Born Dana Owens, she first became noticed as a hip-hop rapper in her teens, but it didn’t take long for Newark, N.J.’s Queen Latifah to blossom into a world-class entertainer. At 43, she counts a Grammy, a Golden Globe and two Screen Actors Guild awards among her triumphs, and this year, a People’s Choice Award for best new talk show host. She also earned an Oscar nomination for her role in the film “Chicago.” Thursday will mark the 100th episode of “The Queen Latifah Show,” which airs weekdays at 4 p.m. on the CW.
I saw you marry all those couples at the Grammy Awards, but I read you are not a minister. What did you do to be able to perform the marriage ceremony?
Well, I’m definitely not an ordained minister; that requires a lot more. I was deputized as a commissioner by the State of California to be able to do that. I had to get sworn in, and it was just for a limited amount of time. It was like Cinderella [laughs].
Was fame something you had to adjust too or did you know what you were getting into?
The only part of being famous that I probably wanted growing up was enough fame to get into clubs for free [laughs]. Because I was hanging out in New York City and I wanted to be able to get the hook up. I really became famous because of music. Music was really the love that I had and you know, [music brought about] business opportunities to be able to change the circumstances for my family — to buy my mom a house and do things for my family and friends. That was the goal. The fame came along with that.
You did what you loved.
I did what I loved. I always did what I loved, and so fame was an adjustment for me. It took me to crazy places. All of a sudden people looked at me, and I was supposed to be a role model. I was 17 years old when my first single came out. I was a kid. It was kind of a lot of responsibility. I felt a little bit of that pressure because I felt I’m still learning. I’m still growing. I also saw the positive side of what I could do and how I could get involved in AIDS activism and the things that were important in my time, growing up as a teenager. South Africa, apartheid, bringing those walls down. It was something we were able to bring to the world’s attention through hip-hop, through music. My generation of hip-hop spoke a lot about social issues, if there was something that needed to be talked about. So there was a lot of upside to that fame.
Would you describe yourself as an ambitious person?
I would describe myself as an ambitious person. I was raised to go to college. I was the daughter of a high school teacher, and education was very important in my house. You had to get an education. You had to hit the books. It was tough because I dropped out of college to pursue music. But I skipped first grade. So I made a deal with my mom. Since I had a year to blow in my mind, I said I would take a year off from college and put everything I had into making my music career a success. If it was successful in that amount of time, then I would stick with it. If not, I would go back to college. So we made that deal, and I never had to return. I wish I could have. She was happy, but she still wanted me to get a degree and I wish I had. Everything worked out. I went to the college of life.
When the money started rolling in you had to be doing the happy dance. Do you remember the first thing you treated yourself to?
Initially for me it was clothes and just having money in my pocket. I mean to go from basically working at Burger King and then a record store and selling my own single at the record store to all of a sudden making $1,000 for one song to perform. That was a lot of money you know? I would always give a third to my Mom. I would put a third in the bank to save and then I would blow the other third [laughs]. I was young and wanted to hang out. I got a gold tooth because the hip-hop kids had gold teeth.
I’m curious how do you get rid of a gold tooth?
I didn’t replace my teeth. My teeth were fine. It was just kind of a cap. It was more of an accessory than anything. It wasn’t like a permanent thing. You got it at the mall at a kiosk. Those were the cheap ones. I got one of those. It would pop out all the time. It didn’t fit right, and one day I lost the thing and that was the end of it for me [laughing].
Your name is now a brand, but do you ever regret not using your given name because you were so young when you chose it?
I actually don’t regret it. If anything I’m kind of glad I did create this sort of persona. It was part of how I visualized myself and something I wanted to portray. I believed the queen part was important because I felt like all women are queens and should be treated as such. I saw a lot of misogyny and chauvinism growing up. I guess I was a feminist back then, and I didn’t know it. I didn’t really know about feminism, but I did know that women should get the same pay as the guys for the same job. I watched my mom work really hard and my dad work really hard. I felt like things should be balanced. To me it was an attitude. Calling myself “Queen” would help me grow into those shoes. Queen Latifah, I never thought people would call me the whole name for some reason. My nickname was Latifah. Everybody called me that already. I kind of stuck the Queen on at the last minute when it was time for me to sign a recording contract. I was surprised when people called me the whole thing. I was like, “OK.”
Being a celebrity and now interviewing celebrities has that helped you in your approach?
I think I’ve had to adjust to being forward. I’m not really a forward person in front of the cameras with other people. I know what it is to sort of have a private life and then have a public life – what we do professionally, it just comes along with that. So between my producer and I, we ask the questions we need to ask. If anything, I can rephrase things or put them in a way that is always respectful to my guests because I have been on that side of the couch I wish to remain respectful and yet curious at the same time. I find when you create a safe environment, I am more inclined to open up. I wanted to create that same environment for guests on the show. Some of them I know or I am friends with, so I just wanted to create a comfortable, safe space and allow them to have at it.
I know your life has had its share of challenges so what do you employ to keep moving forward and stay grateful?
I have my family and my friends around me who have been around me forever. They know me like the back of their hand. I can be me. I don’t always have to have the camera on. I don’t have to fill up a huge void all the time inside because I can’t be myself. I am going home right now to see my mom and my cousin and do regular things. Take out the garbage and make sure the bed is made and everything is cool, you know? I am a normal person. Also I really have a faith in God. I really believe in God. I pray when I am confused or anxious. I kind of just pray it all away. I get this peace and joy. I just kind of know I have somebody on my side who is looking out for me even perhaps when I didn’t even know I needed to be looked after, watched after, in a certain way. I just know I am not here by chance. I am here for some purpose, for some reason. I try to be optimistic and positive and when it hurts, ouch [laughs]. It’s OK to acknowledge your feelings, but there are a lot of things to be thankful for, grateful for and I feel that. I’m just a happy person overall. People try to steal my joy, but I am generally a happy person who wants to enjoy life, live it to the fullest and rock out.
Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.