Keke Palmer is in the back room of a nail studio deep in the Little Russia nook of Brighton Beach—a neighborhood so far into Brooklyn it’s practically teetering into the Atlantic—where the lobby is decorated in floral decals and the staff speak with thick Russian accents. A late-February chill has dropped outside, but inside, Palmer is dressed comfortably in just leggings and a graphic tee.
Her faux locks are gathered into a high bun, leaving unobstructed the very-Keke mantra emblazoned across the front of her shirt: “It’s nice to be nice.” I, too, am wearing a graphic tee.
Mine, somewhat strategically, has her face on it, accompanied by a very-Keke mantra: “Sorry to this man.” In a way, Palmer sold me the shirt.
She began hyping the statement wear online last year—as any enterprising 26-year-old with the keys to her own merch store would do—one week after the world turned her into a meme.
Since jump-starting an acting career at the age of nine and later moving to Los Angeles with her family, Palmer has been a child star (Akeelah and the Bee), a theater star (she was Broadway’s first black Cinderella), a television star (Scream Queens), and an Internet star with her own YouTube comedy shows and round-the-clock social media presence.
And as of last September, when she was on a promo tour for her ensemble role in Hustlers, Palmer was cusping on movie stardom too. It was during those press rounds that Vanity Fair strapped her to a lie detector on camera and asked her a series of lighthearted questions.
A 10-second clip was lifted from that video and spread online like laughing gas. You’ve seen it, even if you don’t know where it came from or how you found it: Palmer asked to identify a photo of former U.
S. Vice President Dick Cheney, her head down, studying the photo, peering at the photo, before finally admitting, “I hate to say it, I hope I don’t sound ridiculous, I don’t know who this man is.
I mean, he could be walking down the street, and I wouldn’t know a thing. Sorry to this man.
Those last four words immediately earned Palmer a spot in the great pantheon of memes right alongside Crying Jordan, Sad Keanu, and perhaps their most direct four-word antecedent, “I Don’t Know Her,” the famous kiss-off line direct from superstar diva Mariah Carey. Why Palmer’s “Sorry to This Man” meme spread so fast and landed so hard comes down to a combination of factors: Perhaps it’s because the power blazer she’s wearing lends the interrogation a certain over-the-top gravity, maybe it’s because she looks so genuinely perplexed (Palmer was eight when Cheney was sworn in as VP, let’s all remember), or it could be that Cheney’s reputation as a black hole of a dark force that fe on all other dark forces really sold it.
She did not know this man. And, really, how could any of us “know” this man? Why would any of us want to know this man? Maybe it was the blithe, dismissive power of Carey’s “I Don’t Know Her” perfectly repackaged for the moment, then redirected to the men who we think really deserve it.
But in that video, Palmer wasn’t telegraphing any secret messages or rallying cries. She was just being Keke.
“I honestly give credit to Twitter,” she says. “It was like a perfect little sound bite that people could add to a million different stories.
That’s why I say our generation inspires me so much. The voice.
The creativity. I mean, it’s masterful.
They gave it life.”
Carolina Herrera gown; Ondyn Fine Jewelry earrings, ondyn.
com; Ondyn Fine Jewelry ring, ondyn.com.
The reason being Keke works so well online comes from the same instinct behind why she chose this distant salon, which is almost an hour-long drive from the Manhattan studios where she normally tapes the daytime talk show Strahan, Sara and Keke four or five days a week with her cohosts, Michael Strahan and Sara Haines. She found the place after searching a hashtag—#newyorknails—on Instagram, her preferred method of sourcing recommendations since moving to New York from Los Angeles last year.
After we settle in, she shows her iPhone to her nail technician, Lina, and says, “I think I’ll do something simple, like this.” On her screen is a photo from the studio’s Instagram account of a hand model showing off egg-shaped claws with snow-white polish.
Palmer lives online, grew up online. Internet is her second language.
Like most people her age, she’s hopped from platform to platform—YouTube to Snapchat to Instagram, where she has around nine million followers. Most of the time, her profoundly millennial relatability is the key to her charm.
(Some of the time, it results in very public teachable moments, like when Twitter users reproached her for an All Lives Matter tweet in 2016.) Online, Palmer gave herself a real chance to do what former child stars couldn’t do in Hollywood: grow up and thrive alongside her fans.
