When you hear “Hollywood starlet,” who immediately pops into your head? What does she look like? How old is she? Is she an actress or a pop star? Is she someone whose work you admire? Or perhaps her Instagram account is lit? Does she have amazing style? Did Yara Shahidi came to mind at all? She should have.
Traditionally, the term starlet has been reserved for a successful young actress who shows promise and talent in her career. They become our “sweethearts” and icons. Anyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Millie Bobby Brown could fit that mold. Today we know that to be young and famous today doesn’t require a singular skill set like singing or acting. Ariana Grande is just as much of a household name as Amber Rose. The starlet has been replaced — at the minimum, they’re getting a good run for their money, literally — by social media icons like the Jenners or the models in Taylor Swift’s elusive "squad."
Not to mention the fact that the term starlet has typically been reserved for white women. Obviously, Hollywood has found diverse representation to be a challenge. But it should be noted that just because the cultural boundaries that define what’s popular for different groups of people often go ignored by mainstream media, doesn’t mean that communities of color don’t have celebrities who mean just as much to us. Black people have seen your Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn; we raise you a Dorothy Dandridge.
But whether or not we keep the old definition of starlet, which relies solely on an upward-bound trajectory in Hollywood; use a new definition that is all about social media influence; or take the position that the term is reductive because of who it has and continues to exclude, I think we can all agree that Shahidi fits the bill. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Lisa Bonet (whose career was sabotaged because of respectability politics), Raven-Symoné (who was canceled for being ridiculous), and Janet Jackson (from her Penny on Good Times days), Shahidi represents the young woman of this era whom Black communities look forward to seeing on their screens.
As the teenage star of ABC’s Black-ish, Shahidi has proven herself a more than capable actress. R29 has already crowned her the beauty guru we’ve been waiting for. She has also captured the attention of the fashion industry, as evidenced by partnerships with Beyoncé’s Ivy Park, Teen Vogue, and Asos to name a few. Her Instagram is the perfect blend of popular teenager and well-connected alternative model, with her eclectic style and frequent cameos from family members.
The 17-year-old has joined the ranks of celebrities who have taken a strong stance on social justice issues. But what really makes Shahidi a unicorn in the entertainment industry is that she’s entirely ready to abandon her fame for something different. When she talked about deferring college for a year — an endeavor that will be helped immensely by coveted letters of recommendation from Michelle Obama — she said that she wants to “recalibrate” before selecting a career and “life path.”
What Shahidi does next might be completely outside the framework of celebrity culture as we understand it. And that’s fine, because right now, the starlet club needs a little expanding.