Queen Latifah, who’s been my idol for 20 years.
Honestly, is there anything this woman can’t do? She raps, she sings, she acts, she writes, she produces. She exudes confidence and talent and comfort in her own skin. And she does it all without apologizing for her success or using her “feminine wiles” to make the male establishment comfortable with her tremendous skills.
Dana Owens was born a proud Jersey girl in 1970 in the town of East Orange. In 1989 she took the stage name “Queen Latifah”; a combo of an Arabic name meaning “delicate and sensitive” and a royal title because “every woman is a queen.” She burst onto the rap scene that year with the in-your-face, up-with-women album, All Hail the Queen, which includes the smooth woman-power jam, “Ladies First”, recorded with fellow female rapper Monie Love. Other female rappers from that era responded to the rape-y disrespect of gangsta rap by proclaiming an aggressive, man-eating sexuality. Not Latifah. She brought real moral outrage to her confrontations with misogyny. There’s still no better battle cry than “Who you callin’ a bitch?” from her 1995 song “U.N.I.T.Y”. The song won the Grammy for Best Rap Song and became a feminist anthem–it tackles everything from harassment on the street to domestic violence, and all with a kick-ass chorus. Watch the Queen lay it down here.
After the death of her beloved brother, Lance, in a motorcycle accident, Queen Latifah struggled with depression and drugs, a dark time she wrote candidly about in her 1999 autobiography Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman. She came back with a hit TV series, “Living Single”, which she starred in and produced for five years on Fox, plus a two-year stint as a talk show host, and a ton of movie roles, which eventually led to an Academy Award nomination for her turn as Mama Morton in the 2002 film version of Chicago. She’s jaw-droppingly fierce in the show-stopper “When You’re Good to Mama”, which you can see here.
Part of what I so love about Latifah, which is obvious if you watch the clip from Chicago, is her pride in her curvaceous figure. In an interview she unashamedly proclaims her love for her body and explains honestly why she had breast reduction surgery (but not liposuction).
How do you feel about always being labeled the curvy, big, beautiful girl? It’s good for regular girls because the meter [for beauty] has been a slim white girl. Beauty is not just a white girl. It’s so many different flavors and shades. [In Hollywood] we’ve definitely gotten better with body type. It used to be just me! Now with Jennifer Hudson’s success and America Ferrera, I got some successors to take the reins on this whole bodylicious thing.
You rolled your eyes at the word “curvy.” How would you describe yourself? Normal! I think I’m normal compared to the statistics.
What did you think of your body as a little girl growing up in Newark? My body grew before I was ready for it – especially when you hadn’t quite figured out really how to rock these things, [gestures to her chest] I was an athlete, playing basketball, and I didn’t have the right bra. I was bouncing all over the place. I had to run down the court like this, [holds her arms tight against her sides] It was tough. You feel awkward, but eventually I grew to love what I had.
So why the breast-reduction surgery in 2003? It took me about a year and half to really do it. I didn’t want to get it. But I had lost 25 lbs. and my breasts didn’t go anywhere! I was still carrying that load.
Were you tempted to tell the doctor to take a little from the waist while you’re down there? Yeah, [the doctor] offered, but I was like, “Hell no! You’re not doing that.” My belly was big and my breasts are not there, but I just gotta get back on the program and lose it the natural way. There are people who love [plastic surgery] and want to cut and chop anything. I’m like, “Y’all are crazy!”
While she’s always been frank on a whole range of topics, the Queen’s been notoriously mum on the subject of her love life, leading to rampant speculation that she’s gay. I have my opinions on whether that’s true or not, but really, who cares? If she chooses not to talk about who she sleeps with, that’s her perogative. Beyonce went for years without discussing her relationship with Jay-Z, and Queen Latifah has the same right to keep her dating life to herself.
Now, because I can’t resist, I’ll brag about my personal encounter with Queen Latifah. Okay, it wasn’t one-on-one personal–just me and a couple hundred other women at a big fund-raiser for the New York Women’s Foundation. It was a super-swank event at the Sixth Avenue Hilton, with speeches by the mayor, the governor, and a whole host of feminist luminaries, including pay-equity heroine Lily Ledbetter. Queen Latifah was there to receive an award and to launch a $10 million initiative for community-based programs to help women and girls in our city’s poorest communities. My colleagues and I–at least, those of us in our 30s–were bouncing in our seats with excitment about seeing Queen Latifah.
Now right before Queen Latifah came on stage, a young woman named Shaquana Blount got up to speak about her experience with one of the programs that NYWF supports. At age 14 she’d been working as a prostitute in the Bronx when she was beaten and left for dead by her pimp. With help, she recovered physically and emotionally, and now mentors and advocates for girls who’ve been victims of sex-trafficking. There was not a dry eye in the house when she told her story. After Shaquana’s testimonial, Queen Latifah came up on stage, looking fit and fabulous in a very Michelle Obama sleeveless grey silk sheath. She looked out into the audience, and then turned to Shaquana and said, “Good for you, girl. Good for you.” She was funny and fiery in her speech about the fund-raising intiatives–and did a wave and a laugh when someone in the very buttoned-up white-collar audience yelled out “U.N.I.T.Y!” But what I most remember was that she looked right past all the bold-faced names on that dais and focused on 19-year old Shaquana instead. Queen Latifah doesn’t just keep it real; she IS real.