A Queen tries on a larger crown

Queen Latifah bounced into the room, sat down in an easy chair, and reached over to a bowl filled with popcorn. "What do you want to talk about?" she asked after a bright and friendly greeting.

There are plenty of topics to choose from - Latifah has become the first female rapper to be nominated for an Oscar in "Chicago." And she has a new movie, "Bringing Down the House," in which she served as executive producer. She also plays Charlene, an ex-con determined to clear her name.

Before she signed up for the part, Latifah was invited to meet her costar, Steve Martin, at his home.

"Most of the comedians I've met aren't too outgoing. They are more laid back, reserved, and insecure. Steve definitely broke the mold," says Latifah. "He invited all of us to dinner, then showed us his art work and his banjo collection. We wound up liking each other immensely."

After the informal meeting, they decided not only should she act in the film, but be the executive producer.

"There had to be a voice in there, a black voice even, for at first the script was very racy and edgy," she explains. "They needed someone who was smart enough to see the sensibilities in the script that weren't right."

Those sessions also gave Latifah a chance to say what she'd look like as an ex-prison inmate.

"The wardrobe department and I ... studied real people on the street and cut out pictures from the newspaper."

Latifah helped select hip-hop music, added slang, and brought in her own point of view as an African-American woman.

"I like to think what I really did was to show Steve how to handle this girl," she says.

In true hip-hop style, Latifah is an entrepreneur who has been working all angles of the entertainment business since the former Dana Owens made her professional debut at 18. She spent five years on the sitcom "Living Single," and hosted her own talk show, an experience she characterizes as an "energy drain."

Today, in addition to her acting and music careers - she has a new album out next month - Latifah also manages other hip-hop artists through her Flavor Unit label and hopes to develop more film projects.

"People ask me how I do so much. It's no secret, I have some really good help. They work hard so I can do all of these things."

Hard work and determination are an ethos that she says her mother instilled in her from age 5, and it shows in all aspects of her career. Latifah had to audition three times before persuading "Chicago" director Rob Marshall that she could handle the role of prison matron Mama Morton.

Latifah credits religion for getting her through life's ups and downs.

"To survive in this world, and make it to 32 years old, I've been very blessed," she says. "I take my Bible with me, it's a source of peace for me. There is nothing like going to church.... It puts everything back into perspective. It keeps you from getting caught up in the hype."

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