Yara Shahidi says she’s nothing like Zoey Johnson, the character she plays on Grown-ish. “Quite honestly, I’m a square,” she tells me one recent sunny morning at a café in Pasadena. “There are a lot of story lines on the show that just wouldn’t have been touched had we gone by ‘You know what? Zoey has this strict code of ethics.’ ” Shahidi certainly doesn’t look square. In Joe’s jeans and a royal-blue Tory Burch track jacket and shoes, her curly bob pulled away from her luminous face, she is at once impeccably composed and casual in a way that can’t be all that casual. Yes, she has arrived with her mom, but they are famously close, and Shahidi is still young.
Eighteen, to be exact—though she’s already accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime. Her breakout role on the hit ABC sitcom Black-ish led to the spin-off Grown-ish on Freeform, which starts shooting its second season early next year (she serves as producer as well as star). She has discussed political activism with Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, is a brand ambassador for Chanel, and started a voting guide for young people called Eighteen x ’18. She graduated last year from the Dwight School in New York, having received acceptance letters from every college she applied to, and will start at Harvard in the fall. She can tell you the year she becomes eligible to run for president off the top of her head.
Child actors tend to be eclipsed by the characters they play, but Shahidi looms large, as if fame has amplified her. She’s poised and hyperverbal, wearing her precocity ever so slightly on her sleeve (she has a habit of referring to herself in the third person: “We knew that we didn’t want Zoey to be Yara,” she says. “People know enough about me where that wouldn’t have been enjoyable”). Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays her mom on Black-ish, says Shahidi was a quiet adolescent when they first met. “But I have seen her slowly and incrementally find her voice and her courage in using her voice.” Zoey, Ross adds, is “a little bit mindless and self-centered,” caught up in being popular and cool. “But Yara has a beautiful, quirky light about her. She’s a hard worker, a deep thinker, and a very free thinker.”
Black-ish came along when Shahidi was thirteen. What impressed the show’s creator, Kenya Barris, “was the way she approached the role. A lot of actors came in and I felt like they were pushing, pushing, pushing. And there was just an effortlessness to her acting that spoke to me.” Shahidi’s activism emerged in the same natural way. “She’s always been concerned about the world around her,” Barris says. “After her social-media presence began to grow, she began to understand how to use her voice: the things that she talked about and cared about. I also saw it with the Trump election—how that affected people who looked like her and who didn’t look like her. It was just an amazing time for women’s rights, and she’s been right there on the forefront of it.”
“A teenage girl is usually just projected upon,” Shahidi tells me. “OK, Zoey may be angsty, and she may be rebellious, she may be on her phone a lot, but Kenya and the writers really let you see her be a leader within her family, or excel at her job. All of that was through active conversation. Figuring out, OK, how do we stay true to character and not perpetuate stereotypes about what a woman can or cannot be?”
Such is the kind of thinking that has made Black-ish an unusual piece of mass entertainment: a network sitcom with a fearless political sensibility. It has included frank family discussions about everything from Bill Cosby to President Trump to Trayvon Martin (ABC created a furor when it refused to air an episode that touched on the NFL’s national-anthem protests). “You might not normally ask a fourteen-year-old what she thought about police brutality,” says Shahidi, “but because it’s what we were covering on Black-ish, the conversation translated to panels and other opportunities.” Grown-ish is forward-thinking, too, with a gender-balanced writers’ room and a high ratio of women working behind the camera. “It was really cool walking into season one of Grown-ish and having a female DP,” Shahidi tells me. “I called my mother from the set, and I was like, ‘I don’t think you realize how excited I am right now!’ ”
She and her mother look strikingly alike, appear in fashion campaigns parsing each other’s style, and pose on Instagram together like a happy couple. Harvard will be Shahidi’s first exit from the protective familial bubble—an experience she’s already portrayed in Grown-ish (minus the boy trouble; Shahidi says she’s too busy to date). “It’s life imitating art imitating life,” she says with a laugh. “I really connected to Zoey’s level of discomfort and vulnerability.” But she’s ready. She’s an avid reader—currently working through Gregory David Roberts’s 1,000-page novel Shantaram (“I’m on page 800,” she says), having just finished I Write What I Like, by the late South African anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko, and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. She loves music and says this in a breathless rush: “Lots of Frank Ocean. A lot. Just got into Isaiah Rashad. I’m obsessed with Pharrell. I think I wake up every day and ask, What did we do to deserve André 3000? I love alt-J and Arctic Monkeys, Valerie June and SZA and Rihanna and Beyoncé, of course. I love Noname. She’s incredible. Tobi Lou is really cool. Super Duper Kyle just released an album. Childish Gambino. I got into a period of time in which I was just listening to Fela Kuti for a moment. A lot of Tyler, Chloe x Halle.”
Shahidi will surely be one of Harvard’s best-dressed freshmen. Chanel, Tory Burch, Prada: “They’ve been so kind,” she says. “But it’s been cool to actually create moments with them that feel like a collaboration. It’s never just like handing me a dress and saying, You have to wear this.” At the SAG Awards in January, for instance, she wore a black Ralph Lauren jumpsuit with an oversize bow, which initially was supposed to be a dress. “But I have decades to wear a black dress,” she says. “So they came over and we were like, Well, what about a jumpsuit? It felt more like me.”
Red carpets, by the way, “could start to feel trivial,” Shahidi says, so she likes to think about a greater purpose. “Like, this one will give me a platform to talk about voting. Or saying to myself, OK, well, it feels a little weird to be at the Teen Choice Awards right after Charlottesville. But then how do I use my position to shed light on what’s happening?”
A tireless evangelist for better representation, more parity, more truth-telling in mass entertainment, Shahidi talks fast just to fit it all in. (As Ross observes, “If you get Yara talking, she will not stop talking. When Yara gets comfortable, she gets comfortable.”) But she’s scheduled down to the minute—our interview was moved up at the last second because her calendar abhors a vacuum—and her publicist is keeping her eye on the time. Still, Shahidi makes it count. Blending art and activism “is necessary for one’s sanity,” she tells me. “One of my greatest fears is living a self-centric life. I think this industry is bred to create that—especially if your physical body is your tool or your face is what makes you money. I’m trying to understand that and then pulling back to figure out, How do we avoid that? How do we want something and have a greater purpose?”
In this story:
Fashion Editor: Yohana Lebasi.
Hair: Nai’vasha Johnson; Makeup: Emily Cheng.
Tailor: Wendy Williams-Stern.
Photographed by Alessandra Sanguinetti of Magnum Photos.