It’s not unusual to achieve virality on the Internet, but it is hard to successfully capitalize on it, harder still to stay “real” while doing so. Palmer has succeeded at both.
“I see memes as, like, a real way to feel seen. I know that sounds dramatic, but to me, memes are almost like our generation’s version of the comic strips in the newspaper.
Sometimes when I’m in a bad mood or if I’m feeling an emotion, I’ll put the word in, and I’ll add meme, and I just read all of them to make myself feel better.”
The gel application at this faraway Brooklyn studio is a two-hour process, during which the nails must be built using paper stickers called nail forms, only to then be cured and then buffered.
It’s a process that requires stillness, and stillness is not Palmer’s strong suit—especially when she has a point to make. “If I’m gonna have something to say, or if I’m gonna be someone that’s looked at, I wanna try my best to uplift other people like me,” she says, excitedly gesticulating about the philosophy behind her online presence.
“Don’t move, please,” Lina says sweetly from behind a light-pink face mask.
Palmer obliges, but about an hour and a half in, she smudges a nail under the heat of a UV lamp. “Dang, it was so perfect,” she says, sucking her teeth.
“I fucked up.” Luckily, Lina has her covered.
By the time we leave, Palmer’s nails look like elegant icicles. “Now you see why I came all the way out here.
Palmer was born in a suburb of Chicago, where she developed her voice, not just comedically, but literally—she speaks with something close to an aged Midwestern preacher’s drawl or an Auntie timbre, which is a big part of what made “Sorry to This Man” extra funny. “I sound like an old lady a little bit.
Black kids learn to code-switch at an early age, and those pressures mount if they grow up to take public-facing roles later in life. Palmer says she picked up on that while attending St.
Benedict Preparatory School in Illinois, “where you’re maybe the only minority kid in your class. I think that was the first time that I realized, ‘Oh, is there a different dialect?’” She decided to focus more on the clarity and conviction behind what she said.
She wanted to make sure she was understood. Or, put another way, “All I ever cared about was being able to articulate myself, having a strong vocabulary, so I can read people,” she says, “without curse words.
<img style="max-width: 620px" src="http://www.ladyandwoman.
When Palmer was nine, her parents, who met in drama school, took her to audition for a part in the Chicago production of The Lion King.
She didn’t get it. But soon after, she did get a part as Queen Latifah’s niece in Barbershop 2, and her family, with her older sister and two younger twins, moved to Los Angeles.
“It sounded crazy,” Palmer remembers. “But my parents, aside from being artists, really wanted me to get the opportunity to have what they didn’t have.
Palmer excelled at roles that required an elite level of camp. As a kid, she played a teen entrepreneur on Nickelodeon’s True Jackson VP.
Later, she appeared in Ryan Murphy’s mean-girls horror series Scream Queens. In Hustlers, she made skittering away from a crime scene in a skintight bandage dress and stilettos look like modern dance.
(Director Lorene Scafaria cast Palmer alongside Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu after seeing her videos on Instagram.) Palmer trades in the currency of being memorable, of scene-stealing even in the stacked ensemble of the most emotionally liberating movie of 2019.
Hustlers made nearly $105 million at the domestic box office and earned Lopez early Oscars buzz, though she was later shut out of the awards. “Honestly, I feel like everybody deserves their respect and their opportunity to be acknowledged in that way,” Palmer says when I ask her about the J.
Lo snub. “But I will say that the way my mom raised me, when it comes to the arts, the point isn’t to be validated by the [awards] acknowledgements.
So I felt like the fact that [Lopez] wasn’t nominated didn’t take anything away from her performance. To me, the win was the fact that people got to see it and receive the emotion, the feeling.
That was the reward.”
Her preternatural energy and the discipline of working for networks like Nickelodeon as a kid prepared her for the life she lives now, which consists of back-to-back days that require her to get camera ready and put on a show for early morning tapings of Strahan, Sara and Keke, which then air as afternoon extensions of Good Morning America.
“I am a naturally energized person, I am,” she says, as if anyone needed convincing. She doesn’t drink coffee, but these days, she does try to be in bed by 11.
“I will be honest with you, I go to sleep now. Back in the day, I may be like, ‘I’m going out!’ Now, no.
