During the two decades since she began her ascent, Queen Latifah, born Dana Elaine Owens, has reached higher than she could have ever imagined in her wildest dreams. To an onlooker, it might appear that her every move has been carefully orchestrated, but that wasn't the case. "I never envisioned all of the things that I've accomplished," she tells me two days after her party. We're on the roof of West Hollywood's Le Montrose Suite Hotel, chatting. "In the beginning, I just wanted to hear my record on the radio, then I just wanted to make a movie," Latifah confides. "I didn't really have a long-term plan, but as more opportunities came my way, I just ran with them."
Her efforts have paid off in the form of an Oscar nod, as well as a Grammy, a Golden Globe and even star number 2,298 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Queen is nothing if not versatile. Remember how folks gasped when she portrayed a fearless bank robber who kissed a girl in the movie "Set It Off," while the teenybopper crowd fell out laughing when, on the advice of her friend's young son, she starred in the third installment of the Scary Movie spoof-horror franchise? Then, of course, there's the easy, breezy beauty she's been serving up as the face of her Queen Collection cosmetics line with CoverGirl.
Even with all her success, Latifah has had to bob and weave her way past the jabs that have been flying at her since day one. First there's the fickle industry she's chosen. Then there are the whispers and innuendos that continue to orbit around her, yet she never seems too fazed, not publicly anyway. Some questions she will answer readily. Was she really up for that role in "Monster's Ball"? Yes. When did she quit smoking? Almost five years ago. How much weight did she lose on Jenny Craig? More than 20 pounds, and still maintaining. But when it comes to inquiries about her personal life, she pumps the brakes.
There is, however, one personal experience that she's now willing to share, one that she had kept to herself for years. For a short period of time when she was a child, Latifah was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a teenager charged with her care. "He violated me," she says of the abuser. "I never told anybody; I just buried it as deeply as I could and kept people at an arm's distance. I never really let a person get too close to me. I could have been married years ago, but I had a commitment issue." Eventually, she opened up to her parents, who separated when she was young. "When I was 22, my brother died, and I knew that I couldn't carry his death and that secret," she says. "I had to get it off my chest. My mother felt terrible. She was kind of a country girl, so she wasn't up on how slick people could be. When I told my dad, he said nothing." Latifah says now that it was scary when her father didn't respond. "He's a man of action," she says.
Now at peace with that part of her past, Latifah is squarely facing forward. She hasn't any idea what's next on her horizon, and that's fine by her. Rather than obsessing over a checklist of wants and wishes, she's intent on enjoying the space she's in while staying open to what chance might have in store. "There are some places I'd like to see, some young 'uns I hope to raise, but other than that, I've done a lot of what I've wanted to do," she says. "Everything else is icing on the cake."
Regina R. Robertson is the ESSENCE West Coast editor.
For the complete interview, including Queen Latifah's thoughts on motherhood, pick up the July issue of ESSENCE on newsstands now.