Full of Life
The outspoken, delightful Queen Latifah raps with A&U’s Dann Dulin about “da monsta,” confronting family loss, self-empowerment & her new role in an HBO movie about living with HIV
“Chicken shits!” replies a playful Dana Owens, aka Queen Latifah, in a low, understated voice as she bursts into a mild chuckle in response to my comment that not many actors would jump at the chance, as she did, to take on the role of an HIV-positive person. The HBO film, Life Support, which preems on March 10, is based on the life of AIDS activist, Andrea Williams. Written and directed by Andrea’s brother Nelson George, the project counts Latifah and Jamie Foxx among its executive producers.
Latifah grabbed the role because she has not only been at the forefront of the AIDS epidemic from the beginning, but because she identified with the character of Ana Willis, Andrea’s alter ego in the film. “Once Andrea and I talked,” Latifah reveals, “I connected with her. So I felt, ‘Okay, I know where you’re from; I know where you’ve been. Not everything, but I’ve been in some of those same places, hung out on some of those same streets, and gone through some of those same experiences. And, if not, then I can draw from my family, I can draw from you, I can draw from Brooklyn.’ I hung out in BK a lot growing up, so it was important for me to get back East, absorb New York again, and to just catch the vibe again. Ya know what I mean?”
Latifah, who turns thirty-seven in March, sits on an elegant brushed-gold sofa in a suite on the eighth floor of the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton. She’s meeting with a select group of journalists today to discuss her latest project. In a few days she will be off to the Sundance Film Festival, where Life Support will be the closing film. Latifah wears a black, long-sleeved wrap dress that extends below the knee and sheer ebony hose. Legs crossed at the ankle, her feet are comfy in the hotel’s white terrycloth slippers. With manicured nails of clear polish, she’s accessorized with large hoop earrings, a diamond tennis bracelet, and several long gold necklaces that include her signature motorcycle key, which once belonged to her brother, Lance. He was killed in a traffic accident on the motorcycle that had been a birthday gift from his sis. After the tragedy, Latifah and her mother, Rita Owens, founded the Lancelot H. Owens Foundation, which provides college scholarships and endows various charities, whose causes include AIDS research. During the grieving process, she wrote the album, Black Reign, for him, which went platinum. One of the songs, “Coochie Bang,” advises safe sex: “Brothers better strap their thang, thang, ladies; don’t let a man if they don’t have a condom.”
At the moment, Latifah’s affable entourage—an assistant, makeup artist, hair stylist, and PR rep—stay quietly behind the closed bedroom door. In the living room, Latifah is cool, calm, and centered. It’s hard to know if she is always like this. Latifah also has a good-natured sense of humor, very down-home friendly, and she’s passionate about her role as an activist in Life Support. With any role she undertakes, whether it’s the butch lesbian Cleo in Set It Off, the dying Georgia Byrd in Last Holiday, the sassy Mama Morton in Chicago, or the smooth-talkin’ Motormouth Maybelle in the upcoming Hairspray, Latifah immerses herself in the character. She tests limits not only professionally, but in her personal life, as well. As she recounts in her 1999 autobiography, Girls First, a terrified Latifah hesitated at the edge of a fifty-foot Jamaican cliff, not wanting to take the planned leap into the ocean below. But she did it! It wasn’t about the jump. “I needed to know if I could be brave enough to overcome my fear….When I came out of the water, I was exhilarated.”
Latifah tackled fear early in life when she lost two of her cousins, Fifi and Darien, who both died of AIDS-releated complications. “I wasn’t afforded the luxury of avoiding it and acting like it didn’t exist. It was like, you got to deal with this or….” She doesn’t finish the sentence, but briefly looks out the window onto the San Gabriel Valley lawns, palm trees, and greenery amid Spanish-style red-tiled roofs. “I don’t get to hug my cousin. I don’t get to say goodbye. I don’t get to touch him and let him know, ‘I love you,’” Latifah says urgently, shifting her eyes back into the room. “This was the eighties. I’m glad I took the time to read about AIDS and continued to be educated as much as I could, because back then they were actually thinking that this was just a gay disease; that you can’t touch anyone with AIDS. There were all these untrue rumors. So if you didn’t do any research, you wouldn’t know the truth.”
Fifi was a heroin addict and probably contracted HIV through the use of dirty needles. She died of the opportunistic infection, PCP. “I saw her deteriorate and die. It was sad. It was tough,” says a distraught Latifah, shaking her head. “She was Muslim so she had a Muslim burial. She was beautiful. She was buried in two days, which is customary. It was a quick, quick, goodbye. It wasn’t really about just what caused her death, it was about me losing one of my cousins who I loved. She left two young sons who are going to have to deal with this.”
