Let’s Have a Keke

Disney-turned-Pimp star reflects on coming out, talks blurring gender lines and what James Dean and Dolly Parton taught her

By Chris Azzopardi

Keke Palmer is not a girl, not yet – oh wait, she is a woman. It happened so fast, but here we are: With her squeaky-clean Nickelodeon and Disney Channel days behind her, Palmer disappears into her latest rough-and-buff turn as the eponymous lesbian street hustler anchoring the Lee Daniels-produced drama Pimp. Hair pulled back into a mohawk-shaped waterfall of braids and buzzed on both sides whilst presenting a chiseled physique and altogether hard aesthetic, there’s nary a trace of Palmer, Child Star.  

Palmer’s work after her breakout role as 11-year-old Akeelah Anderson in the 2006 drama Akeelah and the Bee has epitomized the makings of a precocious multi-hyphenate: beyond her film career, which also includes 2012’s Joyful Noise, the 25-year-old Illinois native starred on TV’s Scream Queens, a Ryan Murphy production, and can currently be seen on the Epix spy drama Berlin Station; her theater roles include the televised Grease: Live and Broadway’s Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella as Cinderella herself (she was the first actor of color to play the role in this particular production of the princess classic); she has one proper studio album, her 2007 debut So Cool, and another on the way; and in 2017, she wrote a book, I Don’t Belong to You: Quiet the Noise and Find Your Voice, documenting her journey thus far.

In 2015, Palmer came out as sexually fluid in the video for her song “I Don’t Belong to You.” In the clip, she’s seen in bed with a man but ends up at the house of a woman, played by fellow singer Cassie. Here, Palmer reflects on the LGBTQ community’s reaction to her coming out and discusses embracing her masc energy, what James Dean taught her about sexuality, normalizing queer black characters and an irksome double standard in the bisexual community.

Keke, one thing is for sure: Pimp is not an episode of Nickelodeon’s True Jackson.
(Laughs) Oh my gosh, it’s definitely a total different project and different tone. I just felt like I was really stepping outside myself, that’s for sure. 

Was that intentional? Were you craving something grittier?
Step outside myself, for sure. I started developing this project right after True Jackson, like a year after kind of doing the same thing. I think TV naturally can be a little bit repetitive, and when you’re doing a children’s network, it can really only go so far (with) subjects and content matter and what you can talk about. So, for me, I was really just looking for something that would allow me a challenge as an actor.

What was the biggest challenge working on this film?
The biggest challenge was letting go – letting go without fear of doing a character that’s so different from yourself. And it’s an intense role; you really kind of have to let go. And it’s not a positive (role): Wednesday has a lot of negative dynamics around her that she’s been dealing with throughout her life. Doing it was not necessarily hard but actually being in that kind of headspace for so long was difficult.

There are a lot of unfortunate things going on around her, but the least of her worries is her sexuality. That’s refreshing.
Exactly.

Was playing someone who’s a lesbian a draw?
I can’t say her sexuality itself was a draw, but what you’re saying (was). I like the character as a whole. I liked everything about her. I think what attracted me to her the most was her strength. This kind of character being a lead character and being female is not what we see often, so that’s what attracted me the most. Just that she was tough, and she was cool, and I didn’t really think too much about who she slept with, although I was delighted by the love story between her and her girlfriend. But I just saw it simply as a love story as opposed to a gay love story and a dynamic between women that we haven’t seen in that kind of way. It wasn’t oversexualized, and I really loved the way that her sexuality was displayed in the film. It wasn’t exploited.

And by depicting her sexuality in a matter-of-fact way, it helps to normalize it.
Somebody might say she’s a quote-unquote “stud” or she’s not a femme – there’s a lot of language that’s used in the community. Having said that, Wednesday has both. That’s what I love about Wednesday, and I really tried to make that apparent. Wednesday is masculine and feminine. She has elements of both, and she and her girlfriend share those positions with each other, so I feel like it’s the same way in all relationships whether you’re same sex or not. And again, that’s what I loved about the film: We weren’t just doing something that’s stereotypical; we weren’t just giving you this hard-up, one-note (character) and she’s just flat – no, she’s a human.

