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Award-winning actress, rapper, entrepreneur and spokesmodel were but a few of the hats Queen Latifah wore as she began her rise as one of entertainment's top renaissance women, starting with her breakout album All Hail the Queen in 1989. The 19-year-old embodied a new spirit in hip-hop and was a pioneer for her empowering messages of positivity, particularly for urban women. Her status as pop culture icon led easily to an acting career, where she followed up a four-year run on the Fox sitcom "Living Single" (Fox, 1993-97) with increasingly visible roles in comedies and dramas, including "Set it Off" (1996) and "The Bone Collector" (1999). She broke through with unanimous critical acclaim for her role as Mama Morton in the lavish big screen adaptation of "Chicago" (2002), earning multiple awards for her powerhouse performance. Audiences loved Latifah in the urban comedies "Bringin' Down the House" (2003) and "Beauty Shop" (2005) even if critics did not, but Latifah was continually surprising audiences with her artistic development. Evolving from rapper MC to sweet jazz crooner, she also delivered terrific performances in subtler films like "Stranger Than Fiction" (2006) and "Last Holiday" (2007) and...
Award-winning actress, rapper, entrepreneur and spokesmodel were but a few of the hats Queen Latifah wore as she began her rise as one of entertainment's top renaissance women, starting with her breakout album All Hail the Queen in 1989. The 19-year-old embodied a new spirit in hip-hop and was a pioneer for her empowering messages of positivity, particularly for urban women. Her status as pop culture icon led easily to an acting career, where she followed up a four-year run on the Fox sitcom "Living Single" (Fox, 1993-97) with increasingly visible roles in comedies and dramas, including "Set it Off" (1996) and "The Bone Collector" (1999). She broke through with unanimous critical acclaim for her role as Mama Morton in the lavish big screen adaptation of "Chicago" (2002), earning multiple awards for her powerhouse performance. Audiences loved Latifah in the urban comedies "Bringin' Down the House" (2003) and "Beauty Shop" (2005) even if critics did not, but Latifah was continually surprising audiences with her artistic development. Evolving from rapper MC to sweet jazz crooner, she also delivered terrific performances in subtler films like "Stranger Than Fiction" (2006) and "Last Holiday" (2007) and brought all her talents together for a knock-out performance as Motormouth Maybelle in the big screen musical, "Hairspray" (2007). Consistently demonstrated through her talent, strength and positivity, Queen Latifah entertained and inspired not merely African-Americans or women, but people from all walks of life.
Born Dana Elaine Owens on March 18, 1970, Latifah was the only daughter of Lancelot, a police officer, and Rita, a high school art teacher and proprietor of a jazz club in Newark, NJ. Latifah grew up in nearby East Orange in a house that she remembered as being filled with a variety of music - from her mother's jazz to the musicals she loved watching on television. She was also close with her brother and father - who had separated from her mother at age 10 - from whom she learned karate and firearms training. In school, it was immediately clear that Latifah - who had been given the nickname from a Muslim cousin - was multitalented and driven to succeed. At 5'10," she was a power forward for the state championship-winning high school basketball team and a standout in school plays like "The Wizard of Oz." She held down part-time jobs and found time to start an all-female rap group, Ladies Fresh. Latifah and Ladies Fresh swept the honors at the school talent show before graduating from Frank H. Morrell High in 1987 and enrolling at Manhattan City College.
Spurred on by Ladies Fresh's positive reception, Latifah continued to pursue music, partly out of frustration with the under-representation of women rappers and the generally disrespectful attitude towards all women in the genre. The budding rapper fell in with a group of MCs referred to as Flavor Unit, and got her first break when renowned figure DJ Mark handed her music to MTV VJ Fab Five Freddy. Freddy saw the potential in Latifah's fresh new image and helped her land a record deal with Tommy Boy Records, with her debut album All Hail the Queen hitting streets in 1989 and reaching No. 6 on the R&B/hip-hop charts and certified gold record status. Latifah joined up with Afrika Bambaataa's Native Tongue Posse and a hip-hop collective including Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and other "alternative" rap acts who favored positive, empowered, Afro-centric lyrics, live instruments and a palpable jazz influence. Her follow-up album Nature of a Sista was released in 1991 and the ambitious business woman took the helm of Flavor Unit Entertainment, managing hip-hop acts for the expanding enterprise that would one day include a record label and film production house.
