'Empire': The Tao of Cookie

The wit, wisdom and life lessons of the ultimate Lyon

Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Empire, the breakout Fox hit that returns on September 23, has a lot of things going for it: soapy storylines, progressive politics, Grammy-winning guest stars, bonkers plot twists and a singular, fun-as-hell hip-hop backdrop. But make no mistake: The show's crown jewel is Taraji P. Henson's Cookie Lyon, the ex-con Empire Entertainment matriarch who's back to gain control of her children, her company, and her man. More than a scene-stealer, Henson commits assault and battery whenever she's on screen, dressed to impress (or kill) and throwing shade one killer quote at a time.

But her episode-stopping utterances are more than a random string of skillfully timed trash talk and no-nonsense proclamations. Taken together, Cookie's words are a philosophy. She lives an authentic life, makes no excuses and accepts no abuse. Even better, the most fashion-forward predator in the show's eat-or-be-eaten jungle drops pearls of wisdom on us every episode, one line at a time. There is so much we can all learn from this woman. Now sit, center yourself, and repeat after Cookie.

"I'm here to get what's mine."
Create goals. Cookie took the prison time for her husband, Lucious, letting him continue to build Empire Entertainment into a worldwide phenomenon on the cusp of their first IPO. Over 17 years, her children became adults, her spouse left her, and no one appears to have a clue that her sacrifice built the multimillion-dollar company (though everyone knows that her ferocious fur, leopard and hoops ensemble she wore into prison remained on point). But Cookie does not let this get her down. How many times have you felt off-course and unmoored — you're working so hard, but you're not getting anywhere? If you can visualize your goals, you can achieve them. Cookie Lyon knows this. She has taken the time to create a two-step plan towards firm, achievable accomplishments: 1. Get what's hers.  2. See No. 1.

"My name's Cookie. Ask about me."
Know your worth. High self-esteem is the key to coping with adversity and realizing your individual value. With swag squarely turned on, Cookie recognizes she doesn't need to adapt her behavior to others' expectations. She's been out of the game for a while, but when she joins Jamal, her middle son, for a recording session at Ghetto-Ass studios (the name speaks for itself), she makes sure that all people present know not to mess with her baby boy. All it takes is a pat to her purse to let them know she's "holding," followed by a quick history lesson so they know just whom they're dealing with. This is Cookie's world; everyone else needs to fall in line.

"Better be glad I don't feel like no scene today because I'd shut it down."
Choose your moments. There's a time and a place to bust into a boardroom, bed down your bodyguard or engage in a hair-pulling catfight with your ex-husband's fiancé and her tragic anchorwoman 'do. But even in grief, she's adept at picking her moments. Told about her beloved cousin Bunky's unexpected demise (but not that Lucious shot him through the head), Cookie confronts her ex about details for the funeral. His evasive answers raise suspicions, but she recognizes a video shoot is not the venue to make a scene. She'll save that for a family dinner. Knowing when to act, and when to shut it down — that's the key to tranquility.

"Boo Boo Kitty, just 'cause I asked Jesus to forgive you, don't mean I do."
If you cannot name your enemy, you cannot defeat it. From [the abusive rapper] Kid Fo-Fo to [her younger son's cougar girlfriend] Camilla to a polyester blend, Cookie does not lack adversaries. But her primary nemesis is Anika, aka "fake-ass Lena Horne," the pearl-clad A&R rep currently living in a mansion with her ex. With superior combat position, Anika may currently have the upper hand. But Cookie realizes to neutralize that power she must define the terms of the battle (sometimes literally — see above), something she accomplishes by assigning Anika a belittling yet comical nickname, starting with the nonsensical but unforgettable "Book Boo Kitty." Anyone could use Halle Berry, Lena Horne or Yoko One's moniker to fashion a diss. It takes a master's skill, however, to resurrect a Laverne & Shirley reference and turn it into an insult. All hail General Cookie.

