Taraji P. Henson has become a household name in Hollywood. She has become a gem in the entertainment industry, from starring in movies and TV shows such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Hidden Figures, Boston Legal, The Division, Eli Stone, and of course, Empire.
She has a rosy career now, but it was not always like this. Her path to the top was rocky, filled with thorns and tragedy. Here, we’ll take a look at her incredible rise to stardom and who she is behind the curtains.
Taraji P. Henson was born in Southeast Washington, D.C., on September 11, 1970. Her mother, Bernice Gordon, was a corporate manager at the department store Woodward & Lothrop, while her father, Boris Lawrence Henson, worked as a metal fabricator and janitor. She is the oldest of two siblings, with a sister named April and Shawn’s little brother.
Even though her parents split when she was young, Taraji Henson recalls a warm and caring childhood. No one could, not even her, have imagined the unexpected twists her life would take—or how she would wind up as being one of Hollywood’s greatest talents.
Young Taraji Henson was influenced by many people while growing up. However, the one who had the most influence was her wonderful grandmother, Patsy Ballard. Right from when she was young, Ballard became one of Henson’s biggest inspirations, urging her to follow her passions and believe in herself, even when it seemed impossible.
Ballard recognized her granddaughter’s innate charisma and talent and felt she was bound for stardom. As we can all see, she wasn’t wrong. But still, she couldn’t have foreseen the extraordinary levels of greatness that her granddaughter would enjoy.
Although she was destined to be a Hollywood star, Henson understood the value of obtaining a solid education and laying a firm foundation in life. So, she enrolled at Oxon Hill High School in Oxon Hill, Maryland, where she excelled academically. But that wasn’t all; she also met a special person.
While in High School, Taraji P. Henson met and fell in love with William LaMarr Johnson. They soon started a romantic relationship, and they pushed each other to achieve their goals in life. This certainly came in handy in the journey that lay ahead.
Henson knew she wanted to continue studying after graduating from high school. She didn’t plan to stop after High School and was determined to continue. Next, she enrolled in the Agricultural and Technical State University in North Carolina. She had intended to pursue electrical engineering at first.
However, it became evident very quickly that her fate lay elsewhere. As a result, she enrolled at Howard University to pursue what she wanted: drama. She had no idea that this was the start of a long and prolific career in the arts.
That wasn’t the only way the young Henderson proved her desire to excel and dedicate herself to obtaining a solid education.
College tuition can be expensive and difficult to pay for several students, but Henson wasn’t going to let that stop her.
She took several jobs outside of school hours to help pay for her studies. When she wasn’t studying, she worked as a secretary at The Pentagon during the day and as a singing and dancing waitress on a dinner cruise ship in the evenings! Little did she know how well her hard work would pay off in the long run.
Henson was a motivated student who put up 100% effort in her part-time job and drama education. Her hard work, coupled with some early roles as a background performer, meant the starlet unsurprisingly got her Screen Actors Guild membership card in the early 1990s.
More and more people became aware of her talents, and it appeared like her career was starting to take off. However, it wasn’t just her career that was moving upwards, but her personal life was also set to bring her more joy.
As if her budding acting career wasn’t thrilling enough, Henson’s personal life was also undergoing significant positive changes. Shortly after receiving her Screen Actors Guild Membership, she experienced more joyous news. She was overjoyed when she and her high school sweetheart, Johnson, welcomed a bouncing baby boy into the world in 1994.
As committed as we’ve seen her be, Henson wasn’t going to let her pregnancy and childbirth distract her from studying hard in school. And her dedication wasn’t fruitless as she accepted her diploma with her son in her arms. But a huge tragedy was looming for her family. And she had no idea.
Despite the joyous and exciting events in her personal life, Henson stayed committed to her career, trying to establish herself in the entertainment industry. And her hard work ultimately paid off when she landed her first major film role in the 2001 comedy-drama Baby Boy alongside Tyrese Gibson.
Both viewers and critics lauded her performance in the movie, and Henson was well on her way to becoming a full-fledged Hollywood star. But tragedy was still lurking, and it happened two years later. It would completely change her life.
Everything looked to be going smoothly for the burgeoning movie star Taraji P. Henson. She had a lovely eight-year-old boy, a pleasant home life, and a loving relationship. She was also building a name for herself in the entertainment industry, laying the path for a prosperous acting career.