Her early music success had paved the way for a whole new generation of female rappers, and it was only a matter of time before Latifah's iconic image was recognized as a hugely appealing draw for filmgoers as well. She appeared in guest spots on "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" (NBC, 1990-96) and had small roles in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever" (1991) and the drama "Juice" (1992), where she felt typecast in "those screamin', shoutin' roles." She began to show more range as a nurturing hospice worker tending to a terminal Michael Keaton in "My Life" (1993) and soon after, was cast in the ensemble of the sitcom "Living Single." A new type of series for a new generation of urban audiences, Latifah's image was a perfect addition to the chronicle of twenty-something professionals in a Brooklyn brownstone, and the developing actress earned multiple Image Award nominations for her role as the owner-editor of an urban style magazine.
Having taken several years to focus her creativity on acting, fans we hungry for new music from Latifah and she did not disappoint with her 1994 album Black Reign. The certified gold album proved that Latifah was continually evolving as an artist, with her single "U.N.I.T.Y." earning her her first Grammy Award. Unfortunately, as Latifah reached new heights in the entertainment business, her personal life began to suffer from the pressure and from personal tragedy. In 1992, Latifah's brother was killed in a motorcycle accident and the traumatic loss threw her off her secure footing. She admitted to a period of depression that was evident on the deeply emotional Black Reign, which included a tribute to her fallen brother. Then in 1995, Latifah and a friend were carjacked in New York City and her passenger barely escaped with his life. The following year, she was given two years parole for carrying an unlicensed handgun and marijuana in her car. Months later, she was in trouble for assaulting a paparazzi. Ever the smart businesswoman, she embraced her run of legal infractions by playing one of a crew of women bank robbers in the acclaimed drama "Set It Off" (1996). The following year marked the end of "Living Single" and Latifah returned to the recording studio, emerging with her fourth album Order in the Court (1998), which was the first release to embrace Latifah's singing voice. More R&B oriented than her previous efforts, the album featured collaborations with Jill Scott, Faith Evans and Pras.
At the height of the celeb-helmed daytime talk show wars, Latifah was granted her own outlet with "The Queen Latifah Show," which stood slightly apart from the pack as "Dear Abby for the hip-hop generation." The syndicated show did moderately well but did not survive the waning popularity of the genre and was cancelled in 2001. Meanwhile, Latifah resumed acting with supporting roles in the sci-fi thriller "Sphere" (1998) and the romantic comedy "Living Out Loud" (1998), which earned her a Best Actress nomination at the Image Awards. She was nominated again for her solid performance as the caregiver of quadriplegic detective Denzel Washington in the drama "The Bone Collector" (1999). Latifah released a bestselling memoir Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman in 1999, returned to the small screen with a recurring guest role on "Spin City" (ABC, 1996-2002), and conquered yet more territory as the new spokesmodel for CoverGirl cosmetics. In much the same way the fearless Latifah had pushed the boundaries of women in hip-hop, she again challenged the media's restrictive notions of traditional beauty as the face of CoverGirl and through her partnership with the Curvation lingerie line.
Latifah's career hit a major turning point in 2002 when she beat out such vets as Bette Midler and Liza Minnelli for the role of Mama Morton in the dazzling film adaptation of the hit musical "Chicago" (2002). Her performance showcased the range and depth of her talents in a way previous roles had only hinted at, with her compelling charisma and formidable vocal abilities proving that she had rare superstar qualities that could equally wow mainstream audiences and critics alike. She was honored with Golden Globe, Oscar, BAFTA, and BET Award nominations among others, and followed up with a dual role as executive producer and star of "Bringing Down the House" (2003), in which she played opposite Steve Martin as a recently released inmate who hooks up with a dull exec via an online dating service. Critics massacred the broad comedy, which also took hits for Latifah's stereotypical urban character, but audiences ate it up to the tune of $136 million at the box office. Latifah regained the respect of critics with her 2004 release The Dana Owens Album," a further musical departure and Grammy-winning success (in the Jazz category) that proudly showcased Latifah's powerful vocals on a selection of soul and jazz standards.
