From teenage movie star in Akeelah and the Bee to talk-show host on Just Keke to master of camp on TV’s Scream Queens, Keke Palmer has tried everything Hollywood has to offer. And she’s just getting started
“I want to create an animation,” Keke Palmer says. We’re sitting in the shade of an outdoor café, sipping iced teas and eating French fries. Los Angeles is sweltering, but Palmer stops fanning herself, leans forward, fixes her gaze. “There’s an open field of grass,” she continues, spreading her lithe fingers atmospherically, “the greenest grass you’ve ever seen. The whole world is colorful, and in the middle is a beautiful flower. Crystallized figures trickle in, human bodies that don’t speak a language. They crowd around this flower, and as each person approaches, they add energy and excitement to it, making the flower more colorful, more shimmering. Then one person comes in, says the word flower, and everything turns to black and white. Defined. One thing.”
We haven’t been together even an hour, and this is maybe the fifth time I’ve had to remind myself that this recording artist and actress with an IMDb page the length of a dissertation is only 22 years old. It isn’t just the laser-sharp way she cuts to the core in our conversation, sidestepping hollow chatter, it’s also the air about her: affectionate, open, but astute, as if she’s scanning for unspoken subtext. No doubt this rare synthesis accounts for her success. At an age when many of us were writing papers about stuff we hated and engaging in poorly chosen hookups, Palmer has a résumé that boasts triumphs in every facet of the entertainment industry, many alongside celeb eminence. At 13 she played opposite heavy hitters Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as a spelling prodigy in the 2006 drama Akeelah and the Bee. Now as Zayday Williams in Ryan Murphy’s satirical horror series Scream Queens (season two premieres September 20), she shares the screen with Jamie Lee Curtis, Lea Michele, and Emma Roberts. The litany of Palmer’s star collaborators is rivaled in impressiveness only by the scope of her work: film, television, Broadway, dance, music, writing, producing, and, yes, even talk-show hosting. So while the profundity of her allegory blows my mind, its meaning is hardly a revelation: Keke Palmer will have her freedom.
And not just professionally, either. “Women have been oppressed for a very long time,” she tells me, herself the embodiment of femininity. I keep trying not to stare at her lashes, which arch like gymnasts and end in a neighboring zip code. “We’ve lost touch with our intuitive nature because back in the day, if you were an intuitive, you were going to burn. When actually female energy is a gift, and it’s so needed in this world.” Palmer’s earnest concern for the overarching human fabric may have origins in an upbringing that gave her little else to bank on. “I definitely grew up poor, but rich in community,” she says. “I could feel the despair of poverty, my parents just trying to make it every day—but ultimately I felt the resilience of my family. We had some of our happiest times then, because our happiness wasn’t based on things; it was based on each other.” It was also based on finding joy—which is how she got her start as an actor in Robbins, Illinois, a small town outside Chicago where she grew up, the second of four children. “I just followed the fun,” she says. “Where I come from, most people allow their dreams to become distant memories. My family was excited because they were riding my dream wave with me. But it was always about fun; we never really thought that hard on it.”
That lighthearted approach—combined with her talent and tenacity—worked. At 11, Palmer snagged a role in Barbershop 2: Back in Business, joining a cast of VIPs including Ice Cube, Eve, and Queen Latifah, who would play a major role in shot-putting Palmer’s career. “I met her in Chicago when I was nine,” Palmer says of the iconic entertainer, “on an audition for a bit role. I was very green, but I think when she saw me again later down the road, it impressed her that I’d stuck with it. She used to tell me, ‘I’ve got a library of books if you ever want to come read.’ You know when they talk about Big Sister, Little Sister programs? She was mine; she mentored me.” In the two years that followed Barbershop 2, Palmer made nearly 10 television appearances (on shows including Cold Case, ER, and Law & Order) starred in Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion and Akeelah and the Bee—a massive hit with critics, which earned her six awards, one from the NAACP for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture—and released her first studio album, So Uncool, on Atlantic Records. In 2008 she was given her own Nickelodeon sitcom, True Jackson, VP, which ran through 2011; and in 2014, at 21, she became the youngest talk-show host in history with BET’s Just Keke. That same year marked two other milestones for Palmer: She starred on Broadway as Cinderella—the first time an African-American has ever played the role on Broadway—and earned a recurring part in the hugely lauded Showtime series Masters of Sex, as Coral, the sheepish yet cunning nanny to the Masters family. Last year, she was cast as a lead in Scream Queens, which mimics Heathers in its wit-driven, twisted depiction of teen rapacity, and reaches levels of the macabre only a parody could achieve, à la Scream.
