Yara Shahidi photographed by Christine Hahn and styled by Christopher Kim for Yahoo Style; hair by Noel for Ken Barboza Agency using Framesi curl define; makeup by Emily Cheng for Nars.
Fame and success, it goes without saying, have many sweet perks.
For Yara Shahidi, the breakout star of the ABC hit Black-ish, it meant getting to know former first lady Michelle Obama. And having her write those burdensome but necessary college recommendation letters, which got her accepted into all seven schools she applied to: two Ivy Leagues, four state institutions, and one historically black college.
Having Obama pen those references, Shahidi tells Yahoo Style, felt “surreal. I’ve been able to work beside her on her education initiative and her support is surreal.”
She’s been to the White House multiple times, including for the Persian New Year celebration last April — Shahidi’s mom is the effervescent African-American commercial actress Keri Shahidi, and her dad is the Iranian-American cinematographer Afshin Shahidi. But seriously, how do they stay in touch? Can Shahidi just text or email or direct-message Michelle Obama? “Ha, ha. I’m not revealing our form of communication. It’s by carrier pigeon,” she quips.
Shahidi has, at the moment of her interview and photo shoot, already been on the go for more than 12 hours, after catching a red-eye from Los Angeles, where she’s based, to New York, to promote her show and attend a few events. To wit: not a single whine, eye roll, or demand for caffeine from the 17-year-old actress. She sits patiently as her makeup is applied; a vision of grace under pressure.
The actress loves her tresses “curly and huge. I tend to have a natural mop top when I do my hair and I fully embrace it. I’ve done a year of no heat. It’s just helped so much. After all that effort, you have no choice but to take care of your hair,” she says.
Her style is equally on point. Her first major splurge after landing the Black-ish role was a pair of Stella McCartney high-top sneakers. Yes, that’s her, in a black-and-white checked tulle number from Virgil Abloh’s super-hot Off-White line, and then switching into a look from Bibhu Mohapatra’s spring 2017 collection at the People’s Choice awards. One of her other favorite looks: the stunning multi-colored striped gown from Naeem Khan she wore to the SAG Awards.
“I don’t always know what works. My style is ever changing. I’m always willing to try new things. We find some really awesome moments. It goes from being utilitarian to a ton of fun colors and patterns. I embrace the wave,” she says.
She feels in her element when the look involves “a tux, huge curls and a good, nice, fresh face. Today, I’m kind of obsessed with my eyebrows.”
Her summer plans include graduating from high school and maybe taking a family vacation and then, figuring out college plans. She won’t say where she got accepted, or which one she’s leaning towards; she plans to defer for a year, like Malia Obama.
“Maybe once I commit to a school [I’ll announce it]. I don’t know yet actually. It’s still so new. I’m still personally adjusting. I just got the physical letters in the mail yesterday. I got some nice stickers,” she says.
School was always in the cards for Shahidi. Instead of attending February Fashion Week in New York, she toured college campuses. Her TV persona is in line with her future plans: she plays precocious, smart, popular, and perpetually stylish Zoey on Black-ish. The network is planning a spinoff around Zoey attending college, which syncs perfectly with Shahidi’s real-life goals of earning a double major in sociology and African-American studies.
Her acting success, says Shahidi, is gratifying, to be certain, but won’t impact her plans to get a degree, much like Natalie Portman and Jodie Foster, who went to Harvard and Yale, and Brooke Shields, who graduated from Princeton.
“If anything, that’s the one thing I’ve been planning for as long as I can remember, partly because I’ve always wanted to be in an academic space. I love Black-ish and I love my job, but I’ve been planning to go to college for a very long time,” she says.
She plans to work with the Obama Foundation, after already being part of the presidential couple’s Let Girls Learn initiative and being a vocal and well-versed activist — speaking out against President Trump’s travel ban, for example.
“I describe what I want to do as politics-adjacent. I don’t know if politics, but D.C. definitely. D.C. is one of my favorite places. As a history nerd, it’s both a place that’s representative of colonial power and old-time America that’s extremely flawed, as well as so many young change makers being there,” she says.
Shahidi is so eloquent and thoughtful, you forget she’s just a teenager. Her favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut, and her role model is her mom, Keri, whose lady-empowering and highly stylish Instagram feed is beloved by her daughter’s friends; the elder Shahidi refers to her daughter as “Lil Mama” and says she learns from her all the time. Little wonder why.
“Cat’s Cradle is one of my favorite books. If I ever get a tattoo, I want one of them to be a James Baldwin quote and ‘So It Goes,’ from Slaughterhouse-Five,” says Yara Shahidi.
Her social media presence is equally well-informed and uplifting.
“I try to be as responsible as possible. In terms of what I post, of what I put out into the universe. It’s easy to get caught up in the insanity of the world right now. We’re not passive members of our own society,” she says.
Words that would make a certain someone named Michelle proud.
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