But tragedy soon struck when her dear boyfriend, William LaMarr Johnson, was killed in 2003. Henson was not only dealing with her loss, but she was also navigating the world as a single parent. And the difficult times didn’t stop. Instead, they were about to get worse.
After the unfortunate loss of her lover, Johnson, Henson had to raise her son alone and maintain a career that was beginning to light up. But those weren’t her only challenge. How could she explain the senseless killing of Johnson to his young son?
She didn’t think it was possible. As a result, Henson chose to tell her son a gentler version of the event rather than the complete truth about what had happened that day. She had no idea that she would regret her decision in the future.
Despite her sadness at the death of her high school heartthrob and the challenges of parenting their son alone, Henson pursued her ambitions and dreams as she set out to make a name for herself in the Hollywood film industry.
In 2005, she co-starred with Terrence Howard in the indie film Hustle & Flow as Shug. The film was a blockbuster, propelling Henson to new heights in the industry. But it wasn’t just her acting talents that made her performance in the movie stand out. It turned out she was a woman of more than one talent.
Taraji P. Henson’s performance in the film Hustle & Flow got many people buzzing, including audiences and critics. But it wasn’t simply her acting skills that got everyone talking—it was her singing abilities as well! In addition to starring in the film, Henson also performed vocals for one of the tracks alongside hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia.
The song won the award for Best Original Song at the 2006 Academy Awards, making her the first African American hip-hop act. History was made. In the same year, Henson sang once more for the charity album Unexpected Dreams – Songs From the Stars, contributing the song “In My Daughter’s Eyes.” And she would only go on to broaden her range of abilities.
Besides being a tremendously talented singer, Henson realized another opportunity to express her musical talents and creativity when she starred in several music videos for other top artists. In 2005, she appeared in the music videos for Common’s “Testify” and Tyrese Gibson’s “Stay,” with whom she had previously starred in Baby Boy.
So, she had become a star in acting, singing and now starring in music videos! Was there anything the incredibly talented Henson couldn’t do? What else could she possibly accomplish? Well, there was one more place the Hollywood star had her eyes on…
Now that Henson had proven herself to be a huge name in both film and music, she believed the time had come for her to try her hand at something new. Over the next year, she began a run of spectacular guest appearances on the most popular TV shows of the time.
These include The WB’s Smart Guy, Fox’s House, and CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. In addition, she also made an appearance in an episode of the classic sitcom Sister, Sister. But her next role would be a big deal. It was about to outshine all of the guest appearances and cameos.
By 2008, Taraji P. Henson had already established herself as a versatile and competent actress. She had been in various movies and TV shows, but her next role would solidify her place in the movie industry as a truly elite actress.
When she starred alongside Brad Pitt as Queenie in the classic film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, she undoubtedly became a Hollywood star. Henson’s performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. But her star had just begun to shine.
Henson starred in a slew of other critically acclaimed shows and projects after receiving her Academy Award nomination. In 2011, she led the way as the title character in the movie Taken from Me: The Tiffany Rubin Story, which aired on Lifetime Movie Network.
Henson received huge recognition for her spectacular performance. She was nominated for several prestigious awards, including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie. At this point, it seemed each new project would launch her to more stardom because her next project was about to prove exceptional in a whole different way.
Besides loving her son and her deep passion for acting, there was one other thing Taraji P. Henson cared so much about – animals. She had always been a strong supporter of animal rights and the international organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
This was why in 2011, she posed for the group in a nude photograph with the caption “I’d Rather Be Naked Than Wear Fur.” As it would later appear, this wouldn’t be the only time that raunchy photographs of Henson sparked controversy.
In 2012, Henson joined fellow Hollywood superstars Michael Ealy, Jerry Ferrara, Meagan Good, Regina Hall, Kevin Hart, Terrence J, Romany Malco, and Gabrielle Union in Think Like a Man, showcasing once more her great acting abilities. Henson’s performance was greatly applauded, and the film was a huge hit.
It earned her more recognition and respect among her co-stars and filmmakers. So much so that a few years later, she reprised her role in the sequel, Think Like a Man Too! Henson’s career was on the rise, but her personal life was on the verge of collapsing. AGAIN!
Although she had some difficult times in her personal life and her highly busy and successful Hollywood career, Henson found time to help others and give back to society. This was exemplified by her continued passion and advocacy for animal rights.
