Scrolling through texts on her phone, strutting in lime green boots, and cracking jokes with bystanders, Keke Palmer doesn’t miss a beat as the photographer snaps away. The picture of a millennial boss, she has perfected the art of being her authentic self in front of the camera — and the art of using that presence to grow her empire.
What comes off as effortless, though, is an ongoing project on Palmer’s part. Authenticity in our era must be a proactive choice. Think of it as the “no makeup” makeup look for the digital age.
In every moment, Palmer, 27, is keenly aware of the eyes on the other side of the lens. She knows her angles, and she knows when a particularly raw moment of candor could resonate with and empower millions of women.
“I really try to focus on the people who could be receiving the message,” she says. To her, staying honest with her audience is a duty — one that she has acutely felt from her earliest days online. “That way,” Palmer explains, “it wasn’t only beneficial to me … I could remind people that the celebrities they look up to are human.” It’s what’s made her an icon of the Instagram age.
As with any artist, Palmer is a master of many media and toggles between her social media accounts to take full advantage of the benefits of each platform. Instagram — home to 10.3 million of her followers — tends to win out.
On Twitter, she says, “you can talk on there, but it’s not really a visual platform. It’s more so just for your thoughts, and I think a lot of things can be misconstrued. I think the energy and the vibe that you feel on Instagram is a little less aggressive. It obviously has its moments, but it’s a little bit more curated.”
Palmer usually posts on the fly to her 10.3 million followers. The only subject that is off limits is her personal life — not just for her own sake, but to protect the other people in her orbit. Not everyone has the fortitude to live so fully online. As a Very Online Person ™, Palmer admits she does have to find the right balance when it comes to managing Internet trolls.
“I want to try to reply to the fans that are saying positive things,” she explains. “So sometimes I do have to subject myself and go into the comments and see a little bit of the craziness.”
As with anything in life, the bad comes with the good. It’s all about learning how to navigate both. For Palmer, that comes down to cultivating her own confidence and inner strength.
“I do turn off any of the derogatory things on my page in my settings,” she explains. “But I think for the most part I really try to focus on making sure that I can control myself, because you are never going to be able to control other people or stop other people from saying things to you, whether it be online or in the real world. So, the best thing you can do is make it to where you’re so strong that the things that people say to you don’t affect you.”
It’s an inner strength that many other celebrities have failed to find. Nearly every week, there’s a new regrettable Tweet or IG Live meltdown with the potential to cancel someone’s career. Truly being vulnerable online isn’t — pros like Palmer know — baring your every thought and emotion. It’s selectively sharing moments that feel authentic to your core.
Palmer cleverly plays with this mix of accessibility and privacy through the use of several signature characters that she plays online.
Unlike the unfiltered moments she shares with fans, her mini-performances are made with the help of digital producer and writer, Max Wyeth. One of their most famous creations is Lady Miss Jacqueline, a wealthy Southern socialite who is the queen of iconic insults. Yet another viral persona is Chelsea “Barbie” Taylor. The polar opposite of Lady Miss Jacqueline, Barbie is known for her cringeworthy positive affirmations. We all play a lot of characters online, but how did Palmer develop ones that are so singular?
“I get ideas just like everybody does,” she says. “I look online and see things that inspire me, and same thing with television. I find things that inspire me and I create and I record them. I’ll have people shoot them if it’s a little bit more intricate when it comes to the editing. I really get inspired by my generation and trying the different things that are going on out there, and I welcome all of it.”
It’s an ongoing creative process, and one that has made Palmer a true millennial mogul.
Born Lauren Keyana Palmer in Chicago, Illinois, we first met “Keke” on the big screen as an 11-year-old in Barbershop 2: Back in Business in 2004. Following the success of that film, her parents moved her and their three other children to California, where Palmer went on to land roles in Akeelah and the Bee, Tyler Perry’s Madea Family Reunion, Disney’s Jump In! and her own show on Nickelodeon, solidifying her work ethic from an early start. It’s an impressive resume, and yes, she has seen the memes about her “keeping a check.” (For the record, she and her mom both find them hilarious.)
If any of you haven’t been keeping track, Palmer’s schedule for the last few years has included hosting the MTV Music Awards, working stints as a personality on Good Morning America, securing a spinoff Strahan, Sara and Keke (earning a Daytime Emmy Award nomination in the process), hosting a dating show on the now-defunct network, Quibi, and appearing in more than 55 movies and TV shows, releasing one studio album, four mixtapes, two soundtracks, and four EPs (because of course she sings, too), and also appearing as Broadway’s first Black Cinderella over the last decade. She singlehandedly supplies Twitter with a steady flow of memes thanks to her iconic expressions and continues to use her voice in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Palmer says that while her constant hustle can stem from boredom — “How can I stretch myself? How can I stay inspired and engaged with life?” — her drive actually has a lot to do with the way that “work” was framed for her during childhood. (What’s that saying? Find a way to get paid for what you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.)
