Queen Latifah breezed onto the floor of the CoverGirl plant in Hunt Valley yesterday, tall and impressive, aglow in pinks and browns.
She was there to take a look at CoverGirl's newest product, a line of cosmetics made especially for women of color - the Queen Collection - inspired by the rapper-turned-movie actress/jazz singer/makeup model herself.
But her presence there had a greater impact. From the cheering and preening going on among the plant's employees, it was clear Queen Latifah's visit was a morale booster and an inspiration.
"A living legend!" one employee called out, as Queen Latifah toured the busy floor, checking out "raisinberry" lipsticks and matching nail polishes. "God bless you!"
Latifah is used to such admiration. She's having that kind of effect lately - not just at the CoverGirl plant, but everywhere she shows up.
Beauty and pop culture experts say her presence on the cover of fashion and beauty magazines, in Hollywood films, on stage at the Grammy Awards, and as one of the most famous names to hold the title "CoverGirl," is inspiring not only for women of color, but for older women, plus-size women and the beauty industry in general.
And Latifah is glad of it.
"I'm not a typical Hollywood beauty," she says in an interview after yesterday's tour. "So every time we do something like this with me, we break ground. We make it a little easier for someone who is heavier, who's a different complexion, who's taller, who has a different kind of hair."
When she started out in the late 1980s as an Afrocentric, crown-wearing rapper, Latifah's message was all about female and black empowerment. With tracks like "Ladies First" and "U.N.I.T.Y," Latifah's lyrics blasted back at the misogyny that was so prevalent in popular hip-hop, and she implored those in the African-American community to take pride and see themselves as royalty.
Still, Latifah never imagined she'd also one day come to represent a new beauty ideal.
"I didn't necessarily walk around feeling that I was beautiful," Latifah says, remembering how she and her brother idolized their "gorgeous" parents and wondered, "When is ours going to kick in?"
But then, Latifah says, one day she took a look at her photograph on the cover of Essence magazine and said to herself, "That's what I'm supposed to look like."
That picture of herself - soft and elegantly made-up - was in direct contrast to the rough-and-tumble hip-hop style she came from as Dana Owens, growing up in New Jersey and spending vacations here in Joppa with her grandmother.
And that picture helped change her image into the glamorous, regal, impeccably done woman we see today.
"I was 17 when I first started in this business. The Queen Latifah that you got when you bought that first album was what I could think of, what I could come up with at the time. There wasn't a lot of skill there," she says. "It took time, it took maturity" to get to where she is now, she adds.
"Queen Latifah is as confident and as bright and beautiful as you can possibly be," says Tara Kraft, beauty director of Star magazine.
Years ago, such a glowing assertion from such a mainstream magazine would have been unheard of, especially about a 35-year-old, full-figured, former hip-hop star.
But times are changing.
In just the last few years, cosmetics companies have discovered that the skin care and beauty needs of women of color aren't always the same as women with lighter skin.
The CoverGirl Queen Collection - a full line of beauty products for women of color - is available in mass retail markets, with products ranging in price from $3 to $6.
L'Oreal will soon release a line of color-saturated makeup called HIP. And Lancome is said to be jumping on the bandwagon as well.
That says something about how Americans view beauty, experts say.
"Queen Latifah has successfully gone from the hip-hop world to the beauty and fashion world - which isn't always easy," says Elizabeth Einstein, an editor at Allure magazine. "The fact that she is the face of a major cosmetics company and on the cover of beauty and fashion magazines shows how society's idea of beauty has evolved over the years."
It's also a sign of smart marketing.
According to marketing research company Target Market News, African-Americans spent $1.1 billion on cosmetics in 2004.
And the country's population of people of color - African-Americans, Hispanics, those of Middle Eastern and Indian descents - is growing, says McDaniel College professor and pop culture expert Debora Johnson-Ross, as is the population of older people.
"Somebody like Queen Latifah appeals across lines because she's a woman of color," Johnson-Ross says. "She's not a baby, so she appeals to mature women. She's also not a small woman, but she is beautiful."
Queen Latifah's success is helping toss the idea of "classic beauty" out the window, says Alicia Rivers, editor-in-chief of Jolie magazine, a beauty magazine for women of color.
"Queen has always had this confidence about her. She has that relatable quality about her and such a natural beauty. There's a realness about her," Rivers says.
"And that's what a lot of women don't realize. When you are at a place where you're comfortable with who you are, that radiates from within. That's what makes Queen Latifah beautiful."
March 18, 1970
Dana Owens (Latifah means "delicate and sensitive" in Arabic)
East Orange, N.J.
Grammy winner for best solo rap performance, for "U.N.I.T.Y." (1994); first female rapper to be nominated for an Academy Award (2003); named CoverGirl spokesmodel (2003); first hip-hop artist honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2006)
CoverGirl's Golden Honey