Fifteen minutes after excusing herself to change into sweats, the voluptuous Queen Latifah is strolling through a Beverly Hills hotel bar with a sexy, hip-swiveling swagger. ''She's even finer in person,'' one man comments as she passes. (Which, with a bone structure even Cher couldn't pay for, she is.) The hip-hop performer-turned-executive producer and star of Bringing Down the House, a broad comedy in which she plays a girl from the hood who disrupts the life of uptight lawyer Steve Martin, may, on paper, make other multihyphenates look lazy. But at this moment she's dressed for a night on the couch, down to her white tennis sneakers. Oh, and she's also done a bit of accessorizing -- adding what looks like a half mil in diamonds. They're dangling from her ears, catapulting off her chest, clinging to her wrist, and Mount Everesting off her pinkie. Latifah lets out a loud, low laugh at the gawkers. ''But it works, right?''
Like anyone's about to argue. The 32-year-old Latifah is a master alchemist at turning such contradictions into gold, which helps explain why she's the first female rapper to earn an Oscar nomination, for her supporting role as badass prison matron Mama Morton in Chicago. When it comes to peers, ''Will [Smith] is kind of close. He's been there,'' Latifah says, ordering a shot of Patron tequila to help her ''wake up.'' But in terms of female colleagues, ''there's nobody,'' she says. ''That's kind of cool. But it does get lonesome sometimes.''
It's taken years to reach this peak. Latifah, nee Dana Owens, the New Jersey-bred daughter of a police officer and a schoolteacher, renamed herself with the Arabic word for ''delicate'' or ''sensitive'' and signed a record deal at 18; the rapper's first album, All Hail the Queen, sold 750,000 copies worldwide and produced the hit single ''Ladies First.'' Latifah went on to make three more albums, all of which promoted her own brand of streetwise female empowerment. (A line from ''U.N.I.T.Y.,'' which won her a Grammy, goes ''Every time I hear a brother call a girl a bitch or a ho/trying to make a sister feel low/you know all of that gots to go.'')
The slapsticky Bringing Down the House (opening March 7) doesn't pretend to have any such overt message. And Latifah never intended the odd-couple comedy to be the kind of fare that gets people up on podiums every March. ''What I want is for [audiences]to go to the movie and laugh,'' she says. ''I don't want them to go in there and try to learn every lesson in life.'' And, she adds with a laugh, ''I'd like it to do $100 million-plus in business. That'd be cool.''
If her career's a mass of contradictions, Latifah -- Dana or ''La'' to friends -- appears to be one as well. While she's got tough-girl street cred (she's been busted on drug and gun charges), she's also a devout Christian who wouldn't think of traveling between her home bases of Miami, Los Angeles, and New Jersey without her Bible. She has perfect table manners -- how many movie stars know that the way to eat soup is by drawing one's spoon to the outer edge of the bowl? -- but shit is one of her favorite nouns. And while she has had the girth to win any fight since childhood, she says she always used her strength to break up schoolyard brawls, not start them.