Naturi Naughton ain't new to this.
The singer/actress has been in the spotlight since she was a teenager, first rising to fame as a member of the early 00s girl group 3LW, before making the leap to acting on the big and small screen. During that time, Naughton has endured the drama and the comedy that is fame; she's also proven herself to be a versatile entertainer and a resilient person, able to reinvent herself and push forward in a career that has taken her from the violent drug tales of Power to the Playboy mansion on Mad Men. Now, the 37 year old is starring as rapper Jill "Da Thrill" on ABC's new show Queens, and she embraced the chance to tell a story she can personally relate to while also pushing her into new territory as an actress.
"I was excited to do something different," says Naughton. "Most people saw me as Tasha from Power. I didn't want to do the same type of role. [Jill] is funny, she's uptight, a church lady—and yet, she's a lesbian. She's got a lot going on! It means that I can explore different sides." Naughton praises Jill's eventual growth as a character. "Once she realizes that she doesn't need other people to approve her situation, Jill becomes the most powerful player. She's going to get a little arrogant and think she's hot shit, but when she does step into her power and confidence, I love that."
Naturi Naughton fought hard to find her true self in an industry that can be predicated on artifice. Her departure from 3LW was famously acrimonious (there's still ongoing chatter about feuding, finances and fried chicken) but she found her footing in Hollywood, landing roles as Lil Kim in the Notorious B.I.G. biopic Notorious and in the 2009 Fame remake; and also appearing as Playboy Bunny Toni Charles on several episodes of Mad Men and co-starring in the short-lived NBC series The Playboy Club.
"My own experience definitely has some interesting parallels to this show. Jill is definitely different, but some of the things I experienced—for example, being in a girl group in the music business in the early 2000s/late 90s, I know what it's like being told how to dress, how to act, how to sing. [Being] told how to even talk, how to look, what clothes you should wear. It's almost like you're being molded into a version that they say is acceptable. I know what that feels like and how hurtful that is. So I definitely can relate."
Perhaps Naughton's most beloved role was as the wily Tasha St. Patrick on Power. The show became a breakout hit for STARZ and set the table for an ongoing franchise from executive producer 50 Cent. But beyond any specific role or performance, Naughton believes in pushing forward. Don't get too high when things are good; nor too low when things get rough. And she feels that Queens speaks to perseverance.
"I think it represents, in any area, being true to who you are, no matter what anyone says," Naughton explains. "And the idea of second chances—a lot of times you feel like 'Oh I'm too old.' Or 'it's too late for me' to try and go back to school or start a career in music. You feel like you can't. This show represents women who did and who can, that means it's possible. I just wanted to be a part of something that inspires people and that's why I [gravitated] towards it."
She pours so much of her life experience into Jill.
"When I read Jill, I was like 'I know what that feeling is like.' Not on a sexuality tip, but on the tip of feeling like I couldn't be my true self. I also connected with some experiences: how the music business is shady as hell, and how money is stolen, you don't get your payment, you don't make money even though you're selling records. Been there! [I've] been broke as a joke but had a platinum-selling album! That's real. I definitely could connect to some of those things."
There's an audience of women who are watching Queens who are also experiencing what it's like to be told that your window is closing. So much pressure is put on young people to achieve right now. Your twenties is a time for growth and establishing yourself, and for many people, in many disciplines, it feels like you have to grab the brass ring immediately or life will pass you by. For Naturi Naughton, the race is a long one and you must remember that you get there in your own time. She wants women to remember they have time and there are always opportunities.
"In a lot of ways, Queens is giving encouragement to those women," she says. "I'm in my 30s, [Queens co-stars] Eve, Brandy and Nadine [Valezquez] are in their 40s, so I'm the younger one in the group. But at any age, people will make you feel like it's over for you or you missed that train and it's gone now. But how about I make a new road, a new railway? And I get on a different train and I still get where I need to go. I think this show is indicative of reclaiming your crown. It never really left: who you are was always in there, you just didn't know how to tap into it. And sometimes it takes maturity to get where you need to go. I don't even know if I'd gotten certain opportunities 20 years ago—would have I handled it the correct way? Would it have been as big? I don't know!"
"Even me transitioning into being an actress, I got that opportunity in my early 20s. Notorious was my first movie, I was like 22 years old or 23, I think. And it changed my life. At fifteen, I was in the girl group 3LW. I don't know that it would've happened the same way had I not used those experiences from years ago to inform my experiences today. I always say don't let anybody put you in a box, boo. Do you!"