Between takes in a Midtown Manhattan photo studio, Queen Latifah is fiddling with an $80,000 diamond-encrusted Fred Leighton crown. “Yep, this will do,” she says with a laugh. It’s quite a contrast to the ripped jeans and sneakers she’s sporting, but both extremes suit her equally well. “I’ve reinvented myself so many times throughout my career, but I always go back to my true essence,” she says. “Coming home to yourself might not always feel like the best place, but it’s you, and you’ve got to embrace that.”
That’s the kind of self-knowledge that has propelled her through three decades of rapping, acting, and producing—a streak that started with her 1989 début album, All Hail the Queen, and continues with her role in Fox’s music-industry drama Star. How does she stay unstoppable? To find out, we enlisted Golden Globe–winning Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross, a royal badass in her own right (and heir to mom Diana’s throne). Long live the queens!
Tracee Ellis Ross: Even when you were just starting out, you always seemed comfortable in your own skin. How did you feel from the inside?
Queen Latifah: I consider myself a confident person, but there’s always been an undercurrent of insecurity throughout my career. Self-esteem is never set in stone. It’s fluid, and it’s something you constantly have to manage. It can dip so easily, and when it does, you have to work to get it back up to a place where you can look at life properly.
TER: How do you give yourself that boost when necessary?
QL: I remind myself that although there are people less fortunate than me and people much more fortunate, none of that ultimately matters. I used to get caught up in comparing myself, especially in terms of body type, but I realized that often the people I envied were missing important things that I had in abundance—I’ve had romance and danger, family to come home to, and open-mindedness. It’s great to have plans and a vision for your life, but it’s more important to be open to the unexpected. That’s the secret to living a juicy, magical life.
TER: Was there a particular moment when you felt like a successful adult?
QL: I became a woman at age 24. I no longer felt like a kid who was afraid of making the wrong decisions. I had left college to pursue a music career, released two albums, opened up a management company, and Living Single was airing. And my brother had just passed away, so I was living through major ups and downs. Losing a sibling was just about the worst thing that could happen, so I developed a “What could stop me now?” attitude.
TER: We live in a culture where so many people pooh-pooh getting older, but I personally love being in my 40s. Did your 24-year-old self have a different definition of womanhood?
QL: As great as I felt then, I really believed I would get better every year that followed. The people I know who have problems with aging set goals for themselves with deadlines of a certain date or year. If they didn’t meet those marks, they felt like failures. I’ve always hung out with people older than me, and they make life look good—like aging is something to strive for. My grandmother died at 94 with all her faculties and her sense of humor intact. Never think you can’t start something new because of your age.
TER: I always credit my mom with paving the way for females to have such multifaceted careers in the entertainment industry. You and so many of our peers carry that on. Do you consider making an unprecedented career choice an act of self-love?
QL: Absolutely, because if you don’t take those chances, you will feel so unfulfilled. I couldn’t be as good a Lil’ Kim as Lil’ Kim could be. I couldn’t be as good a Foxy Brown as Foxy could be. But they couldn’t be as good a Latifah as I could be, so it’s about finding your own niche and owning it.
TER: Were there any career decisions that were particularly hard to make?
QL: When I got the role of amateur bank robber Cleo Sims in Set It Off, I sat down with my younger siblings and told them, “Listen, I’m playing a gay character. Your classmates might tease you or say negative things about it. But I’m doing it because I believe I can bring positive attention to the gay African-American community, and I believe that I can do a great job as an actor.” They understood, and when those things inevitably happened in school, they were OK with it.
TER: In our social-media age, when everyone is so over-exposed, whom do you consider pop-culture royalty?
QL: I respect people who started from the bottom and then grinded up—the ones who work as hard as I did when I started rapping. I’ve been a fan of Solange Knowles from the beginning. The biggest artist in the world is her older sister, yet she never relied on that. It doesn’t matter to me if the masses know who you are. I care about how you behaved when you were broke and whether you’ve stayed loyal to the people who rolled along with you back then—that’s the good s—.
Photographer: Jason Schmidt for CLM; hair: Iasia Merriweather; makeup: Sam Fine; fashion editor: Timothy Snell for Timpy Inc.; manicure: Lisa Logan; set design: Cooper Vasquez for The Magnet Agency.