Taraji P. Henson moved into Hollywood’s acting elite this year with her Oscar nomination for best supporting actress as Brad Pitt’s adoptive mom in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Henson, 39, was born in Washington, D.C., and graduated from Howard University with a degree in theater arts. She worked two jobs simultaneously while studying at Howard just to pay the bills, splitting time between positions as a Pentagon secretary and a singing-and-dancing waitress on a dinner cruise ship.

Along the way, she had a son, Marcel, moved to Los Angeles and began acting. Today, she is probably best known for her roles in “Baby Boy” in 2001, her singing debut in “Hustle & Flow” in 2005, Tyler Perry’s “The Family That Preys” in 2008, and of course, “Benjamin Button.” Henson reunited with Perry this year in “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” which brings her back to singing and dancing. Up next is a remake of “The Karate Kid.”

Bankrate: You’ve said all of this is a dream come true, so when did you first begin dreaming?

Taraji P. Henson: I was dreaming since I came out of the womb. I got really serious about acting sometime around junior high. I was first runner up in the Miss Talented Teen pageant in D.C. After that, I auditioned for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in D.C., but I didn’t get accepted. I honestly thought that meant I couldn’t act. So I set my dreams aside for a minute and enrolled in college where I went for electrical engineering. I’m not mathematically wired, though.

Bankrate: Coming from humble beginnings, are you more or less high maintenance than before “Benjamin Button”?

Taraji P. Henson: I’m really very low maintenance and always have been. I get up most mornings, make breakfast for my son, do some meditation, sip my morning tea, check in with my publicist and other people, then go about my day, whatever that might be. I live modestly in the same house in the San Fernando Valley that I have been in for many years.

Bankrate: When did you feel truly confident you could make it as an actress?

Taraji P. Henson: I’m still not sure I can make it (laughs). Actually, I think I’ve done a lot with my career. I’ve had done quite a few films since 1998, but I think it wasn’t until “Hustle & Flow” in 2005 that I started to get noticed. I did singing and acting. I remember singing at the Oscars that year, and the song won best original song. From then on, I gained more confidence that I could make it here. Acting is my thing, but singing is something I can do and I like that experience. You get a high on the stage when everyone is singing your song. I’m passionate about my work and it’s given me rewards in return. My son goes to a top private school, and I’m also able to give my mother nice things. She lives in Florida, and I have her come to stay with me when I’m working or traveling so that my son has someone here at home. The arts changed my life for the better. But I always say the greatest recipe for success is having self confidence.

Bankrate: How do you save your money for a rainy day?

Taraji P. Henson: Living in Los Angeles, I think everyone is aware that we have to cut down on our water use. So I’ve done some water conservation that also cuts down on costs. I wash my dishes by hand — no dishwasher. And even though I kid that my alter ego is Miss Diva, I still like to bargain shop for shoes, clothing, furniture … everything. I still go to the 99 (Cent) Only Stores, Target … I’ll tell people when I got a real bargain if they ask, but otherwise I won’t. And I do a lot of photo shoots with beautiful clothes and accessories. If I really love something, I’ll ask — or my publicist will — if I can keep it and take it home. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. Work and money is steady right now, and I just hope it stays that way. I’ve saved for my son’s education, which is very important to me.

Bankrate: What’s your music pleasure?

Taraji P. Henson: I’m a huge jazz fan because I think everything in life stems from jazz. I have over 6,000 songs on my iPod, but that’s not even my entire collection. I started collecting music in college, so I’ve spent a lot of money on my music collection. I’m also into hip-hop music, some classic soul, R&B and even punk rock. It really depends on my mood to what I listen to, but overall it’s jazz. Jazz can relax me, make me reflective, energize me and put me in a good mood.

Bankrate: Some people say the best thing about being famous is getting good seats in top-rated restaurants. What would you say is the best part of being famous?

Taraji P. Henson: It’s not really about the money, though it’s nice to know I can pay my bills because I can remember when I couldn’t. It’s really all about the power of art and the people I inspire. When I went to the Image Awards, I could feel the room championing for me. When they said the nominees and said Taraji P. Henson, the crowd went crazy. I made up my mind right then and there, I said, “You know what, whether I go home with a trophy or not, right there is a win,” because my work touched those people to the point where they used extra energy to clap and scream for me.

Bankrate: What’s on the top of your life to-do list?

Taraji P. Henson: The first thing is to get my son off to college. I want him to get an excellent college education and if that means I have to sacrifice things for the cost of that, so be it. I’m hoping that I work continually so that I have the means to support that education. I am getting more great film offers and have always worked, so I hope this continues. And someday, I’d like to run my own production company to green-light films, some with me in them and some without. That would mean I have more control over my career.

Bankrate: What’s been your biggest splurge lately, not a garage sale splurge?

Taraji P. Henson: (laughs) Earlier this year, it was Christian Louboutin boots that were not ultra-trendy, so I can wear them 10 years from now.

Bankrate: In these economic times, do you have any personal cost-effective beauty secrets?

Taraji P. Henson: Do I? (laughs). One is sleep. Sleep keeps you young looking and it doesn’t cost a penny. I sleep so deeply that I’m told I snore. Another thing is water. I drink a lot of water or tea everyday. And if I get puffy eyes, I use cold spoons on them. They work like nobody’s business. Just put two teaspoons in the freezer for a few minutes, take them out and put on your eyes. No more puffiness.

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