Queen Latifah slides into the back of a trailer parked at a photo shoot in lower Manhattan looking every inch the Jersey homegirl. She’s got her hair pulled back in a low pony, jeans with faded crease marks across her thighs and two-tone nail polish with aquamarine tips. She takes a seat by the window, stares down at her fingers, and shakes her head. “I would never get this color,” she says. The nails, courtesy of the former drug addict she’s playing in the upcoming HBO film “Life Support”, are bothering her so much that she absently picks up a pair of scissors and starts scraping off the polish. Then she catches herself. “Are these yours?” she asks the reporter seated across from her. “Because I guess I shouldn’t be doing my nails with them if they are.” Then she lets loose a big open laugh. It’s clear that on her downtime, the Queen likes to keep it regular-girl real.
That realness is an unexpected quality in a woman who holds sway as one of the most glamorous and powerful African-Americans in entertainment (the Queen reportedly commands $12 million per picture, thank you very much). But where other celebs ascend to Hollywood heights and quickly lose all their sister-next-door appeal (Star Jones, anyone?), the more successful Latifah becomes, the more we celebrate with her. As a rapper, singer, spokeswoman, Oscar nominee, cover girl, fashion designer, real estate mogul, full-size woman and now movie producer—with the most exquisite cheekbones—she’s repping for every sister who ever thought she should have been a star. Latifah’s living our fantasy, and doing it with a laugh.
]Ask her how she did it—how she parlayed her first recording contract back in 1988 into a multimedia empire—and she’ll launch into a series of rules on the nature of her road to success. She starts at the beginning, by giving credit to the man who made it all possible.
RULE #1: Keep a good MAN by your side
Latifah met Shakim Compere, a no-nonsense brother with a big smile and a diamond in his left ear, back when the two were students at Irvington High School in New Jersey, where Latifah’s mother was a teacher. When Latifah started performing at hip-hop shows, Compere was one of the friends who would come along to collect her pay. One night a promoter tried to stiff Latifah, but Compere was like a pit bull, arguing in the back room for hours until he finally got Latifah her money. For Latifah that was it. Compere became her official road manager, business partner, confidant, other half. “There’s a certain strength you need to deal with people in this business,” she says, “and Shakim has that.”
Even when Latifah was in Los Angeles taping [ITALIC “Living Single”] and Compere was in Jersey managing the business, the two were in constant contact. “We kept dreaming and building and sharing information about what we were learning,” she says. “Black folks are always worried about who’s going to take what from us. The reality is that as African-Americans, we should be sharing information with one another, not hoarding it.”
For Latifah’s mother, Rita Owens, Compere proved himself another way. “When Dana was rapping, I would troop with her to her shows, but I was really out of my element,” she says. “One time gunshots rang out and Shakim covered my daughter with his body. I don’t care where she is in the world, when Shakim is with her, I feel she’s safe.”
RULE #2: Assume the power position
Since those early days, Latifah has been a force to contend with—growing a business out of nothing but dreams and determination. In 1991 when Latifah was only 21 years old, she and Compere started a management company, Flavor Unit, which at its height represented 11 gold and platinum acts, including Naughty By Nature, Monica and OutKast.“We were like the musical blueprint,” says Compere. “Almost every crew, whether it was Roc-a-fella or Wu-Tang, followed Flavor Unit.”
Over the years, the pair downsized the management side of the business (they still represent actor Terrence Howard) to delve more deeply into movies, inking a five-picture production deal with Rogue Films in 2005. The tipping point was the golden month of March 2003: Latifah had been nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for “Chicago” and also was starring in and had executive-produced “Bringing Down the House“, the No. 1 movie in the country. Suddenly doors started swinging open all over Hollywood. “We were having such a good moment, and we wanted to take the same spirit we’d had with music and apply it to film,” says Compere. The pair are currently hard at work producing “The Perfect Christmas,” starring Latifah, Howard, Gabrielle Union and Charlie Murphy.
Of course, doing business in Hollywood is not without its challenges. Both Latifah and Compere admit they’ve had to deal with industry racism, the kind that has some people assuming Black folks don’t really know what they’re doing. Compere says he was once in a meeting with a White executive who asked him when the manager was going to arrive. “It wasn’t my problem,” says Compere, “it was his ignorance. But because he said that, I charged him ten times as much as I normally would. At the end of the day that’s what it’s really about.”