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18, Activist, Harvard-Bound: How Yara Shahidi Became the Face and Brain of Young Hollywood

The star found fame on 'Black-ish' and its spinoff, and she's finding her voice as the unofficial spokesperson for the Gen Z and woke: "If Yara wants to be president one day, she will be." But first, Shahidi is gearing up for a major transition as she reveals what her college essays were about and her plan to launch a podcast with the Pod Save America team.

Walk a New York City block with Yara Shahidi, and you too will find yourself questioning how she expects to blend in when her freshman year at Harvard begins in a matter of weeks.

As we cross 4th Avenue, where the breakout of ABC’s Black-ish ?and star of its spinoff, Grown-ish, has been staying while she films the feature adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s best-seller The Sun Is Also a Star, she’s stopped by starry-?eyed fans six separate times. She doles out selfies, bear hugs and effusive “thank-yous” — and, in ?one instance, engages in a conversation that ends with the 18-year-old invited to a happy hour drink. (Per her mother, who politely declines the invitation on Yara’s behalf, the only cocktail her daughter enjoys is a virgin mojito.) She’s then whisked into the safety of a dimly lit restaurant, where she orders a grain bowl — among the few things Shahidi consumes that isn’t documented for her 2.6 million Instagram followers on this mid-July day — and continues our conversation as if we’d never been interrupted.

The transition to college, she says, will be easier than everyone seems to think.

Maybe Shahidi is another naive teenager; or maybe she knows a little something about managing what other people see as contradictions. The subject of one of her ?college application essays, she tells me, was “this idea that people perpetuate that you have to choose between education and entertainment.” A second essay, fashioned as a letter to her future roommate, included warnings about the chocolate she hides in her bed and the constant drone of NPR podcasts with which anyone sharing space with Shahidi will need to get comfortable. Those pieces, along with her perfect GPA, a letter of recommendation from Michelle Obama and her status as a budding voice of her generation, gained her admission to every school she applied to, including Stanford, Yale and historically black women’s college Spelman.

“I want to have as much of a college experience as possible,” she says at one point, her petite frame swimming in a new (and soon to be social media’d) Dapper Dan Gucci hoodie. “That’s why I decided to apply in the first place.”

What becomes clear after ?our meeting, though perhaps it ?was obvious all along, is that an 18-year-old at the center of a successful franchise is destined to have a different kind of college experience. The second season of ?Grown-ish, which will air on Freeform in early 2019, is set to start production in Los Angeles ?in mid-September, just a few weeks into her freshman year. Shahidi is expected to keep up with at least some of her coursework online, as she did through high school. And though she insists there will be considerably more nos than yeses regarding other acting opportunities going forward, a few hours spent in her company reveal how complicated her life is already.

Take this summer afternoon, ostensibly Shahidi’s day off from filming: Between a pair of photo shoots (for one movie) and ?a video interview (for another), she shoehorns in a fitting for a series of Tory Burch looks that she’ll be modeling in the line’s winter campaign. She’s also an ambassador for Chanel, a frequent panel participant on such subjects as millennials and inclusion (her mom’s African-American, her dad emigrated from Iran) and a social activist whose mix of passion and intellectual precociousness has caught the attention and affection of such politicians as Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. Once Shahidi has her degree, ideally in sociology and African-American studies, she foresees a future for herself that is, as she describes it, “policy adjacent.”

In preparation, Shahidi’s made voter education a focal point of her activism, with her Eighteen x 18 initiative aimed at registering and informing other teens ahead of the midterms. “My passion really stemmed from having gone through the 2016 election, where myself and many of my peers were unable to vote,” she says. “A lot ?of them went with their parents to the polls, but there was that feeling of being lost. Like, ‘What can we do to contribute to our sociopolitical landscape?'” Shahidi famously had a registration booth at her own voter-themed 18th birthday party (yes, really), held in February at Los Angeles’ Underground Museum (the guest list included Reese Witherspoon’s daughter, Ava Phillippe, rapper Kodie Shane, actress Peyton List and several of her Grown-ish and Black-ish co-stars). And now she’s putting the finishing touches on Eighteen x 18’s first national summit, which will take place next month in Los Angeles, along with salons and other voter registration events around the country.

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Her partner on the initiative, Michael Skolnik, who’s worked with several young activists in his ?career, insists he’s not overreaching when he says, “If Yara wants to be president one day, she will be.” Her TV boss, Kenya Barris, tends to agree, though he’s hopeful his young star will get to experience life first. “Sometimes I worry about her,” says the father of six, “because she’s been so uber-successful at everything that she’s attempted and I want her to leave room for being a kid.”


