By definition, icons need no introduction—but here’s a quick roundup of the accomplishments that absolutely place Queen Latifah in that echelon. There’s the *extremely* lengthy list of titles (she is the OG multi-hyphenate) and accolades (most recently, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2021 BET Awards); her game-changing presence on the hip-hop scene; and decades of work in front of and behind the camera on film and TV.
Then there’s the mark she’s made in the beauty world, breaking barriers and advocating for more inclusive definitions of what “beauty” even means, not to mention the space she’s helped carve for Black women in the entertainment industry more broadly. And now, after three-plus decades of public presence, there’s a new topic she’s tackling head-on: In collaboration with Novo Nordisk’s “It’s Bigger Than Us” campaign, Queen Latifah is using her own experience to help dismantle the stigmas surrounding obesity.
Regal in her signature slicked-back ponytail, hoop earrings, and polka-dot blouse, the actress took a break from filming her hit TV series The Equalizer (returning for season 2 on October 10 on CBS, btw!) to talk about discovering that she fell into the “obese” category herself and navigating the path forward. “For me, at the end of the day, none of it really matters as long as you’re healthy, you have the choice to live the life you want to live, and you’re not blocked from the career you want to have,” she tells Cosmo. Read on for more about her life as a “big girl” in the industry—and what she’s learned about taking care of her whole self.
For a lot of women who were “big girls,” we grew up with that label. What were some of the early messages you received about your body and size?
That’s very interesting—because it’s all good until somebody tells you you’re not supposed to be a big girl or they bring a negative connotation to you being a big girl or they’re not celebrating you being a big girl or they don’t want to give you the job because you’re a big girl—that’s where the problem and the stigma comes in. There’s not a celebration of being a “big girl”—there’s actually a shame attached to it, and that’s what starts to chip away at our self-esteem. Those might have been some points of contention for me growing up, because, before that, it was like: I’m just who I am.
Did you ever feel like you had to change your body in order to be successful in the industry?
You hear about certain people in the business, what they did to get their body for an upcoming project—they starved and trained; they didn’t eat for two weeks. You’re hearing all this stuff and trying to figure out: Okay, is that what I have to do to be a successful rapper or successful actor? Is that going to hinder me from accomplishing my goal?
But obviously, I didn’t let any of that stop me. I just became more educated about a lot of things along the way. When I wanted to lose a certain amount of weight for a specific movie, I worked with a trainer, and that’s when I learned that I fell into the category of “obese.” That’s also when I realized I could do something about it and look at it from a different perspective.
Thinking back on your early career, I remember your TV debut on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The episode was about how Will was no longer attracted to your character after he saw she was heavier. Can you talk about taking on those kinds of roles?
I felt like I had something to speak to, like I could relate and so I could play roles like that. I’ve been on both sides of it, to be honest with you: I’ve met women particularly who’ve said, “Oh my daughter is so inspired by you,” being my size, being statuesque, being a bigger girl. And I’ve met people who are surprised that I was not as big as they thought I was. They’d be like, “Oh, you skinny,” and I almost felt insulted—like, “Who you calling skinny?!” And I also felt like: Dang, did I let my big girls down? I’m supposed to be representing.
How important was it for you to be a representation of a big girl for other Black women and for big girls in general?
It was all important for me to do that. I saw my mother as an educator represented through images in Essence magazine and through Ebony magazine—just seeing beautiful Black women who reminded me of my mom, my aunts, and my grandmother. I knew for my generation—the hip-hop generation—it was important that our voices cut through and that we were allowed to be heard as well. There weren’t as many of us. But we had something to say, and if one of us broke through, people heard us.
I knew it was important for us to empower ourselves and feed other women self-esteem. To say: Hey, ladies first. U.N.I.T.Y. You don’t have to be out here fighting in the streets over somebody or over something stupid or tearing each other apart—let’s lift each other up. It was always important to share those messages because I know we needed it. Black women are always being torn down by the world so we need to build each other back up wherever we can find that place.
You’re at the center of so many intersecting identities. What has it been like for you to navigate Hollywood as a heavier Black woman particularly?
I’m fortunate to have a great work partner in Shakim Compere, [my production company] the Flavor Unit, my mom, my father, my family—the whole team. But particularly, I’ve been fortunate to identify a couple of people in the business who think outside the box. If you’re thinking inside the box, you’re not going to hire me. But if you think outside the box and you have a creative mind, then you will hire me—you will look at someone like me and say, “There’s a lot of people who look like her. She needs to be represented, and those women who look like her need to be represented as well.”
A lot of what you’ve seen me do in my career is what we started. Not something an agency brought to me or someone created for me: It’s been us creating lanes for ourselves. It’s been me having to kick down the door—but also leave the door open behind me so someone else can come through. Beauty Shop is a perfect example because I could show [Black women] in all of our divine glory in one of our favorite places. I try to make some of those experiences and challenges relatable so that Black women see ourselves. So it wasn’t about what movie do I want to do next. It was: What movie do I want to produce and how can we bring more people in?
Speak a little bit about how navigating these obesity stigmas impacted you as a person and an artist.
I’m the daughter of activist parents. So when things happen, we don’t generally just sit there and take it—we come up with a solution. Every day I go to work, I think about how I can continue to make sure we’re represented. This is work, but it’s worth the it because it means the next generation can hopefully have it a bit easier or have more opportunities because of the work we put in.
You get hit with something and it hurts your feelings, and you’re like: Dang, really? Or really, again? Or: You don’t want to hear this from me? Somebody else can say it to you, but I can’t? Then it’s like: I’m clearly not cut out to work for you, so I’m going to have to figure out how to work for myself because I need to have the power to design my life. People bled and died so that I could have that opportunity. I’m going to take it.
What does support look like for you?
As I’ve grown through the years, I’ve learned that I have to check in: to stop, stay still for a second, and ask, “How do I feel? Am I hurting?” I’m not superwoman. I’m strong, but I’m not a tough guy—I can play one on TV, but I’m sensitive too. I’m a Pisces. Sometimes I decide I’m going to go have a good cry and let it out. Sometimes I may need to talk to somebody about what I’m feeling. Sometimes I need to go to the doctor and say, “I’m feeling this, I’m feeling that. Am I okay? What’s my baseline? Where do I stand? How’s my heart?” And then they let me know.
That’s how I’ve come to be because I know the other side of it, which is totally checking out and being like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna take 10 shots and I’mma call it a day.” But that’s not who I want to be or the life I want to live. If I was my best friend, I’d tell me: “You been working hard, girl—you need a break. Did you eat today? You know what, have some tea. When’s the last time you’ve been to the doctor?” Those are the things that I need to tell me. These are the things I got to do.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. To learn more about the It’s Bigger Than Me campaign, visit itsbiggerthan.com.
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