March 1998
Photograph by MARY ELLEN MARK
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall

Sheer will
Satin gold-and-black floral bustier by Great Changes. Black tulle-and-lace skirt by Richard Bowman

At 25, she sassily predicted, "I'll do every­thing by the time I'm 30." At 27, Queen Latifah, nee Dana Owens, has achieved that modest goal a little on the early side. In 1989, the New Jersey‑born rapper donned a homemade crown and revolutionized the male‑dominated world of hip‑hop with her debut album, All Hail the Queen. Soon the former high‑school basketball star was scoring a series of career slam‑dunks, including two popular follow‑up albums; the creation of her own record label, Flavor Unit Entertainment; a starring role on the sitcom Living Single, which recently ended after five seasons; and a critically lauded portrayal of a lesbian bank robber in the 1996 film Set It Off. Now appearing as a deep‑sea diver hunting aliens in the thriller Sphere, based on the novel by Michael Crichton, Latifah plans to star in another big‑budget film later this year, release a new album in the spring and publish a semiautobiographical book on self‑esteem.

Unfortunately for the rapper‑actress-entrepreneur, her personal life has often gone less smoothly. In 1992, her older brother, a 24‑year‑old police officer, was killed in an off‑duty motorcycle accident. In 1995, a close friend was shot and critically injured when Latifah's BMW was hijacked in Harlem. And a year later, the star herself was pulled over for speeding and arrested for marijuana possession and carrying an unlicensed handgun. ("Someone like me has got to have protection," explains Latifah.) Yet the straight‑talking artist, who manages to appear every bit the queen even while swearing like Lenny Bruce, maintains a positive outlook. "I'm definitely spiritual," she says. "[I believe] we have a part of God in us ‑ enough so that we can manifest things we want to happen if we have enough faith in ourselves."

Tell me about the two movies you're in this year.

I play a [Navy] seaman on a ship in Sphere. It's not a major role, but we had to learn to scuba, and it was hard work. You know how tired you are after spending a day at the beach? Try every day. But I like doing physical stuff in movies. In The Kiss, I play a lounge singer who becomes friends with Holly Hunter's character. She's getting over a divorce, and I'm going through stuff with my boyfriend, who's gay, hoping he'll change. Sphere is a fun movie, but The Kiss shows more of my abilities.

Your upcoming book is about self‑esteem. You seem pretty comfortable with your body image in a town where any given actress is a size 2.

That, I've actually wrestled with. I mean, I was always the biggest girl in my class, until one year, another, bigger girl came. I was so happy! One thing I was self‑conscious about was my breasts. I thought they were so big. Then when I was 18 or 19, I dated somebody who just loved my body down, you know. Someone who just praised and adored my body constantly. That really turned me around.

Are you truly a self‑confident person now, or is that just the image?

I'm pretty confident, but everyone has some self‑doubt. The last four or five years of my life have been the hardest, after my brother died. That screwed me up for real. I thought I was crazy. I felt out of touch with other people on the planet; I was in some zone, and everyone else was here.

It wasn't too long after your brother died that your career really took off.

Yeah, and I felt real f‑‑‑ed up about that. Because I was always the one getting in trouble. He was, like, the man of the house. And we were as tight as a brother and sister could be. The strange thing is that when my brother died, I lost my grip, the power in my arms. I couldn't make a fist. To this day, it's still not the same.

Have you had therapy?

I talked to someone when I did Set It Off, actually. Jada [Pinkett, Latifah's co‑star] told me about this psychologist who was cool, a soft‑spoken black woman. I hadn't gone to one since I was 5 years old and acting up in school and no one knew why. I was f‑‑‑ing bored; they ended up skipping me a grade because I was too smart! Anyway, I went off Jada's recommendation and saw [the woman] twice, and it was so painful. I was just exhausted when I left, I was crying so much. But over time it's gotten more bearable.

It's been a while ‑ nearly five years ‑ since your last album. What do you think about the state of rap these days?

I think hip‑hop is back. I really feel good about it. Rap became all this "keep it real" s‑‑‑. Rappers thought they couldn't sell a record unless they cursed 2,000 times, shooting up this many people, beating my girl, all of this stuff that all sounded the same. The reality that kept getting created was too negative. So much hype. We lost two of the greatest rappers, Biggie and Tupac. They could've changed things and been leaders, you know. I'm sure they're sitting up there now like, "Ain't this a bitch. This is f‑‑‑ed up."

What do you think of these girly‑girl rappers?

I like some of them. Lil' Kim. Salt‑n‑Pepa. [But] it's getting a little monotonous, in a way. You know, all these other rappers and artists have had a chance to shine because I haven't had a record out. And I am the Queen. It's time to come back and let them know I'm here.