Keke Palmer is basically Pop Rocks in human form. Like the famous fizzy candy, she zings and crackles all over our photo studio, a living sugar high in heels. But the 22-year-old isn’t content to be a snack-size presence on the Young Hollywood scene.
Like Hailee Steinfeld, she’s been nominated for prestigious acting awards and performed onstage to screaming teen fans. Like Selena Gomez, she’s transitioning from a Disney kid to a Los Angeles adult with lots of sex appeal but little scandal. And like Kylie Jenner— wait, no, Keke Palmer is nothing like Kylie Jenner, which is perhaps a large part of her appeal. (Her real name, Lauren, doesn’t even start with K.)
We spoke with the Illinois native about Scream Queens, music videos, and the Zac Efron School of Romance…
Yahoo Style: In addition to being an actress, you’re also an accomplished singer. Your most recent song, “I Don’t Belong to You,” is getting tons of attention. Blogs seem to think it’s about a boy, while the music press thinks it’s a message to your fans, like “Overprotected” by Britney Spears. So which is it?
Keke Palmer: It’s both. That’s the transition I’ve been going through, from when I was 18 until now. And it’s normal, to feel like you don’t belong to your parents anymore, you don’t belong to the people who used to know you, necessarily, even though you still love them. That’s what I loved about the song as time went on, because I feel like every person in my generation can relate to that.
The strength of millennials today is that we’re actually able to showcase our rebellion against rules and the ideas that we had to conform to before. So I feel like other people my age are really going to identify with this song and others on my new album, because it’s like, “I don’t belong to a guy,” but also, “I don’t belong to society’s ideas of who I am.”
What social norms are getting you down?
That in order to be happy, you have to have a boyfriend, you have to have an ideal relationship, you have to show it off on Facebook or whatever. I can be a happy, strong female without attaching a baby, a husband, and cooking skills to my list of accomplishments. And coming into my own isn’t just from a celebrity standpoint, it’s what any young woman from 18 to 22 feels; it’s what any young person coming out of college feels. You know, when you’re home for the summer and all of a sudden your parents give you a curfew? It’s like, “I’ve been grown for the past couple years!”
Your mom, Sharon, is here with you, so I have to ask her — does Keke still have a curfew at home?
Sharon Palmer: No, I think that once you start paying your own bills, you have the right to come and go as you please.
Keke Palmer: That’s halfway true, Mom. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a curfew when I was 12!
Sharon Palmer: Very funny. And for the record, she did have a curfew.
Keke Palmer: I sure did … I moved out immediately when I turned 18! But I still love my mom just as much. I love you, Mom!
You talk about not caving to the pressure of being feminine. But you’re also very fashionable, and you look very glamorous on the red carpet. How do you reconcile “being pretty” with being yourself?
That’s interesting. I see what you’re saying. And I think it comes down, again, to being yourself and doing what you want to do. I’m not going to shun fashion just because it’s thought of as traditionally “girly.” I love that aspect of my life. But remember, a few years ago I dyed my hair and I had all these piercings on my face. That’s just what I was vibing at the time, so I did it.
How many piercings did you have?
I had four piercings on my face, and then a bunch everywhere else. And that’s fine, because I think other young women should understand they can have their own voice and have their own style. And being OK with changing how you look is important. It’s part of how we understand who we are — and by watching how other people are changing on social media.
Social media was really interested in you this week, because you gave Demi Lovato’s album a big endorsement.
Yeah, sometimes people seem surprised when young women shout each other out in a positive way, and that’s annoying. I’ve known Demi for a while, through Disney. All those girls [Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Vanessa Hudgens] I know for that reason. And we all have a lingering feeling of “Awww!” for each other, because we all grew up together. It’s exactly like when you go to school with someone. Same thing with Nick [Jonas]. We don’t hang out, but we’ll always have that connection with each other, like we’re family. Demi as well. Why wouldn’t I shout her out?
People on social media also love to talk about Scream Queens. But you’re a pretty positive person in real life. Did you have any reservations about doing a show that’s basically like Mean Girls with blood?
