In the fall of 1996, I stepped in for a friend and colleague who was transitioning from her own P.R. firm to a new career as a movie unit publicist. She was away from the city on a film shoot and New Line Cinema, one of her clients, was releasing the film Set It Off, a new twist on an American crime action heist film directed by the then relative new comer F. Gary Gray. The film stars Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise. Set in Los Angeles, California, it follows four friends who plan and execute a bank robbery. All four black women with varying back stories and motivations share the singular desire for a better life for themselves and their loved ones yet feel trapped in their lives and circumstances.
The studio hosted a college press junket with the film’s cast and director. A colleague and I were on site to assist with the flow of activity that morning. The team of college journalists from around the country screened the new film and then were lead over to a nearby midtown hotel banquet room where the director and cast were perched on a platform awaiting a Q&A. Within moments of the start of the questioning, one of the students with a microphone that I had just handed her directed a question to Latifah about her sexuality. The moment became so emotionally filled for me; I can only remember bits and pieces of the content. It went something like, are you gay and if you are, don’t you owe it to your fans to come out?
My Press Relations experience up to that moment had been limited to efforts surrounding theatrical productions not anything like this very uncomfortable moment that was unfolding before me. Who could I turn to for inner direction and guidance? Among the incredible folks that I had the pleasure to meet in my early New York days was the Legendary Hollywood and Broadway Publicist John Springer. The flack that I was pinch-hitting for that day was once on his team. His clients had included, among many others, the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Each of them had their challenging moments in the press. Once at a lunch with Mr. Springer where I couldn’t get enough of the old Hollywood stories, I asked him why he didn’t write another book about the backstories of the long-lost legends. “Doesn’t matter that they are no longer with us, they trusted me. It was my job to protect them and it still is.” Okay, you had me with “trust.” So how in the world was I supposed to protect Queen Latifah from a college newspaper writer?
Some (well, um, okay, The New York Post) recently reported, well, um, suggested, that during her recent BET 2021 Awards Lifetime Achievement acceptance speech, legendary artist Queen Latifah “came out.”
Perhaps she did, perhaps she didn’t, but a more precise description was that she concluded her televised thank you speech with the following “Eboni, my love,” then touching her heart in salute to the choreographer and her rumored partner, Eboni Nichols. “Rebel, my love,” she added, warmly acknowledging the son she and Nichols reportedly welcomed. “Peace — happy Pride!”
Queen Latifah has been nothing short of consistent relative to the privacy of her personal life from that of her professional one. For her, it has been very personal. Amidst a flurry of rumors regarding her sexuality through the years her response to the press has been the same. “I don’t feel like I need to share my personal life, and I don’t care if people think I’m gay or not” she told The New York Times in 2008. Want to talk about someone who is gay, bring it on. Gay as a topic of conversation is okay. Gay is fine. But, want to chat about my personal life, move along, nothing to see here.
How her position lands depend on the audience. Some show business veterans land on the reasonable personal boundary side of the conversation. Perhaps their point of view is based on the high opportunity costs paid by some early career artists when they have shared personal details of their life. And the journey to acceptance has traveled at various speeds through the decades. Our current President once jumped the gun on his then President on the topic of embracing gay marriage rights. The former President got there, but it required working through his “religious traditions.” Younger generations, excluding early rap and hip hop influence where Latifah entered the scene from, argue that not sharing this information implies embarrassment or some shame associated.
Everyone on the Set It Off press junket dais that day in 1996 was frozen. Looking forward, not at Latifah. It felt like they were looking at me to take control. It was really only seconds, but felt like hours to me. For a moment I thought just grab the mic back, but then realized that would not take the question back. It was out there. Then suddenly the Queen spoke. Calmly. Measured. Matter of fact. Unrattled. But exacting. And to the best of my memory, it went something like this: Queen owes you the best performance she can give every time with every project. And Queen Latifah owes you respect for any question you ask about the creation and process of my music, my film, my television show. That is a part of the exchange for being invited to be at this incredible creative party. That said, Queen is happy to answer any question that you have regarding our very important film today, but Dana Owens owes you nothing. That is my life. And that is not part of the deal. You don’t get that part of me. Next question.
Weeks later when the clippings from the college papers came in, the exchange was no where to be found. So, without the noise social media would have likely created today, the moment was quickly over and likely forgotten by everyone but me. Dana Owens needed help from neither me nor anyone else that day in 1996 nor on June 27, 2021.