Was her gender fluidity written in the script?
I think her being tough was a part of the script, but the nuances brought to it, that was definitely me. Just because myself, I have elements of high masculinity just as much as I have elements of high femininity, and in Wednesday, I really got to explore those elements in myself a lot more. I enjoyed that because I think women are strong, and though Wednesday is a lesbian, I don’t think masculinity defines your sexuality. I think that’s you as person.

Can you give me an example of how you feel you’ve embraced your masculinity?
I can’t say I can think of one where it’s glaringly obvious, but I think in general I don’t ever choose what people would expect me to say or how people would expect me to respond to anything as a woman or as a black person or as anybody in general. As a person I don’t feel like I fit into many boxes of identity.

You played TLC’s Chilli in the Lifetime biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story. She doesn’t strike me as someone who is straight-up feminine.
Yeah, not at all. And that’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be as obvious as, oh, this person’s wearing their pants low and they got a big top on. Masculinity can be as small as you sitting with your legs open.

It can be an attitude.
It can be an attitude. Masculinity is different. It can be just how you approach a situation, or energy you’re putting off in this particular moment. I think I’ve had that many times; especially when I’m creating boundary lines, I’ve definitely had it. When I’m trying to pursue something platonic with another male, sometimes I will be masculine to let them know, “Hey, you my homeboy; what’s good?”

How do you hope this movie speaks to queer black women?
Man, I just think it allows opportunity to get more knowledge in accepting one another. I don’t think the black community has been as hard on lesbian women as much as they’ve been on homosexual men. But one of my cousins is just like Wednesday, and so I think for us it really just more so maybe can take the light off the fact that this is a gay person, and more so this is a person and really wrap ourselves into this specific person’s world, not a gay person but this person that’s not just defined solely by these aspects of her life. Really just give this character a human opportunity to stand on her own. Because like I said, a lot of times with these characters, they’re just supporting roles, they’re not the lead, they’re not someone you would feel for; they’re most likely someone you get to judge and they’re kind of a spectacle. So that’s what I love about this movie: We’re normalizing something that has been around and has been normal for years, but now we’re just giving it the opportunity to breathe and the light to shine.

When you first came to terms with your own sexuality, did you have role models? Anyone in the business from the LGBTQ community you looked to for inspiration?
Maybe when I was like 18, 19, I was kind of like, “What does this mean?” But I think growing up in L.A., you kind of feel OK to be yourself. I think the kind of energy of the culture of L.A., or Hollywood, is that it’s OK to be yourself and that it’s OK to experience things and find who you are.

So, I didn’t feel like I needed someone to look to in order to be comfortable with that, but at the same time I think it was more so being comfortable with myself as opposed to me looking outwardly for comfort. It was just kind of me saying, “OK, it’s not a big deal; this is who I am, and I can be who I wanna be and date who I wanna date,” and it was just being more relaxed about all of that.

But like I said before, I don’t think there is much fear maybe for a woman when it comes to being bisexual or being fluid or being queer or whatever anybody calls it. I think in that regard, maybe I had an easier time. And then my family is not typical in terms of that: My mom has always said when I was young, before I even thought of any of that stuff, that if her kids were (LGBTQ) she would just want the person to be cute! (Laughs) But that’s not everybody’s story.

But you were also a young star who was on shows for kids on Nickelodeon where I imagine the expectations were high to be –
Perfect. Yeah, I felt it more there in that regard than in terms of my sexuality.

Did being a child star ever stifle your sexuality?
Mmm… I don’t think that it stifled my sexuality. I think other things stifled my sexuality, like my idea of who I had to be or what type of young woman I was, how people viewed me.

Honestly, I never felt stifled by – I think I felt maybe confused by it at a certain time, but just as confused as I would’ve been in general with understanding my feelings with dating and all that kind of stuff.

But I allowed my journey to be my own and, like I said, I grew up in a community of people where many of my friends were also gay or they were fluid and we didn’t really put different things on ourselves in terms of our sexual identity. We was just kind of like, “You know, I’m going on a date with so-and-so, I’m doing this.” It wasn’t seen as anything more than just us being ourselves. And maybe that’s the millennial way. Maybe I got born in the prefect generation.

Yeah, I got on the wrong boat. I got on the one before you.
(Laughs) I’m telling you: These millennials are accepting. I read something as a teen that was telling me how James Dean was sexually fluid and that was the first time I had ever seen or heard that term. I thought it was really cool that it was a male who was open and being honest about something like that in that era. I remember when I saw that I really loved it because I think often, I feel like it’s much harder for males to have that idea than it is for women.

