Yara Shahidi On Beyoncé, Empowerment And Being An Activist

yara shahidi ivy park

by Katie Rosseinsky |
Published on

For her latest Ivy Park fashion campaign, Beyoncé is reminding us once again that the only answer to 'Who runs the world?' is 'girls.'

For the first time, the singer has personally recruited a line-up of inspiring and outspoken young women to star alongside her, creating a girl squad of rising stars from music, screen and fashion, all of whom feel strongly about spreading Bey's message of sisterhood and empowerment.

Among them is actress Yara Shahidi, the 16-year-old star of hit US comedy Black-ish who is a powerful voice on social media, balancing her acting career with activism both on and offline (and practising karate at black belt level in her down time).

We caught up with the actress as her Ivy Park campaign launched to talk working with Beyoncé, getting starstruck at awards shows and how the small things can make a difference in a fraught political climate.

What does it feel like to see the Ivy Park campaign images for the first time?

It’s really amazing. When you’re shooting, you definitely get a feel for what’s happening, but to see that the end result is such a reflection of who I am – I love it. All the other images that I’ve seen of each person, too, they’ve beautifully captured all of us. When I came to the set, they really wanted me to be as comfortable as possible. It wasn't like, 'Go here; pose like this'; it was more like 'OK, this is the aesthetic we're going for, so move freely, walk around and we'll capture it from there.'

How did you react when you found out you'd been cast by Beyoncé?

It was a very cool moment. The email said something to the extent of, 'Beyoncé is really excited to have you on board.' When I got that email, it was just one of those really long days on set - we always have a really good time but that was definitely a mid-day pick-me-up. I think I may frame that email. My mom was cc'd so we both got it and got very excited about the whole thing.

Did you get to meet with Beyoncé?

Unfortunately I didn't, but she had her creative director there, and such an amazing team. Teams are so important, especially on shoots - every single person on that set helps to determine the mood, so to be greeted by such a warm team was something very special. What was a nice moment was when I saw Chloe and Halle [Beyoncé's protegées and Ivy Park campaign co-stars] when they were going into their fitting. We're friends and they've been travelling everywhere, so to be able to see them was amazing - like a little reunion.

yara shahidi ivy park
Yara Shahidi for Ivy Park ©Ivy Park

What makes Ivy Park different from all the other fashion brands out there?

I love that it doesn't shy away from having a message of empowerment. You can see from the campaign - and I can tell you, just having shot it - that it's not trying to put out an overly refined image. That's what I love about it - it was a really authentic version of ourselves, rather than feeling like the image has been edited and refined and processed. It's not saying, 'this is the body type you should want, this is the person you should want to be,' but rather, 'Look at all these different ways of being, look at how you can embrace who you are.'

How does the brand fit in with your personal style?

What’s funny is that I was wearing Ivy Park before the shoot even came about. I am a sweatshirt addict, and so that’s what the shoot focused on. I loved the one I wore – not only was it perfectly oversized, but the material really is breathable so I wasn’t feeling stuffy. Whether it’s a sweatshirt with skinny jeans or their athletic leggings, there are so many ways to do it because the pieces are really versatile. Of course if you’re going to the gym, all of their gear works, but it really does translate well into every day wear.

How do you make time for sports and exercise? Do you find it helps you to switch off?

It's something that I'm geting better at making time for, especially with my work schedule. It's very easy to just keep working, keeping working, keep working and not make time for yourself. I try in many different ways. It's nice if you're working all day, or in school or whatever you're doing, to go and take a walk around the block. I'm a black belt in karate, which I've been doing for eight years. Because I can't get to every lesson every week because of my schedule, it's really up to me to make sure I practise often enough. Then of course I pretend that I'm Shakira in my bedroom dancing - that burns a lot of energy!

Do you think it's important that girls get involved with sports that aren't seen as stereotypically 'female'?

Definitely. Not only does it empower me emotionally, but it really also physically empowers me. I feel as though, walking through a space, I don't have to be afraid. It can be a sensory overload when you walk around, when you're operating in this world; having karate as something to rely on, means I know I can punch them! But seriously, it's more that I know I can own this space.

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Yara Shahidi at the SAG Awards 2017 ©Ivy Park

Tell us the story behind your colourful SAG Awards dress

I love Naeem Khan, and he's dressed Michelle Obama. When I looked at it, it just felt like such a vibrant dress, and I like the idea that it was as happy as I was on that day. Being in such a colourful and fun dress, I was able to just have a blast the entire night. At the after party, there was this huge dance circle of my Black-ish cast mates.

Do you ever get star-struck at events like that?

Being somebody who didn't really start watching TV until 13, I'm still really being introduced to so many people: I know of them, or I know that other people speak so highly of them. But that doesn't mean that I won't go up to certain actors and actresses and love them for some really obscure reason. I remember going up to Laila Ali, Mohammed Ali's daughter, who has done so much to diversify the field of sports for women, and for female newscasters. I popped up to her and I said, 'Your episode of Celebrity Chopped [a US cooking TV show] was so good!' and then went into detail about the meal that she made... No one will have said that to her before!

Do you enjoy awards season, and that side of your job as an actress?

You have to make it enjoyable, otherwise it seems kind of pointless, especially with everything that's going on in the world. I look forward to awards shows not only because they're reunions, where you can see so many people that are busy working throughout the year, but because they're celebrations of talent and also of activist voices. The actors that are being celebrated are more than just characters on the screen that we appreciate. I saw from the speeches that were given the entirety of the night [at the SAG Awards] that an awards show can be a platform.

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Yara Shahidi for Ivy Park ©Ivy Park

You've spoken out about political issues like the President's 'Muslim ban' on your social media accounts. Is it important for you to use them as a positive platform, too?

Yes, not only because I'm somebody whose family and friends and peers are affected by these policy changes, but because it's important that I don't take a passive stance. It's very easy to feel overwhelmed: because I am in a place of privilege where I am safe, with my family around me, I have the ability to take that stance. There are people that can't, and I totally understand. I am not forcing or pushing them to do anything, other than stay safe. But as somebody who does have that platform, who does have that audience who is willing to listen, I like the ideal of social media being a tool to help educate. It's where I am educated constantly and kept updated - there are so many things that I have become aware of via social media, and so at the same time I want to use it to help other people become aware, too.

Do you think actors and people in the public eye should be more outspoken on these kinds of issues?

If you are passionate about it, then yes. In this day and age, with social media it's important to share your opinion: because we have it, a lot of the time an absence of something can make it seem like you do not care, even if that's inaccurate at times. It doesn't matter if you've donated however much money to whatever organisation - if you don't post, it's as though it didn't happen, which is a funny little Catch 22. But if you truly are passionate about something, there's no harm in sharing. For me, it's the idea of being authentic to who I am, and this is such a large part of that. These posts do translate to change: it's so much more than just posting to make it seem like you're cool and aware. People are calling their senators, more donations are being raised. Every post that you do is more than just showing off your philanthropic side.

Aside from using social media, what else can young women do to make a difference in this political climate?

There are many different things you can do. I know not all of us have the funds to go donating money but time and energy are two very valuable resources. Whether it's through protest, helping to fundraise, even organising a food drive by just asking 'Hey, do you have a can of this in your house?' Helping to organise is just as crucial as actual monetary donations; it's a different form of donating.

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