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Having grown up in the spotlight, Keke went from belting out hymns in her church choir in Robbins, Ill., to landing her debut acting role at the tender age of 9 alongside Queen Latifah and Ice Cube in 2004’s Barbershop 2. She secured her title as a multihyphenate artist by amassing a list of credits, including releasing her first studio album, Uncool; starring in Nickelodeon’s True Jackson, VP and as the first African-American Cinderella on Broadway; and hosting her own daytime television talk show.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the 23-year-old hasn’t slowed down just yet. She’s added author to her résumé (Keke penned a motivational book called I Don’t Belong to You: Quiet the Noise and Find Your Voice), teamed up with rapper Quavo of Migos for her new single, “Wind Up,” and is now promoting her upcoming role on Season 2 of Berlin Station and mockumentary scripted series, That’s the Gag, on her Youtube Channel.
The secret to Keke’s career longevity? “I haven’t been lying to myself or pretending to be happy when I wasn’t happy or sad when I wasn’t sad,” she tells Yahoo Beauty.
Deciphering what’s real versus what’s fake, especially in the era of celebrity influencers, can be a bit tricky. While many stars are pressured to take on labels attached to them by society, the days of conforming to people’s expectations of who she has to be are now behind Keke.
Read on to find out why Keke is fully embracing her “extraness” and natural hair texture, as well as her thoughts on how celebs like Kylie Jenner inadvertently show young kids that “you can be profitable for not being who you truly are.”
Yahoo Beauty: How have you evolved as an artist, from your time as a rising singer to performing on Broadway and now as a 20-something entertainer?
Keke Palmer: When I listen back to my first record, So Uncool, I was so insecure about a lot of the records I wrote and very insecure about just who I was as an artist. I was always trying to put myself in a box, and my label wouldn’t let me be everything I was.
As I grew and am still becoming more confident in who I am, I’m also learning that my acting and my extraness doesn’t have to be isolated from that story as well. I am a storyteller. Why can’t I be the dramatic person that I am? That has really made a difference in my music and is the way it should have always been. I just didn’t know how to express it.
What’s one word you’d use to describe your style today?
My style right now is very eclectic. I’m just really riding my wave, especially when it comes to my hair. I really cut it off because I wanted it to grow back in a better form. My hair has been through so much, especially when I first cut it, and I relaxed my hair. I never relaxed my hair before, so it went through a really weird change.
But then I saw myself bald and said, “Damn! We ain’t never done this before!” When I was younger, I had this weave and felt like I had to have this certain look. When I did Broadway, I thought maybe I could do a pixie cut just as long as it lays flat. Now I can be that girl that does a short haircut and rock it fully shaved and not have a problem about it. I can cut it and color it. I can let it be free, and I can be poppin’ with that.
Can you talk about instances throughout your career where you felt pressured to possess a certain look?
People still try to push me there, even when I cut my hair. They said, “So why you cut your long and pretty hair?” First of all, that wasn’t all mine. And number two: because I wanted to.
This is why Brandy will forever be an icon and a legend — because she rocked braids consistently, and that was something we could cling to and look to and say, “Wow!” She sat up there as the first black singer on CoverGirl and said, “This is me, Brandy Norwood.”
For years, I was getting pigeonholed into this specific look, this Keke Palmer look. This black girl with this type of hair look. But when it gets to the point when you feel like you can’t be you without hair on the top of your head that’s not yours, that’s oppression. You’re being oppressed and made to feel like you alone are not enough.
That’s why I’m able to be happy with myself when people say, “Oh, she going crazy. She cut her hair.” No, you’re going crazy because you think I’m crazy for wanting to rock my own hair. You’re denying you. You’re not denying me.
I can still put a wig on, still rock a weave, but at the end of the day still know that this is my hair. It’s curly, it’s kinky, it’s thick, it’s thin sometimes, and I love that.
I rock my texture naturally for the world to see, and for me that is a proud moment as a 23-year-old black woman in America.
Do you think social media makes it hard to remain authentic, and how do you stay true to yourself?
I think it’s absolutely so hard because everybody wants to make everybody so crazy, stupid, ugly, or dumb. People just become so judgmental, and it’s easy for you to be scorned by that or take those things personal when the reality is people are projecting. That’s also hard to believe, especially if you’re a kind person or want to understand where people are coming from.
So often people feel like, you know what, I’m just going to beat them to the punch and either degrade myself or be so damn perfect they have nothing to say. We’ve seen extremes of that.
In the sense of the Kardashians, it’s like I’m going to show you so much perfect and be everything a woman should be or everything a man would like or love. And I’m going to be exactly that so you can’t bully me anymore.
Specifically in the situation with Kylie, where you’ve had a young girl people have seen on television since she was a kid and they literally told her she was so ugly … the ugly person in the family. She went and did apparently everything the world deems as beautiful. The even crazier part is that everybody loves her for it.
What I find interesting is that this is something that is being displayed to my generation — showing young girls, young guys that if you do everything that society wants you to be, not only will you be praised for it but you will make money for it. You can be profitable for not being who you truly are.
That’s the thing we really have to be careful of and why I’m so honest about everything I’m going through — whether that’s sadness, happiness, depression, anger, boredom, whatever it may be. We all go through it. And I feel really grateful to be in the industry for as long as I’ve been and to have people who have been with me this long in my career and stand on a platform and say, “It’s all a gag!”
What are some words of advice you would give to your younger self?
I would just say always be real with yourself, because at the end of the day that’s all we got. There’s nothing more important in life than being true to ourselves and being 100 percent loving to ourselves. Putting our feelings [first] and how we wanna feel and do that above what anybody thinks no matter how impossible, selfish, weird, scary. or embarrassing that may seem.
When I realized that, I realized that’s what it means to be confident. Confidence is me making choices that empower me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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