Keke Palmer is R29Unbothered’s first ever cover star. She’s an example of what we do here at Unbothered — shine, show up, and share JOY. You’re gonna *get* this joy, whether you asked for it or not, despite the fact that the world around us is constantly telling Black women we can’t be joyful or we can’t be different, or we can’t hold power and peace in the same space. Keke is here to remind us that we can. We are. We WILL.
So, it’s only fitting that Palmer joins the Unbothered family officially, as the brand’s first ever Creative Advisor. In this newly created role specifically curated with Palmer, she will creatively consult across Unbothered, supporting and co-developing new projects that push conversations and our culture forward. In this role, Palmer will partner with us to dream up new ways to build Black joy into our everyday content across platforms, ask those tough and taboo questions that need answers, and most of all, continue to create a safe space for Black women to be their freest selves. You’re about to read about how Palmer is achieving her own sense of freedom, by one of my favourite writers, Alanna Bennett.
THIS is Keke Palmer, baby. But don’t expect this to be her final form, because she’s got a whole lot more coming – and so do we.
- Chelsea Sanders, Vice President Refinery29 Unbothered
A few years back, Keke Palmer walked into a tattoo shop and had an artist etch the word "perception" in small block letters across her left hip. Then she had them cross it out. "At that time, I was going through a very big change," Palmer recalls over the phone early on a recent Friday, her morning voice easing into her signature mile-a-minute chatter. "I had just done Broadway, had just cut my hair off, I was getting a bunch of tattoos. A lot of people always had something to say about me and my experiences, not understanding that this is my life." Palmer was fifteen years into near-nonstop hustle at that point, still finding her footing as a grown Black woman in Hollywood who'd come from Nickelodeon iconography. Palmer wanted a permanent reminder to craft her life for herself, rather than in reaction to others’ expectations. Her message is even clearer now: She does not wish to be perceived.
But this is Keke "Keep a Job" Palmer we're talking about. She is booked, busy, and out there — often to her own delight. This is a woman who navigates her career with frenetic energy; a preternaturally gifted comedian who finds peace in creating broad comedic characters for social media, and who is constantly on the move. Perception — reaction, criticism, wanted and unwanted attention — is kinda part of the deal. But after a year that mixed international trauma with personal growth and big career gains, Palmer is slowly figuring out how to balance these two conflicting parts of her psyche: how to grow a healthy life, not just a prolific one.
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"I've been burnt out many times," Palmer tells me over the phone as she gets her hair braided — straightbacks in tight lines down her scalp. "It’s just kinda what happens when you push yourself, and unfortunately when you're the kind of person that I am, [someone] who takes on so much at one time."
Now, almost twenty years into the hustle, Palmer's pushed boundaries, challenged taboos, and created opportunities for herself — all while simultaneously navigating the learning curve that is caring for yourself as a Black woman. She's been open about her struggles with depression, anxiety, and PCOS, and frank about her sexual fluidity. Palmer's natural, earnest, corny goofballness also belies a real dramatic range and a hunger that keeps her very busy. She's had two talk shows, one of which got her nominated for a Daytime Emmy, and an engaging, varied acting career. As a public figure, Palmer often acts as a fuel source for her audience — a shot of light and humour right through the heart. She's an energizing force of nature whether stealing scenes in 2019's Hustlers, playing bombastic characters like Lady Miss Jacqueline (soon coming to Amazon Originals), or becoming a viral meme after not knowing who Dick Cheney is in an interview with Vanity Fair.
All of this means there's not a lot of time to take care of herself. Palmer's met her own frayed edges more than once. This past year, as COVID-19 forced shutdowns across the world, including in the entertainment industry, Palmer was forced to find new methods of keeping herself well. In the past she'd turned to weed to help with ongoing anxiety, but she tells me she decreased her usage when the effects backfired and increased her paranoia instead. In 2020, wellness for Palmer meant acknowledging what it looks like when she hits a wall. Through the course of the pandemic Palmer's learned the value of periodically shutting the door on everyone and everything. She's embraced that sometimes she needs space to recharge before taking on the next hurdle.
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"When I really need a break to rejuvenate, I don't wanna be around anyone," Palmer says."Not a romantic person, not a friend, not a mom, not a dad, not a sister, not a brother, not anyone. It gets to the point where I’m exerting so much energy that I really just have to be around no one."
It's a realization that didn't come naturally to Palmer, who's historically been re-energized by her work and social media. Breaks are rare for her, even in a global pandemic. In 2020, she hosted the MTV Video Music Awards, bringing grounded levity to a production that could have easily been sunk by the constraints brought on by COVID. As a musical act, she's also released a large handful of EPs and mixtapes, the most recent of which is Virgo Tendencies, Part II, which she recorded in quarantine and whose title track includes an incredible reference to period poops. (When I ask if I heard the lyric correctly she exclaims "You sho' did!" and lets out one of her booming auntie cackles.)
See again: This woman is booked, busy, and periodically exhausted. There's not a lot of time in that resume to breathe. But while the steady sprint of her career from ages nine to twenty-seven has led to its share of ups and downs, Palmer remains a relentless optimist. "I’ve just really had to try and remember when I'm taking on so much and I'm doing so many different things that, 'hey, you have to take a break.''
