From her very first role in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, in which she played an attitude-giving waitress opposite Wesley Snipes, Latifah has successfully made herself known with her overt confidence and accept-me-who-I-am vibe. Who can forget the early 1990s’ female empowerment song "Ladies First," which she sang while regally clothed in Afro-centric garb? Since then, she’s written a book for girls on self esteem; runs her multimedia production company, Flavor Unit Entertainment, with partner and best friend Shakim Compere; and is a spokesmodel for Covergirl Cosmetics, helping to give thick girls a positive image push. Let’s also not forget her triple-threat nomination for Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG Awards for her role as the opportunistic Matron ‘Mama’ Morton in the Academy Award-winning movie Chicago.
As if all these accomplishments aren’t enough, Latifah – who stars in this month’s comedy Beauty Shop – even got to personally handpick her hunky love interest for the film. Not bad for a girl from Newark, N.J.
"There ain’t but so many men that can play my love interest. You gotta be tall, have a presence and hold a woman my size," admits Latifah, who hired fellow Oscar nominee and fantasy dream man Djimon Hounsou (Amistad) as her paramour, Joe.
In Beauty Shop, Latifah plays Gina – the stylist-next-door to Ice Cube’s Calvin in Barbershop 2: Back in Business – a woman striking out on her own. Now it’s the ladies’ turn to dish dirt and literally let their hair down in the Barbershop spin-off in which Gina, fed up with working for her snotty boss Jorge (Kevin Bacon), decides to open up her own shop. Every female knows that with a beauty shop comes drama, and Gina’s is no exception; bad hair days are inevitable. Even the Queen suffered an embarrassing hair faux pas back in the day.
As a freshman in high school, she admired her girlfriend’s Jheri curl and went to a place to cop the style. Unfortunately, she got the wrong stylist who destroyed her hair. From this experience, Latifah can relate firsthand to the disasters Gina faces in running her own beauty shop.
Along with starring in the movie, Latifah also produced it. All cast members – including Andie MacDowell as Gina’s loyal customer, Alfre Woodard as the Maya Angelou-spouting Ms. Josephine and Alicia Silverstone as country bumpkin Lynn – quickly signed on, which made casting easy for the Queen.
According to Latifah, Silverstone (Clueless) was extremely eager to be a part of Beauty Shop.
"That just trips me out," says Latifah of Silverstone’s enthusiasm in working with her. "That’s one of those ‘pinch yourself’ moments. I think that’s part of the reason why the energy on the set was so high. Everyone clicked and got along. It made it fun coming to work every day."
Casting for Beauty Shop aside, Latifah has a lot of other work coming her way. She plays Auntie Em in the televised The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, a terminally ill woman in Paramount Pictures’ The Last Holiday and a muse for a blocked writer in next year’s Stranger than Fiction. She’ll also return as Aunt Shaneequa for Scary Movie 4.
"I decide things based on how I feel about it and if I can enjoy it. I gotta have fun doing what I’m doing and I can’t take it too seriously," says Latifah about her role choices.
On top of all this, last year she released her first vocal CD, The Dana Owens Album, which is a compilation of Latifah’s favorite soul songs. The album was something she felt she needed to do before working on anything else.
"Let the singing breathe for a minute because that’s another side of who I am. It’s been a countdown to that album for half my life. I would like to do that some more, so I need to get it out there and get it established," she explains about her temporary transition away from hip-hop.
Latifah heavily credits her partner of 10 years, Shakim Compere, for the success she’s accomplished. She heavily relies on his brute honesty and vision in taking Flavor Unit Entertainment to a higher level. Their tight relationship has seen her through the highs in her career down to the "What the hell was I thinking?" moments.
"Usually Shakim and I are never down at the same time. If he’s down, I’m up and I’m going to pick him up. If I’m down, he’s up and he’s going to pull me up. We’re pretty good at balancing each other’s mentality," she says.
"I wouldn’t have made it this far without my partner. We’re each other’s rock, each other’s ‘wax-on shield’ so to speak. You need people that can be honest with you, stand by you regardless of whether you’re hot or not."
Hip-hop fans will have to wait a minute or two for another rap album from the Queen. The Grammy winner wants to make sure she’s able to give it her best and not make a disc that is easily disposable and forgettable.
"I can’t do everything at one time. I need to focus on when I can actually do it. I can’t just do it, throw it out there and forget about it. I got to push it, and that requires energy. I’m not trying to beg anybody to play my records – you either feel it or you don’t," she says.
The only thing that really has Latifah concerned these days – aside from Beauty Shop’s opening-weekend box office numbers – is the perjury charge against her friend, rapper Li’l Kim.
"You know this whole thing is really sad," says Latifah. "She’s standing up for people that ain’t even standing up for her. I just want her to know that I support her and I love her to death."
As for Beauty Shop, currently playing in theaters, it has tough competition with horror films like The Ring 2 currently controlling the box office. But the Queen doesn’t sweat it; she’s more than excited about her new role as leading lady. "Let’s make this successful first," she concludes. "A sequel will be a no-brainer."
Beauty Shop is currently in theaters.