Like most normal teens, Latifah’s developing years weren’t just about hanging out at parties, it was about confronting core life issues. During this period, Latifah also lost several aunts and uncles to drugs and alcohol. “It seemed like we were going to a funeral every year. Most of my friends didn’t go to funerals until they were in their twenties,” she says. “It was an emotional situation every time. I’d watch my family cry, my dad cry. Seeing that as a little kid, you kind of learn and relate to the fragility of life.” There’s a brief silence. “Darien got a blood transfusion that was tainted. In a matter of months, he was gone. It was about how something like this could take my virile, strong male cousin who would knock any guy out for me to this thin, frail, docile person who lost his life to this thing in no time. So, it was just like, What is this?!”
I ask Latifah how her cousin’s HIV diagnosis “infected” her. “It didn’t infect me,” she responds with understandable surprise—“Affect.” She laughs and becomes playful. “Oooh, go easy. Ya know what I mean?! I’m fightin’ against that right there!” As her head bobs with amusing attitude, her shiny wavy hair bounces. This is the familiar, likeable Latifah I’ve seen in films, on stage, and on the tube. She’s having fun. We both laugh. She continues to rib. “Take your time, now. Say it right! There’s a big difference in those vowels there.”
While we’re on the subject, I ask her if she gets tested. “I’ve gotten so many tests [through the years]. I get ’em periodically to just make sure. The test is better now. I mean, the first time I got tested it took two weeks!” she blasts. “That was the worst two weeks of my life! I was like, ‘Omigod, I’m thinking of every—single—thing—I—ever—did.’ I was probably nineteen or twenty and just thinking about that one time,” she laments, stretching out the two words. “It was like, ‘Please, God.’ And when that test came back negative I was like, ‘Thank God. Omigod. Thank God!’” She’s animated, brings her hand to her mouth and mockingly bites it. “I’m glad the test is shorter now. They’ve even got a swab test, but it’s not that reliable because Andrea has taken that test and it comes up negative.”
I comment that the eighties were rough times for many of us who saw our loved ones tortuously die. “Hard times for sure,” agrees Latifah, “but I think it’s worse now. We’re making it convenient to turn a blind eye to what’s happening. What makes it worse is that we really think we’ve got a handle on it. We don’t. There’s no reason so many people should be infected worldwide. Had the government not viewed AIDS as a gay disease in the beginning, then they could have lassoed this thing pretty quickly.” She leans forward. “If politicians aren’t serving the AIDS crisis, out they go!” Latifah fervently declares. “This is a preventable disease.” She picks up the bottled Arrowhead water that sits atop the dark brown wood coffee table and takes a sip.
Latifah believes that the subject of AIDS needs to be media-splashed, but with a twist. “Put a regular face on it like BET is doing,” she notes, referring to BET’s PSA campaign where young HIV-positive people are draped in red blankets. They reveal how young they were, and how they contracted HIV. “They look normal. And I think it’s important to put a normal face on this disease, so that people don’t see it as a monster. Ya know, in some places they call it ‘da monsta.’” She slightly raises her eyebrows, intently looks at me with those expressive, light brown eyes, and mimics. “‘Oh yeah, he got da monsta; ya know, the package.’ And there’s no face that it comes along with to say: ‘Hmmm, I better make him wear a rubber because he’s got it.’ It doesn’t work like that,” she scoffs in a calm voice. “I think that young people need to be better informed. So must older people who are now back in the dating scene after divorce or widowhood. This is a different day and age.
“I remember when the Gay Men’s Health Crisis [GMHC] used to have the big AIDS dance-a-thons. We’d do those every year from the first one on,” recalls Latifah about the early years of the epidemic. “They need to get that crackin’ again. That was really a big, big event. Five thousand people dancing all night to raise money for stopping AIDS. They made a lot of money.” The dance-a-thons are back, I later confirm.
There’s a soft knock on the front door. A rep slowly peeks in and motions for Latifah. Time to end already?! The door slowly closes. Latifah pays no mind. “I’m glad GMHC sort of opened up a little bit, because even they kinda did the ‘gay men’s thing’ for a second. And it was like, ‘This is going to affect everybody, so can ya help the girls out a little bit? I know [you’ve got a lot to deal with] being infected, but you gotta open up too. You got to set the example.’ And now GMHC is one of the strongest organizations around that’s taking care of people.”
Latifah is, indeed, true to her name—an Arabic word meaning delicate, sensitive, and kind. But just where does that passion for compassion come from? “My parents instilled a lot of love and strength in me and set a good example. They pumped me up with all of those themes: You can accomplish anything you want if you just believe it; set your mind to it and work hard; keep God first, and this and that. I am empathetic. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Pisces,” she smiles, exposing her big dimples, “but I feel for people, and I’ve never looked at myself as being better than anyone else. Not in school, not in life. I got voted ‘Most Popular’ in high school, and it wasn’t just because I was popular, but because people really liked me. I treated the nerds with respect. I treated the jocks with respect. I treated the thugs with respect. I treated the ho’s with respect. Everybody was a person to me.
