February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

Even before Chicago swept the Golden Globes last week, the buzz around it meant you practically had to know a guy who knows a guy to get a ticket. “A friend told me she went to see it at 10 a.m. because all the other shows were sold out,” says costar Queen Latifah. “I never heard of anybody going to the movies at 10 o’clock in the morning, man. It’s like, damn!”

Sure enough, Chicago, also starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere, is hotter than Miami. So is Latifah, 32, a rapper-turned-actress with a troubled past who stars as Chicago’s wily prison warden. An alum of a hit TV show (1993-’98’s Living Single) and 15 feature films, “she owns every room she’s in,” says Phillip Noyce, who directed her in 1999’s The Bone Collector. “[But] she’s not afraid to admit she doesn’t have all the answers.”

She has always been asking questions, though, since she was living in Newark, N.J., at age 8 and wondering why she was stuck with the tomboy-sounding name Dana Owens. A book of Muslim names, she recalls, defined “Latifah” as a ” ‘delicate, sensitive kid.’ That’s me. I was big for my age, and I played sports, but inside I felt I was delicate.” (She added the royal moniker to her name in 1988, because it sounded “feminine and powerful.”)

Around the same time her dad, Lancelot, a cop, left her mom, Rita, a high school music teacher. He would later reveal that he had fathered three children outside their marriage; he also battled drug problems. Latifah and her older brother Lancelot Jr. (nicknamed Winki) were crushed. “Winki and I were privates in my father’s army,” says Latifah. “His irresponsibility affected me. Would every man be like him?” (She later reconciled with her father, now 55.) Her mother, now 53 and still teaching, was forced to move the family into a Newark housing project, and Latifah found herself drawn to the street life. At 17, she worked—for only one day—for a crack dealer. And she admits trying cocaine. “I was a hypocrite,” she says.

As a teen Latifah began rapping. Soon she was sneaking away to Manhattan clubs to hone her skills with some other rappers called the Flavor Unit (now the name of the management company for hip-hop artists that she runs). She signed a contract with Tommy Boy Records at 17; two years later she hit the charts with the feminist rap album All Hail the Queen. “I was so excited, all I could do was scream,” says Latifah, who got her first film role, a cameo in Jungle Fever, in 1991.

Her joy wouldn’t last long. In 1992 her 24-year-old brother Winki, a Newark cop, was killed in an off-duty motorcycle accident. “I would cry, but then I’d just go completely numb,” says Latifah, who had given her brother the bike for his birthday. “Acting helped me get through that.” Her friend Jada Pinkett Smith also advised her to seek psychotherapy. “She needed some help to open herself up and mourn his passing,” says Smith. Even now, Latifah says, “It’s a good time and I’m enjoying it, but I’m really just preparing for the valley, because there’s always a valley around the corner somewhere.”

One challenge she recently put behind her was an incident in L.A. in November that led to her pleading no contest on Jan. 14 to reckless driving. “God was trying to tell me some things, and I wasn’t listening,” she says. Now happily single, she lives on three acres in Rumson, N.J., near Bruce Springsteen, and she’s ready for a better challenge: kids, either adopted, she says, or “biological mini-me’s. That would be my greatest accomplishment.”

In the meantime there’s her fifth studio album, due this spring, and a comedy opening March 7, Bringing Down the House, in which she plays a felon who loosens Steve Martin up. “When I met her she looked right, she walked right and she sounded right,” says Martin. “And she was.” Indeed, this Queen won’t ever forget she was once a commoner. Says Chicago director Rob Marshall: “People think rapper, street girl. Well, she can sit with a president or with a kid on the street, and she’d be welcome either place.”

Kyle Smith

Lynda Wright in New York City and Ruth Andrew Ellenson in Los Angeles

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