The Grown-ish star is the voice of a generation of actor-activists for whom social change comes before fame
Words by CHRISTINE LENNON
Photography by BEAU GREALY
Creative & Fashion Direction by ALISON EDMOND
Yara Shahidi is expansive. Her ambition, her vocabulary, her confidence, her worldview and even her energy are vast. At just 19, the star of Grown-ish (a Freeform channel spinoff built around her character in ABC’s Black-ish) and the upcoming YA romance movie The Sun Is Also a Star is perfectly comfortable in the spotlight. Using her increasingly visible profile to advocate for social change and civic engagement, she is handling fame with grace and purpose, as if she has been waiting for this moment to arrive. It’s how she was raised.
“The name of my corporation, since I was, wait, how old was I?” she asks her mother, Keri.
“You were 8,” Keri says quietly, seated in a chair nearby.
“Since I was 8 years old, is Dharma Driven, which means to be driven by one’s purpose,” continues Yara, who is wearing sweats post-shoot and sitting cross-legged in the den of a Lautner house high in the Hollywood Hills. “In the time since Black-ish aired, it turned my platform into something public from something that was private, or just interpersonal,” she explains. “It also gave me the privilege of people asking the same questions in public that I have always been asked in my home, about what I care about.” She glances at her mother.
To say the Shahidis are tight-knit might be an understatement. The mother and daughter are inseparable while Yara is on set, and the duo even appeared together on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Though Yara is technically an adult, she is still very much under her mother’s wing.
“I’ve always grown up right here,” Yara says, reaching for Keri’s arm. “The support and the transparency in this journey of ours has allowed me to grow up understanding the potential of what we can do.”
Don’t ask Yara what she cares about unless you have time to hear the answer in full. Her list of interests starts with the organization she launched in 2017, called Eighteen x 18, to mobilize first-time voters during the 2018 midterm elections, and extends to policy-wonk territory. She remarks on “how flawed data gathering has been used to support some really insidiously heinous policies” in government. (As an example, she references research that suggests the Nixon administration had a plan to build prisons to accommodate a predicted rise in the number of incarcerated black youth.)
Yara is following in the footsteps of other feminist/activist actors, such as Jane Fonda, Angelina Jolie and Emma Watson — women who got the world’s attention with their looks and talent, then used their intelligence to lobby for change.
There’s no telling how far Yara will go down this path, but here’s one indicator: Oprah wants her to run for president one day. The media mogul floated the idea in a recorded statement that aired on The Ellen Show when Yara was a guest last September. Need we say more?
The story of Yara and her family is as modern and American as they come. Her father, Afshin Shahidi, is a photographer who emigrated to Minnesota from Iran when he was a child. He met Keri when she was in graduate school, studying business. Not long after they became a couple, Keri, who is African-American, was spotted on a street in Minneapolis by a model scout, then sent to casting calls for local jobs for the likes of Target and Best Buy. Afshin, by some twist of fate, became the official photographer for fellow Minnesotan Prince, and he joined the performer’s entourage at home and on tour for many years. The Shahidis’ first-born and only daughter, Yara, booked her first job in front of the camera when she was still an infant, after Keri brought her along to a meeting at her agency.
When Yara was 4, her family — including her little brother Sayeed — moved to the Pasadena area of Los Angeles for Afshin’s career. A second son, Ehsan, was born a couple of years later, just as Yara began landing her first commercial acting jobs. All three children are now working actors who have been taught to take charge of their own finances and to prioritize making philanthropic donations — according to a model of save, share, spend. Yara makes it clear she appreciates having “this lovely entertainment thing work out,” but it isn’t her only plan. It’s just part of her plan. With each job she takes, she considers (along with her parents) not only how it will advance her career but also its societal impact. “It could be overt,” she says. “In that by [accepting a certain role] I get to open doors in the infrastructure, knowing that we have the privilege of helping people enter new spaces.”
Though her first big break came when she played Eddie Murphy’s daughter in Imagine That in 2009 (it’s been reported that Prince rented out theaters for eager friends and loved ones back in Minnesota to watch it), her profile grew substantially when she was cast as Black-ish’s Zoey Johnson. Opposite Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson, Yara took on the role of a somewhat indulged, apolitical, eye-rolling, fashion-obsessed teenager in an affluent African-American family. “It’s really about proving that this family is not the anomaly,” Yara says of the show. “Many times when we portray exceptional people, especially if they’re a part of a minority group of any identity, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is the one exception. This is the one person who has ever made this work.’”
For Yara, the Johnsons feel like a real family that’s constantly striving for more. They’re imperfect but evolving together. “They’re also breaking those visual barriers when you see a black man on television in a creative field, rather than in a jumpsuit in another detective show,” she explains.
Black-ish made Yara an instant fashion darling, a regular in Teen Vogue and an Instagram phenom with 3.5 million followers. On the red carpet, she goes big, wearing eye-catching looks by Off-White and Fendi and making bold, playful choices. She has been a brand ambassador for Chanel and is a new face for Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. Even those decisions are shaped by her value system. Yara carefully considers a brand’s reputation and humanitarian efforts before she partners with it, making sure it represents something she genuinely believes in.
She returns to the big screen this spring in The Sun Is Also a Star, playing Natasha, a Jamaican immigrant who falls in love with a Korean immigrant couple’s son — played by Riverdale heartthrob Charles Melton — on the eve of her family’s deportation. Yara and Melton spent the summer of 2018 filming in New York City’s five boroughs. “Moving into this project, I feel like what really made me attach was how many parallels I see being first generation on my father’s side,” she explains. “Immigration and the story of immigration is something that has shaped me as a human and shaped so much of my family. Even though I can’t claim Natasha’s story as my own I feel like I had a deep respect for trying to find how I could best portray her.”
Nicola Yoon, the author of the best-selling book on which the film is based, told Yara she had envisioned her in the role, which gave the starlet an extra boost of confidence. “What I love about it is that there is such a complexity,” the actor says. “It is a young adult romance movie, but at the same time you don’t lose the seriousness of what’s happening to her and her family. It’s not lost in this idea of her falling in love, but it’s an ever-present theme, and you witness the humanity in a story like this.”
“The story of immigration … has shaped me as a human”
As Yara matures in the public eye, her enthusiasm for sharing details of her private life has cooled. She is tight-lipped about how she divides her time between her studies and her work. And though she may choose her words and actions more carefully now, possibly in an effort to preserve her reputation for future endeavors, she never takes herself too seriously. “There have been very few times when I’m like, ‘Oh, I am not enjoying this.’ If that’s the case, we change what we’re doing,” she says. “I always feel 19, but I feel most 19 when I’m with my brothers.”
Yara understands better than anyone the enormous weight involved in taking up the mantle as a generational voice and leader. Drawing from the strength of her families, both real and fictional, she can handle it.
Feature image: CHANEL MÉTIERS D’ART dress, price upon request. ALEXANDRA JULES rings, from $695. ADINA REYTER pink ring, $695. Necklace, her own.
Hair by NAI’VASHA at The Wall Group using Oribe.
Makeup by EMILY CHENG at the Wall Group.
Manicure by EMI KUDO at Opus Beauty using Chanel Le Vernis.
This story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of C magazine.