June Cover Star Yara Shahidi Is On A Mission To Foster Equality

BY Emily Baxter-Priest / May 28 2018 / 22:03 PM

Bazaar talks to the teenage actor and activist about her multicultural heritage and connecting communities

June Cover Star Yara Shahidi Is On A Mission To Foster Equality
Pink embroidered faille dress and gloves, both Chanel Haute Couture S/S18

As a 40-year-old journalist with almost two decades’ experience of weaving stories out of words, it’s not often that I get beaten at my own game. Especially by someone over half my age. But on set, sat in front of 18-year-old Yara Shahidi, I’ll admit, I’m on a losing streak. Her depth of knowledge is extraordinary, and her vocabulary and turn of phrase almost poetic. When coupled with a fierce intelligence that belies her age, she is something of a millennial anomaly.

The Iranian-American actor became an instant one-to-watch aged 14 with her portrayal of the socially-active and perennially sassy Zoey Johnson in ABC’s critically-acclaimed show, Black-ish – which ran from 2014 until earlier this year, followed by a college-years spin-off, Grown-ish, airing now. More than just ‘another’ sitcom, Black-ish brought African-American culture to the fore, making race central to the show’s dynamic and identity.

The show – and the Johnson family – never shied away from who or what it is, instead celebrating race, class and culture in all their multi-faceted glory. 

On the show, Yara found her feet – and her voice. Like Zoey, Yara may be outspoken, but with good reason and good intentions. On the topic of race, culture and myriad other pertinent matters, Yara has much to say and her words hold weight. With youth on her side her approach is unfettered and, perhaps most importantly, unjaded. Her intention… To be a global citizen who rallies for inclusivity and advocates for all.

Yara Shahidi

Pink embroidered faille dress and gloves, both Chanel Haute Couture S/S18. Sneakers, Yara’s own

“Being multicultural, you can’t help but be interested and connected to the world around you,” she says. “My family is from all over the world, so how can you not care for people around the world too?” Yara’s father, Afshin Shahidi, was born in Iran, and whilst she is yet to visit, she embraces her bicultural heritage, putting her predisposition for racial acceptance down to both her Iranian and African-American roots. “My baba was born in Iran and I come from a beautiful matriarchy on both sides of my family, which I adore,” she explains. “My Iranian relatives have reaffirmed the idea that the sky is the limit – but in fact, my cousin proved that the sky isn’t even the limit because she went to space!” she laughs, referring to Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian-American astronaut and the first female private space explorer. “I hit the cultural jackpot in terms of food, but what’s fascinating is that as different as both sides may seem, they’re really similar. How we operate, our moral code, who we are in general, being close to family, respect... It’s really universal in a way that blurs both sides.” Can she deconstruct what part of her is Iranian, what part African-American? “No, I don’t see much of a ‘this is my black side and this is my Iranian side’, because I come from a family of socially-engaged humans, and it’s hard to identify because of how similar both sides are. But I have to say, I was at the Met Gala recently and I saw a pomegranate and I proceeded to cut it open and serve pomegranate to people at my table. That’s pretty Iranian,” she laughs. 

Yara Shahidi

Pink mini satin dress with embroidered tulle and feathers, and boots, both Chanel Haute Couture S/S18

Her Middle Eastern sensibilities are strong, as she regales me with stories of celebrating Nowruz (Iranian New Year). “It’s pretty cool,” she says, “It’s 13 days and it represents the beginning of spring, and it’s fun getting older and learning more about where it came from, how it started. Even things like Chaharshanbe Suri, where we jump over the fire to give all your illness and negativity to the flames and to start anew…” She’s just finished reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, and while the book focuses almost purely on Indian culture, Yara hones in on the Iranian characters. “It takes place in India but there are all the Iranian characters and references, with people calling their friends ‘yaar’, which is where my name comes from, as ‘yaar’ is the term for friend or someone close to your heart – and then at one point they go to a faloodeh shop and I got really excited, as that’s not something you often hear.”

