As revered for her activism as she is for her acting, the star of hit TV shows Black-ish and Grown-ish – Yara Shahidi is on a mission to make the world a better place – both on screen and off.
Every once in a while you meet someone extraordinary – someone who makes you sit up a little taller just to get on their level. Sometimes, it’s their ability to mesmerize even the most skeptical with their Hollywood smile. Other times, it’s the passionate way they talk at length about matters close to their heart, while finding what makes others tick. For American actor, social activist and Bobbi Brown ambassador Yara Shahidi, it’s the unique combination of both that has many saying she’s the voice of a generation, and Oprah Winfrey calling her the future President of the United States of America, all before she’s even turned 20.
When I encounter Yara, she’s extremely upbeat, especially for someone who seemingly has the weight of the world on her shoulders, and who has literally just flown halfway around it. In the brightly lit green room of Auckland’s Aotea Centre, where she has just delivered a rousing opening statement for Disney’s Power of Inclusion summit, she shows no sign of jet lag as we continue the conversation backstage.
“From a historical standpoint, some of the most revered people in societies have been storytellers,” she explains, edging closer to my recording iPhone. “That’s because it’s always been a method of telling our history, of reaffirming culture. And so storytelling, I think, in this modern sense of talking about television and movies, is a really crucial way in which we continue to support people of other cultures, in which we continue to tell stories that are reflections of our actual worlds.”
In 73 swift words, Yara, who has talked at summits alongside Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and now Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has encapsulated the importance of inclusive media in our modern age as well as her sense of purpose in the industry. Tying activism to art is what dictates all her career decisions, and is why she and her family founded production company Seventh Sun.
Yara’s African-American mother Keri, an actor who is her best friend, and Iranian-American father Afshin, a director who was Prince’s personal photographer, are intentionally progressive in their parenting. Robust family dinner conversations with her brothers taught Yara how to articulate with grace from a young age, while wider research on all manner of subjects helped her see the bigger picture. Little Yara was familiar with the Egyptian, Persian and Korean fairy tales of Cinderella, and when she’d completed her class history reading lists, her parents showed her books on subjects as far back as Mesopotamian civilisation.
While she’s quick to call herself a nerd, Yara is far too charismatic to hide behind books. She has been in front of the camera since her first modelling gig at six weeks old. At age seven, she was on the phone to her agents discussing the script of Eddie Murphy’s Imagine That, before winning the role of his daughter.
Yara has successfully made the switch from child star to serious actor as Zoey Johnson in the groundbreaking sitcom Black-ish. A commercial and critical hit, the show tackles topical issues from police brutality to post-natal depression, all within the framework of a quick-witted family comedy. The wunderkind has just wrapped filming the third season of her character’s spin-off show Grown-ish, which sees the popular but not perfect Zoey head off to college.
The show gives the actor more space to tell the story of a young black woman, while paralleling her own coming-of-age tale – Yara is studying a double-major degree in social studies and African-American studies at Harvard. While she can live vicariously through Zoey, the actor likely takes her education more seriously. Her recommendation letter was written by Michelle Obama.
Having such adoring – and at times high-profile – supporters may seem like a lot of pressure, but Yara sees herself as part of a chorus of young voices calling for change. Born at the start of the new millennium, she is one of many bright sparks of Gen Z – passionate, informed and politically aware. At her 18th birthday, guests joined the party via voting-registration booths as she launched non-partisan platform Eighteen x 18 to encourage young people to engage in the US midterm elections.
Yara, who has a Shero Barbie made in her image, does not shy away from being a role model, let alone a social activist. As she prepares to turn 20, she is evolving her birthday initiative into We Vote Next, with a series of events in the lead-up to the 2020 election – her first of-age presidential race.
“I think fashion has always been a political tool. And I think we’ve seen… how fashion has been crucial in telling a narrative story…”
While also dabbling in directing, including short film X for International Women’s Day, Yara played the lead in teen drama-romance The Sun Is Also a Star, which follows a young woman as she tries to save her family from deportation to Jamaica.
Politics are entwined with many of Yara’s choices, down to what she wears. “I think fashion has always been a political tool. And I think we’ve seen… how fashion has been crucial in telling a narrative story,” she says, as I note today’s outfit – a white cotton Cos jumpsuit that looks equal parts comfortable and confident. “Oftentimes I think I try and use fashion to be as unabashedly myself as possible.”
Just visible under her crisp T-shirt sleeve is Yara’s tattoo, a finely etched ‘63’, permanently marking a pivotal year in the civil rights movement. Self-expression is essential to this socially engaged human, who, as the face of Bobbi Brown, urges us all to ‘undefine’ our beauty standards.
“I think just any kind of company that endows their trust in a young human to them saying, ‘We want to reflect you,’ is such a privilege and an honour,” she says of her partnership with the global cosmetics brand.
Yara enjoys creating artistic makeup looks, and says she feels her most beautiful when showing her true self. She celebrates her Black-ish TV mother Tracee Ellis Ross’ newly launched curly haircare brand Patternfor importantly making beauty more accessible for all.
“That is a part of this conversation on inclusion and that’s a part of… normalising and celebrating people of all backgrounds and identities. It’s really important because I also know just how integral my hair is to my sense of self.”
This strong sense of self, and ability to answer pressing questions better than a politician, has many asking Yara of her White House aspirations as well as her Hollywood dreams – especially after Oprah endorsed her in an online video. At her second on-stage discussion during the Power of Inclusion summit, Yara informed a crowd on the edge of their seats that she wishes to be “policy-adjacent” – not on Capitol Hill, but next to it.
Before she went back on stage, I asked the young star what she thinks makes her special. Her reply? “I’ve been fortunate to be in an environment in which I think I revel in my differences.”
What’s inside Yara Shahidi’s Bobbi Brown beauty bag?
“I think that concealer palette I’ve grown up watching like with a sigh of relief whenever somebody pulls out the concealer palette, cause I know I’m going to walk out looking like myself.”
Under eye intensive cream
“I put it everywhere. And with the change in weather, is what prepares me for the day.”
Crushed liquid lip
“You can build a colour really easily. It’s also just fun because like you can literally put it on your eyes, cheek, lips. They’re all really nice, neutral colours that can be really bold if you want to. I’m a big lip gloss person. I always love a shine.”
Eye cream shadow
“It literally is just like candy to me because you can draw wherever with it. A lot of fun!”
Photos: Getty Images