Rita, a high school art teacher who runs a jazz club in Newark, N.J., and Lancelot Owens, a police officer, welcome daughter Dana. As a kid, Dana and her older brother Lance attend Catholic school, where she plays Dorothy in a school production of the musical The Wiz. "There was always music in the house," Latifah tells the Iowa City Press-Citizen in 2007. "Singing was just a part of our normal upbringing." Around that time, an 8-year-old Dana assumes the name "Latifah" (meaning "gentle" and "kind" in Arabic) at the suggestion of a Muslim cousin. "I felt like, 'that's me,'" Latifah later tells CBS.
At 5'10", Latifah's weight hovers in the above-average range, but she learns to accept her stature, playing power forward on the high school basketball team (left). "I wasn't the best-looking student. But I thought I was cute," she tells PEOPLE. "I was well-liked and definitely had style." With two friends, Latifah forms a rhyming group called Ladies Fresh. "I was attracted to the sound and the content and the freedom of rap," Latifah tells the Los Angeles Times.
When Latifah is just 17, her friend Mark James gets her solo demo tape onto the radio waves. She adds "Queen" to her moniker and signs with Tommy Boy Records. She releases her feminist-flavored debut album All Hail the Queen (right), which sells more than 400,000 copies. In 1991, she releases her follow-up, Nature of A Sista, and takes over the management company Flavor Unit, which will eventually handle clients OutKast, Monica and Naughty by Nature.
Latifah's 24-year-old policeman brother, Lance (left), dies in a motorcycle crash aboard a bike Latifah gave him just two months earlier. In his memory, Latifah forms the nonprofit Lancelot H. Owens Foundation to fund scholarships for children. "I'll go to my brother's grave," she tells the New York Daily News, "sit next to him and...chat, and I'll talk to God, and for some reason, I just come out of there totally rejuvenated." In 1993, she dedicates one of the tracks, "Winki's Theme," from her album, Black Reign, to her late brother.
After appearances in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever and Will Smith's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Latifah lands her own FOX sitcom, Living Single. She plays Khadijah James, the strong-willed owner/editor of an urban style magazine, a role that will last through 1998. In 1993, Latifah plays a home-hospice caregiver Theresa, opposite Nicole Kidman in My Life.
Latifah and her friend Sean Moon, 22, get carjacked while in her $75,000 BMW in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. Moon is shot in the abdomen – and barely escapes death. "I remember Sean just trying to stay alive," Latifah tells the Los Angeles Times. "I literally had to talk him out of dying."
Latifah is arrested for carrying a loaded 38 caliber pistol (which she says she started packing after the 1995 carjacking), driving without a license and possession of marijuana. She is fined and receives two years' probation, but three days later, Latifah is arrested again for assaulting an amateur photographer. That November, Latifah leverages her unlawful behavior and portrays a bank-robber in Set It Off, with Vivica A. Fox and Jada Pinkett (right). In 2002, Latifah bumps into the law again when she is cited for reckless driving on the Hollywood Freeway. She is sentenced to three years' probation.
Latifah hosts her self-titled syndicated daytime talk show, which she describes to the New York Times as "Dear Abby for the hip-hop generation." But the show is quickly cancelled in 2001. She goes on to act with Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie (left) in The Bone Collector, and in a recurring role on Spin City with Heather Locklear.
After releasing her best-selling memoir, her fifth album, and making PEOPLE's Most Beautiful list, Latifah endorses CoverGirl cosmetics (right). "Women all over the country resonate with her," a company executive says of Latifah. The new spokesmodel also inspires a line of clothing for Curvation, an apparel label for larger-sized women. "I realized long ago that something I did not want to be measured by was my waistline," Latifah tells Glamour.
Latifah beats big-league contenders such as Bette Midler, Liza Minelli, Kathy Bates and Rosie O'Donnell, for the role of Matron Mama Morton (left) in the movie-musical Chicago with Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger. Director Rob Marshall tells PEOPLE, "People think rapper, street girl. Well, [Latifah] can sit with a president or with a kid on the street, and she'd be welcome either place." She receives Academy Award and Golden Globe nods for best supporting actress.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Courtesy Queen Latifah; Globe; amazon.com; Ray Tamarra/Getty Images; amazon.com; Kobal Collection/Wireimage; Kobal Collection/Wireimage; Kobal Collection/Wireimage