Yara Shahidi on the Power of Observation

Written by Faith Brown
Photographs by Charlie Gates
Styled by Jason Bolden
Originally Published: 

Yara Shahidi wears a Max Mara  shirt, shorts, and shoes.
Yara Shahidi wears a Max Mara shirt, shorts, and shoes.

For W’s annual The Originals portfolio, we asked creatives—pioneers in the fields of art, music, food, dance, fashion, and more—to share their insights on staying true to themselves. See this year’s full class of creatives here.

You came into fame playing Zoey Johnson, the eldest daughter on the series Black-ish and its spin-off, Grown-ish, all while earning a degree in sociology and African American studies at Harvard and advocating for social justice issues and Women in STEM. What was it like balancing all of those endeavors?

I’ve needed both worlds, because I think one gives the other meaning. My education allowed me to speak more ­confidently about the things that I advocate for in my work. To have the privilege to spend four years studying the things that I had already spent years discussing was really meaningful to me.

What are you looking forward to next?

A more equitable entertainment world so that we can resume storytelling in a way that people can make a living off of it. Unfortunately, so many incredibly creative people aren’t allowed to start with creativity first because of the many ­barriers to entry. There are a lot of stories to tell, and I’m really looking forward to being able to expand what’s on TV. It’s also been a time of figuring out what else Yara wants to do with her life.

Any new hobbies that you’ve taken up?

I’ve been watercoloring! I’ll be reporting back.

Max Mara top and pants.

You’ve just been named the recipient of the Women in Film Max Mara Face of the Future Award, which recognizes a young actor of grace and style who has made significant contributions to her community.

I’m really grateful. It’s quite surreal to be so young and have people value the work that I do, because I feel like I’m only here because of the people who have come before me. I sit in a place of gratitude being like, “Wow, me?”

What was your first major fashion purchase?

I had a ring made when I was 18. It has my brothers’ and my birthstones on the side of it. It means so much. A lot of my personal jewelry and things I’ve collected are about family.

Who is your style icon, and why?

I love people who are just, for lack of more elevated words, really in their bag about finding things that are so true to them. I’ve had Pharrell on my mood boards for a lifetime, because fashion innovation is hard, but when people come in with their own aesthetic, it’s really inspiring.

What does originality mean to you?

Originality and authenticity are synonymous to me in that, on a spiritual, more emotional level, it’s about staying grounded in who you are. I go through phases of really questioning how I show up in the world and what my purpose is, or just being overly critical. The moments when I stop ­worrying about how I’m being perceived are really ­freeing.

Max Mara top, pants, and shoes

Who do you consider original?

Representative John Lewis has been on my mind lately, because this year is the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. I think of that sense of purpose—of doing something that you know is right but that is definitely not popular and definitely puts you in harm’s way. When I think of originality, I think of people who existed in that time.

What do you consider your most original quality?

My observational skills. I have such a random lexicon of references in my head, between my love of history, my love of fashion, and just being a 23-year-old who’s online. I see so much ­continuity between what I’m going through and things that have happened in the past.

Who was the first person in your life to make you realize you could break the rules?

My mama. She taught me the importance of understanding when certain rules were arbitrary, and to analyze for myself what’s important and what’s meant to be pushed. When I was younger, my school had a no-gum-­chewing policy, and she would sneak gum into my lunchbox just to prove that it was not world-ending.

What is the most unoriginal thing that people ask you?

When I’m doing a press tour, I sit in a room all day and answer the exact same questions over and over again. What’s funny is, I feel boring for repeating the same thing, but then when I try to switch it up, I feel like a liar. This year is about collecting stories so I have more anecdotes to share.

Hair by SherriAnn Cole; makeup by Nikki Wolff; manicure by Michelle Humphrey for Essie at LMC Worldwide; producer: Phoebe Hayles at Lock Studios; photo assistants: Guillaume Mercier, Tom Porter; fashion assistant: Oliver Francis; hair assistant: Maha Al Selami; tailor: Laima Andriejauskaite.

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