The Gag Is, 2020 Isn’t Ready For Keke Palmer
She was in the C-suite on Nickelodeon, and now she’s saying good morning to America every day. Keke Palmer isn’t 2019’s breakout star. She’s the new decade’s next powerhouse.
Keke Palmer knew she was being set up when a photo of former vice president Dick Cheney was placed in front of her during a lie detector test for Vanity Fair. But she had no idea her reaction would go viral.
“I knew I was getting tricked. I’m like, I don’t know who that is,” she says. “Even if they had the name next to the photo I would’ve been like, Who the hell?”
Palmer’s reaction spread across the internet faster than a Kardashian Christmas photo. She unknowingly gifted us with the perfect response for every possible situation, from political to personal to pop cultural. Before she knew it, her face — and now infamous phrase — was everywhere. And while seeing herself on screens, both small and large, isn’t foreign to the 26-year-old from Robbins, IL, it catapulted her to a whole new level of stardom.
But in a world where fame is fragile, celebrities come and go, and GIFs are here today and gone tomorrow — Palmer is way more than a meme. Her résumé shows just that. From Akeelah and the Bee to True Jackson VP, CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, Brotherly Love, Grease Live!, Ice Age, Scream Queens, and Pimp to her history-making stint as the youngest talk-show host ever with her short-lived BET show Just Keke, Palmer has proven her range. And that’s just the short version of her work history thus far. For anyone who makes the mistake of thinking she’s new to this and not true to this — well, sorry to that man.
But even with all she’s already accomplished, 2019 has been the biggest year yet for the multi-hyphenate star. She stepped out of the role of Hollywood starlet and into full-blown adulthood, snagging opportunities that seem to lay the blueprint for a new chapter in her career. This fall, she starred in box-office blowout Hustlers alongside Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, and Cardi B. In November, she released a monster music hit as a member of the virtual hip-hop group True Damage, whose music video for their debut song “GIANTS” amassed over 16 million views online. To top it all off, she scored a co-hosting spot on Good Morning America alongside NFL Hall of Famer and television personality Michael Strahan and former co-host of The View Sara Haines.
“This year, there has been a lot of stuff going on back to back. But it’s interesting because I’ve been working towards all those things. So for me, it’s cool that people are seeing it,” Palmer says. “In anything you do, it’s hard to stay passionate and find new ways to invent yourself. So, the fact that I’ve been doing it for 15 years, but I can still find new ways to reinvent it for me, that’s what I’m very thankful for.”
It’s a blistering cold day in New York City. Palmer, née Lauren Keyana Palmer, arrives at famed Chinese restaurant Shun Lee West on the Upper West Side dressed casually in a stylish multi-colored sweatshirt and black sweatpants paired with white sneakers and a crossbody bag. Her hair is simple and straight, and her flawless makeup accentuates her signature cheekbones. She has a Midwest twang and an old soul with a twist of auntie energy, which she tells me she hears often. She attributes it to her Illinois vernacular, but I sense a wisdom and calmness in her demeanor that I certainly didn’t have at her age. In a way, she seems all-knowing — or at minimum, unbothered by whatever it is she doesn’t know — as if she’s discovered the life hack we’ve all been searching for.
The restaurant is dark save for the illuminated Chinese dragons on the wall, and relatively empty. Although it’s not a far walk from the studio where she films GMA, Palmer has never been here before. Her favorite thing about the city is that she could walk to the restaurant without even being recognized. She seems intrigued when I tell her it’s a NYC institution, and she agrees to trust me completely when it comes to ordering. Her face is filled with delight when she bites into a soupy dumpling — an appetizer the restaurant is well-known for — and she nods with satisfaction exclaiming, “Good choice, sis.”
