She’s beautiful, smart, talented and, thanks to her award-winning role in Fox’s Empire, one of the most recognizable actresses on the small and silver screens. However, behind Taraji P. Henson’s success lies a heartbreaking story that almost stopped her career in its tracks. This, then, is how one of Hollywood’s brightest stars overcame personal tragedy on her way to the top.
Born on September 11, 1970 to working-class parents, Taraji Henson always had dreams of appearing on stage and screen. And despite failing to make it into Washington, D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts as a teenager, she finally made good on her ambitions when she was accepted on to a theater course at Howard University.
But college was life-changing in more ways than one when, in her junior year, Henson discovered that she was pregnant. The father – William Lamar Johnson – was her high-school sweetheart, so she decided to keep the child in spite of her academic pursuits.
While naturally daunted by the idea of balancing motherhood and education, Henson persevered. In fact, before long she had both a degree and a baby son, Marcell. Upon graduating, then, Henson picked up her baby and just $700 in savings and headed to Hollywood, ready to make it big.
Henson made a string of appearances on TV shows like ER and The Division before getting her big break by being cast in 2001 movie Baby Boy. She played – and indeed starred – as a young mom, and her performance was so strong that big things were predicted.
In her pursuit of success, though, Henson had to leave behind many things that she held dear in her native Washington, D.C. – namely Marcell’s dad, William Johnson. Her past, however, was about to catch up with her; on the night of June 25, 2003, something truly terrible happened.
While in Washington, D.C., Johnson had become angered by a couple who he claimed had slashed his friend’s tires. Consequently, he went to confront them at their apartment – a rash decision that would prove to be his last.
Things quickly escalated, with Charlotte and Russell Nickelson, the couple in question, inflicting multiple stab wounds on Johnson. His injuries were so bad that, the following day, he tragically died. Marcell was subsequently left without a father, while Henson had to carry the burden of parenthood alone.
Though the two had separated, Henson was obviously affected by Johnson’s untimely death. Oon The Wendy Williams Show years later, for instance, Henson revealed that she had been “so in love.” She said, “He was my high-school sweetheart, and we were together for eight years.”
Besides the hurt that Henson suffered, though, Johnson’s death also had a huge impact on Marcell. Indeed, during a 2008 interview with Vibe magazine, Henson recounted that the two would “sit and weep” weeks after his death.
Johnson’s passing was later deemed as manslaughter, with Russell and Charlotte Nickelson sentenced to 50 and 30 months in jail, respectively. However, this was just a passing comfort to Henson, who learned to cope with the tragedy in her own way.
“Do I mourn for him? Absolutely,” she explained to Vibe. “I wish my son had his dad. But sometimes things line up and they have to happen and we don’t know why.”
At the time of Johnson’s death, Henson, with just $900 in the bank, was still struggling as an actress. To make matters worse, her dad Boris – who had acted as a second father to Marcell – passed away only a few years later.
Every cloud, though, has a silver lining, and the following years saw Henson’s career boom in a big way. On the back of her Baby Boy performance, she was cast in 2005’s Hustle and Flow, in which she played good-natured prostitute Shug alongside future Empire co-star Terrence Howard.
Her performance led to an appearance at the 2006 Academy Awards, where she sang the movie’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” theme tune. She would return three years later when her role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button earned her a nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
The subsequent adulation resulted in Henson receiving a flood of work, including roles in The Karate Kid and Person of Interest. But the best was yet to come, for in 2015 she was cast as the tough-as-nails Cookie in Empire.
Cookie brought Henson her biggest acclaim to date, including a Golden Globe win and two Emmy nominations. Even more impressive than this, though, was her being named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2016.
Needless to say, the future looks pretty bright for Henson, with a third Empire season airing in September 2016. Upcoming movie Hidden Figures, meanwhile, will see the actress expand her acting credentials by playing math whizz Katherine Johnson.
Marcell Johnson, too, is already shaping up to be a star in the mold of his glamorous mom. In fact, Henson said in 2015 that her son is set to attend her old alma mater Howard University.
“He’s had to deal with life in a way that a lot of young kids haven’t yet,” Henson explained to Vibe. Their shared tragedies may have left them beaten, but it’s fair to say that this remarkable mom-and-son pair have emerged unbroken – and arguably even stronger.