My first time meeting black media legend Dana Owens, aka Queen Latifah, was on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. At some point in elementary school, I was watching reruns on BET and Will was dating another female guest star. I was surprised when I saw Dee Dee; she was almost the same height as Will and had what my grandmother would have called “a fuller figure.” It was the first time a woman on the show, let alone Will’s love interest, looked like me.
Besides, she was stunning. When Will inadvertently mentioned size, she drew attention to his thin build and large ears. She won him over with her sense of humor and was never afraid to call him crap. It wasn’t the first time I wanted to imitate a TV character (at the time I had a whole affair with Susie Carmichael from Rugs and Francine Frensky from Arthur). But it was the first time that a character looked so much like me: not only Black, but also tall and plus-sized.
I eventually found out who Latifa was when my mother rented her films. I enjoyed watching her run a business at Beauty Store, take a luxurious vacation with Last Vacation, and investigate a crime with no preparation at Taxi. She was serious, gorgeous and funny, taking every day step by step. She showed a vision of what adulthood could be like if I molded myself in her image.
My most active season in the Queen Latifah fandom was in the fall of 2007 when I moved to a new high school. Many of the kids in the wealthy but predominantly white school had already chosen their friends years ago, and in addition to being a freshman, I stood out physically. I was a bore, nervous and quiet; many teachers didn’t know what to do with me, let alone the students. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
Hairspray came out that same year, and all I knew about the musical was that Queen Latifah sang in it. My parents gave me this DVD for my birthday and I spent the next few months learning every song, every dance number, non-stop watching the specials. Motormouth Maybelle’s “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” was awkward, with all the hints I didn’t understand, but I kept repeating her last verse in “You Can’t Stop the Beat” over and over until I could do it while dancing . . Singing “I Know Where I’ve Been” in all its rebellious, hopeful glory pushed some of the sadness of those first few months of school out of my body.
I like to look back on the time I spent watching Hairspray every night for several months as an endurance exercise in front of the world or a boost in my self-esteem. I was pushed into an environment where I had to face what other people think of me every day. In elementary school, bullies or boys used to make fun of my weight. But questions about whether I belong to this place did not even cross my mind. In middle school, everyone commented that I behaved differently than they thought a person like me should behave. Oh, you are so smart. You use a lot of big words. Why are you so tall?
If it wasn’t enough to hear about how weird I was, I also had to take my first PT instead of a break and participate in weekly mile races where I was reminded of my height and fitness level when I was always the last to arrive. . The kids will joke that I got all A’s except PE, so the kids casually throw your deepest insecurities in your face. Under their gaze, my blackness and my fullness became a source of shame. I learned to suppress them and focus on blending in with the others until I could go home and turn on the TV and think of Motormouth Mabel instead of myself.
I didn’t know it then, but I only dealt with one side of Queen Latifah’s work. My focus on her rom-coms and Hairspray matched what I wanted to see in myself through her, that I could be loved, admired, and succeeded. This is what I needed from her then.
But childhood does not remain. I grew up, left this destructive environment where I was placed in one box, and I needed to open myself completely and find a way out of it. In middle and high school, my streak was “super smart black girl who didn’t act black” as my classmates would say, and I was fine with that. But then I went to college, the racial justice movement rose up in the face of so many shootings of unarmed blacks, and I realized that I wanted to get in touch with the cultural heritage that I pushed aside to fit in. That’s when I discovered Queen Latifah, the rapper.
Studying Queen’s early rap career helped me see how the way she carried herself influenced her entire career. Her rapping has always aimed to show that women have an undeniable place in the culture despite how male rappers have treated “women”. To be a fan, I’ve always had to ignore how rap hypersexualizes or promotes violence against women. When I learned about hip-hop while traveling with my father, he was mostly gangsta rap, which was dominated by men who called women bitches. His favorite female rapper was Lil’ Kim, but he never played her for me, saying she was too vulgar (but he had no problem doing “Natural Born Killas” by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, which scares me to so far).
I didn’t even know about female rappers who spoke out against the objectification of women until I first heard Queen ask, “Who are you calling a bitch?” about “UNITY” The same spirit of invoking male shit and commanding space for herself was evident in every role I loved her for. I just didn’t have a name for it back then.
Another thing about Queen Latifah that I have always liked is that she has done so many different projects in her career. Looking through her IMDb, there are movies, TV, drama, comedy, action, romance, animation, producing, writing, directing. Not only did she do it all, she was recognized for so many different roles and genres. She has received Grammy, Emmy and Golden Globe awards. She has produced biopics in which flowers are given to her favorite singers, as well as competition shows in which aspiring rappers turn down the stage. Hairspray wasn’t even her first musical; before that, she was in Chicago, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Her success reminds me that I should never keep myself in one lane. I can do whatever I want with the guiding principle.
My Queen fandom has declined since its last peak, when “Living Single” was added to Hulu in 2018 and became my identity for a whole year. I never got around to watching The Equalizer or finishing the final season of The Star, and 13-year-old Quinci would have been very disappointed.
Maybe it’s because years of therapy have helped me develop a strong sense of self, or because I want to keep my childhood image of her trapped in amber. Social media is reminding fans that celebrities are imperfect people who can’t be put on a pedestal forever, and we can disagree with them on every issue or position.
Although I no longer need her to be my everything, Queen Latifah was in a role model at a time when I was struggling to figure out who I really was outside of the narrow confines the world had made for me, and despite what people thought a fat black girl was.