On the big screen, Latifah still gravitated towards outrageous, broad comedies for the young African-American demographic, taking on a small but scene-stealing role in "Barbershop 2: Back In Business" (2004), which led to her leading role in the female-centric spin-off, "Beauty Shop" (2005). Increasing her involvement in film production through Flavor Unit's film house, she co-wrote, co-produced and co-starred as an overzealous security guard in the uninspired comedy "The Cookout" (2004). With "Last Holiday" (2006), she found a role much better suited to her onscreen charms, starring as a timid, conservative woman with three weeks to live who embarks on a international fling in an attempt to live her last days to the fullest. Now the voice of Pizza Hut commercials, Latifah also voiced Ellie the woolly mammoth in the animated hit "Ice Age: The Meltdown" (2006), before a refreshingly subtle turn as the no-nonsense literary assistant to a best-selling author (Emma Thompson) in the surreal "Stranger Than Fiction" (2006). That year, she became the first hip-hop artist honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Continuing a run of more sophisticated fare, Latifah enthralled audiences and critics with her measured turn as an AIDS-afflicted activist and recovering drug addict struggling to raise her teenage daughter in "Life Support" (HBO, 2007). For her role, Latifah earned her first Emmy nomination as well as a Golden Globe win for Best Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie in early 2008. In a heralded return to big screen musicals, she was outrageously entertaining as the warmhearted and lavishly-coiffed record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle in "Hairspray" (2007). That same year the tireless entertainer released another record of her own, Trav'lin' Light, a vocal winner that picked up where The Dana Owens Album left off, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard jazz charts. In 2008, Latifah continued to knock out the comedies she excelled at, starring on the big screen alongside unlikely co-stars Diane Keaton and Katie Holmes in the heist comedy "Mad Money" (2008). Though critically reviled, the Queen was cited as the best thing in the film.
In October 2008, Latifah made a surprise appearance on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), giving a dead-on impression of PBS's Gwen Ifill, moderator of the 2008 Vice Presidential Debate between Senator Joe Biden (Jason Sudeikis) and Governor Sarah Palin (Tina Fey). Back in the feature world, Latifah starred in "The Secret Life of Bees" (2008), playing one of three beekeeping sisters who take in a 14-year-old runaway (Dakota Fanning) and show her a world she has never seen. Latifah returned to her R&B roots for her seventh studio album, Persona, in addition to more vocal work reprising the voice of Ellie for "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" (2009). She continued her focus on film acting when she joined the all-star ensemble cast of director Garry Marshall's romantic comedy "Valentine's Day" (2010), then played a fast-talking, enthusiastic auto industry exec in the Vince Vaughn/Kevin James comedy "The Dilemma" (2011). Latifah utilized her impressive vocal ability in a starring role opposite Dolly Parton as one of two strong-willed women struggling to save a small town choir in the inspirational comedy-drama "Joyful Noise" (2012). After returning to voice the role of Ellie in the latest installment of the hit animated film franchise, "Ice Age: Continental Drift" (2012), Latifah joined the ensemble cast for a made-for-TV remake of "Steel Magnolias" (Lifetime, 2012). A surprise to many, it was playwright Robert Harling who first suggested filming an adaptation of his original stage drama with an all-African-American cast that, in addition to Latifah, included such notable actresses as Alfre Woodard and Phylicia Rashad. With both Latifah and Woodard receiving high praise for their performances in the tear-jerking drama, "Steel Magnolias" scored a ratings hit for Lifetime. Following a supporting role in the thriller "House of Bodies" (2014), Latifah returned to television in the biopic "Bessie" (HBO 2015), playing pioneering blues legend Bessie Smith. Her sensitive portrayal won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie.
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