Keke Palmer: The New Oprah? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Keke Palmer: The New Oprah?

Keke Palmer: The New Oprah?

By Constance C. R. White


Because becoming a serious star takes more than a quick shedding of innocence. It’s a treacherous route — one Keke Palmer says she’s ready to traverse.

By Constance C. R. White

Lots of women, for reasons science has yet to explain, tend to mark pulse points in their lives with major hairstyle changes. Actor-singer Keke Palmer joined this enigmatic group a few weeks ago, when she ditched her signature long locks for a cropped, close-to-the-head do.

If Palmer meant to send a signal announcing a big emotional moment, she’s got our attention. After a steady upward climb as a child actor, Palmer is facing the entertainment equivalent of crossing the Rubicon: making the often treacherous transition from child star to adult star. Once a standout performer on Nickelodeon, Palmer is now the youngest talk-show host on television — and she’s about to become the first black Cinderella on Broadway.

The biggest challenge that any child star faces is: Are they going to remember me? Are they going to accept me?

— Angelo Ellerbee, CEO of PR firm Double XXposure

At 21, Palmer has reached the point when child stars’ careers get shaky. Will she continue to climb, or will her fairy tale turn into fishwrap, or worse, a TMZ update?

Palmer treads cautiously, but she’s also testing boundaries. “It’s hard to go from kid actor,” she said. “I have to let people know I’m not a kid anymore.”

Image from  'Akeelah and the Bee' starring LAURENCE FISHBURNE as Dr. Larabee and KEKE PALMER as Akeelah.

Actors Laurence Fishburne and Keke Palmer in a scene from Akeelah and the Bee

In September, Palmer stepped into the role of Broadway’s first black Cinderella, starring in the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic through January 3. It was her second breakthrough in a year. Earlier this summer, at age 20, Palmer debuted as the youngest national talk-show host when BET launched Just Keke, a daily show produced by the company behind Ellen. The show ran for four weeks and generated lots of encouraging Internet activity. Palmer said there’s no decision yet on whether the show will be picked up in 2015.   

Born Lauren Keyana Palmer, Keke drew praise as an 11-year-old who held her own alongside Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne in Akeelah and the Bee, a film released in 2006. TV audiences know her as the star of the Nickelodeon comedy True Jackson, VP, which aired from 2008 to 2011.   

As a black, female star of one of the twin giants of kiddie TV — Nickelodeon and Disney — she was already something of a rarity. And Palmer also had the distinction of being among the highest paid child actors, pulling in $20,000 per episode — more than Miley Cyrus got for Hannah Montana, according to The New York Post and several other news outlets.

“The biggest challenge that any child star faces is: Are they going to remember me? Are they going to accept me” as an adult, said Angelo Ellerbee, CEO of Double XXposure, a PR and image management firm that has worked with child stars and adults like Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys.

It’s rockiest when the child is unprepared for the career aspects of entertainment, he said. “You have to take time to educate yourself about the business,” said Ellerbee. “Up to this point everything has been Mum, Dad, managers, agents. And now you want to be grown. You don’t want to be dictated to by Mom, Dad, managers.”

“Cute” can quickly become a liability for former child stars — just ask Macaulay Culkin, Gary Coleman and Lindsay Lohan, for starters. 

To pave the way from preteen and tween fans to teenagers and adults, Palmer, who’s still managed by her parents, has chosen a handful of made-for-TV movies: CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story about the record-breaking female singing group, Abducted: The Carlina White Story and, most recently, The Trip to Bountiful, with the legendary Cicely Tyson. 

Along with more adult material has come a sexier, more sophisticated image. Palmer has traded her dungarees and girlish dresses for skin-baring, edgier looks. 

And, the hair. It’s riskier than you might think for an actor on an upward trajectory to make a radical change to her hairstyle. It’s even riskier for a black woman in entertainment to ditch flowing, weaved locks, the dominant Hollywood standard, in favor of a short style. 

Palmer was warned by her team not to do it. But having thought about it for some time, it was hardly an impulsive act. “I’ve had long hair all my life,’’ she told OZY. “I was ready for a change.” 

It was a smart move, said Ellerbee. 

“Cute” can quickly become a liability for former child stars — just ask Macaulay Culkin, Gary Coleman and Lindsay Lohan, for starters. But any transition has to be timed carefully, said Ellerbee. “It can’t be one minute you’re Hannah Montana every week in our living room and then, boom! You’re having sex with yourself on stage.” 

young african-american woman with short hair and short dress smiles at the camera.

Palmer leaves from a Good Morning America taping at the ABC Times Square Studios.

Palmer was only 11 years old and living in Robbins, Illinois, when she landed her first big role as Queen Latifah’s niece in Barbershop 2

Her mother and father, Sharon and Larry, met acting in student productions in college. Both moved on to other professions, but they encouraged their daughter to pursue her passion for acting and music. After her first break in Barbershop 2, the family moved to L.A. so Keke could continue “trying to make all my dreams come true,” she said, and soon she’d snapped up roles on ERLaw & Order and Akeelah and the Bee

Her musical dreams have proven more elusive. She dropped an album in 2007 that didn’t cause much of a ripple and plans to head back to the studio next year after her Cinderella run ends.

Her parents, she said, have been supportive — but firm. “They didn’t want me to be a bratty kid,” said Palmer. “That’s who everyone thinks of when they think of child actors.” That and the train wrecks their careers can become. 

If Palmer can steer clear of that trap, we won’t be talking about “child actor” anymore. Just actor.


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