I Spent 5 Minutes Basking In the Light Of Yara Shahidi

Actor and activist Yara Shahidi speaks onstage during The Tory Burch Foundation 2018 Embrace Ambition Summit

Petite yet striking, Yara Shahidi commands a room with a quiet power the moment she enters it. All enviable cheekbones and voluminous hair, the young starlet was decked out in Gen-Z yellow as she perched gracefully, eyes sparkling as we began our quick Tuesday morning tête-à-tête.

Just kidding.

I mean, I did talk to Yara Shahidi and she was wearing Gen-Z yellow and she is a literal angel from heaven, but this isn’t that kind of party. We chatted for a fleeting, yet thrilling, five minutes about ambition, fear and one of team Man Repeller’s favorite topics: breakfast. It’s hard not to devote 3,000 words of thesis-level seriousness to her, not just because I adore her work and have chosen to believe that we’re almost-maybe-casual friends now, but mostly because after spending 20 seconds in her presence, it’s clear that you are sharing the space with an impressive mind.

Yara (the star of the Freeform television show Grownish, the hit ABC show Blackish, and Drake’s utter masterpiece of a video) kicked off the Embrace Ambition Summit this week, an event put on by the Tory Burch Foundation, where Yara was interviewed by Tory herself. Throughout their discussion, Tory kept referring to the actress as the “voice of her generation,” which is a lot for one woman to live up to! Yara gently rejected the mantle of Generational Voice, instead naming the peers and mentors that inspire her to do the work she does.

But it’s clear that she is at least prototypical of the type of youth that will save us all: She hit us with a James Baldwin quote when talking about her upcoming start at Harvard; she started a foundation to get young people registered to vote; she speaks of equality and the hard-ass work some folks are going to have to do in order to level the playing field. When Tory Burch brought up that women make 79 cents to a man’s dollar, Yara brought up that it is actually much lower for women of color with a comfortable quickness.

After I watched her sail through the interview and before I got to sit down with her one-on-one, I shook off my nerves by assuring myself she couldn’t be that poised and interesting all the time. I was wrong! She’s a delight! She even fielded my questions about breakfast! Here’s what she had to say in the five and a half glorious minutes I got to speak with her.

You started anchoring Grownish at 17. Were there moments of fear or hesitation around moving from Blackish to your own show?

Definitely, there were so many fears. Grownish, as a show, morphed over ten million times before we even started shooting. The transition to [being] centered in every story line to — you are the story line — that was different.

I’m a 17 year old, and I happily consider myself a square. I haven’t had certain experiences because I haven’t wanted to, or it just wasn’t the right time. So within the first three episodes [of Grownish], to [try] Adderall and [to be] dating two boys, was definitely…[Laughs].

I really did have a conversation about making sure we weren’t doing things for shock value. Of course, Grownish isn’t the carrier of all important discussions, but in what we do tackle and what we do decide to cover: How do we do it with gravitas? We’re talking about Adderall; it’s not just the ploy of young people on drugs, it’s the greater conversation of… how normalized it is.

I think we all have ambition within us, but there are days where it’s just hard to feel ambitious. What do you do on those hard days?

Music! They call me a walking playlist on set — I’m never not listening to music. I also always lose my headphones, which means everyone around me has to listen to my music too. “Elements,” Kendrick Lamar — I feel like that pretty much sums it all up. Also, Lizzo — I love her. “Truth Hurts,” that’s a bop! I think that sums it up too. It’s really funny because [my] Mom can tell: “Are you listening to James Blake?”

Do you have any affirmations or mantras that you recite to yourself?

My papa would record his affirmations on a tape recorder, so I feel like [I’m] just kinda reusing that. One that I always come back to, that might be really simple, is: “I am.” I feel like I’m constantly defining myself, you know, for marketing purposes, for living purposes — you’re supposed to describe yourself in 500 words or less with a nice, quick title. So I think there’s a constant combating of, okay, it’s cool to be all of these things people say I am, but at the same time, I can be so much more. More than that, I don’t have to be any of it.

Recognizing that instead of looking for a word to describe me just [allows] me to exist as I am. Because so many times with a word comes a criteria, and with a criteria comes something that proves you’re just not the fit for it. I think that getting rid of those words and really just allowing myself to exist is not saying that I’m going to stray away from being too much of this and too much of that… It’s more so recognizing that I’m not gonna ascribe myself to a criteria that is going to make me feel [like] less. I figure out how to personalize what I am and what I’m doing so that it’s like, this is my perfect position. I’m not meant to be everything or do everything, nor do I wanna be. How do I exist as I am and support other people existing as they are?

This is either the easiest question of the day, or the hardest: They say breakfast is the meal of champions. What’s your go-to?

You can hear my stomach growling right now. I had oatmeal, which is really solid, but I have to say, my father makes a great omelette. It’s basically — I’m spilling Shahidi secrets right now — an egg white omelette with black beans, not refried, but just thicker. It’s delicious. Black beans in an egg white omelette with tomatoes and avocado on top. It’s like a burrito without the shell.

Finally, what’s your take on scrunchies coming back?

Scrunchies never really worked for me because I need it to go over my hair two times for it to ever do anything. So you know, good on scrunchies, but I need something with more elastic for this hair.

Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Tory Burch Foundation.

Nora Taylor

Nora Taylor

Nora Taylor is the Editor of Clever. She can frequently be found knocking things over in the greater New York City area.

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