Shahidi’s sense of what’s “normal” has been out of whack from the womb. Consider her family: ?There’s one cousin who’s an astronaut and another named Nas. Yeah, that Nas.

“It’s hard to even synthesize the ?impact of having that as my family,” she says, and that’s before we move to her mother, a successful commercial actress, and her father, who was Prince’s official photographer. At 9, when Shahidi made her Hollywood debut starring opposite Eddie Murphy in the 2009 comedy Imagine That, the late music icon rented out a movie theater to show his support.

By 14, Shahidi was cast as Zoey Johnson, the selfie-obsessed eldest daughter on ABC’s Black-ish. ?Out of the gate, the acclaimed series — the only broadcast comedy in this year’s Emmy race ?— tackled hot-button issues of class and race and ushered in ?a long-overdue wave of diverse programming. Given the show’s significance in the culture, Shahidi found herself fielding questions about representation — and, to the surprise of only those who didn’t know her, having something to say. The more attention she got, the more she earned. A flood of panel and keynote opportunities followed.

“The thing people don’t fully understand about my generation is just how multifaceted we are,” she says now. “Oftentimes, people like to oversimplify what [we] believe in or do, whether that’s, ‘Oh, you’re on your phones all the time,’ or, ‘Oh, you’re very self-centered,’ but what I’ve seen from my peers is that we’re socially engaged and curious about the world.”

She collects mentors everywhere she goes: Emma Watson, at a CAA retreat, Janelle Monae, backstage at the Essence Awards, and civil rights icon John Lewis, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, where she interviewed him on behalf of the Clinton campaign. But Shahidi’s discipline and maturity seem to stem from the relatively balanced upbringing ?her parents have worked to maintain for her and her two younger brothers, who also followed their ?mother into acting. “This is what we do, it’s not who we are,” is a line they utter often in the family’s ?L.A. home. There are also frequent, ?candid conversations about the business and its graveyard of cautionary tales. And, while a parent has not been legally required to accompany Shahidi on a set since she turned 16, she rarely goes to work without one. “At 16, you’re still a child,” her mother, Keri, argues, “You need to be able to turn around and see your family members.”

At the same time, Keri and her husband, Afshin, have seized plenty of teaching opportunities ?as their children’s careers have progressed. Among them: encouraging the kids to go to the accounting office and pick up their own paychecks. “I remember when our son was on [the ABC series] Uncle Buck at 12 or 13, [the workers in accounting] were like, ‘You want me to hand him his checks?'” says Keri, who could easily be mistaken for Shahidi’s older sister. “But we saw it as a symbolic moment of understanding that there’s an exchange ?for your time and your commitment to something — that it is worth something.”

Education, too, has always taken precedence over whatever showbiz gig came along. Shahidi embraced the mandate. In fact, when Black-ish began, she proudly tells me, she ran through five on-set tutors before finding one she felt could keep pace with her rigorous honors and advanced placement workload. “I’m that annoying person in class where if we were reading a book, I’d not only read that book, I’d read one similar, written in the same era, to find the commonalities,” she says. “So, if we were reading about the French Revolution ?in AP Euro, I’d be like, ‘OK, let me read Candide and Voltaire’s [other works].'” Intellectual exercises bore Shahidi. When she saw the essay question on the University of Chicago’s application — “So where is Waldo, anyway?” — she crossed the school off her list.

I should pause here and say if ?you find yourself struggling to make sense of a teenager who geeks out on James Baldwin novels (Giovanni’s Room is her current favorite) and financial podcasts (Planet Money, Freakonomics, 99% Invisible, to name a few), you’re ?in good company. Freeform’s head of programming, Karey Burke, still is marveling about the time she shared a stage with Shahidi at last year’s Freeform Summit. “I had two of my daughters with me — they were 14 and 19 at the time — and I remember they came up to me after our panel, and they go, ‘Wow, Mom, we feel really stupid,'” she recalls. “And I just said, ‘Yeah, get in line.'”

Both Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert could barely muster more than a “wow” when they had Shahidi on their respective shows; and Jimmy Kimmel stopped her mid-explanation of her “policy adjacent” ambitions to say, “I’m just trying to imagine myself trying to have a conversation with you when I was 18 and I don’t see it happening at all.” Even Oprah was slack-jawed as Shahidi sat across from her talking about how, through Eighteen x 18, she was turning her activism into “quantifiable action.”

Shahidi had more time to impress during an early 2018 visit to The View, where she drew parallels between Black Lives Matter rallies and the protests in Iran, and again during an appearance on Larry King’s web series, where she articulated her frustrations with the current president. “Part of it,” she said, “is [being] a young black girl with the last name Shahidi who has relatives in Iran.”

