Queen Latifah, the Hollywood star born and bred in Newark, N.J., is a Renaissance woman. Brilliantly transformed from a young 1990s rapper and hip-hop artist into an Academy Award-nominated actress and iconic cosmetics CoverGirl, Latifah embodies full-figured beauty and style. Her confidence and strength are fundamental: From her lyrics and lyricism to her elegant, on-screen persona and self-assured attitude, Latifah comes across as a quintessential example of the strong black woman.
Though Latifah has had many incarnations — from talk-show host and sitcom star to Billboard-chart-topping artist and Golden Globe winner — she has now entered a new phase in her professional life as the executive producer of a prime-time cable sitcom, Single Ladies, starring Stacey Dash and LisaRaye McCoy.
The show, a Sex and the City concept with an African-American flair, has enjoyed relative success in its first season, scoring 1.8 million viewers for its opening episode — a record for the VH1 network. Ladies will undoubtedly be renewed; it helps VH1 solidify its place in the coveted 18-45 demographic and provides Latifah with both a platform and a lucrative investment.
The show has collected mixed reviews. It's been compared to an upscale version of The Real Housewives of Atlanta (ouch!). Washington Post critic Hank Stuever questioned its incessant reliance on and celebration of the outdated concept of "bling" while elevating the superficial and banal with performance-art tactics. As he put it, "Queen Latifah … once upon a time, seemed to know better."
But a second glance suggests that she does. In the latest episode, Latifah appears for the first time on-screen as television reporter Sharon Love. (The pun on the words "sharing love" is not lost on the viewer.) The plot thickens when Love admits to having slept with her best female friend in college (Dash's character, Val).
The admission is mistakenly taped, caught on camera and aired. In an effort to use the hiccup to her advantage in the media, she discovers that the press and the public are more interested in her as a personality because of — not in spite of — her being gay.
Contrary to her initial beliefs that the issue would be a death knell to her career, she finds even greater success. Love declares, "It turns out being gay is fabulous. My Twitter is all atwitter. I have six new Facebook fan pages. And for every sponsor that's fallen out, I've gotten two more. Who knew? Being gay is the new black."
For an ordinary actress, this statement would be just another scripted line. But Latifah has spent years dodging questions about her sexual orientation and personal life, questions that have remained muted up until now because of what appears to be a mix of respect for her personal life and the old Hollywood code of "Don't ask, don't tell."
Last year the Advocate, the nation's largest gay and lesbian magazine, reported that Queen Latifah and her personal trainer, Jeanette Jenkins, had purchased a home together in the Hollywood Hills, and public records revealed that both of their names were on the deed. Speculation followed that the two were officially an item. The previous year, paparazzi photos had been published of the women in an intimate embrace while on vacation.
Gay-rights activists and fans alike expected that Latifah would address the innuendo, but to their surprise she remained silent. In a 2007 interview with People magazine, she said, "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." She told Essence magazine, "Everybody else can do the reading; I'll do the living."
But has Latifah found a new freedom and a new voice through her role on the show? Throughout her career, Latifah has managed to transcend both race and sexuality, becoming a mainstay Hollywood figure. She has done so with such integrity that her personal life has been respected as an open secret. This is both admirable and complicated.
It seems that in her new role as actress and producer, she has found a way to say so much without saying anything at all. Her character — though sharing many real-life semblances with the true Dana Owens (Latifah's given name) — is a conduit through which she remains above the tabloid fray.
And that is why critics like Stuever may have underestimated Latifah. She has built a platform where the rules are now her own. In the same way that Single Ladies appeals to a more urban and multicultural niche, Latifah is speaking her own language and loving her own love.
But by remaining silent, does Latifah risk being accused of holding tight to the proverbial "closet" doors? And is this a stumbling block for other minority actors and artists who see her as a role model? Well, yes and no. Hollywood actors, regardless of race, have almost always denied being gay or avoided the topic altogether. This is natural, considering that the work they do requires a certain level of flexibility and anonymity. For African Americans, this is even more true. With so few achieving mainstream success and fewer roles from which to choose, coming out may limit the options.
With all of that said, comedians Wanda Sykes and Ellen DeGeneres are both out, proud and successful. But comedy may be a different ball game — with less stringent rules. Latifah plays to a wider audience and isn't necessarily pitching for laughs. Her roots remain in the hip-hop community, and there is still a strong stigma attached to any rapper or hip-hop artists being perceived as gay.
What is impressive is that whether or not her performance in Single Ladies is a disguised attempt at being political without being activist and overt, she appears to have struck the perfect chord. George Will, the conservative Washington Post commentator, once said, "Being gay is like being left-handed. It's just not that interesting anymore."
We live in a new age where that is becoming conventional wisdom. Latifah's ability to be both silent and vocal reflects a changing tide in the American sociopolitical discourse on the subject of sexual orientation, from the Hollywood red carpet to the street blocks of Brick City. Either way, confirmed or unconfirmed, Queen Latifah remains an undeniable voice, with a message worth listening to.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.