People assume when a man dates another man, he can’t date another woman, and I’ve had many friends and many relationships with people who I felt like that was a really big crutch for them in being OK with their own identity because the reality was, they weren’t in the closet, they weren’t hiding. They did like men, but they did like women. And the unfortunate thing about it was that a lot of women couldn’t accept that (he was with men), so when I saw that I remember seeing that thing with James Dean and I really loved it because I’m like, “What’s the problem if a guy likes both?”

There’s a double standard there.
I hate it.

What kind of attention did “I Don’t Belong to You” get you from queer women? Were more slipping into your DMs?
(Laughs) Yeah, sure! I think a lot of people were kind of like, “Oh, I knew it,” or something like this. And that’s always funny. I think if anything would be quote-unquote “obvious” it would just be my openness as a human being. I truly believe sexuality is a spectrum. I believe you’re meant to find love wherever it finds you, so if it happens to find you (with) the same sex, what a travesty it would be that you denied it because you’ve been walking around your life the whole 10 years being a heterosexual.

I worked with a director once, and in just regular conversation it happened to slip out that she was married to a woman. What I loved about her is that she said, “But I dated men for many years; I just happened to find true love with this woman.” And I loved that because that’s what life is. We put so many labels on stuff to be gay, straight, dah dah dah dah, when in reality, in the ancient times, it was seen as very special when you could find love with the same sex. And in the Native American community it was called “two spirit” and I think in our Western culture we work so hard to define everybody and everything that we lose the soul.

I think that’s what I also loved about Pimp. It isn’t about the label. She found love in this little girl and they found protection in each other as children, so I mean, that’s where they found love. It’s not about what their label is, it’s about the fact that they found love. And I feel like people should stop trying to make everybody fit into a box and just let people live their life. Define themselves the way they choose.

You have new music and visuals on the way this year. And it’s been exciting to see more out LGBTQ artists like Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko express their queerness without reservation…
Oh yeah, I love Hayley!

Will your sexual fluidity influence the narrative and visuals of your upcoming project?
I haven’t thought about it just yet. With the visuals that I have, a lot of them are just kind of dancing or little bitty things here and there. But if I feel like there is the opportunity to say something, then I always will. Just like when I did “I Don’t Belong to You,” it was a statement piece. If I’m trying to specifically say something, then yes, because again I feel like my sexuality is who I find love with, so my music will mirror that.

I don’t even really have a question, but I just need to acknowledge that, with Joyful Noise, you worked with Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah in the same movie.
Man, I was so happy that I got to do that, OK?! Because it was just so cool. I love Queen Latifah – that was my third acting project with her. And working with Dolly Parton was just so, so special and awesome because she’s such a sweet, sweet woman and she would bring us fudge bars on set.

Homemade fudge bars?
Homemade fudge bars. And I would be so scared on set when I had to do my kissing scene and she would just be there to comfort me. I’ve always been a quote-unquote “tomboy” and also into girly stuff, but I’ve always felt more comfortable in more comfortable clothes – in sportswear, I always felt more comfortable, chill like that – and I remember asking her, “How are you beautiful like this every day? How can you do this?” She said, “I just made a choice when I was younger, and I wanted to be that way, so I get up every day and I make sure that it’s the way that I’m presented.”

I remember just thinking that was so amazing, and that was kind of my first lesson in “we are what we repeatedly do.” That was something she wanted to be a part of who she was – we know Dolly Parton as being fabulous 24/7, and it’s not an easy thing to do, so I really just loved that about her. I loved learning about her during that production. I would love to be like that.

But then you think of all the time and energy it takes….
Oh, child!

Do you see yourself as a role model for queer black girls?
That’s such a hard one. I can’t tell someone what to see me as, but there are certain things that I feel could be communicated better in the world and so I use my platform for that. When I did my song “I Don’t Belong to You” I talked about that a lot. I talked also about gender fluidity, that you as a woman aren’t defined by A, B, C and D, that you as a man aren’t defined by A, B, C and D.

I speak a lot on being a black female, being a female, being a millennial; if any of those things attract somebody to say, “I like what she says, she’s a role model to me,” then of course that’s cool. But I don’t try to think too much about being a role model as much as I think about being myself and speaking on the issues that are important to me.

As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).