“If an actor had a dream come true about an opportunity, it would have been this,” she says of the Fox series. “The script is brilliant, and it’s just so damn funny.” (Palmer gets to deliver lines like, “Bitch, I'm about to slap you so hard your tampon's gonna pop out!”) But the series doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. Despite the show’s absurdly murderous use of chainsaws and lawn mowers, its biting dialog manages a deft treatment of race—which often falls to Palmer’s character, Zayday Williams. “The way it’s written really is genius, because it’s real. They don’t tiptoe around—Emma Roberts’ character really would call my character a hood rat, and my character really would say, ‘Bitch, don’t act crazy ’cause I’mma come up your ass,’” she says. “But hopefully the way that Emma and I play it doesn’t feel like a caricature. It’s a heightened version of the comedy that we live day to day, like when a white girl says, ‘Is that really your hair?’ I love that about the show. I’m not one of those people who wants to ignore shit, but I’m also not the kind of person who doesn’t want to have fun with it.” Palmer’s ability to broach the dark and light within a topic as divisive as racism is part of what makes her so compelling. There’s a wholeness to her, a concurrent depth and buoyancy that she reflects back onto her work: “When you tackle roles that take on racial and cultural issues, you have to be sure you’re representing the totality of the community you're speaking to. Black people aren't pent up; we're not angry about every little comment—there’s an element of fun for us in these issues, too.”
That type of duality is apparent when I ask what she considers to be her chief struggle. “Vulnerability,” she answers. “I’m good at talking about it as a concept, analyzing why and how I’m not [vulnerable]. I really work on it, but it’s a habit to be so together. I’ll let people know what’s going on in my life, but not in a way that allows them to feel the moment with me.” Of course, a serious amount of vulnerability is required to even make that statement. But accepting herself—contradictions and all—is part of Palmer’s freedom-loving nature. Something, she points out, that Hollywood rarely allows, considering the standards of beauty women are held to. “Look at Kylie Jenner,” she says, raising her eyebrows. “People praise her so much for the work she’s had, saying she looks so much better now. But she had her lips done at 15—so what you’re telling me is that she was unattractive before? When she was a child? Are they even thinking about the effect that’s having?” She shakes her head in disgust. “What’s missing right now is that we don’t understand ‘natural’; we don’t respect it. A woman without makeup is considered hideous, and that’s just wrong. I hate that we praise people for being anything but themselves.”
Palmer may be a champion of authenticity, but she’s worked to get there herself—and not without the pain that inevitably accompanies introspection. “Something changed for me around the time that I did Cinderella. I'd been through a lot with my family, moving out of the house and living on my own, breaking up with my boyfriend,” she says. “I became anxious and depressed for a while and kept looking to other people to make me happy—it was wearing me out. Almost like a crash in my computer system, a virus, and I was ready to figure out where it had come from.” What she found was that it had little do with the world around her—the family, the new apartment, the ex-boyfriend; it all came back to square one. “I needed to be my own person, to make my relationship with myself most important. And the only way to do that was to love myself enough to know how I wanted to be treated.”
That personal breakthrough wasn’t the only silver lining of her struggle. “It’s kind of what birthed my talk show,” she admits. “I was looking for a way out of that darkness, and I started reaching out to my followers on social media, to let them know they weren’t alone. When they responded, I realized I wasn’t alone either.” The symbiotic exchange planted a seed that took root. “Even since Ricki Lake, there have always been people talking down to younger generations,” she says. “I wanted to see somebody my age that wasn’t telling me what to do but figuring it out with me.” Rather than wait for that somebody to come around, Palmer filled the gap herself, eschewing the sensationalizing and ostracizing culture of talk shows for a laid-back vibe that makes viewers feel as if they’re hanging out with friends—friends who are guests like R&B singer Brandy and The Nice Guys actress Karrueche Tran. In that way, Just Keke feels a lot like a polished version of Snapchat, but with a mission of fostering more authenticity than social media can deliver. “Meeting, talking, seeing each other, reading each other’s energy—that’s something we lose in social media,” she says. “I wanted to give us a platform to voice what was really going on, to connect, to create community.”
As a breeze finally floats through the covered patio where we’ve lost track of time, it dawns on me that Palmer hasn’t once discussed her work without bringing up community. Not that she’s self-effacing, but there’s a definite sense of duty—as if she’s answering the prophecy her mother laid out for her years ago. “My mom always saw service in me. She raised me to know that nothing makes me more special than the next person, and that I could use my platform to be the voice for other little girls like me.” Even Just Keke seems like a misnomer; when she talks about the show’s future (plans are in motion to move it from BET to network TV), the vision isn’t about herself at all. “I’m going to find more ways to bring attention to the youth, to give them opportunities to be seen.” And when I ask again about her friendship with Queen Latifah, she mentions China Anne McClain and Black-ish star Yara Shahidi as young actors she’d like to take on as mentees: “If I can help them in any way, I’ll do it.” For Palmer, living openhandedly is a natural extension of independence, the self-expression she covets. “God gives you free will—you make your choices every day,” she says. “Do you choose positivity or negativity? Knowing that there’s a benevolent energy in our world, I want to be a part of that team. It’s a need, a need to create a good vibration for people to ride on.” Underscoring that, it seems, is the need to create opportunities for others, the same way that her family did for her when they moved to L.A., or the way Queen Latifah did when she took Palmer under her wing.
But ultimately, the greatest opportunity for freedom was one she gave herself. “I was trapped in a dark place for a long time and didn’t know how to get out. I worked through it, though, and made a huge leap in self-awareness. Life is always going to throw you curveballs,” she says, her smile radiating from across the table, “but I definitely feel like me and me is tight again.”