Just two months out of the gate and in the midst of her first November sweeps, Queen Latifah is more than holding her own with her eponymous syndicated daytime talker.
It’s a competitive landscape with rivals including Bethenny Frankel, Ellen DeGeneres and Katie Couric — as well as Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil.
Unique amongst them, Latifah comes to the hosting chair as a successful musical artist whose career as a breakout female rapper dates back to the late 1980s and whose resume encompasses an extensive filmography.
On her mantel, a slew of hardware she’s earned for her work, including a Grammy, a Golden Globe, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and two Image Awards.
This is actually her second go-round with a talker. Latifah, born Dana Owens, had a previous gabber from 1999-2001, which was billed at the time as a Dear Abby for the hip-hop generation.
The current incarnation of “The Queen Latifah Show” tapes at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif., before a live studio audience.
With a steady diet of bold-faced names that this month includes LL Cool J, Kerry Washington, Johnny Knoxville, Vince Vaughn, Taye Diggs, Ray Romano, Ellen Pompeo, Will Arnett, Whoopi Goldberg and musical guests Janelle Monae, James Blunt, Gavin DeGraw, Jewel and Daughtry, “Latifah” also focuses on local heroes from the military, schools and communities.
Latifah sat down with reporters recently to talk about the many facets of the show, her philosophy for it and its multicultural impact. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: The ratings have been pretty monumental. How does that feel?
Latifah: I mean it’s fantastic. And I think it’s a testament to some of the needs that needed to be filled in daytime television. In terms of just entertainment, warmth, fun, a little bit of craziness, useful information — those things we always need.
And as someone who watches television, I’m just constantly striving, along with my staff and partners, to make sure that we continue to make it better — that I become a better host and I’m able to really continuously inject Queen Latifah into “The Queen Latifah Show” and really make it mine. It has been a learning experience, a growing experience, and we’ve been having a lot of fun and getting great feedback from people. So I’m pretty excited about that.
Q: You have been embraced by all people — not just people of color — but why do you think you have such an acceptance?
Latifah: I think maybe part of it is the fact that I’m a black woman, but I grew up in a family that was very multi-cultural. I had a Filipino aunt, I had a white aunt, you know? I mean I had a couple interracial couples in my family.
I had gay people in my family. I had people who were on the right side of the law, people who were on the wrong side of the law. I had sober people, I had drug-addicted people. I’ve had square people and cool people and everything in between in my own family that I was exposed to at a young age.
I grew up in the city of Newark, but I also grew up in Maryland and Virginia in the country. So I kind of had a diverse background. And I’m the daughter of an art teacher and a cop, you know? So I’ve been able to experience a lot of things through my parents’ lenses first. And having parents who, sort of, allowed me to see the world, and tried to expose me to different cultures and different kinds of things and at the same time know who I am as a female, as a human being having a connection to God.
All these different kinds of things that I was exposed to at young age kind of helped me become who I am today — and more importantly, to look at people as people. So I think the fact that I was not intimidated by different kinds of people allowed me to embrace different kinds of people at a young age.
You know, my father taught me that “when in Rome, do as the Romans” kind of thing, so every place that I went in the world as a young rapper — from here to all these different countries and Europe. All these different cultures and languages made me sort of embrace those cultures rather than try to be like some of my friends who were on the road with me eating McDonald’s in every different country we went to.
So I think maybe it’s given me an understanding of people to a degree. And it’s made me comfortable in my own skin. So I’m OK being judged among my own people, let alone other people. I allow myself the freedom to change and become whoever I want to be.
Q: Obviously anything can happen taping a show and there probably have been some surprises that may or may not have been on the air. What are challenges that you face that perhaps were unexpected?
Latifah: I think the challenges for me probably range from getting really comfortable being the person interviewing my peers because I’m much more used to being the one answering the question as opposed to posing the questions that we ask our guests.
So that’s been a bit of a learning curve for me, which I’m adjusting to and becoming much more comfortable with. And just being really comfortable — a comfortable chair, a comfortable outfit — things that allow me to relax and not think about what I’m wearing, what I’m doing, and really just enjoy the person that I’m speaking to or enjoy some of the games that we’re playing, or enjoy some of the musical performances or our human interest stories that we get into, and really connecting with those people.
Q: What about this experience did you not expect?
Latifah: Some of the surprises have been our crazy audience — and a lot of that stuff doesn’t make air — and some of the crazy things that come out of my mouth when we’re off air. It’s much more relaxed, casual and zany than what you sometimes see on the show.
Audience members ask questions of our guests while we’re taping or just say something as if we’re all in the same living room together. See, people feel very comfortable around me. And they feel comfortable just responding and they feel very comfortable with a lot of our guests — who they’ve known through television or film or their career — for a long time.
But then we, obviously, have to kind of edit some of it so that it works for our viewing audience at home. But there’s been a lot of fun stuff like that. Our audience has been great, and our guests have been fantastic.