Oh no, because I’ve always thought it’s very clear that the show doesn’t make anyone look like someone perfect, you know? They’re making fun of us! That’s why it’s funny! I love that. Everybody’s an over-exaggerated version of some girl you knew in school. The rich girl who drinks Starbucks. The girl who’s so supercool you have no idea what she’s talking about, but you just kind of nod because you don’t want to seem uncool. The Nancy Drew. Ryan Murphy and his team are great at those archetypes, because then they knock them over. You feel like you know one of their characters and then all of a sudden, you realize they’re so much more.
Who’s your best friend on set?
Billie Lourd. She plays Chanel Number 3. I love her. We did a version of TLC’s No Scrubs and we could not stop laughing. She’s awesome.
Did you get any time with Ariana Grande?
Not really! We were on set a few times together because on long days, people in different scenes all wait with each other. She’s chill. She’s always been the same — I’ve known her for a while, but even now that her music has totally kicked off, she’s the same girl she was before her album. That’s good.
What’s something audiences don’t know about Scream Queens?
Fake blood is so damn gooey. The coloring won’t come off your hands.
And what about the upcoming Grease: Live that is airing on Fox?
We’re going to have four to six weeks of rehearsals, and I sing the song “Freddy, My Love.” I cannot wait to wear my Pink Lady jacket. Part of me hopes we get the old ones from the movie, and part of me thinks we’re going to get something that’s custom-made. Either way, it’s so exciting.
The cast looks amazing. Nick Jonas, Jessie J…
I’m really psyched to work with Vanessa Hudgens, because we worked on a pilot together when I was 10 years old. The funny thing is, I’ve seen Zac [Efron] a lot more than I’ve seen her.
Wow, that’s a flashback.
Yeah, that whole thing was nuts. When you’re a little kid, you form these ideas about love, obviously, based on what you see on TV. And now I look back and I’m like, “Oh my God, at the time, the love story [on High School Musical] was a life and death drama in my eyes, and now it’s just funny!
I can’t imagine it was easy being famous and dating someone famous. Would you ever try it?
If there was love between me and another person, maybe, but I definitely don’t look for that. I like to find a balance. My life revolves around my work, but me chilling and vibing is different than me working. And since I’m always working, if I was dating someone else in this position, I don’t know how we would see each other. We’d be like Mr. and Mrs. Smith! Beyoncé and Jay Z are a cool couple to aspire to, but then Beyoncé starts doing her documentary and she’s like, “I miss my husband!” and it’s like, “Damn, I get it, girl.” But if there’s love, yeah, you can’t deny that, even if it means you have to work it out.
Speaking of relationships, your new music video is hypersexy. Did you get nervous about what your parents would think?
Of course. Yes. More so with my dad. My mom only gets a little prudish. She’ll ask, “Do you think you might need a bra with that?” I’m like, “Mom, can you not be so mom-ish?” But she loves “I Don’t Belong to You,” even though it’s legitimately sexy! My mom is like, “I love when you do that look to the camera!” I’m like, “Mom, I’m a little scared you’re picking up on these details.” But I guess it means she’s accepted that I can be sexy.
Mom, do you want to weigh in on that?
Sharon Palmer: It means I admire her artistry, and I admire that she’s stayed true to her vision of what the album should be. In this industry, there are so many people who try to sway your vision for their own purposes, and she hasn’t been moved by that. That makes me very proud and impressed.
Keke Palmer: Aww!
Do you feel like this is the first time you’ve stayed true to your own artistic vision?
I’ve always been outspoken. But when I was a kid doing my music, I allowed so much of the industry to stifle me. Now I’m like, “F*** all this.” I’ve had too many people not listen to me, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve realized that if I want to do something, I’ve got to do it my damn self. And you know something? That kind of thinking really works. Diddy used to say that a lot, when he does his motivational speeches. He says, “If you don’t get up and get what you want yourself, you can forget it.”
I’m sorry, Diddy does motivational speeches? Like for an audience?
He does them at random times. They’re incredibly inspiring. They make a lot of sense.