Talking with Palmer feels like kiki-ing (pun intended) with a sister-friend. We often get sidetracked by other topics like our favorite reality shows or her sign (she’s a Virgo sun, Cancer rising, and Sagittarius moon). She periodically says her infamous catchphrase “the gag is.” And despite her major success, and notoriety as perhaps the best meme of the year (or decade?), that’s exactly how she sees herself.
“Keke is regular as hell. I’m really just your normal girl. I’m your normal friend, your sister, your cousin, your niece, your daughter,” she says, now crunching on crispy beef and lo mein. “I’m just your everyday chick, and I don’t try to be anything more than that. And whether people relate in that or detest that, or whether they get that or don’t get that, I’m just really trying to be true to me.”
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Palmer learned how to stay grounded as a child. Her parents moved their family from the Midwest to California so Keke — their second oldest daughter of their four children — could pursue acting (her mother, who manages her once admitted she only expected Keke to do a few commercials to help pay for college). They carefully curated her career, protecting her from the pitfalls of childhood fame, and made sure she didn’t let Hollywood get to her head by keeping her connected to her community.
“My parents were extremely overprotective because they really didn’t want me to become this asshole kid,” she explains. “I think my mom knew early on that she wanted me to have that mass appeal because she wanted every Black girl like me to see that they could be me. So it was on one end getting my name out there, and then the other end of it was making sure that I was a part of foundations that would allow me to remain in constant contact with my culture. So they would know that I’m still touchable.”
In 2004, at the age of 10, she made her acting debut in Barbershop 2: Back in Business and, in 2006, solidly established herself as a child actress with chops with her breakthrough role in Akeelah and the Bee. After completing that film, she was presented with an opportunity to take on another role, but her mother felt like it wasn’t enough of a balance. Palmer realized then that the onus was on her as an actress (at first in partnership with her parents) to choose roles that made sense for her.
She solidified herself in the young-adult genre, starring in the Disney Channel movie Jump In! and the Nickelodeon sitcom True Jackson, VP, the latter of which was specifically created for her and made her the fourth-highest-paid child star on television. She went on to work alongside heavy hitters like Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton in Joyful Noise and scored recurring roles on Ryan Murphy’s campy college horror romp Scream Queens and Showtime’s Masters of Sex. Palmer began to show her ability to ascend beyond childhood stardom, choosing roles that matched her career goals and showed her range. As a grown woman she knows who she is. While she still works closely with her mother, she feels empowered to make choices independently.
“I truly come from an authentic place with what I’m feeling and what’s going to be best for me at that time,” she says assuredly.
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It’s that authenticity that makes her so endearing as a person, and arguably as a personality on both the big and small screens. But she’s also extremely aware of the power of branding, as evidenced by her social media activity and how quickly she cashed in on “sorry to that man.”
“I was like, Oh, so y’all rock with it? Let me get you these T-shirts then,” she says, referencing the apparel she created in response to her viral fame. “Branding is a big part of creating something that stays with people. You wanna give people something that will last.”
The real gag is, Palmer isn’t interested in being anyone but herself. As a Black woman in Hollywood, that’s a radical choice, but it’s one that’s working.
“I don’t think that I’m servicing anyone if I’m being fake,” she points out. “I am gonna be real because you’re safe when you’re being real. If you say, ‘I don’t know how to do that,’ then you’re not gonna have to go through the pressure of pretending you do. Don’t lie to nobody, and then you can relax.”
Likewise, when she’s acting, Palmer doesn’t shy away from bringing her real self to a role, something she says she struggled with as a young Black actress trying to avoid being typecast.
“I am sassy,” she asserts, referring to the description that Black women in Hollywood are all too familiar with. “There’s stereotypes that I don’t fall into. But if it’s stereotypical for a Black girl to be sassy, what do I do if that’s me?”
Palmer learned how to show the multifaceted nature of her characters, giving sassy in one line, serious in the next. She hopes to lead by example and open doors for other young, Black actresses. She knows just how much impact Black women before her have had on her success, and how impactful her success can be for Black girls who come next — she admits she never would’ve had the chance to be Cinderella on Broadway if actress and singer Brandy wasn’t Cinderella on television first.
