Queen Latifah and Her 'Gangster' Mom

Try to sum up Queen Latifah and you keep coming back to what one admirer said: She owns every room she's in.

Her Oscar-nominated performance in Chicago added another jewel to a crown that was already heaped with gems from the worlds she has conquered.

She was the first female rap artist, and later the first female rapper to win a Grammy. Every one of her nine albums has topped the R&B charts. Having conquered the music world she moved on to television — starring in the hit sitcom Living Single and trying her hand at a talk show.

She has taken challenging and diverse roles in films — a waitress with attitude in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever and a lesbian bank robber in Set It Off. And she recently gave Steve Martin some lessons in rap as his co-star in the film Bringin' Down the House.

All of this by the ripe old age of 33.

Queen Latifah's autobiography makes one of the reasons for this wide-ranging success perfectly clear. Behind this Queen, whose given name is Dana Owens, is a Queen Mother, Rita Owens, whose castle was once a housing project in East Newark, N.J.

20/20's Barbara Walters sat down with both of them a few days ago in a New York City night club.

While she certainly is Hollywood royalty, the Queen's protocol is fairly down-to-earth. "You don't have to call me Queen because my mother's here and she's really the queen."

Queen Latifah was only 8 years old when she changed her name.

She said a lot of people in her neighborhood were adopting names with Arabic roots and she stumbled across the name Latifah. "It meant delicate, sensitive, kind, nice … And I was like 'That's me.'"

Her mom agrees.

She said she the "Queen" in her name is more about strength "and about women being treated as queens. So, when they asked me what my professionally known name would be, I put "Queen" before "Latifah." And my mother cracked up."

Latifah's mom remembers how confident her girl was. "Oh, boy. Did I have to eat it. … I'd say, "Now go do the dishes, queen. 'Your hiney, go do the dishes."

But Rita wanted to encourage her daughter's self-esteem. "It's just a matter of nourishment. I nourished everything that she wanted to do that was safe and good and kind. I applaud her for that. But also, I tried to live that lifestyle. I tried to be the role model, or the mentor, that would reinforce the person that I knew she could be."

The Owens household had a rhythm about it — it was a home filled with music. Latifah says music was always part of her life.

Rita said she never anticipated the level of success that Latifa has achieved, but she says she felt her girl was a star when she sang as a child. "No matter what she did I was, 'ah, sing, baby.'"

When Latifah was 7 years old, she was in a school production of The Wiz. Her mom still bursts with pride recalling her performance. "When she sang "Home," and you see this standing ovation — the only child in that play that received a standing ovation. And tears were rolling down my eyes."

Rita says the most challenging part of raising Latifah was her independence. "I had to connect her to me because she would wander away," she said. Latifah was blessed with a close family — an encouraging mother, a father who was a policeman and whom she adored, and a brother, Winki, who was like a best friend.

My Mama Is a ‘Gangsta’

But when Latifah was 9 years old, her parents divorced.

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