I never thought I would be putting myself on a bedtime, but I do not wanna be tired.”
At the moment, Palmer’s designated hour has temporarily been replaced with informational COVID-19 coverage hosted by journalist Amy Robach, leaving Palmer in a rare state of stir craziness.
When I check in, she sends back a missive: “So obviously we aren’t currently working, which sucks! I miss our crew and Michael and Sara. However, it does free some space up in my head to play around with ideas that I haven’t had the chance to get around to.
Now that I’m chained to the house, I have no other choice but to find fun ways to stay active and creative! If you’re looking to be entertained for a bit, check out my Insta. I’ve turned it into my own daytime talk show!” She caps it off with, “LMAO #helpme.
It’s clear why Palmer has pent-up energy to burn. Her regularly scheduled daytime programming allows for her to perform skits, deliver recaps of her favorite reality TV shows (like Love Hip-Hop or Love Island), and indulge in bursts of excitement while talking a light-year a minute.
She gets to be her most honest, expressive self—and by dint of that, she provides theater too. “I can be over the top.
I do like it. I enjoy it,” she says.
“It’s not for everybody, and it’s not for every moment in time, but that’s kinda like the space I live in on a day-to-day.”
She also brings some of the more confessional, real-talk elements of her online presence to the show.
At the end of Black History Month, to coincide with a GMA segment about the history of Black hair, she posted an Instagram video showing off her short, natural curls. “Still with the organic lay and slay,” she says in the video, bopping around like a human bobblehead.
Someone shared it on Twitter and wrote, “Keke Palmer is really THAT girl and I have no choice but to continue stanning.” Because she’s worn so many hairstyles over the years—wigs, ponytails, a pixie cut, scarlet-red braid extensions—she’s dealt with the complications of on-set stylists who don’t understand Black hair.
“Sometimes when I was a kid, it was impossible to find people that knew how to do my hair,” she says. “I learned how to deal with it.
I made it a point to the people on set, like, ‘Uh-uh, we’re not gonna have that weird, awkward moment over my hair. This is what we’re doing.
In return, the gig gives Palmer the latitude she ne to do what she’s always wanted to do as an artist: add more hyphens to her job description. It’s something she didn’t always think would be possible, no matter how much she craved it.
“I do see the shift. And I think it’s magical,” says Palmer.
“From the beginning of my career, my mom always made me feel comfortable with being multifaceted. But I think in our industry, at the time that I got in, you were only allowed to be one thing.
If you are a movie star, you can’t be on TV. If you are a TV star, you’ll never do movies.
” And so on. Now, Reese Witherspoon can produce, she can star in movies and prestige TV, she can start a book club, and she can sell Southern home goods, fashion, and trinkets online.
As celebrities struggle to keep up with teens on TikTok, they’ve upped their ante on social media, launched lifestyle brands, beauty lines, YouTube channels, podcasts, and basically anything they can to maintain profitable multimedia presences and connect with their ultimate currency: their fans.
(Sorry to… .)
So it’s not just that the modern star can side-hustle—they must side-hustle, which Palmer does instinctually.
She’s released songs and skits, as well as improv, dance, and music videos to her Instagram and YouTube pages. No matter the platform, she always finds ways to play to her strengths, like physical comedy, as seen in Mirror Affirmations, a spoof series in which she issues self-love pep talks in a high-pitched baby voice.
Her new fix is Triller, a little-known music video app aimed at visual auteurs who simply want to perform. As one person commented in all caps, and with much exclamatory punctuation, under a YouTube video for Palmer’s moody-at-midnight “Virgo Tendencies” single, “Y’all better stop sleeping on our good sis Keke! Sis is an artist!”
<img style="max-width: 620px" src="http://www.
The day before our nail appointment, Palmer arrives at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre, a grand, abandoned-looking site just on the other end of the Holland Tunnel in New Jersey. Inside, it’s bathed in baroque gold and red velvet, and outfitted with marble columns extending to a ceiling that might as well be the height of the Sistine Chapel.
Palmer settles down in front of a tall vanity on a high-up mezzanine, quietly tapping away on her phone. On this day, she woke up at 5 a.
m., prepped for and taped her segment of GMA, clocked out at 1 p.
m., then came straight to Jersey to put in eight hours of overtime on the set of her Harper’s BAZAAR photo shoot.