"Yeah, straight down the hall to the right. Then jump out the window and straight down."
Always be aware of your surrounds. Empire Entertainment's gleaming New York executive suite is a world away from the rough Philadelphia streets where the Lyons started. Recognizing the difference makes Cookie adaptable, and is the key to her success. After all, to know where you're going, you must know where you are. Also, it comes in super handy when you want to insult your FBI handler who's posing as your parole officer in a rouse to convince your ex-husband you're not in cahoots with the Feds. The slam just wouldn't work if the bathroom was on the left.

"All right, look, girl; I don't judge. But youse a freak — and that's a good thing. We can sell that."
Seize opportunities. In just one, long day, Cookie faces a seemingly insurmountable tsunami of setbacks: she's placed in the path of a homicidal drug dealer, Jamal's single suffers from a tragically weak beat, and now, a girl-on-girl video leaks featuring her up-and-coming R&B artist, Tiana – who also happens to be her youngest son's girlfriend. While some would wilt at these obstacles, Cookie sees chances to succeed. She takes lesbian lemons and makes multi-tasking an art – fixing the groove on "Keep Your Money," devising a plan to take out the drug dealer before he hits her, and finally, making sure Tiana exploits the male heterosexual's stereotypical erotic fantasy for profit. What fantasy? We'll let Lucious explain: "Let's look at it from a mathematical perspective. Your girlfriend has a girlfriend. Add that up. Two girlfriends. It's a mathematician's dream." Cookie knows she can sell that.

"You know I was never into wearing all them damn weaves. Girls walking around with their scalps smelling like goat ass."
Live an uncluttered life. Cookie Lyon is a style icon, perfectly curating the ultimate diva look. In a wardrobe packed with form-fitting labels and fur, the lady never oversteps. That's because she adheres to a simple style philosophy – keep it tight. Lashes, Louboutins and leopard print; everything else is unnecessary.

"You want Cookie's nookie? Ditch the bitch."
Never settle. Seventeen years is a long time to be away from the man you love, especially when he divorces you and takes up with a bougie A&R rep. So when Lucious comes back for some nookie after revealing his terminal illness, Cookie succumbs – once. But after that, there's no negotiation. She's not the sidepiece, she's the prize, so Cookie demands nothing less than full commitment from Empire's CEO and issues the world's most rhyming ultimatum. Because she's good enough, and she's smart enough, and doggone it, no one likes Anika anyway.

"Do not withhold your blessings — even from hos that hire skanks to spy on me. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen."
Be generous. There is power in giving. It's easy to hold grudges and point to the faults in others, particularly when the others (Anika) employ camera-equipped secret agents to follow your every move.  But then, you show up to a family dinner party armed with a fierce attitude and a hot song, and you're winning this battle. All that's left to do is hold hands and offer a generous blessing. To paraphrase Cookie Lyon's historical spirit animal, Sir Winston Churchill: "In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity, bitch!"

"You gonna Ray Rice me?! I've faced bigger in prison — with more talent, bitch!"
Never back down to a bully. We've all been there – that moment where the metaphorical Kid Fo-Fo in your life tries to intimidate you. For Cookie, it's after she insults Empire's biggest act (the aforementioned Fo-Fo), and he starts throwing around both his clout and his muscle, demeaning her in front of Lucious, Anika and the rest of the company's execs. But Cookie preaches to always stand your ground. Because a bully will keep attacking unless you do something about – and if you step up, others will be inspired by your chutzpah and take your side, and then fire the bully from his lucrative contract at Empire Entertainment. Fact.

"Porsha, get my damn shoe!"
No one ever gets what she wants if they don't ask. It's completely warranted to throw your $1000 designer stiletto boot at your ass of an ex-husband when he kicks you out of the boardroom. But that's why Cookie has an assistant – to get it back.

"We were hustlers, only choice we had, but do you know what the first rule of hustling is? You create your own customer base. Give them some of that good stuff. Make 'em want more."
Cookie drops this knowledge on a group of investors at the Lyon-owned club, Leviticus. But Fox is hoping this one stays true for Season Two as well.