“That’s something that was introduced to me very early on,” she explains. “Obviously I can acknowledge it as work, especially now I get older and [know] creating boundaries is really important. But I think overall, work was camouflaged in a lot of ways for me, so I don’t really realize that it’s work and I’m working so hard until I do hit the bottom, and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so tired.’”
For that reason, recharging for Palmer means lowering the stage curtain and spending time alone. Sometimes, the hustle can wait.
“I exert so much energy being around so many people all the time that some of my happiest moments, even when it comes to romance, sometimes I really just like for no one to be around,” she admits.
When it’s time to truly destress, she flips the script and becomes an audience member. Palmer is known to binge watch shows like Bridgerton, The Mess You Left Behind, and Dare Me. Oh, and she loves to cook. Like, loves to cook.
Palmer may be the rare Hollywood star that doesn’t rely on a private chef or meal deliveries, and she starts every day off deliciously. “I love making breakfast,” Palmer says. “I can make some really good oat flour pancakes and waffles.” From there, she quickly rattles off a few of her other specialties: gluten-free cornbread French toast, eggs (but only egg whites, because cholesterol is not good for her skin), tacos, a good stew with sweet potatoes, kale, onions, peppers, and chicken. She even makes her own steak sauce with lean beef. It’s a skill that’s been passed down in her family for generations.
Palmer’s dad was the one serving up love in the kitchen. “That’s how he showed love to us,” she continues. “No matter how hard he would be working, he would come home and make us food.” A typical meal for the Palmer family would be spaghetti, catfish, and sweet potatoes. Before she stopped eating pork, she craved her dad’s pork chop and sweet potatoes, with macaroni and cheese.
Years later, Palmer says, “I realized that I really love cooking too, and I love it for the same reason that my father loved it: because food is nourishing. Whether you’re nourishing yourself or you’re cooking for others, you can just zone out on your own and you don’t really have to do anything, just focus, and then you’re sharing and giving to others and fulfilling others.”
Cooking is meditative, she says. Ironically, it’s the creative boundaries of a recipe that give her a sense of relief. “Even with my acting career, and my career in general, I love to take directions,” Palmer explains. “So anything that’s telling me what to do, step by step, or giving me some type of order to follow through with, I love that.” For a moment, the pressure of “creating” is off.
True to her “bossy” Twitter rep, though, Palmer’s already turned her pastime into a paycheck. Disney announced in January 2021 that she would be hosting Foodtastic, an 11-episode unscripted competition series on Disney Plus featuring challenges revolving around Disney-inspired foods. Palmer will executive produce, and the show premieres later this year. For Palmer, it’s a homecoming.
“I’ve been working for Disney, the corporation, since I was 10-11 years old,” she reminds us. “And now I’m executive producing and doing other things. I’m not even just acting. I’m hosting, and I’m 27, so I essentially have worked 20 years for the company. And to be where I’m at, it came from hard work.”
“The discipline that my mom instilled in me, it made for a great career,” she continues, “and I’m very thankful for that. I really, really am.”
Her collaborators are thankful, too. “I remember the first time I went into (former president of Disney Channels, current president and Chief Creative Officer of Disney’s Branded Television venture) Gary Marsh’s office, and then now we’re on Zoom 15-16 years later and he’s like, ‘We’re so happy that you’re here,’” Palmer says.
She continues, “They embrace my ideas and they allow me to stretch my wings. They allow me to fly because they trust me as a talent. I think that’s huge. When you are trusted to be who you are, the things you say are valued, and they can make a difference.”
Up next, Palmer plans to provide that kind of support, encouragement, and mentorship for a whole new generation of boss ladies.
“I don’t want to always be Keke Palmer, the star. I want to be able to encourage other people and create platforms for others to grow and shine the way that others have seen me do,” she explains. “So, for me to be supported in this way, it just continues to guide me towards the direction of where I want to go with my life and my career.” For example, there’s Big Boss Entertainment: the record label Palmer founded in 2018.
Being ready to lead and mentor doesn’t mean that she’s conquered all her demons. On the contrary, Palmer’s vulnerability about her struggles is what makes her a role model for the modern age.
For someone who seems so confident and driven, Palmer’s always been open about her insecurities, too. In December 2020, she went viral yet again with a post about her struggles with acne and PCOS. She wants fans to know that being confident, real, and successful doesn’t have to mean being perfect.
