Actress and musician Keke Palmer discussed being confident and authentic, as well as her experiences navigating fame and overcoming challenges since beginning her career at a young age, during a conversation with Brown Lecture Board Monday evening. Hundreds of students gathered at the event, which took place in the Salomon Center and was moderated by Uwa Ede-Osifo ’22, co-vice president of logistics for Brown Lecture Board.
Palmer is the recipient of a 2021 Primetime Emmy Award for her performance in the series “Turnt Up with the Taylors” and is the first woman of color to host the MTV Video Music Awards, in 2020. She is known for her work as an actress in “Akeelah and the Bee,” “True Jackson, VP,” “The Wool Cap,” “Scream Queens,” “Scream” and “Hustlers.”
Not just an on-screen actor, Palmer has hosted two talk shows in addition to releasing three extended plays, a full R&B album and a book. She has also found popularity on TikTok and created several social media projects.
“We … try to diversify our narrative and bring in folks with poignant stories to tell across varying mediums,” wrote Meg Yeager ’22, president of Brown Lecture Board, in a message to The Herald. “Keke Palmer is unique in her ability to bridge that gap between actress, singer, activist and real person. She is such an authentic voice and brings that humanity to every role she plays and into every hosting gig she's taken on in the last several years.”
Walking in to thunderous applause and taking a moment to show off her animal print outfit, Palmer quickly dove into her thoughts on the lessons she learned as a young entertainer.
The experiences of her character in “True Jackson, VP” “paralleled (her) life exactly” in how she felt overwhelmed as a child in an adult world. Elaborating on the challenges she faced, she said: “When I was younger, I think I loved a lot of dramatic roles. I loved becoming a totally new person, and then, after a while, it started weighing on me.”
She said she used the thought of her grandmother passing in order to cry and eventually struggled with feeling numb to it, saying she realized that “in order to do this craft, I’m gonna have to be really respectful of myself as a human being and not maximize myself out to that degree.”
Asked how she stayed grounded in her early years, she credited a strong support system. “I was very honest about it. I’m the person that, if I need something, I say ‘I need help.’”
She spoke about her struggles with anxiety and depression around the age of 14 and mentioned that it was only after considering emancipation from her parents that her attorney introduced her to therapy and she was able to “start putting names” to her emotions.
Regardless of her struggles, Palmer insisted that she didn’t “have any regrets. … Everything I’ve ever shared, I’ve learned from, gained something from or other people have gained from.”
“We wanted to bring her in because she can explain the aspects of fame that so many celebrities brush over,” Yeager wrote. “The good, the bad and the ugly, so to speak.”
Brown Lecture Board’s goal is “to listen to the student body first and foremost to see who people are interested in and find someone who broadens the narrative on a certain topic,” Yeager wrote.
“‘Making it’ to me is being able to do what I love for a living,” Palmer said. “There’s performing and being an actor and being an entertainer, and then there’s fame,” she added. “That’s a whole other bowl of cereal, and it is not really good to eat … The thing that comes with being a celebrity is people don’t see you as a person.”
Recalling her upbringing, Palmer also highlighted how both of her parents always told her “it’s not enough to just be an entertainer,” emphasizing the importance of giving back to the community.
Mentioning that her celebrity status made it difficult to have genuine conversations, she said that through the work she does with her community and with nonprofits, she tries “to express as much as I can that I’m a normal person and (entertainment) happens to be my job.”
Referencing a video recording of her during a Black Lives Matter protest, Palmer said that she “was just Lauren Keyana Palmer. You can see I had the plats in my hair, I was not trying to impress.” Speaking over the cheering audience, she added, “I’m a very proud Black woman.”
Shifting to her increasing social media presence, Palmer said that “the traditional route was not checking for me. (At first) your brand as an entertainer is being a kid. When you’re not a kid anymore, it’s like your brand just slips through your fingers. … After dealing with that, I was like, ‘I still want to create and do stuff. I have all these ideas in my head,’” which led her to start pursuing social media projects.
Asked about how she takes breaks from her online work, Palmer commented on how culture in the United States is extremely “workaholic” and that “it’s really unhealthy.” Palmer noted that she makes sure to take social media breaks and relax at home.
“I’ve been working since I was nine years old. Sometimes that’s my only identity. I’ve had to really work hard to counteract that thinking,” she said. “Some of my most restful moments are when I come up with my greatest ideas. … You do not have to search outside yourself and spread yourself so thin.”
Prompted by the audience, Palmer went on to profess her love for TV shows like “The Real Housewives of Potomac,” “Nine Perfect Strangers,” “Clickbait” and “Love Island” as her favorites for when she’s on break.
Toward the end of the conversation, Palmer explained her experiences working during the pandemic and transitioning to in-person events.
“I think I had a lot of anxiety,” she said. “I was spooked out and making sure I was being careful.”
As for her experience hosting the MTV Video Music Awards, Palmer laughed as she explained that “it was all completely fake,” referring to the lack of a live audience.
During the audience question-and-answer portion of the talk, Palmer talked more about her journey as a young Black woman in response to a question from a student.
“I grew up in a very segregated area. … I went to school where I was the only Black kid in the class,” she said. “I think my parents … made it very clear that I was gonna have to ignore a lot of stuff and push through and be strong and choose my battles.”
Asked how she got the confidence to be her most authentic self, Palmer said she “got to a point where I was like ‘I cannot be anybody else.’” She said that confidence comes with valuing your own opinion of yourself over those of others and finding inner confidence.
“I’ve been who I am all my life, and one thing you realize as a person is (that) being yourself is going to be a style. Even when the trend itself flops and flows, you don’t have to chase it,” she said. “At the end of the day, I know who I am … that’s enough for me. You have to know (that) being you and accepting you is the most important thing.”
She also offered advice to Black women pursuing a career in entertainment, saying, “Find your group. … Collaborating and finding like-minded people, that’s gonna help you figure out your next moves and get in the spaces you’re trying to get into.”
“I want to create material that is representative of the world we’re in today,” Palmer said. “Stuff that feels original.” Palmer’s future projects include a role in Jordan Peele’s upcoming movie, “Nope,” as well as voice contributions to a rebooted “The Proud Family,” “Big Mouth” and other animated features. She will also debut a project she wrote, directed and produced herself, as well as a “True Jackson, VP” reboot. She also plans to release new music with an accompanying narrative production.
Palmer left the stage to a standing ovation.
“I’ve never been so in love with someone,” audience member Dena Salliey ’24 said. “She’s amazing; she’s inspiring. The things she said about confidence and how it’s just putting yourself first were life-changing.”
Brianna Vizueth ’24 similarly appreciated Palmer’s confidence. “That self-love she had was so inspiring. I want to start doing that for myself, too. She’s so genuine and captivating.”
“It always feels so good,” Salliey added, “to be reminded that there are other people out there who are proud to be Black women.”