Why Taraji P Henson’s ballbusting force of nature Cookie is the best thing about Empire

Lee Daniels and Danny Strong's hip-hop drama may focus on a male power struggle but the real star is a no-nonsense but perfectly pitched female character

On the surface, Empire – America’s hottest new drama – is all about four men. The new series from The Butler director Lee Daniels and Danny Strong (The Hunger Games – Mockinjay) follows Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), hip-hop’s Simon Cowell, whose terminal illness forces him to decide which of his three sons should inherit his – you guessed it – “empire”.


But while the show’s focus is undoubtedly male, the real star of this series is a woman – Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie Lyon played by Taraji P Henson.

She’s impossibly glam, spouts countless cutting one-liners and is our new favourite girl crush. And we’re not alone. Henson’s character has her own army of fans – the “Cookie Monsters”, as she calls them – who bark such soundbites as “Boo Boo Kitty” and “Shut up Dora”.

Read more: Empire is over-the-top, soapy and gaudy… but it’s utterly brilliant

These will mean nothing to you unless you watch Empire tonight on E4 – something I urge you to do – where you’ll see Cookie released from prison after sacrificing 17 years behind bars for the sake of her former spouse and his lucrative empire. “From this moment forward I want to know everything she’s doing, I mean everything” insists Lucious, and right he is to be anxious – his ex-wife is a ballbusting, no-nonsense force of nature capable of striking fear into the hearts of the hardiest record executives and taking Lucious’s conceited artists down a necessary peg or two.

That’s the very reason Cookie has already become an icon in the States where the show has achieved stonking ratings and a swiftly commissioned second series. She champions the good – the underdogs, the victims – and has no qualms about marching up to just about anyone and saying exactly what’s on her mind. In short, she’s the ballsy version of ourselves we often wish we could be.

Then there’s the fashion. Whether it be head-to-toe leopard print…

… or fur and extravagant head gear…

… Cookie always looks FABulous. According to Empire’s costume designer Rita McGhee, her fashion sense is inspired by Michelle Obama (not sure what the First Lady would make of that), but to us her wardrobe is basically the fancy dress box of our dreams – heck, this woman even manages to pull off an orange jumpsuit.

All in all, Cookie is “Sass” with a capital S, but the real reason we love her is actress Taraji P Henson. In the wrong hands, this character would have been too much – overacted and in-your-face gaudy – but instead she’s pitched to perfection. We root for Cookie as she works to build (or re-build) difficult relationships with each of her three sons – and battles to hold her own against her powerful ex and his smug Halle Berry-lookalike girlfriend. 

Without her, Empire would still have plenty of soapy entertainment and catchy beats, but Cookie is the show’s beating heart – a delight to watch. And if we were betting, we’d put our money on Henson collecting an awful lot of silverware during next year’s awards season.

Empire begins tonight at 9pm on E4. Watch the trailer below:



Read more: Hit US series Empire finds a UK home on E4