In 2013, she reunited with PETA for their “Be an Angel for Animals” campaign appearing in pictures with her dog Uncle Willie. In an interview with PETA, she said:
“Dogs to me are like children,”
“They’re the closest thing to God. They’re so pure in their love, and all they do is aim to please.”
During this period, Henson started playing the role of detective Jocelyn “Joss” Carter in the CBS crime drama Person of Interest. She continued in the role for two and a half years before being killed off in the season three episode “The Crossing,” a hit with both audiences and critics.
Henson had played a pivotal role in the show, and many fans were understandably heartbroken when it was announced that her character would be leaving. However, the truth was that this new development would only serve to further her prominence and success in the movie industry.
As you may well recall, Henson initially tried to shield her son Marcell from learning the awful truth of his father’s death. After all, the little boy was so young that he couldn’t possibly comprehend the gravity of what had occurred. On the other hand, Marcell discovered the truth on his years later.
He then sought explanations from his mother. Henson confessed that she had concealed the truth from him to protect him but that she now realizes that this wasn’t the best decision. With the latest revelation and new hurdles to face, mother and son started going to therapy together.
Henson has spoken openly about the challenges and happiness of being a single mother. In her memoir, “Around the Away Girl,” Taraji P. Henson had the following to say:
“That is the miracle of single motherhood.”
“It is not easy to raise a human being with a partner, but doing so alone requires a Herculean effort that is all muscle and grit, built up with repetitive sets of sacrifice. Whatever you gain, whatever you earn, you give to your baby, and you work triple hard to show your child-not, anyone, else-that moving forward, no matter how tiny the steps, is possible. This is a single mother’s love.”
Henson has spoken up about how her religious beliefs keep her strong and help her focus on the challenging path of single parenting, in addition to the tremendous love and commitment she feels for her kid.
She had the following to say while speaking to the Christian Post:
“Anybody that follows me, that knows me, knows that I love the Lord.”
“And I’m not afraid to say it. I’m not afraid to tweet it; I’m not afraid to talk about it in the interviews.”
Her faith would be important in other areas of her life in the years to come.
Fans were visibly upset when Henson’s character from Person of Interest was killed off, but the irony was that they wouldn’t have to wait long to see her in another iconic and outstanding role. A few months after leaving the crime drama, Henson was chosen to join the cast of Fox’s Empire, a musical drama about New York’s hip hop recording industry.
She played Loretha “Cookie” Lyon, the outspoken wife of co-star Terrence Howard. Henson knew she was playing a great role, but she couldn’t have predicted the tremendous cultural influence the show would end up having.
As Cookie, the Trophy Wife, her role was a big hit with both audiences and critics. She immediately established herself as an important part of American television culture, particularly in the New York and hip-hop communities. Her global recognition gained new heights when, in 2015, she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
It was only the beginning of her award recognition journey. The next year, she made history by becoming only the third African American actress to receive the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Drama. And Henson’s career and impact were about to take off much farther.
Henson continued to be lauded and recognized for her pivotal role in the mega-popular Empire throughout the next few years. Due to the sheer impact, she was voted Entertainer of the Year at the 46th NAACP Image Awards in 2015. Her rise to star kept on moving on a fast train.
Not only that, but she also featured as a guest co-host on the renowned talk show Live! With Kelly and Michael in 2015. But, being Henson, she recognized that she had a responsibility to use her celebrity and affluence for the greater good, which led to her next move.
As Henson’s worldwide celebrity status and influence grew, she realized that the right thing to do was to use her voice to raise awareness of key issues and speak up for equality and fairness in society. As a result, she featured in an ad for the charity NOH8 Campaign, demonstrating her support for the LGBT community.
When someone as well-known and respected as Taraji P. Henson speaks out to support others and their situations, it may have a huge and far-reaching influence. And it appeared that after this, there was still room to go even higher in her career.
In 2016, Henson played Katherine Johnson in the mega-hit and much-lauded drama Hidden Figures, one of her finest and most highly praised performances. The film was an instant hit, grossing a tremendous amount of money at the box office and sweeping many award panels.
It was even nominated for three Academy Awards! It was also nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture. With that experience under her belt, Henson was ready to embark on a new adventure deeper into the arts and entertainment industry.
By this time, Henson had become so well-known and famous that people worldwide looked to her for direction on everything from family and spirituality to fashion and style. As a result, it was no surprise when she secured a partnership with MAC Cosmetics in 2016 to collaborate on the Taraji P. Henson makeup collection.