“I’m not going to beat myself half to death because that’s just ridiculous. I’m not going to stand for it anymore because I’m going to make sure that I’m as conscious and awake and aware as I can be so that I don’t fall into self-sabotaging, self-shaming, and guilt-shaming attitudes and personas that I have in the past,” she says. “Because you know what? I deserve the things that are happening in my life. I did work hard for these things, and I shouldn’t feel ashamed about it or attack myself or try to demean myself because I can’t believe what’s happening for me.”
Translation: Even a certified success like Palmer can fall victim to impostor syndrome, too.
For example, she confesses, “The other day I just came from lunch with my friends, and I was sitting in the car. My other friend was with me in the car, it was just us two, and he’s like, ‘What are you thinking about?’ And I guess he saw me really kind-of going into a crazy train of thought. I told him I was just stopping myself dead in my tracks because after that lunch we just had, I was just sitting there and literally started berating myself, like telling myself, ‘Who do you think you are? You talk too much. You thought that joke was funny?’”
“I literally saw myself thinking these things, and I immediately said, ‘That’s not true. That’s not who you are. You mean well. You’re a good person. You’re not perfect, but you have a heart.’ I started just counteracting all those mean things that I was saying to myself with everything positive that I would tell a friend of mine,” she explains.
As with everything else in her life, this kind of self-talk has become a mindful practice. If any phrase could sum up a woman so multifaceted, maybe it’s the phrase by Aristotle that Palmer has tattooed on her arm: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Palmer says, “It’s like, the constant time I’ve been spending with myself, the constant journaling I started back doing, the constant prayer, the meditation through my yoga, through my Pilates, that act and that practice of mindfulness, that’s what allowed me to stop myself dead in my tracks” when negative thinking starts.
It’s not easy, she says, but it’s worth it. Habits can help you recognize the harmful stories that you tell yourself without realizing it. Per Palmer, “That’s number one” when it comes to creating an authentically joyful life.
“And then, number two, positive affirmations,” she continues. “I look in the mirror and I tell myself. I say, ‘I love you. You’re special. You’re kind. I relinquish any shame. I relinquish any guilt. I accept you for who you are.’”
“I know it sounds crazy, but if you say those kinds of things to yourself every day, you will believe that,” Palmer insists. “You will. You will. It will transform anything you do in your life. In the morning, just look at yourself and say, ‘I love you. You’re amazing. I relinquish any shame. I relinquish any guilt. I accept you for who you are,’ and you will… It’s really true.”
Her own life is the proof, but Palmer points to other examples, such as an experiment where one flower was spoken to with positive affirmations and another was not. The flower that was not nurtured with affirmations died.
In another experiment, “They said to one glass of water, ‘You’re ugly. You’re stupid. You’re disgusting,’ and then (to) another water they said, ‘You’re beautiful. You’re gorgeous. I love you,’” Palmer explains. “And when they looked at the sparkles, the water that was told good things literally crystallized in geometry form, like the sacred geometry of God.” (The sacred geometry of God is an ancient system that explores how the energy patterns that create and unify all things may have been structured by a higher power.)
“It’s just like, we have to know these things,” she continues. “God lives within us, but we have to speak to God in order for us to see that kind of light. And so, I just really started living my life that way. I fall off sometimes. I go astray, but then I try to find my way back, and that’s why it’s a practice. You’ve got to be kind to yourself about that, too.”
It’s rare that child stars manage to maintain self-awareness and a sense of normalcy about the life they live as they age. But Palmer does, and she hopes it comes across no matter where you may find her.
“Know I’m carrying God with me, because we have to be reminded,” she tells fans. “That’s what we all are meant to do, is to remind each other through our hearts and through our actions that, ‘Hey, I’m carrying the Lord in here and I’m sharing that.’ We’re sharing the light. That’s what it’s about.”
Whether on Twitter or in front of the photographer’s lens, Palmer glows. These days, it seems, nothing can steal her shine.
Photographer: Texas Isaiah
Photo Assistant: Scott Turner
Photo Assistant: Vassily Maximillian
Photo Assistant: Nicholas Reed
Stylist: Chris Horan
Fashion Assistant: Lauren Jeworski
Fashion Assistant: Sade Radfar
Hair: Ann Jones
Makeup: Cherish Brooke Hill
Producer: Paul Preiss
Production Assistant: Michael Lai
Video Director: Curtis Taylor Jr
Sound Tech: Christopher Hernandez
Photographer Director: Ian Crane
DOP: Alex Ford
CCO: Tiziano D’Affuso
EIC: David Thielebeule