Her sprint's continuing this coming year, however. Palmer's currently voicing a new character in the Disney+ reboot of The Proud Family, as well as doing press for the new comedy podcast Hit Job. "It's exciting and kooky and mysterious," she says of the latter, which recorded with limited crew this past year. "I'm just excited for people to get into it." We may also soon see Palmer in a star vehicle that could launch her to new heights: the lead role in Jordan Peele's mysterious new movie, alongside Oscar nominees Daniel Kaluuya and Steven Yeun. Details about the film are being kept under wraps, but Palmer lets out an extended "GIIIIRRL!" when the topic comes up. "It's just the kinda thing that's serendipitous," she says. "Things are aligned. It's like the things you wish for actually coming to fruition." Palmer's especially excited to learn from Peele as a writer and director. Unsurprisingly, she's looking to add even more hyphenates to her name in the coming years, and is looking to learn more about building worlds behind the camera as well.
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The early months of COVID-19 shutdowns were an education for Palmer, who had a difficult time adjusting her usual frenzied pace to the harsh realities in front of her. "I had to realize, 'OK, I'm gon’ have to just sit still for a while.'" Palmer had to grapple with what that stillness really meant for her. In the past, her anxiety and depression were exacerbated by feelings of loneliness from her time as a child star. But solitude is something Palmer grew to love during the era of self-isolation. "I really actually want more alone time," Palmer said, "because I am surrounded by so many people all the time and exerting so much energy."
Solo time has become a cornerstone of Palmer's wellness routine. She likes to "hang out with herself," decompressing with hours of television, time on her Peloton, or some good old-fashioned journalling. But as a general rule, wellness has always been extra complicated for Black women. The noxious idea of the "Strong Black Woman" infiltrates far and wide — in Hollywood, in politics, in workplace culture, and in our own desire to be "superwomen." The result, in combination with economic demands and the pressure to work twice as hard, can mean Black women take on too much while denying their own need for rest or solace. There are plenty of well-known avenues to care that are too far, too expensive, or too stigmatized for many to access, and the world doesn't exactly pause to give Black women time to process daily stressors and traumas.
Palmer didn't just work a thousand jobs in 2020. She also interviewed Joe Biden on the campaign trail and protested the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The latter went viral when Palmer, speaking with rapid-fire feeling, confronted members of the National Guard, urging them to join the march. When the man kneels as a sort of compromise, Palmer's voice slows, disappointed. "That ain't enough for me," she says. For once you could hear the fatigue in her voice.
The specific type of exhaustion that comes with being a Black woman is real. As Rachel Ricketts wrote for Elle, Black women are in the midst of a burnout epidemic. One study found that Black women experience so much more stress in their lives than white women that our bodies adapt by middle age in a way that makes us 7.5 years biologically "older." "If I got to this point—someone with financial security, healthcare, a partner, decades of therapy and spiritual healing…," Ricketts wrote, "what is happening to my fellow Black women and femmes with less privilege?"
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Asked about her thoughts on how the path towards "wellness" may differ for Black women and girls, Palmer lamented the cultural taboos that have blocked so many from potentially life-changing support systems. "Resources like therapy have been out of reach," Palmer said. When she was a teenager she sat her parents down and told them it was time for her to start therapy. She has hope that as the stigma around things like mental health lessens, access to crucial avenues of care for Black women will expand.
In her own life, Palmer's big on gratitude. It goes with her relentless optimism. She's acutely aware of the privilege of having so many exciting choices in front of her. "I think that’s why I was able to push through so much of [the last year]," she said. "I was just so happy that I was able to work and do what I love because so many people were not."
But there's something thrilling in watching Palmer thrive. The course from child star to adult creative never did run smooth, and that goes double — triple, quadruple — when you're a Black, sexually fluid woman living authentically and in public. Boundaries become beyond necessary when you're trying to balance finding agency in your twenties with the complex, ever-shifting weight of public perception.
Palmer may be almost twenty years into her career, but she's also still only 27. She only recently learned what a Saturn Return is, but she definitely feels she's in the midst of hers. She describes her approach to the shifts in her life as "no-nonsense." Her vibe after the lessons of this year, she says, is one of acceptance of exactly where she is. "This is what I have to offer and this is where I’m headed," she said. "Either jump on board or don’t jump on board. I’m just moving forward."
Palmer's learned the value of trimming back certain pieces of her life in order to grow into who she wants to be. And she's still that shot of light through the heart. That range of hers, that humour, it all radiates outward. Whether it's a TikTok she filmed in 30 seconds from her couch or a performance in a movie she laboured over for months, the energy she does have is still infectious. It still feels like fuel for the rest of us.
Palmer's also excited to still be discovering bits of herself, whether that's through an overall producing deal with Entertainment One, crafting short stories for Amazon, or a brand new love of screenwriting. And she's jazzed to share those discoveries with her audience — just on her own terms. She says, still sounding kind of surprised: "It's funny how you don't realize that you have this kinda stuff inside you."