With both parents “doing their best to teach me about my heritage” through literature, television or conversation, they both succeeded in giving Yara a strong sense of self. Her mission statement, she says, is to not have lived a self-centric life, “to be in a community, to be with people, and to help and broaden that community.” Having grown up in Minnesota, learning Farsi as her first language and surrounded by a tight knit Iranian community, moving to California came as something of a comical culture shock, she says. “Everyone in my community in Minnesota who spoke Farsi, I was related to, so when I moved to California I thought the same applied and thought I had so many aunts because I didn’t realise that other people knew Farsi outside of my family. But then I realised it didn’t matter – when you meet someone from Iran, or someone who has visited Iran, or who has ties to Iran, there’s a sense of belonging. Whether you’re walking down Fairfax in LA... There’s a strong sense of community wherever I go.”

For all that the ‘community’ gives her, she does laugh, however, over the expectations some people have of her. “A lot of times people want and ask you to be the representative for your entire community. I remember someone asking me to explain the Iranian nuclear deal to them and I was like, ‘I’m only 14!’ It was just an odd moment.”

There are wider misconceptions, she says, about religion, culture and background, which she puts down to education – or lack thereof – but rather than losing sleep over why or how people formulate misguided opinion, Yara prefers to “constantly put myself in a position to help other people understand my background. There’s a certain separatist movement happening versus understanding how connected we are. So much of what we believe stems from similar origins, so it means you can relate to one another if you really listen and pay attention.”

Yara Shahidi

Pink mini satin dress with embroidered tulle and feathers, and boots, both Chanel Haute Couture S/S18

Beyond her Iranian and African-American societies, the wider community that she’s forged figurehead status in is advocating for girls – unrestricted by boundaries of age, colour or creed. She set up Yara’s Club in partnership with The Young Women’s Leadership School that brings high school students together to discuss social issues and how to take action, and launched Eighteenx18, a platform to encourage her peers to vote for the very first time in the upcoming US midterm elections on November 6. This teenager’s not one to sit around and wait for life to happen.

She also loudly campaigns for the triumvirate of equality, equity and education, understanding that the former won’t come without the latter. “Education is crucial because I understand the privilege I’ve had in how particular education has been to me. My realm of possibility seems so much larger.” With Harvard on the horizon this autumn – who could deny Yara a place when her application came hand-in-hand with a recommendation letter personally written by Michelle Obama – above all, at the age of 18, Yara considers herself a student. But far beyond what you learn in books, it is life lessons that are most valuable, she says. “In the broader sense of the word, this last year has been so much about learning and growing, so I’ve been a student of many teachers this year, especially my parents. I’ve been receptive to learning and receptive to the world around me. Also entering my adulthood has meant there have been moments that I’ve had to learn from and continue exploring – it’s required me to learn new skills.”

Yara Shahidi

Pink mini satin dress with embroidered tulle and feathers, and veil, both Chanel Haute Couture S/S18

What that means is understanding that often one’s own insecurities or invalidations are the barriers we put up around ourselves, rather than from external sources. “I’m learning and constantly reminding myself that while there are so many barriers connected to our identity, I have to be really cognizant to realise I’m not one of my own barriers, if that makes sense? There’s so much happening and whether you look at culture or politics there’s so much to deal with just to get through the day, so this year has been reminding myself that I shouldn’t be preventing myself or putting up barriers for myself. You’re self-critiquing in a way, and I find myself doing that and it’s really unnecessary in a world where people already tell us what we should and shouldn’t do.” What are those barriers, I wonder? “They’re personal – just things like ‘maybe I’m not worthy of this space that I’m in’, or ‘my voice isn’t valuable’. Moments where you second-guess yourself… I think it’s called ‘imposter syndrome’.”

