Yara Shahidi: ‘Sometimes You Have To Be Disruptive’

Actor, activist, Gen-Z icon... The world’s most powerful 20-year-old talks to Grazia

Yara Shahidi

by Grazia |

Speaking to Yara Shahidi, it’s clear she doesn’t do things by halves. She’s passionate about acting (she’s been in hit TV show Black-ish since she was 14), but she’s also passionate about education, politics and her advocacy work. She speaks with a zeal, in no way bogged down by the sheer exhaustion of juggling pretty major responsibilities, ones that adults twice her age would tremor to take on.

You see, Yara has just turned 20. And she is only getting started on her path to world domination, at a time when typical teenagers are just getting acclimatised to life outside of the family home. So how did she celebrate her birthday last month? ‘Me and a bunch of friends watched Spirited Away, some of my family flew in, my cousin was in town, we got sodas and popcorn – it was fun!’ she laughs, a reminder of her just-past adolescence. She arrives at the Grazia shoot on time, her signature curls bountiful, skin impossibly glowing, in a cashmere tracksuit and trainers, with her mother Keri and her publicist in tow, and promptly and warmly greets everyone on set.

She knows how it goes – after all, she has been in the industry for a long time. Born in Minnesota to an African-American mother and Iranian father, she began modelling aged four, racking up campaigns for the likes of Ralph Lauren and Gap, before moving into acting. She starred alongside Eddie Murphy in 2009’s Imagine That and in 2010’s Salt with Angelina Jolie. Her big break came in 2014 by way of her role as Zoey in Black-ish, the critically-acclaimed comedy about an upper-middle-class black family in America navigating both family dynamics and socio-political issues of the day. The show was an immediate hit and spawned Yara’s own spin-off show, Grown- ish, which follows her as a college student; it has just been renewed for a third season.

I ask what she’s learned from Zoey, who is going through the same early-adulthood life markers as Yara. ‘I’ve learned that growth isn’t linear,’ she says. ‘As you get older, you learn. You deal with having hard conversations with friends, you learn about making mistakes, forgiving yourself, moving on and being OK if you make that mistake again.’

‘As you get older, you learn. You deal with having hard conversations with friends, you learn about making mistakes, forgiving yourself, moving on and being OK if you make that mistake again.’

On top of her successful acting career, she’s been the unofficial face of the Gen-Z activist movement, using her platform to rally for young voter registration with the campaign We Vote Next. She’s so impressive, in fact, that Oprah has said, ‘I hope I’m still around when she becomes President.’ She’s close-knit with the Obamas, with Michelle even writing the letter of recommendation for her Harvard application. Though Yara insists that speaking out has been part of her everyday since she was born. ‘I come from a very engaged family so [activism] didn’t feel out of the ordinary. If anything, it felt like, as my platform grew, so did the expectation to continue conversations that we’ve been having since I was born,’ she explains. ‘Now my thing is: how do we remain action- oriented, especially given the upcoming election? I feel like it’s no longer a question of how do we get young people to care. It’s now about how do we give young people the access to act upon their feelings? There is a privilege I have in that I can call my team of people and know that we are all committed to the same mission, and figuring out what we’re going to do about it. But that requires an entire network, my peers included.’

Her dedication is impressive, but it’s a lot for anyone to take on, let alone a 20 year old. Yara is frank about a challenge faced by many women, no matter how powerful: saying no. ‘I have been surrounded by powerful women my entire life, but women inherently are people pleasers, and we don’t like to rock the boat,’ she explains.

Yara Shahidi
©Grazia

‘I had a “year of no” last year, which is now turning into two years of no, and that’s all about being comfortable in asking for what you want and then, as long as whatever you’re asking for is rooted in your personal values, you shouldn’t feel any sort of way about asking for those things. I just wanted to feel more comfortable insisting on the things that I knew I wanted.

‘I’m pretty practical anyway, there are very few things where I’m asking for something I should feel bad about. Mostly they are rooted in wanting to get things done to the best I possibly can. I think, especially as a woman of colour, it’s often hard to say no. It’s perceived as disruptive instead of a catalyst to achieve something better. I am down to destigmatise the word no, sometimes you have to be disruptive. And it really comes down to your duty as a woman to be taking care of yourself as well as you take care of other people. That’s important for women to remember.’

Despite a pretty hefty day-to-day, Yara assures me she’s an average 20-year-old at heart. ‘I’ve never really been in any rush to get any older, I really love being a young person,’ she says. She spends days off hanging with friends, going to concerts (‘I moved a photo shoot to go to [Tyler The Creator’s] Camp Flog Gnaw Festival in California’) and Yara’s Instagram page gives further glimpses into what makes her tick. Yara lip-syncing to her favourite songs, style selfies and throwback family photos are flooded with adoring comments by her five million (and counting ) followers.

Her perfect (and bankable) blend of brains and beauty has meant she’s been courted by some of the world’s biggest brands as a spokesperson. Among them Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, Adidas and Coach, with whom she has a long-standing relationship. She doesn’t take her partnerships lightly, often weighing up the brand’s philanthropic commitment and ethos with her own, ahead of any financial profit. ‘It’s important there is messaging that we both really stand behind. That’s why Coach has always been so great for me,’ she says. Since 2008, The Coach Foundation has raised more than $50 million for charities working with young people.

Also, of course, Yara loves fashion. And thanks to super-stylist Jason Bolden (who also works with Cynthia Erivo and Alicia Keys), she never puts a foot wrong on the red carpet, leaning towards bold shapes and colourful prints that speak to her exuberant energy, and always paired with a playful beauty detail (think slick baby hair and graphic eye-liners). ‘I never want to look too put-together,’ she says. ‘It’s important to have fun with style and never take myself too seriously.’

Together with her mother, Yara recently set up a production company, Seventh Sun. ‘We’ve wanted to do it for so long,’ she says. ‘We’ve unofficially had projects going before we had the name. It’s been such a great opportunity to put into action some of the creative ideas we’ve had and to use Seventh Sun as a vehicle to collaborate with new writers, directors, and actors that aren’t just limited to the stories I myself can tell.’ She remains quiet on the specific projects though, promising me that plans will unveil themselves sooner rather than later.

Yara Shahidi
©Grazia

When asked how she envisages her future, Yara says she’s ‘not one for a five-year plan. More one-year plans, or five-week plans!’ She’s galvanising for the presidential race with her We Vote Next campaign, armed with plans up until election day on 3 November. She also speaks of ultimate goals to re-write public education for history, and offer an alternative curriculum of sorts as a ‘dream of dreams’.

‘I know that’s important because I grew up in a household where I read the Korean Cinderella, the Persian Cinderella... everything except the Hans Christian Andersen one. All of that sort of thinking was critical to who I now understand and relate to in the world.’ She also giggles speaking about a dream of becoming a music producing duo with her brother Ehsan, à la Billie Eilish and Finneas (even though they don’t know how to produce music... yet). ‘I’ve got a few names for the duo in my head already: Butterscotch Dreams, Hans Christian Andersen Cooper!’ she laughs, with infectious enthusiasm.

Yara is a young woman so smart, confident and outspoken that, if she is the poster child of the uber-ambitious, socially- engaged next generation, you can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, we might be all right after all.

Yara is a friend of Coach. Find the new collection at uk.coach.com

READ MORE: Yara Shahidi Wants Everyone To Use Their Vote

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