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

Sep 23, 2015
Originally published on September 24, 2015 12:34 am

The hip-hop drama chronicling the ups and downs of record mogul Lucious Lyon and his family became the breakout hit of last year, and the breakout hit of the show was Taraji P. Henson's character, Cookie Lyon.

Cookie is the ex-wife of drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (portrayed by Terrence Howard), and the character is famous for speaking without a filter.

Just out of jail, she makes a beeline for her grown son Jamal's apartment. Jamal is gay and, apparently, not the best housekeeper. After a long hug, Cookie looks around the loft and tells him, "For a queen, you sure do keep a messy place."

That is Cookie for you: loving and supportive, but still able to bring the truth.

Code Switch's Karen Grigsby Bates spoke to Empire writer Attica Locke about why Cookie seems to have struck a chord.

Interview Highlights

On why fans love Cookie so much

The No. 1 reason is quite obvious: It's Taraji. I mean, she just embodies her in a way that I don't think anybody else could have done. And I know that Taraji, when she plays Cookie, says she's pulling from her father. She says her father was somebody in her life who would just say anything.

And I think Cookie is a part of all of us that just wants to say some wild stuff, but socialization tells us you can't just pop off at the mouth like that. So we kind of lock it down. But she doesn't have that — she has complete and total permission to say whatever comes into her head.

On Cookie's authentic voice

If you put a bunch of black people in a writer's room, and they're led by Lee Daniels, they're just going to say some stuff. The show is not concerned with the white gaze at all. We were playing inside baseball with black culture the whole time. And we were given free rein to do that, certainly by Lee, also by Ilene Chaiken, who is our executive producer, and by Fox. They let us be wholly and completely black.

And absent that white gaze, Cookie is free. There's just something to that. And there's something to the way the show does not privilege pedigree over what she brings to the table. Her type of humor, her type of wisdom, is being showcased in a way that I don't think we've seen in a black character on TV.

On why the character resonates with black women, especially

I think everybody knows a Cookie; she's your aunt, or she's your cousin, she's your great-aunt, your grandmother. Everybody has got that one black woman in their life who spoke the truth unapologetically, unabashedly and bravely. And I think that as we — black folk — go through our economic ascent in America, that stuff gets tamped down in the office.

There is such an excitement about the fact that someone can move across this publicly traded company talking like that, speaking that kind of true black woman wisdom and humor.

On Cookie's parenting style

We were writing Season 1 last year when Ferguson jumped off. We had a keen sense that Cookie is aware of the world in which she's raising these three black boys, these three black men. And she takes complete ownership of them being safe and present in the world.

On how she'd describe Cookie in just a few words

Hot mess, excellent mother, fabulous dresser.

She's a hustler. People say things like, "Cookie ain't all right, but she ain't all wrong either." So she gets some stuff wrong but she gets some stuff dead on right.

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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.


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.


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, 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.


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.


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.


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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.