At the age of 17, Yara Shahidi already has more life experiences under her belt than many adult actresses. She began her career as a 6-year-old, and in addition to pursuing activism and modeling, has had a starring role on black-ish since the show premiered in 2014. She's also about to start filming her own spinoff, college-ish, which follows her character Zoey as she heads off to school.
Fittingly, Shahidi herself is about to do the same, and is currently in the throes of two more major life experiences. This week, she will attend the Dwight High School graduation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. And at the end of May, she went to prom with her friend and fellow-actress, Rowan Blanchard. On Tuesday, Shahidi also confirmed on Instagram that she'll be studying at Harvard University, and told W back in March that Michelle Obama wrote her a recommendation letter.
“I wonder if I can change my cap and gown to make it Comme des Garçons-inspired,” said Shahidi with a laugh over the phone last week, making a reference to the current Costume Institute exhibit at the Met. Due to her acting schedule, Shahidi was actually home-schooled for most of her high school career, and in addition to meeting many of her classmates for the first time, has also never been to the museum before.
Shahidi seems to have boundless energy for new experiences, and in the middle of all this, she also gladly agreed to be the new face of Fossil watches. It's a fitting collaboration, seeing that Shahidi not only collects vintage pocket watches, but is also obsessed with history, and plans to study the subject in the fall.
So, we caught up with Shahidi again one week after her prom and before her official graduation, and she couldn't help but get a little existential about the past, present, and future.
How did you pick your Ungaro prom dress?
I’ve never been one to conform, so I wasn’t really looking for a traditional prom dress. It was pretty retro; it had shoulder pads. I tried dancing around in it during the fitting, and I could dance in it. I’d also never really worn green before, so I thought it would be an adventure.
Did prom live up to its expectations?
I didn’t really have any. I appreciate the life that I live; it’s been pretty cool and I’ve had some amazing opportunities when it comes to life experiences. So because of that I haven’t really had high standards for traditional teenage moments. Prom was definitely cool and I met a lot of my classmates, but it did kind of remind me of an event—except everybody was finally my age!
What are some things you’ve learned in high school that you’re never going to forget?
Overall, what I really valued about my education is that I could tie it to what’s happening in my world and our current socio-political climate. In all of my classes, my teachers have done a fantastic job of taking the curriculum and making it relevant. Two things that come to mind are reading Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin, which feels especially relevant with Moonlight winning Best Picture and with the rise and domination of Frank Ocean—these pieces of media and cultural icons who are bringing sexual identity front and center. As I was reading it, it tied to so many pieces of media that I’ve loved recently, even though it was written in the 1950s. I actually made a playlist; I found songs that related to what the book was talking about, and it only made it a more heightened emotional experience.
And then the other thing that was really eye-opening was being in A.P. U.S. History this year. It wasn’t so much about becoming aware of our past, but really learning about the details, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which is essentially being mimicked now. There are so many similarities, down to exact phrasing of policies.
How has freshman year Yara changed from senior year Yara?
I like to think that we’ve remained pretty consistent. Without sounding full of myself, I feel like I’ve gotten more eclectic over the years. I think I’ve become more confident in my speaking skills, and taking the same principles that freshman Yara believed in and amplifying them, whether it’s my activism or my interest in literature, music, and history.
And what about your stye? Is there anything you look back on that you’re like, “Oh my god, why?”
I actually went to a school that had a uniform, but when I look at my casual street style, it was really funny because I loved these muscle tanks. I owned so many. I also really loved headbands with bows.
Did you wear a watch growing up? And do you still? Everyone has their phones, but watches can have an importance to people.
Wearing a watch is definitely more intentional; it’s a choice . For me personally, it’s grounding when you have a watch. As much as I love my phone, it does take you away from reality. I love my watch, and it’s an obsession that began with pocket watches. In my head, it was the symbol of being a historian. And so, the first one I got was a 70-year-old pocket watch with a dog engraved on it. My grandpa gave it to me after I campaigned for it for a year. My second watch was from World War II, and the third one was a small little wristwatch that I saved my money for for a year to buy.
It makes sense if you’re such a history buff that you’re also into watches. Have you listened to the podcast S-Town with the clockmaker?
I finished it 48 hours after its release. I had a reminder set on my phone. He was a horologist, and I did identify with his thoughts on the importance of time.
What made you want to work with Fossil?
Because of my personal obsession with watches, it was a natural fit. I also really love a brand that promotes being one’s authentic self. I just did an event with Fossil at The Wing in New York, for example, where they brought girls from the Lower East Side Girls Club and we talked about activism and Gen Z. It was promoted in such a natural way.
Do you think that Gen Z has a different approach to time, in the sense that we can relive memories instantly and we have timelines of our entire lives?
That’s an interesting question. I’ve thought about it in different aspects. First and foremost, I feel like we expect more of ourselves sooner; you see people “growing up faster” because of the access we have. There’s no longer an orthodox timeline, and sometimes it does create a sense of false adulthood, and sometimes it just creates really enlightened kids who are cool to be around! At the same time, I think we can take memories for granted. I’m hyper-paranoid about over-documenting my youth, in a way where no memory is held special because we can capture all of them—and all of the in-between moments, too, that are forced memories because you pulled out your phone. Having a father who is a photographer and a cinematographer, I think it’s really made me hold sacred those traditional pieces like a timepiece or a camera and staying in the moment. If you’re so focused on documenting the moment, there won’t be a moment to document.
If there was a period of time you could go back to, what do you think it would be?
Quite honestly, I have no desire to go back in time. Having studied different periods of time, I’ve realized the monumental progressions we’ve made that I appreciate in my daily life. From an analytical and research perspective, and in trying to amplify my activism, I think maybe I would go back to the '60s and '70s. To be in an era where multiple movements are happening simultaneously that pertain to civil rights—the Civl Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Labor Movement—with all these incredible activists, I feel that would be especially interesting.
Are there figures in history that you would have liked to have met?
James Baldwin. James Baldwin all the way. I’m obsessed with him. If I could travel with him while he wrote books, that would be a dream.
Are you interested in studying history at Harvard?
I actually already committed and I’m double majoring in social studies, which is a concentration of sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and economics, as well as African American studies. For me, that felt like my version of applied history.
And what about the future? Do you have any curiosity?
Yes and no. I’ve spent a lot of time reading dystopian literature. I realized reading Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and Animal Farm may not have been the best trifecta of books to read when thinking about the future. But I do have to say, I’m excited about the near future because of the progress we’re making—just take me four years in the future under a new administration.
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