This is the flip side of Keke the Showwoman: Keke the Professional, conserving her energy and instead ceding the spotlight to Metro, a 14-week-old puppy who’s barely the size of a human palm. He belongs to Palmer’s assistant, Chance, who carries Metro around in a body sling to introduce to the crew.
Though she’ll later serve on camera and entertain the crew with singing, dancing, and a rat-tat-tat of jokes between shots, it’s momentarily disconcerting to see Palmer so still. As someone who grew up in public as a kid, then transitioned to living in public as an adult on her own terms via digital platforms, Palmer is one of those celebs who, by virtue of both youth and inclination, is on the frontier of accessibility.
But she understands the limits of being too unfiltered and tries to be thoughtful about the ways she communicates, knowing when to turn it on.
Palmer also has limits on how much of her private life, particularly her dating life, she’ll talk about.
Those of us who were teens in the 1990s (so, not Palmer) will remember the original as a frisky, schadenfreude-laden blind date show that aired on MTV back in the Wild West era of reality television. It’s a job made for Palmer, who loves romantic comedies (she went through a stint where she frequently watched About Last Night before bed) and has always wanted to star in one.
Now, she can at least churn comedy out of romance in her own unique way.
She won’t say if she’s single or not, just a coy, “Could be …” and a laugh.
She spent a few months on the dating app Raya, but the one date she went on felt like networking. She doesn’t post about any significant others on social media.
And as free as she is online and on camera, she purposefully maintains boundaries and safeguards the more valuable parts of her life. Like the rest of us who reckon with the question of how much to share, forever calibrating our public self and filtering out the most vulnerable aspects of our inner lives, even Palmer is cautiously out there.
“I don’t really do relationship stuff online, mainly because I don’t know how I would do it without looking, like, cheesy or something, you know?” she says. “Yes, I’m a hundred percent authentic, but there is stuff that I do save for family and friends.
But at the same time, when it comes to romance, [posting about it] doesn’t really come naturally to me, so I feel like, why force it?”
When Mike Johnson, a former fan-favorite contestant on The Bachelorette, asked her out live on Strahan, Sara and Keke, Palmer responded with genuine shock and practiced comic deflection. Two days later, she followed up and said she’d turned him down.
For the most part, Palmer says she tries to date outside of the celebrity world. “I’ve always had the same philosophy when it comes to dating,” Palmer says.
So far, this is the one time during our conversations when the unabashed Palmer becomes more self-conscious.
“I think a lot about, like, Does this person really like me for me?” she says. “And it’s not just romantic relationships.
It’s friends too. That wavering, that’s the most traumatic thing about fame.
And that can really tear at your self-esteem if you let it. ’Cause the reality is you really might be a great person, you really might be that fun to be around, you might be that lovable, but because you’re always having to protect yourself from what people may want from you, you can’t even embrace the fact that maybe it’s all true.
As reassuring as it is to see an avowed exhibitionist feel a pang of doubt, to be reminded that there’s a part of everyone that’s pretending, it’s still perplexing to hear Palmer wonder aloud if people like her for her when all her success has been built off the sheer force of just being Keke and leaving the rest of us no choice but to stan. The doubt doesn’t linger long.
“But I’m truly just the kind of person who follows what feels natural.”
Photography by Adrienne Raquel at IMG Lens | Styled by Cassie Anderson | Hair by Anne Jones | Makeup by Mimi Kamara | Manicurist by Gina Edwards | Chief Visual Content Director, Alix Campbell | Executive Editorial Director, Joyann King | Fashion Director, Kerry Pieri | Entertainment Director, Nojan Aminosharei | Designer, Ingrid Frahm | Motion Design, Erin Lux | Supervising Video Producer, Kathryn Rice | Director of Photography, Robert Dumé | Video Editor Colorist, Erica Dillman | Associate Producer, Isabel Montes | Camera Operator, Lauren Paige McCall | Assistant Camera, Ryan DeVita | Brookings and Visual Production Director, Ignacio Murillo | Visual Editor, Cori Howarth | Stylist Assistant, Danielle Flum | Photo Team: Andres Norwood, Madeline Dalla | Digital Tech, Jimmy Nyeango | Production by AGPNYC | Production Team: Alexey Galetskiy, Ryan Fahey, and Miles Montierth