Queen Latifah and Her 'Gangster' Mom

ByABC News

May 9, 2003 -- 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.

For Latifah, it was a struggle. "I didn't understand it. My brother and I had many many, many days that we just kind of uh, sort of boo-hooed to each other and … and cried on each other's shoulder."

Although Latifah and Winki remained close to their father, it was Rita who shouldered the responsibility for raising them. And what a job she did. She found time to get a college degree, she became an art teacher, and she spent time with your kids.

But it was no easy task. Rita recalls, "Once I put the children to bed at night, then the lady next door would watch them for me. And I'd go to the post office and work at the post office all night. I'd get back in home in time to bathe the children, feed them and get them off to Catholic school. And then, I would take two hours for a nap and then go over to the college. And I'd go to college until it was time for them to get out of school. And I'd come home, get them from school, cooked and homework, get another two hours maybe, and then go to work."

"My mama is gangsta … you know? … I mean, it takes a lot of uh, character to do … to accomplish all those things. … I always used to wish that if I was ever half the woman that my mother is that I would be all right. You know? Because my mom is amazing to me."

Rita said she always felt Latifah had a great talent, but she admits her daughter wasn't exactly an angel. "Most of my gray hairs came from Dana. I call her 'my medals.' Thank you for my medals," she said.

Latifah has written about her experiences dabbling with drugs. "I was just going through an experimental stage with, I think, everything in my life." But, she said, she never got hooked.

She admits having tried cocaine a couple times, something that shocked her mom.

"That's something I regret because it really wasn't necessary. It really wasn't necessary at all. … When I even hear about people doing that now I'm like … that played out in the '80s. What are you doing? … It's stupid to me," Latifah said.

Latifah and Winki

While Latifah was flirting with the drug laws, her brother Winki dreamed of law enforcement. He would eventually become a Newark policeman. But if their interests were different, their personalities were not. They were very close.

So close, Rita said, that most people thought they were twins. "They thought alike. They had the same interests. They were both Pisces. And we did everything together as a family, the three of us."

Life was treating them well. Latifah's rap career was thriving. There was enough money coming in that she could buy a new house for the three of them to share.

The more famous she became — the more important her family became — her brother Winki and her mother Rita were at the center of her life. That was about to change.

For Winki's 24th birthday, Latifah and some friends decided he deserved a present: a motorcycle he'd been yearning for. He'd been a policeman for over a year, and, Latifah said, "We figured we'd get him the bike. 'Cause he was going to get it anyway. He was a cop. He could afford to save … save up some money now and do it."

But the birthday motorcycle would carry Winki to his death only weeks later in a tragic road accident.

Latifah and her mom were devastated. "It rocked my world. It really did. It made me feel disconnected from Earth. I felt like I couldn't relate to people. And I felt like nobody could really relate to what I was feeling," Latifah said.

Family Life Ahead?

Latifah, a woman who's drawn such strength and joy from her family, is definitely interested in starting a family of her own — someday. But, she says, she's not quite ready yet.

Nonetheless, Latifah reassures her mom, that she'll get grandchildren.

In the meantime, Latifah gets headlines. People Magazine chose her this year as one of the "50 most Beautiful Women." And although producers have urged her to lose weight, she's always said, "take me as I am."

She said, "I know a lot of people who really aren't beautiful because their attitudes are very nasty. … Whether I make the 50 most beautiful list or not, I'm always going to feel like I'm number one most beautiful to myself. … I get that from my mom, and my daddy and my friends who raised me."

Rita said it's been a joy to watch her daughter grow into the woman she's become. "She represents the fruit of my labor, because I've pretty much sacrificed my teen years for my kids. My life, actually. So to know that that was not in vain. She has surpassed anything that I ever wanted her to be."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events