From Music Queen To Movie Star

Queen Latifah Talks About Her Success In Hollywood And Beyond

She had the audacity, at the age of 17, to call herself the Queen – Queen Latifah.

Last fall, Correspondent Bob Simon sat down with this member of rap's royalty to survey her kingdom.

Queen Latifah's become a movie star, a TV actress, an entrepreneur, a writer, a talk show host and now, the host of the Grammys Awards Sunday on CBS.

She's also nominated for her album, "The Dana Owens Album," which is filled with music that may surprise you.
Oct. 10, 2004 Broadcast:
At the age of 17, Queen Latifah was an unknown rap artist in New Jersey who'd never even cut a record.

But she quickly earned her title, becoming the queen of hip-hop, and then expanding her kingdom by becoming a movie star, a TV actress, an entrepreneur, a writer and a talk-show host.

And she never stopped singing.

Now, she's got a new movie, "Taxi," and she's still singing. But this time, as Correspondent Bob Simon reports, this 34-year-old Queen of Rap is changing her tune.

It's not only the songs that are resurrected from a bygone era. It's the name of the album itself. It's called "The Dana Owens Album." That's the name Queen Latifah was born with.

Dana, or Queen Latifah, is a devout Christian, but she chose to call herself Latifah when she was a child. It's a Muslim name meaning delicate and sensitive, and she says that's how she feels on the inside.

But she could have fooled a lot of people. The image she projects seems to suggest, quite simply, "Don't mess with me." And in the just-released movie, "Taxi," she plays a taxi driver who decks a cop.

Her portrayal of the jail keeper, the merciless Mama Morton in the movie "Chicago," also won her an Oscar nomination.

Is she really as supremely self-confident as she seems to be?

"I don't necessarily think it's a confidence thing as much as it is a blessing. There's a whole bunch of people with as much talent as me who aren't blessed to be in the position that I'm in," says Latifah.

"That sounds very humble. It's a very humble thing to say," says Simon. "If one were to list the qualities you are known for, I don't think humility would be at the top of the list."

"I think if you knew me, it would be," says Latifah. "I think you can be a confident person and have a good self-esteem and still be a humble person."

She says she named herself Queen because she was "raised by a mother who told me every black woman is a queen."

Her mom, Rita Owens, says she was surprised when her teenage daughter started calling herself Queen: "I was like, 'Dana, you got to be kidding me. Queen?' I said, 'Nobody's gonna buy this.' Amazing. It jumped off so quickly, totally accepted."

Queen Latifah began her career as a rapper, with songs that encouraged women to stand up for themselves and not get put down by men.

"And here this girl is saying, 'I'm a queen, you know, and I'm demanding respect on top of that. And you will not look at me as a sexual object, on top of that.' I was like, 'Yeah,'" says Rita Owens.

"If I wasn't raised with that attitude, I'd be like half these other women out here who think they don't deserve anything. Or they are second-class citizens," says Latifah. "Or they can't get the job they want or the man they want or the future they want or raise the kids the way they want, you know, all that kind of stuff. I'm talking about women in general. I met a lot of women who lack self-esteem."

Queen Latifah grew up in New Jersey. Her brother, Lancelot, nicknamed Winki, was two years older. Her parents divorced when she was a child, and her mother, hard-pressed for money, had to move with her two kids into the projects.

"I can remember, after we moved, and I had gotten the children to bed, I heard a train. We were by the railroad tracks," recalls Rita Owens. "And the way I was raised, you know, if you're down by the railroad tracks, you've kind of hit the bottom. And it was at that point, I said, 'I don't care what I have to do. In 11 months, I'm outta here.'"

Anyone who wonders where Queen Latifah got her work ethic, her toughness, need look no further. Her mother held down two jobs, enrolled in college, and 11 months later, she took her kids out of the projects. They wound up in East Orange, N.J.

Queen Latifah took 60 Minutes back to her old neighborhood. It really was a royal visitation. "I moved here when I was about 13," she says. "I went through puberty here."

She represents to the girls what Shaquille O'Neal might mean to the boys: a road to the top. And in fact, basketball was her game. She was a high school star, but it was after school that she discovered the rap music that would change her life.

Her mega-hit, "Ladies First," celebrated the role of strong women. And when the money started pouring in, she shared it with her family. She bought her mother a new home, and she bought her brother the motorcycle of his dreams for his 24th birthday.