“I can have a conversation with anybody. I’ve always been like that. My parents prepared me to hold a conversation with anyone, whether they were older than me, younger than me, or smarter than me,” she boasts proudly. “That gave me the confidence to walk into any room in Hollywood and sell whatever I had. And so when I see somebody suffering I just wanna help. I’m the type that will pull over and help somebody who’s stranded on the side of the road. You hear that about Tom Cruise a lot. I met him and I can relate to why he cares about people. This is the same kind of person who will donate money to a cause, or give money to someone on the street, or help out with the AIDS crisis. You care, so you do.
“Classmates,” she utters suddenly in a loud whisper. “I’ve lost classmates who were in the movie Paris Is Burning. They’re gone! They’re gone. Like, these were my buddies. We’d hang out in the Village together. And to think, these kids are gone. They didn’t even reach twenty-one because of this disease.” She clears her throat and coughs. “But to think of the kids who are not going to reach twenty-one now, for really no good reason other than the fact that they’re not going to the doctor to get regular checkups, they’re not asking for an AIDS test, and they’re not using condoms because they think AIDS won’t happen to them. Girls trusting boys who can’t be trusted; and boys trusting girls who can’t be trusted.” She gnaws the lower side of her lip and slightly nods.
The limelight does not shield Latifah from danger. “I’ve had to deal with asking the questions of my sexual partner. Ya know what I mean? ‘Do you use protection while you do this?’ Look, I mean, I’ve had to bring my own condoms to these situations, which made me worry. Like, ‘Didn’t you know you were gonna get some tonight?!’” she says with a wry manner, swaying her head cockily from side to side and laughing.
There’s a rap on the door again; time for her next interview. Unfazed, she continues laughing. “I mean, you know your size better than me, but….” She halts and turns somber. “Some don’t have self-respect or self-esteem. They fall to the pressure because they wanna be loved. If the man says, ‘I don’t like the way that feels,’ then he’ll take it off. Or if the woman says, ‘I don’t like rubber. It makes me irritated.’ Again, off it comes. It’s like, damn, that’s all it takes [to get infected]!” Dana looks away for a second, opens her hands, and shrugs. “I was just taught to protect myself. That’s in my power.” Honest, proud, genuine and yes, powerful. Queen Latifah is, indeed, royalty.
Andrea Williams, the Individual Living with HIV Who Inspired Queen Latifah’s Character in Life Support, Chats with A&U
In the film, the organization is called Life Support. Is that the real name?
[She answers in her heavy Brooklyn brogue] No, it’s Life Force. It’s been around since 1989 and I’ve been with them since 2000.
What else is fictional in the film?
I was not into drugs, but contracted HIV through my husband who probably got infected by being a user himself. We are still married. [She pauses to think.] The teen dying from AIDS in the film was a real-life person, and he was, indeed, a friend of my daughter. I was first diagnosed in 1993, so the [film’s one-year time span] is a culmination of about fifteen years.
What did you think of Queen Latifah’s portrayal of you?
She wasn’t really being me, but she did a damn good job. A damn good job! [She says this loudly and with punch.] Dana got into it. She was givin’ out the condoms on the street [in the film], doin’ it just like we do! [She chuckles.]
In Life Support, Ana gives her daughter condoms. Did you really do that?
[She’s passionate.] I give everyone condoms! And I not only show them how to use ‘em, but I also show them some nasty STD pictures that I carry with me. Also, I give risk reduction workshops that are basically safer sex parties. The first part is information, sort of like HIV 101. The next part is instructional that includes learning which condom is best for the individual. There are many types on the market and it can be confusing—the Rough Rider, the Pleasure Plus, [Lifestyle] Vibra ribbed, and [Crown] Skinless Skin. I bring these condoms so they can see them and feel them. The last part is how to enhance your sex life with toys, which I demonstrate. When I do these parties I do them in people’s houses. It’s like a Tupperware Party. I go right to your house and it’s free of charge. All’s you have to do is get some people and I’m your entertainment.
What else do you do for Life Force?
I’m a pre- and post-HIV test counselor. Some days I go to a needle exchange testing site. The user comes in, exchanges needles, and we ask them if they want to be tested. I also facilitate an HIV-positive support group. I am no longer in support groups, because I got support-grouped out! [She laughs.]
Since you are out in the field, on the front lines, what do you see currently happening in the AIDS community?
I am seeing a lot of older people infected with HIV. I’m talking about people over fifty, people over sixty. I know a guy who in a matter of weeks deteriorated. Now he’s in a wheelchair and on dialysis.
What are the immediate needs of your AIDS community?
Money. My organization recently didn’t get funded by a contract. So right now I don’t know what will happen. We don’t have money to buy condoms or print our literature, so I’ve had to stop with my Tupperware Parties. [She smiles, but weakly.]
For more information about Life Force or to make a donation, log on to www.lifeforceinc.org.
Thanks to Susan Nowak for making it a reality; Amanda Silverman for her constant support; Mark Rebernik for his editorial expertise; and Matthew Hetznecker for his overabundant observations.
Dann Dulin interviewed Julie Andrews for the November 2006 issue.