"I'd rather be loved or hated for being myself than for being somebody I'm not," says Keke Palmer while Zooming from her favorite vegan spot in Pasadena, Calif. "If people don't like that I tell it like it is, then they should at least be able to respect me for being real." A self-described chill Midwest chick from Robbins, Ill., Palmer, 27, is known for her scene-stealing roles in projects like Hustlers and Scream Queens. But it's her total candor, ownership of her physical imperfections, and DGAF impressions on Instagram that have most recently propelled her forward.
"I got tired of trying to be who everybody wanted me to be," she says. "There's always going to be something that people hate me for, whether it's wanting me to not be Black, or a woman, or tall, or short, or skinny, or thick. Other people might love me for it, but I don't want to constantly change who I am for outside validation. That just sounds like hell."
Palmer was intent on bringing her authentic self and her version of beauty to our Los Angeles shoot. And that meant going big — from the hair to the skirts to the last-minute addition of two majestic stallions, which came about after she and photographer Quil Lemons started plotting. "Quil said, 'I just want to have this freaking moment of you with these horses,'" Palmer recalls. "But from the clothing styles to the environments we were in, it was just important to us to show things that are true and specific to Black culture. I really wanted to bring back that down-home, rose-from-the-concrete vibe, which is not overly refined."
VIDEO: Behind the Scenes With Keke Palmer
For Palmer, glamour and grit have always gone hand-in-hand. She's not afraid to get into the weeds when it comes to inelegant topics, and in December her self-actualization streak manifested itself in the form of a 14-minute Instagram confessional in which she opened up about her longtime struggle with acne and an underlying hormone disorder, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). While most celebrities opt for filters and Facetunes, a barefaced Palmer frankly, almost breezily, covered topics such as camouflaging dark spots, being proud of her skin texture, and navigating a love-hate relationship with makeup since her early teens.
"I was constantly hiding myself and felt shame about having acne," she remembers. "Wearing makeup became a chore because I always had to be 'on' wherever I went in case a fan asked me to take a picture; I didn't have the proper boundaries to say no. So instead of getting to the bottom of my acne and trying to understand it, I was covering it up, trying to be perfect. But you're never going to get to the nitty-gritty of something when you do a lot of covering up."
It was her role in the upcoming film Alice, an antebellum-South set thriller that wrapped in the fall, that inspired Palmer to stop piling on layers of foundation and start seeking solutions to her skin condition. "The movie is so much about standing up for your freedom, and that activated something deep in me," she says. "I started questioning what I could do for myself instead of just popping a birth-control pill to try to control my acne. I wanted to bring the same energy and confidence to my skin that I had already brought to my natural hair when, after it was changed by weaves and wigs, I learned how to protect it."
She began researching her family history and spoke with medical specialists, which ultimately led to her PCOS diagnosis. On a personal level, addressing the fact that she was unhappy with her skin was liberating — but it was the chance to help others that compelled her to go public. "I feel most beautiful when I'm being kind and of service to others," she says. "As females, we need to advocate for ourselves, because everything [in society] is kind of a rule-of-thumb by males. But it shouldn't be weird for us to talk about our health issues or demand what we need when we go to the doctor. We make it weird, but it's not really weird — and the more that we talk about it, the less of an issue it will become."
That doesn't mean she always welcomes others' opinions. When sharing her story, Palmer rejected unsolicited advice by blocking anyone who dared to tell her how to manage her skin in the comments. "All an entertainer really wants is to cater to their audience, but you subject yourself to so much craziness when you solely engage on social media," she says. "A lot of people want to get in your force field, and you have to find ways to maintain privacy. I know young girls are looking at my page, and I keep it real with them — but that doesn't mean I'm going to overexpose my personal life. And when I'm talking personal, it's like, who you slept with last night. You ain't got to share that! My love life is a very big line that I won't cross."
At this stage of her career, Palmer is choosing to communicate her way. "I love going into schools and speaking to my peers and my audience directly, but that's not possible now with COVID," she says. Though she's eager to resume those face-to-face interactions, Palmer has been showing herself some of the kindness she espouses during quarantine. So far, her wellness plan has included taking up yoga, reading Louise Hay's You Can Heal Your Life, listening to motivational speaker Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, and watching reality-TV shows like Are You the One? and Temptation Island. "I'm happy to be alone just vibing with myself," she says. "The only person you'll always have is you, so you really have to be kind to that person. During a recent Peloton class, I went so hard that by the end I was hugging myself like, 'Girl, you're amazing.' "
It's her spunk and flair for the dramatic that's made Palmer a hit on TikTok, the home of her Southern Belle Insults series, featuring a savage socialite alter-ego. She was also recently tapped to star in the latest film from Oscar-winning Get Out and Us director Jordan Peele. Though little has been revealed about the still-untitled project, the serious role marks a turning point for Palmer after finding success on TV and in music at a young age (she was a staple on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon as a teen and has steadily released EPs and mixtapes since her 2007 début album, So Uncool). "When I was coming up in the early 2000s, it felt like you could only do one thing," she says. "My mom used to tell me, 'You're meant for vaudeville.'" She starts laughing. "But vaudeville hadn't been in style since people used the word 'vaudeville' in, like, the 1920s."
Now celebrated for her range, Palmer is booked solid. She voices an aspiring artist opposite Pete Davidson ("He's a bro for sure," she quips) in Audible's "kooky" workplace comedy podcast Hit Job, out April 22, and she'll continue dabbling in voice work for The Proud Family's animated reboot on Disney+. She also serves as both host and executive producer of the streamer's food competition series Foodtastic, in what turned out to be a full-circle career moment. "I started with Disney when I was 10 years old, and I've worked my way up," she says. "I'm ready to usher in a new generation of creative talent coming up behind me, especially from lower income communities. I don't run from my past, and I'm not ashamed that I came from poverty. I want other people to know they're beautiful not in spite of, but because of, where they come from. It's not about changing who you are to step through the doors; it's about being who you are when you get there."
Palmer is resolute in her commitment to social and racial justice. Last June she made headlines when she urged members of the National Guard to march at a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles. "I've always been that person; it just happened to come out at a moment when everybody could see it," she says of the exchange, which was captured on video. "I really care that everybody gets what's going on in America, and I want us to stop holding hate in our hearts. I'm always going to speak that truth."
But, like any natural leader, her passionate nature can occasionally be misinterpreted. "I always hope what I say comes out right, and sometimes I worry that it won't," she says. "When I was working with BET to produce a special about [the death of] Mike Brown in Ferguson [Mo.], I said something the wrong way and people online were saying I didn't care about Black people and they called me an Uncle Tom. That was devastating, because I've dedicated my entire career to being thoughtful of representation when it comes to the Black-American community and bringing these issues to light. We live in a culture where people are always trying to cancel folks, though, and there's a lot of negativity. People can think what they want, but at the end of the day, I know where my heart is."
Palmer knows what she's all about, and she's intent on motivating others to find their purpose too. "Your girl Keke is ready for you, loves," she says, as if a camera just panned to her for a close-up. "She's ready to hear your words and help you figure out how to get there."
Lead image: Mugler bodysuit and tights. Fallon Jewelry earrings. Cartier bracelets. Moschino Couture pumps.
Hair: Nikki Nelms for Wondaland Management. Makeup: Cherish Brooke Hill. Manicure: Emi Kudo for Opus Beauty. Set design: Daniel Horowitz forJ ones MGMT. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the May 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Apr. 16th.