The Tao Of Cookie: Behind The 'Empire' Character's Many-Layered Persona : Code Switch Brash, biting Cookie Lyon is arguably the most compelling character on Fox's hit show Empire. The show's co-producer and writer Attica Locke says that's because we've all got a bit of Cookie in us.
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The Tao Of Cookie: Behind The 'Empire' Character's Many-Layered Persona

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The Tao Of Cookie: Behind The 'Empire' Character's Many-Layered Persona

The Tao Of Cookie: Behind The 'Empire' Character's Many-Layered Persona

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And now to a song from a hit TV show. The new season is underway. Tonight, viewers are invited to go back into the lion's den.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE SO BEAUTIFUL")

JUSSIE SMOLLETT: (Singing) You're so beautiful. Give the world a show.

MONTAGNE: "Empire," the hip-hop drama chronicling the ups and downs of record mogul Lucious Lyon and his family, became the breakout TV hit of the last year. And the breakout hit within the show was Taraji P. Henson's character, Cookie Lyon. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates of our Code Switch team looks at why.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Last season, we met Cookie Lyon as she was released from a 17-year-long jail stint. She took the fall for her now ex-husband Lucious. Once out, she makes a beeline for her son Jamal's apartment, and, after a long hug, looks around.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMPIRE")

TARAJI P. HENSON: (As Cookie Lyon) For a queen, you sure do keep a messy place.

BATES: Jamal is gay and apparently not the best housekeeper. That comment is pure Cookie Lyon - loving and supportive but still able to bring the truth. And Michael Arceneaux, a cultural critic and writer for ebony.com, appreciates that.

MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: I love that she's so outspoken. I love that she's not respectable. Like, for me, she's very much somebody's black auntie. I'm glad I get to see that type of black woman on TV and not be kind of, like, one note.

BATES: Attica Locke is a producer and writer on "Empire." And she says the team really wanted to make a show infused with black culture that wasn't a primer on black life.

ATTICA LOCKE: I think everybody knows a Cookie. Somebody put it really smartly. They said the show is not concerned with the white gaze at all. We just were playing inside baseball with black culture.

BATES: And Cookie is the team's head coach. Her rules remain the same whether she's at her own table or the one presided over by her ex-husband's girlfriend. Here, at a family dinner, she's correcting what she sees as a serious faux pas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMPIRE")

GRACE GEALEY: (As Anika Calhoun) Lucious and I are very excited to have you all here in our home for dinner, so please, don't be afraid to dig in and enjoy.

HENSON: (As Cookie Lyon) Excuse me. In this family, we say grace before we shove food in our mouths. So shall we?

BATES: Classic Cookie. Attica Locke says old black folks have a saying for what Cookie is.

LOCKE: Cookie ain't all right, but she not all wrong either. So she gets some stuff wrong, but she gets a lot of stuff dead-on right.

BATES: She's definitely right in business, says Audrey Edwards. Edwards, a former executive editor of Essence magazine, has blogged about "Empire." She says Cookie Lyon is a Versace-clad, fictional counterpart to some real-life black female music moguls.

AUDREY EDWARDS: She's a very smart woman, you know, in the same way Anna Gordy was smart, in the same way Sylvia Rhone at Atlantic Records was smart. You know, the record industry has always had a history of smart black women behind the scenes.

BATES: Cookie is very astute, and she's secure enough to not like things or people just because they're considered important by her so-called betters. Here, she's eyeballing a huge painting by an Austrian master Lucious has collected. Lucious can't resist showing off.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMPIRE")

TERRENCE HOWARD: (As Lucious Lyon) That's a Klimt.

HENSON: (As Cookie Lyon) Yeah, well, you can keep it. It's ugly.

BATES: Audrey Edwards says she loves that "Empire" and Cookie aren't kneeling at the altar of mainstream culture and are keeping it 100 percent real.

EDWARDS: That kind of reference is saying that we as a people don't have to adopt other people's aesthetic. We have our own aesthetic.

BATES: Cookie Lyon has her own aesthetic - a rainbow of furs, a blinding array of diamonds and designer stilettos for days. And she has her own ethos. People who condescend to her would fare very poorly in the tough environment she came from, and she knows it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EMPIRE")

HENSON: (As Cookie Lyon) The streets ain't made for everybody. That's why they made sidewalks.

BATES: Fasten your seatbelts. "Empire's" reign begins tonight. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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