"I feel more comfortable with myself," says Queen Latifah on life in her 30s.
Queen Latifah 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 Cover Girl spokes woman 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.