And yes, probably one of the most fun ones was Cloris Leachman. She and I got it. We got the inside joke that she was going to do whatever she wanted to do that day. And so it was kind of funny trying to structure that for the TV audience, but it was so much fun and I think we were able to translate that.
Q: A lot of daytime talk shows seem to be based on trying to create controversy. What’s your take on that sort of philosophy?
Latifah: Well, the thing is that I didn’t base this show on creating controversy or creating a spirit of negativity. If anything it was opposite of that. I think if anything we need more just entertainment and heart and fun.
So that’s pretty much where we are. That’s the space we want to live in. If people want to talk about controversial subjects, we’re more than welcome to have that. They should be able to freely speak about whatever it is that they want to talk about.
And if there’s questions that we need to ask — if people are curious about — I think we should be able to ask those questions. But everything doesn’t have to be done in a salacious way that stirs up controversy intentionally. I just don’t think that’s the kind of show I really want to do on a regular basis.
So if it happens, it happens and we deal with it. And one of the things that I accepted a long time ago is that I’m going to be right and I’m going to be wrong. So as long as we’re clear about that, then everything is all good. There’s no such thing as a perfect show, a perfect host, a perfect person for that matter.
So nobody is going to do the right thing all the time. People make mistakes and that just has to be something t
hat’s accepted. If we can deal with that reality then I think everything will be fine.
Q: You have a lot of A-list guests this month. How much are you involved with the actual booking of talent on your show?
Latifah: I’m not hugely involved with the booking of the show but more involved with the approving of who gets booked on the show. But I mean I’ve definitely had a few of my friends on the show that I picked up the phone and called and said, "Hey, why don’t you come on the show?"
And I have a couple other friends who are going to come on the show just because we’ve been talking and I’m like, "Why don’t you just come on, you know, come on the show." Or they say, "Hey, I want to come on your show."
Q: So now that you’re a few months in, how is it from a workload perspective? Is the daytime talk show more than you thought, less than you thought, and how are you adjusting to it?
Latifah: I’m really starting to get into a flow of it and getting into the rhythm of it. There’s a lot of work involved. And that’s one of the main challenges — is just to be able to handle the workload of what you’re doing and really be present at the same time and forward thinking.
So it was definitely a big load to carry, but it gets easier and easier as the days go by. And it gets more and more fun — which is the goal — to really make it something that’s like old shoes eventually. And I think I will get there.
I think I’m already getting there. So I can see myself doing this for a very long time because it’s a place where I can allow a lot of my different gifts or talents to land in one place and be able to share a lot and bring a lot to the world that others may not be bringing.
That sense of positivity that those great stories about everyday people who are doing amazing things every day on the front lines — a message of positivity and hope that we don’t always get in the news. We get plenty of bad news, but it’s still great to bring some good news and cool people and fun stuff to people’s sight every day, so that they know that there’s a lot of great things going on in the world as well.
So as long as that continues to feed my soul, then I’ll do it.
So I can become five different people on one day, you know — from the host to someone doing a comedy skit, to being a partner in a business that is producing movies and television with Flavor Unit, to being my own musical guest on my own show performing a song, for that matter.
So luckily it’s something that I naturally gravitate towards, wearing many hats in a typical day. And that’s just been who I am since I was a young kid.
Q: Lenny Kravitz designed your set. What does he bring to your set that the other sets don’t give us?
Latifah: What I think he’s been able to bring is a mutual sense of style and peace. We both love modern architecture and I think we have one of the most gorgeous sets on TV, if I may say so myself. It’s not the typical colors that you might see on some other shows that have been done in the past, or the same style of furniture.
It’s really something much more modern and comfortable. We wanted something that felt sort of like my home. And my home is similar to the style that you would see on the show. A lot of people weren’t aware that he was even designing to the degree that he is. So it was a real honor and a pleasure to have him come on in and do our set as the first design that he’s ever done for television with his firm. It’s been pretty exciting to take that journey with him.
Q: One of the things that is so cool about this show is to see somebody who started out in the urban hip-hop community now sitting down and interviewing people like Carol Burnett and Dolly Parton and Cloris Leachman.
Latifah: I think the people who we actually interview — especially people in my business — tend to be exposed to a lot more different kinds of people than maybe an average person who is kind of in one area and grows up there, their family is from there, they don’t really travel too much outside of that area.
I’ve found when you’re exposed to different things you tend to open up your world a little bit and your lens gets wider because you see that there are different kinds of people. And at the end of the day people are people, you know.
And when you kind of break it down to the basics, then it doesn’t matter how much money you have in your pocket, you still got to brush your teeth or you’re going to have bad breath. And that’s how it is.
I think we all tend to look for parts of ourselves that we can see in the media, and so it’s been important for me to make sure that I’m places where people who look like me can see someone like me — who has achieved an amount of success or that has been able to achieve in the ways that I have because then they know they can follow their dreams and goals and go for what they want in their own way, but know it’s achievable.