is not what you'd call shy. She was bold enough to enter the male-dominated rap world at age 17. On red carpets, she proudly flaunts her fuller figure next to Hollywood's traditionally skinny stars. But wear a bikini? "Never in America," says Latifah. "Always a two-piece in Europe, because you see everything on the beach whether you want to or not, so you don't feel bad!"
Not that Her Highness is sheepish about her size. As a young girl growing up in New Jersey, Latifah admits she felt "awkward" about her buxom build, but over the years, "I grew into my looks." She also downsized them in 2003 when she elected to have breast reduction surgery to alleviate years of back and shoulder pain. Now, at 37, Latifah stands just shy of 5'10", weighs "in the 2's" and couldn't be happier. Says Latifah: "I feel more comfortable with myself—my sexuality, my mentality and my viewpoint." (Though she doesn't discuss her sexuality with reporters: "My private life is my private life. Whomever I might be with, I don't feel the need to share it. I don't think I ever will.")
Through the years, Latifah (born Dana Owens, she adopted the Arabic name meaning "delicate and kind" in her teens) has morphed from being a Grammy-winning rapper who lit up the charts with empowering anthems like "U.N.I.T.Y." to an A-list actress who collected an Oscar nod for her role in 2002's Chicago
and an Emmy nomination this year for her turn on the HBO film Life Support
, which she also produced. The CoverGirl spokeswoman also expanded her reach into the fashion world by teaming up with her stylist Susan Moses to launch a plus-size fashion line with Curvation. Now she's continuing to reinvent herself as a jazz and blues singer with her new album Trav'lin' Light
. "She dares to be different," says her business partner Shakim Compere. "She's constantly looking for new challenges."
She's survived some unexpected ones as well; in 1992 her older brother Lance died in a motorcycle accident. "I can't explain the depths of pain she was feeling," says her mom, retired art teacher Rita Owens, 58. (Latifah's parents split when she was 5.) "They were inseparable." Since then, Latifah only operates on full throttle. "Life's too short," she says. "I pretty much want to go until it's over with." The Queen did manage to pause and talk to PEOPLE's Michelle Tan.
You just finished filming Mad Money
in Shreveport, La., with Katie Holmes
, who always brought cupcakes and treats to the set. How did you manage to maintain your figure?
I don't know! I'm not really a big sweets person. I'm more a meal eater. [Katie] is really cool. She shipped some Gino's East pizza down from Chicago. That was the bomb. That put a hurtin' on. I just kept working out. They had a little gym I would go to and I would walk the track behind a high school.
No sweets? What do you snack on?
I like Pirate's Booty. Prunes and olives too. I love hummus. I can eat that until I die. I tend to eat mostly organic food.
How do you feel about always being labeled the curvy, big, beautiful girl?
It's good for regular girls because the meter [for beauty] has been a slim white girl. Beauty is not just a white girl. It's so many different flavors and shades. [In Hollywood] we've definitely gotten better with body type. It used to be just me! Now with [Dreamgirls star] Jennifer Hudson's success and [Ugly Betty's] America Ferrera, I got some successors to take the reins on this whole bodylicious thing.
You rolled your eyes at the word "curvy." How would you describe yourself?
[laughs] I think I'm normal compared to the statistics. This is a big country nowadays. I would say I'm voluptuous. Statuesque. Definitely curvaceous.
What did you think of your body as a little girl growing up in Newark?
My body grew before I was ready for it—especially when you hadn't quite figured out really how to rock these things. [gestures to her chest] I was an athlete, playing basketball, and I didn't have the right bra. I was bouncing all over the place. I had to run down the court like this. [holds her arms tight against her sides] It was tough. One of my friends called them "McCongas." You feel awkward, but eventually I grew to love what I had.
So why the breast-reduction surgery in 2003?
It took me about a year and half to really do it. I didn't want to get it. But I had lost 25 lbs. and my breasts didn't go anywhere! I was still carrying that load. I didn't quite want them to be this small. [laughs] I was a little p——about that.
What were you before?
An E or an F cup. I was pretty big. Now I'm like a DD. I wanted to be a triple. They took one D too many! So that was hard to deal with. And there's scarring and stitches. It was painful. I missed my old look. I went through a little depression after surgery. I even got a weak prescription for antidepressants, but I didn't take it.
Were you tempted to tell the doctor to take a little from the waist while you're down there?
Yeah, [the doctor] offered, but I was like, "Hell no! You're not doing that." My belly was big and my breasts are not there, but I just gotta get back on the program and lose it the natural way. There are people who love [plastic surgery] and want to cut and chop anything. I'm like, "Y'all are crazy!"
So what do you actually like doing?
Renting boats, jet-skiing and jumping off yachts. Buying motorcycles or driving fast cars. Grown-up toys. It's just getting to live life and have fun and provide vacations for our family as well as a lifestyle. I was 18 and had to be professional while everybody else got to be kids. So it's fun to enjoy things I missed.
You lost your brother in a motorcycle accident in 1992. Was it hard for you to get back on a bike?
It was the last thing we did together, so I got back on immediately. It was weird at first, but I definitely felt connected to my brother just by riding motorcycles. When you're on a bike, 80 miles an hour, no protection between you and the concrete, it can be a very spiritual place. I have four motorcycles, a scooter and, like, eight bicycles. I bought my father a chopper for his 60th birthday, so we cruised down in Shreveport where we were filming.
You started out in the business as a teenager. How did you stay so grounded compared to all the young stars going to rehab today?
Their timing was off! I got all that done before I got into the game. [laughs] When I first started performing, my mom was my manager. She was like home base. She's always been the one person who can talk me off the ledge. I don't disrespect her.
Plus no one can guilt-trip you like a mom.
Yes! I hope I have that skill when I have kids. I can give them that one look [menacingly narrows her eyes] and they'll straighten right up, because that's what my mom was known for.
What's it like hanging out with your mom nowadays?
I always beg her to cook when I'm home. "Mom, can't you whip up some wings or something?" Or I come over and try to just cook something healthy. I like to experiment, and she's always willing to give it a try.
You have called yourself a commitment-phobe before. Are you past that?
I'm working on it! I'm getting a little commitment therapy. I just never placed any expectations on a relationship to go but so far. Everyone is fallible. Somebody's going to make a mistake. But at the same time a part of me always wanted to grow up, get married and have kids. So it's like you're torn between two places.
Sounds like there have been a few broken hearts.
A couple, but it wasn't so much my broken heart. I got a few marriage proposals in my 20s. I just wasn't ready. I just knew if I committed, I would've wound up doing something wrong, messing it up. I still felt like I had some living to do.
Are you in a relationship now?
But you seem happy ...
I am happy with or without a relationship. I'm just happy in general.
Whether or not you're with someone, you talked about wanting to have kids.
I've always wanted to have [babies] and adopt. When I was little, I remember seeing TV shows and a child would be adopted and be happy. I just always felt like there are so many kids out there who need a parent. I want to be that household where everybody's kids hang out. As long as you can tolerate the noise and the clanging and banging, it's cool. To me, it's good energy.
You've said that you love being in what you call your "dirty 30s."
[A huge grin spreads across her face.] That's what they call them. Women are supposed to hit their sexual prime in their 30s.
Actually, some peak in their 40s ...
Oh! That's even better.
Honey, you're just starting!
[She shimmies in her chair and claps.] So the freaky 40s are coming up next!