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BEING AN EXAMPLE TO FANS IS A BEAUTIFUL THING FOR LATIFAH

Queen Latifah commands a room just by walking in with her dangling earrings and long colorful robe-like clothes. She's smiling as she walks in to an interview, because she is happy with her successes, her career and her hair.

"People need to go to the beauty shop," she says. "Someone rubs your head, they wash it, they fix it, and I mean, they're touching on you for a good hour or so once a week. So this is like your therapy."

Not only is she a Grammy-winning rapper, but she also has had runaway box office success with her movie with Steve Martin, "Bringing Down the House," and has a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role as Mama Morton in "Chicago."

Everything she touches seems to turn to gold, but she quips: "I'm trying to get it to turn to diamonds. Damn it. I've got to get my alchemy on."

Not only has she taken a character introduced in "Barbershop 2" and brought it to Atlanta for "Beauty Shop," but she's the producer of the film, too. And sure, she's clowning around with the actresses on the set, giving pet names to Djimon Hounsou and Mena Suvari, making Andie MacDowell and Kevin Bacon crack up, insisting Sherri Shepherd, Alicia Silverstone and the other girls in the shop go to hairdressing boot camp and racing golf carts on the set with Alfre Woodard, who's in one of her funniest roles to date.

"My natural personality is to just clown and joke but yeah, I like my little golf cart," Latifah demonstrates swerving as if driving a cart. "I got that thing down to a perfect slide. Alfre always wanted to race me."

The fellow actors knew she was the boss, but she didn't act like it. "I just always wanted to have some control over my future," she says. "I wanted to be a part of the decision-making process."

And so, she decided her own hair stylist would be a consultant. "Who knows better than her?" Latifah insists. "It was all a team effort."

Director Bille Woodruff says Latifah concentrated on acting once the shooting began but was still good at putting out fires when needed as producer. "She knows how to trash talk and have fun, and knows when to focus, and everyone likes her," Woodruff says.

Indeed, although her film takes place in an African-American neighborhood at a beauty shop, she says, "It's not a black film or a film just for black people. It's really about relationships."

Latifah has always had a wide variety of friends, and fans. "I had the kids, the grandmothers, gay, straight, black, white, everything in between. It's always been this broad sort of audience that has been down with Queen Latifah. So I think that it's a beautiful thing, because that's how I look at the world."

And, it's not beyond her that she can command her own projects and play a romantic lead and be a plus-sized African-American woman. "Beauty comes from the inside. It does start in here," she says. "Most women don't even need a lot of makeup. They just put all this crap on their faces and clog up your pores, get pimples and stuff."

And, almost daily, when she's trying to relax in a bowling alley or kicking back with friends, she has women come up to her and say how they identify with her.

"There's no greater reward than having a positive impact on someone. Girls have come up to me and said, 'I look up to you. I used to feel insecure about myself, but looking at you and how you carry yourself is great.' There are grown women in their 40s and 50s saying the same thing."

So of course, sharing the first on-screen kiss with handsome hunk Djimon Hounsou, the Academy Award nominee for "In America," was a special perk for her.

"She took it easy on me," Hounsou says shyly, "But I'm very happy that I had my first kiss with her. I have so much love for the lady."

She says she'll never have bodyguards or cocoon her life from the rest of the world. Heck, she's even doing press interviews on her 35th birthday while her friends prepare a party for her across town in Hollywood. On the street, fans love talking to her and she admits, "People find me very approachable, but sometimes it wears (you) out. It's only a problem when it's like 50 people, or one person every 10 minutes, but it's harder for the people around me who can't carry on an uninterrupted conversation."

For Latifah, it's important to continue to connect with her fan base.

"They see a big girl who carries herself with confidence, and that example really helps a lot of young girls who look up and say, 'Oh well, she's not a little girl but she's still doing it and she's making and she's wearing it well.' They need that. I mean, I needed it, and I didn't have it," Latifah laughs.

"There weren't too many people out there I could look up to who looked like me. So somebody now has someone out here who looks more like them who can still be that somebody making it and doing the things that they love and of course, being romantic, well shoot."

"Beauty Shop" is now playing locally.

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