But it's been said that no good deed goes unpunished. Two months later, he died riding it.

"It was the worst thing that could happen to you. It was like losing both your legs and both your arms. Now you have to - you can still live, but damn," says Latifah.

"I was so worried about Dana, you know? Because she was absolutely spiraling out of control," says Rita Owens. "She played basketball real hard and she drank real hard. And I later found out that she was, y'know, smoking marijuana. And she was doing whatever it took to kill the pain."

What got her through it? "Me, because we made a pact that we would always be there for one another," says Rita Owens. "That, and the album, 'Black Reign,' because she poured her heart, her soul and her pain into that album."

The album, which was dedicated to her brother, went gold and she won a Grammy for one of the songs. Her career was soaring.

"I...felt good in a way about what was happening, but I couldn't really enjoy it, because my feelings were totally numb. You know, I couldn't love completely, I couldn't hate completely. I couldn't cry completely. I couldn't laugh – I no longer could laugh until I cried," says Latifah. "I just didn't have that joy. So it was like, I'd say, for the five years after that, from 22 to 27, I was here, but I wasn't here."

But Queen Latifah still rides a bike, even though her brother was killed in a motorcycle accident. "It was the last thing we did together, really, and I, for some reason, I had to ride," says Latifah. "It was like a must, like I had to get right back on the bike."

And that's what she did the day that 60 Minutes was with her. She agreed the crew at a motorcycle shop in New Jersey.

Fast sports bikes are one of her passions. She says they provide an escape from the pressures of celebrity. Simon didn't need an excuse, so he came along for the ride.

"Riding is fun for more than one reason. I have worn a helmet most of the time. People don't know it's me," says Latifah. "So I can just rip and run and be at one with myself."

Queen Latifah is also the only female rapper to become a movie star. She got her big break when Spike Lee cast her in the 1991 movie "Jungle Fever." She played a waitress who wasn't happy with a black customer who showed up with a white woman.

This led to a TV series, "Living Single," and then her own talk show and more movies, including "Chicago." She said she wanted the role of Mama Morton in "Chicago" so badly that she auditioned for it three times.

"I lost my grandmother while I was shooting 'Chicago,' so the movie itself has more, more sentimental value than another movie might have," says Latifah. "I feel like my grandmother was that Mama Morton character, you know? She was a big-breasted, sexy woman that was a pistol!"

Queen Latifah was also the star, and an executive producer of the box office hit, "Bringing Down the House" with Steve Martin. She's producing more movies, like "The Cookout," which is in theaters now, through her very own company in Jersey City.

Most of the people who work there come from her old neighborhood, and that's not an accident. Queen Latifah insists that African Americans get to work on the set of the movies she makes, like "Beauty Shop," which is in production.

"And if you didn't insist on it, would you expect to see African-Americans on the set?" asks Simon.

"Absolutely not. I don't just hire African-Americans," says Latifah. "I just make sure everybody has a chance."

Has she ever been hit by racism? "Hell, yeah. Every time I try to flag down a cab and it goes past me and picks up that white lady instead of me, that's racism. And I hate that," says Latifah. "Or what's worse is, I'm nobody until you see that credit card, with that name on it. Or until the person next to you says, 'Do you know who that is? It's Queen Latifah.' Oh, now I'm somebody. Now you gonna stop following me around this damn store."

One of her messages has nothing to do with color, but with size. Women, if you want to be beautiful, happy and successful, you don't have to be skinny, she says.

"Maybe other people wanna be somebody else. I'm cool being me. And that's why I'm not starving myself to death. I'm gonna enjoy eating a good meal," says Latifah.

Why does she think the press has been so obsessed with her figure? "Because they know I look sexy," she says. "They can't take my sexiness, that damn press. No, maybe they're hungry, too."

Her curves, in fact, didn't stop People magazine from naming her one of the 50 Most Beautiful People.

"I think for people who may be thicker, you know, or people who may be darker, and people who may be female, it's good to see someone like me in one of the magazines under 'beautiful,' so that a girl out there can say, 'You know what? I'm beautiful. She's beautiful. That must make me beautiful,'" says Latifah.

And that's what she believes in: self-esteem, not only for herself, but for all women. And if there are any men out there who've got a problem with that, well, she's got a message for them, too.
  • Rebecca Leung

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