The teenage star doesn’t typically engage in the type of Trump bashing that’s become fashionable in certain Hollywood circles — which doesn’t mean she isn’t horrified by Trump’s actions. ?She says she’d rather focus on changing future outcomes by trying to ensure her peers are more engaged and better informed. “The knowledge disparity stems from the fact that news isn’t marketed to me and my peers,” she says. “It’s as though it doesn’t pertain to us, even though half of these policies that are being implemented will affect us. We know people who are immigrants, we know people who are undocumented …”


It was over the holidays, back in 2016, when Keri Shahidi noticed she had missed ?a call from Kenya Barris. It had come in around 10 p.m., and she got back to him right away, fearful that the late hour meant trouble.

But it was just the opposite.?The prolific creator wanted to let Keri and her daughter in on the top-secret plan he had brewing: to follow Zoey Johnson off to college in her very own spinoff. To ?his dismay, Keri’s initial level of enthusiasm didn’t match his. “OK, well, Yara’s in the middle of her college applications,” she ?told Barris, “but I’ll let her know that you called.”

It would take another week, until the last of Shahidi’s applications was complete, before Keri brought the idea to her daughter. “It’s now this running joke with Kenya, who has employed my son, too,” says Keri. “He’ll be like, ‘Did you really not tell her for a whole week?’ But as I told him, I have to raise kids first, and then we can get to the other stuff.”

When Shahidi finally heard about the spinoff, she was flattered, though not instantly sold. She, after all, was the one who was supposed to be headed off to?college; and “TV star” wasn’t necessarily her long-term career goal. “I’ve always had so many other interests,” she explains, “and I knew being in almost every scene of a show that could go multiple seasons would require a level of investment that I’ve never needed to make before.”

Now, nearly two years later, ?she has no regrets, suggesting ?the series has turned out to ?be the best possible preparation for her own college experience — though it’s hard to imagine she’ll develop an Adderall habit or find herself juggling three guys the way her character has. Mention the prospect of such entanglements to Barris, and he howls with laughter. “Nope,” he says, “definitely not her.” Instead, he admits that when Shahidi weighs in on plot points and dialogue, he often forgets that she hasn’t already been to college. In several cases, including her recent urging that the show cast actors with a wider array of skin tones, he willingly defers to his young star.

When Shahidi signed with ?CAA back in spring 2016, she was asked what she wanted to do ?with her career. She responded, “I just want to live at NPR.” And though it’s not public radio, she soon will have her own podcast. Shahidi has quietly teamed ?with the outfit started by a few Obama administration alumni, Crooked Media, which produces some of her favorites, including Pod Save America, where she’s been a guest. When hers launches in a matter of weeks (working title: 18 x 18 with Yara Shahidi), you’ll be able to hear Shahidi interviewing other young, female game-changers, who hail from the worlds of entertainment, activism and politics. (Atop her wish list is 28-year-old New York congressional primary winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.)

And from there, who knows? There are plenty of plans and lofty goals. She’d like to open a high school, she says, and maybe work for a think tank — or, better yet, launch one of her own. She’s always wanted to be a history professor, too. Oh, and she’d like to overhaul the U.S. education system, for which, yes, she has some ideas already. “My dream of dreams,” she tells me, “is to create some form of alternate curriculum that is inclusive of all people.” But, first, Yara Shahidi has to go to college.



What she reads

“I asked her to start reading fiction that was new for 2018,” says Shahidi’s mom. The 18-year-old is a self-proclaimed James Baldwin mega-fan and calls his Giovanni’s Room her favorite book. Other recent favorites include Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Jesmyn Ward’s “beautifully written” Sing Unburied Sing.

What she listens to

Shahidi famously told her CAA agents that her ?dream was to “live at NPR.” In the meantime, she settles for listening to NPR podcasts, including Code Switch and Planet Money. She’s also a fan of Crooked Media’s lineup (Pod Save the PeopleCrooked Conversations), and soon will have a podcast ?of her own featuring her interviews.

What she dances to

The self-described “music-head” spends whatever free time she can find going to concerts. Her favorite album right now: Blonde, by Frank Ocean. Shahidi’s current playlist also includes new music from other favorites like Tyler, the Creator; Tobi Lou; and Taylor Bennett.

What she watches

Growing up, Shahidi was allowed to watch only one hour of TV per week. Now, at 18, she rarely consumes that much. The last series she cops to bingeing was The Great British Baking Show. She’s been known to zone out to detective series, too, with Criminal Minds high on her list.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.