live wire

NYLON, february 2016

It’s hard to meet Keke Palmer without imagining her shrieking in horror—a now-familiar image of the actress, who played Zayday Williams in last year’s hit dark-comedy seriesScream Queens. However, as the 22-year-old poses while draped across a row of chairs in New York City’s Beauty Bar, there are no fearful exclamations; instead, she has a smart suggestion for the photographer. “You know what would look really good?” says Palmer, a hint of Midwestern twang creeping through the Illinois native’s accent. “If we put my hair in pin curls.” Sure enough, when she returns minutes later with hair clips intertwined in her pixie cut, “really good” is a major understatement.  

Palmer’s eye for detail has undoubtedly benefited her career, which was jump-started in 2004 by a supporting role in Barbershop 2. At age 11, she demonstrated her budding directorial talents as the lead in Akeelah and the Bee. “It’s actually a funny story,” she says, post-photo shoot. “We were on set and my director, Doug Atchison, was trying to tell me to do something, but I felt like he wanted me to overact. I was like, ‘Doug, I’m trying to win an Oscar here.’” She punctuates the memory with the infectious laugh that proves to be her trademark throughout our conversation. 

That same confidence has been necessary in pulling off her first live broadcast—Grease: Live, Fox’s January 31 presentation of the Broadway classic that has Palmer starring alongside Julianne Hough, Carly Rae Jepsen, and her childhood friend Vanessa Hudgens. The performance, which highlights both her singing and acting, also gives her a second opportunity to make history, as the first black actress to play Pink Lady Marty, about a year and a half after earning the same distinction as Cinderella in the Rodgers and Hammerstein production on Broadway. “It’s similar to Scream Queens because we’ve never seen a character like Zayday in a world like Kappa Kappa Tau,” says Palmer. “Yes, she’s a part of American black culture, but she’s not a joke. That’s what I want to bring toGrease.”  

Executive producer Marc Platt’s decision to approach Palmer for the role reflects industry-wide efforts toward diversity, despite minor hitches such as the failed (and, likely, fake) boycott of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in response to John Boyega being cast as a Stormtrooper, which dumbfounded Palmer. “You still see remnants of that old [way of thinking],” she says, shaking her head in disappointment, “but Hollywood is making a conscious effort to try to change, and I think it’s because we have [more diverse] people in the room.” She cites the popular works of Lee Daniels and Shonda Rhimes as examples of the fact. “I like to look at the positive sides of things, so I feel like it’s getting better than it has been before.” 

Palmer’s optimism isn’t surprising, considering the inspirational posts found on her Instagram: insightful reminders such as, “As a woman sometimes in a world that tries to limit one’s strength, never forget how priceless you are.” Add to that her proudest achievement: Just Keke, her uplifting talk show that aired on BET in 2014. But it wasn’t always easy for her to maintain a bright outlook while transitioning out of child-star status. After booking gigs nearly back to back—following Akeelah and the Bee came major roles in The Longshots, Disney’s Jump In!, and the Nickelodeon sitcom True Jackson, VP, as well as her debut album, So Uncool, in 2007—Palmer suddenly found herself losing jobs and in debt, and the stress caused tension within her tight-knit family. “Not having the faith to know that it was going to be OK, I might’ve crumbled. I might’ve stopped acting altogether,” she says, crediting her upbringing by Catholic parents for her change in perspective. “It was my faith that let me keep going when it got difficult for me to be able to see a brighter day.”

While she’s now mentally and emotionally prepared for it, it’s unlikely that Palmer will find herself facing such adversity again. The next two years alone will see her reviving Just Keke on network TV, and releasing her sophomore R&B album and a self-help book. No doubt she’ll also be channeling that director’s eye of hers into works like the video for “I Don’t Belong to You”—her sultry assertion of independence that proves her spirituality doesn’t hinder her sexuality. (“God’s making sure I am being good to people, not if I want to be sexy here or there,” she affirms with a smile.) 

“Really, it’s preparation,” she responds, when asked how she balances it all. “Once you put a schedule and a plan to it, anything can be done.”