“Don’t run from who you are. Even if that is considered to be a stereotype. But take an opportunity to show all of who you are. Don’t let nobody let you live in one space,” Palmer says. “If you don’t show people who you really are, then it’s hard for people who look like you to see that they can do what you do. And that was the main thing I’ve always tried to protect.”
Representation is especially important as she finds herself on a show broadcast into America’s living rooms every morning. When presented with the chance to join Strahan and Haines, she knew it was a bigger platform than she’s ever been on before.
“I started to really see the opportunity that I had as a young, Black woman, Sara as an older white woman, Michael as an older Black man,” she points out. “Here we are, three of us on the stage having the opportunity to talk about different topics. Optically, we look so different, but here we are getting along. So I said, This is it. This is what creatively — me as a person and living in my purpose authentically — this is what I should be offering.”
“It’s about using those opportunities to express the balance,” she says. “It doesn’t mean run from who you are. I can show many facets. I don’t have to just do what gets a quick laugh. I get to really showcase all colors of who I am. And that goes into what roles I take. That’s why my character roles have always been so different, because I always want to show something different.”
Palmer has already scored another hosting gig as co-host of the Quibi reboot of the MTV ’90s dating series Singled Out. Her next step is to figure out how to conquer comedy. She’s dabbled a bit in improv, showcased her humor on Scream Queens, and wants to keep exploring what comedy looks like for Keke. Within the genre, she sees a chance to heal personal struggles like anxiety and connect with others who feel similarly.
“As happy as I am, I’ve experienced a lot of darkness in my life. And I think that’s what my defense mechanism is. I think life is extremely hard, and we don’t talk about that enough. Like, what the fuck,” she jokes. “It’s about giving an opportunity for people to laugh and be entertained by our hardships. And feel a bit of relief to know that we’re not alone. That’s why I’ve always loved memes. They’re like the new version of the newspaper cartoon. It’s like, Oh shit, somebody understands what I’m saying. Bringing all that to the forefront and being like, We’re all fucked.”
And in true millennial form, she uses social media to experiment and see what her audience wants from her — although she doesn’t believe in oversharing. If you’re not one of her 8.7 million followers on Instagram (or 1.7 million on Twitter), you’re missing out. Palmer posts everything from her hilarious snaps to her drop-dead-gorgeous red carpet looks to inspirational captions.
“Social media gave me the freedom to express who I was,” she says. “It allowed me to really engage with my audience in a way where I wasn’t under a moral clause or an idea or a brand of someone else. I was able to express my brand through my social media. Without feeling like I had to be around somebody else’s guidelines.”
Palmer doesn’t feel pressure to figure out her next move — she’s got enough on her plate as is. She has dreams of portraying Whitney Houston in a biopic and insists that she’ll never do a role that calls for nudity. Just like anyone else, she has her struggles: Loneliness and work-life balance are two of her biggest challenges. But she feels good for now, and she isn’t in a hurry for the next iteration of her career.
“I never rushed anything, and I never felt like I needed to be where other people wanted me to be,” she says matter-of-factly. “And the reasons for that is I never wanted to force myself into spaces where people didn’t want me, or didn’t appreciate me, or didn’t understand what I was about. Sometimes we move too fast, and we end up being in situations where people don’t truly value us.”
As we wrap up our meal, she cracks open a fortune cookie, eager to see what message the universe might be sending her next. “Things turn out the best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out,” the strip of paper reads.
She pulls out her phone to get her own Uber, walking casually onto the city street as if her face isn’t plastered on billboards, TVs, and phone screens. It will continue to be, without a doubt. Palmer isn’t one to be counted out anytime soon. And if Dick Cheney — or anyone else for that matter — can’t recognize her face, well sor— you know the rest.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the number of children in Palmer's family.