She reunited with them later that year to become the face of their Viva Glam Campaign, generating funds for the MAC HIV/AIDS fund. Henson was dedicated to her own and everyone else’s well-being, and she was about to go much further.
Henson had always taken pride in making thoughtful and intelligent decisions, calling on her willpower to take the best possible care of herself and those around her.
That’s why, in 2017, she identified as a vegan to better her general health and avoid stomach cancer.
She made the following statements while speaking to Instyle:
“It took a doctor in Macon, Georgia, to say, ‘If you don’t change what you’re doing, you’re going to get stomach cancer. So I switched everything up out of necessity. I want to live.”
And it’s a good thing she did since she still had a few more career peaks to hit.
After transitioning to veganism and her continuous dedication to pushing herself to be the best of her capabilities, Henson’s next projects demonstrated how diverse and incredibly remarkable all of her different talents were. She debuted in the thriller film Proud Mary from Sony Screen Gems in 2018.
A year later, in 2019, Taraji P. Henson then went on to play the lead role in the psychological drama Acrimony. Talk about a multi-talented gal! But her incredible projects, both on and off the film, were far from over.
In the same year, Henson embarked on a completely different endeavor—one that was very close to her heart. In honor of her beloved father, she established the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. The Foundation is committed to addressing mental illness in the Black community by providing the necessary support and eroding stigmatization.
According to the Foundation’s website, their mission is: “to eradicate the stigma around mental health issues in the African-American community … to provide support and bring awareness to mental health issues that plague our community.”
Although Henson had been through a lot in her life and had put so much effort into being extremely successful while also making sure to look after others, she didn’t disregard her personal life and still sought her happiness behind the scenes.
Her fans were buzzing for her when she announced her engagement to former NFL star Kelvin Hayden in 2018. Henson appeared to be on her way to a happy ending, but she had no idea that another award awaited her.
Around this period, Taraji P. Henson’s career seemed to improve and improve. She not only had a prestigious and well-respected career in showbiz, but she had also found true love and had a lovely family and home.
This was irrefutable confirmation that Henson was a true showbiz legend, a designation reserved for only the most successful and highly recognized celebrities. It must have been the cherry on top when Henson was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2019.
As if receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame wasn’t enough for Henson, another event quickly demonstrated just how much she was respected and admired in the business. In 2020, fans were ecstatic to learn that 20th Century Fox was working on a spin-off of the mega-popular Empire, centering entirely on Henson’s adored character Cookie Lyon.
In an official statement, Taraji P. Henson said:
“I’m so excited to have 20th, led by the talented Carolyn Cassidy, support me in this new endeavor.”
And yet again, Henson was about to make more headlines for another different reason.
Henson and pretty much everything she does or says these days has the entire world enthralled. Even Henson’s most ardent followers were taken aback by the media frenzy that ensued in 2020 when she merely uploaded some images of herself on Instagram!
This is because Henson posted some pictures in which she appeared to be quite gorgeous and lovely in a bikini. Her images generated quite a sensation because she looked so elegant and stylish! It’s encouraging to see Henson, who is now 50, continue to promote body positivity and self-love.
Henson seemed to become more successful and remarkable with each passing year. What an illustrious career she has had, inspiring us all to pursue our ambitions. But, unfortunately, even Henson has to deal with heartbreak and disappointment from time to time, as she acknowledged in a 2020 episode of the New York radio show The Breakfast Club.
She said: “It didn’t work out,” she said. “I tried … but if you’re both not on the same page with that, then you feel like you’re taking it on yourself. And that’s not a fair position for anybody to play in a relationship.”
You can’t help but wonder where Henson gets her great tenacity and perseverance after so many ups and downs in her professional and personal life.
However, the beloved actress claims that the answer is simple: her strong personality stems from her religiosity.
While speaking to Beliefnet about her faith, Henson said, “It is everything. That’s who I am. God lives within me. I meditate, I pray. I’m nothing without God. So, I just ask that He use me in my work. There’s always somebody who can identify with the characters that I portray.”
After being through so many ups and downs, enjoying such a prolific career, and being a source of inspiration to many young actresses, we can’t help but wonder what could be next for such a dynamic and incredibly talented actress like Taraji P. Henson.
We don’t know what to expect from her next project, but we do know that it will be done with faith, talent, and commitment. We can all learn from Henson’s strength, tenacity, and ability to see the good in any situation and fight to always come out on top.