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story / Alyssa Hardy
photos /   Katy Pritchett
styling  / Koko Ntuen
makeup /   Erin Moffet @ Celestine Agency
hair /  Hailey Adickes @ Celestine Agency

Before talking to her, I only knew of Keke Palmer through her characters. On Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens she plays Zayday Williams, the outspoken, studious and only black Kappa Kappa Tau sister. Her archetype serves as a satirical commentary on the divisiveness of sorority culture, but with Keke’s touch, she’s become so much more. Like Zayday, Keke is surprisingly self-aware for being only 23 years old. She discusses her humble beginnings, not as a way to share a false sense of realness, but to let her fans know that hard work does pay off. She doesn’t want them to think of her as a celebrity. She wants to know them and talk with them. As she, herself puts it, “I want it to be a, ‘Yo, we’re friends’ kind of thing.”

If you follow Keke on Twitter, you can see how she stays true to this mission statement. She’s constantly having conversations with her followers about everything from Black Lives Matter to her new blue hair. She’s exceptionally cool, talking to them the same way you would anyone you know personally. When she posted her latest music video, she genuinely asked her fans for feedback—a brave move given how quickly the platform can go negative.

As Keke moves into a new stage of her career with an album and another season of her hit television show, it’s fascinating to watch her gracefully navigate her way through fame, recognition and power. She’s setting a new bar for the 20-something starlet: Be yourself and don’t apologize.

What was your upbringing in Chicago like?I grew up in a really small town. I had no grocery store, nothing like that. I think now it has a gas station, but I always got to do creative things because there was nothing else to do. On Sundays we went to church and we got to bring joy through singing. We were able to forget about our problems. When we had a barbecue, with food and singing and dancing, we made the best out of everything. It’s a great sense of community that I feel like sometimes only those types of neighborhoods have. I remember when I went to my first third world country I could see that there’s happiness here. There’s people struggling in poverty but honestly people are happy, you know, because they know they need to stick together. My family had its ups and downs but community, that’s what it’s about.

You got your first big break in Barber Shop when you were very young. How did your friends react to that?
Well, it was weird. It seemed like oh, they were fine with it, but it was something that my family and I were very quiet about. We weren’t always saying, “I did a movie” because I didn’t really start understanding the movie business aspect of things until like years later. I never really thought of it like that. I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m in the movies.” I was like, “I act.” So for me it was like a hobby, almost like Taekwondo class. It was a very personal thing for me and my mom… It took a while for me to realize that it had a perception attached to it. It took a while for me to learn what that perception was and I think it was around the time that I was like 12 or 13 or so in the industry that I first understood what it was for somebody to be really jealous. I like competition and competing, but my competition wasn’t based off of me getting this over the other person. It’s based on: this person motivates me, like this person is trying. And even though we’re not working together we drive each other to want to be great. And I never really thought of it as this idea of oh, I’m better than this person. So when I would go into auditions and there was friction between me and other people, it meant more than people just having fun. It meant more than people just doing art. You know, sometimes you can be called up the next day, and that’s a thing in acting.

ladygunn-keke-palmer-9All clothing, The Order. Boots, Keke’s own.

Scream Queens is a major success. What has this past year been like for you personally?

After Scream Queens, I felt the change and shift. You know, I really would love to give it a break with this hyper celebrity, hyper-fame thing. There was a time where people could talk to their favorite baseball player like he was a regular person on the street. And I would really love to explore the concept of where it’s like, why do we put people on these pedestals? You know, when that’s not what this is about.I love my fans. I really talk to them on social media. I reach out and I like to keep the conversation because I don’t want it to be a fan thing, I want it to be a regular thing. I want it to be a, “Yo, we’re friends” kind of thing. So when I see them and a lot of times the moment is kind of captivated by them wanting to get a picture, I feel like we really miss out on the moment because there’s stuff we really want to talk about. There’s so many other things to do with time. There’s so many other things I would like to know about the people that like my music, but you won’t even let me know your name. You miss out on a lot.

That’s so cool of you. That’s different.
I love the aspect of being a celebrity in the sense that people know me immediately and there’s a feeling of automatically being approached, but the feeling of people knowing me is overshadowed by fame. And then it becomes a hierarchy. And that’s what I hate.

Your role on Scream Queens is obviously satirical. It’s interesting timing because of the conversation around the lack of inclusiveness on campuses. How do you think the shows fits into that?
I feel like everything that Ryan Murphy does is very bold. We tackle really strange issues but he does it in a way that feels lighthearted. I think that’s why I’m so proud of his work because I like the same thing. I like to tackle really deep issues but I like to do it in a way that’s fun and relatable. Like we’re able to talk about it and converse on it and not feel uncomfortable because we can laugh and say this is an open environment. I don’t have to be all uptight about it. With Glee and then with Scream Queens we can talk about all the ridiculous shit that’s going on whether it’s sexism, racism, girl-on-girl mean girl culture; we can tackle all that and still make you feel like the conversation can be fun and important without tip-toeing around the subject.

In what ways do you relate to your character if any at all?
I relate to her in a lot of ways! Many times, I think that a character has certain parts of you and you can play up parts that you have in common. [With Zayday], I think they definitely play up on that she’s an overachiever and I can definitely relate to that 100%. I’m very driven and I’ve always had my hands in so many different things and I’m always trying to hold myself to a certain amount of standards. So I think that’s something I definitely relate to.

A place where I see a commonality is with your style. You both are edgy and daring.
I definitely love my wardrobe stylist, Lauren, on Scream Queens. She’s brilliant. She always laughs because she says I talk about Zayday like she’s not me but she so is when it comes to style! I’m at a point when I’m learning myself and learning to be more expressive. Style ties into that.

Another thing you have in common with your character is strong. That’s really hard to find so young. Where do you find yours?
I find my power in accepting my life as it is, not shaming myself for any moment or anything that I have done. Truly trying my damnedest to accept me and not wait for anyone else to accept me. Take the time to listen to yourself. Write it down. Understand yourself from a non-judgemental place and then look at it objectively.

ladygunn-keke-palmer-7White moto jacket, Booker. Dress, American Apparel. Shoes, Adidas.

ladygunn-keke-palmer-3dress, C/MEO COLLECTIVE.

Keke Palmers EP LAUREN is out 11/04 on Island Records.


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