From the outside looking in, it’s hard to connect Yara with ‘imposter syndrome’ as she seems so comfortable in her own skin. More so than many women twice her age. She has such a firm grasp on who she is, who she wants to be and how to articulate exactly what it is she stands for. It seems almost pre-ordained for Yara to become this millennial mouthpiece in a generation in which societal contribution and action are expected.

Yara’s cool, she’s smart, she’s relatable… She can wax lyrical on African-American authors and her favourite Iranian food – “Kebab, and faloodeh, the best dessert of all” – as much as she can sing every lyric to every single song on our set playlist. While all this socio-cultural and political interest is impressive, one might fear it comes at the detriment of fun.

Au contraire. When the photographer hits the playlist, suddenly Yara comes alive, almost like a muso alter-ego. A potpourri of rap, hip hop and pop – from Kanye to Bob Marley – she knows every lyric, every song and the back story of every artist. And it’s now that she really lets loose, lost to the music, her body moulding to each beat, her energy infectious. She moves gracefully, like a swan, fluid and beautiful but with an awkwardness that she invites in to give her an edge. And it’s in these shots, the ones in which she’s dancing as if nobody’s watching, that we capture the youthful spirit of Yara. Playful and carefree, contemplative and considered.

Yara Shahidi

Pink embroidered faille dress and gloves, both Chanel Haute Couture S/S18

It’s a rather singular juxtaposition that works because of its purity. There’s nothing preconceived nor premeditated. This is simply Yara.

On set Yara flits between Chanel Haute Couture S/S18 pieces that are frothy, light and fantastical in all their feathered, embellished beauty, and a cream tweed culottes suit teamed with her own Nike sneakers that brings out her spiritual fashion side – rebel chic, if you will. And while her ethereal blush pink Met Gala Chanel dress won our hearts, it’s the down-played ensemble of tracksuit, sneakers and ‘The Future is Female’ backpack that she switches into post-shoot that catches my eye, stealing a moment to send a message to further her cause.

A young, preternaturally talented actor with the world at her feet, Yara is hot Hollywood property, but with all the recent scandals rippling through the industry, I wonder how she feels about entering into a space that is so shaken and disillusioned. While her agent deflects questions surrounding Time’s Up and the #MeToo campaign, Yara does highlight the necessity of embracing diversity and equality in Hollywood. “Well, for one we have a long way to go in terms of diversity and seeing everyone represented,” she says. “We’re getting there and we are seeing progress.

I love being able to turn on the television and see everyone from Issa Rae to Constance Wu to Priyanka Chopra. It’s amazing, so I feel like we’re expanding with diversity. We’re saying it’s more than ethnicity, it’s religion, it’s sexuality, it’s all the intersections that make a human.

Yara Shahidi

Pink embroidered faille dress and gloves, both Chanel Haute Couture S/S18. Sneakers, Yara’s own

It’s inspiring and it makes every piece of media more universal. At the same time, as an African-American-Iranian, well, we do have some ways to go. I have yet to receive a script for a half-Iranian character.”

Having interviewed Michelle Obama, earned the accolade of the youngest person to ever be interviewed on Oprah Winfrey’s show back in February, and with 2.7 million followers on Instagram, Yara’s voice has far-reaching potential. While she may have had the security and leadership of her parents to help navigate her through the industry (her father was the personal photographer for Prince, and her mother a model and actor), she feels protective of her peers. “I think you have to approach the industry in the same way you would with anything, with a support network. Don’t go at it by yourself, there’s a lot to take in, you do fall prey,” she says. “The idea that you’re supposed to figure out the best move for you is overwhelming. You need to gain guidance and have people that are there for you. I feel like Hollywood is a paradox because it thrives on authenticity but then you’re being paid not be yourself.

Yara Shahidi

Jacket, and French culotte suit in white tweed, Chanel Haute Couture S/S18

It’s about finding your middle ground, about realising [criticism] is not personal. You have to fine tune your craft and find your balance of being supportive of yourself. You’re in a public role in which anyone anywhere can tell you their opinion of you, so it’s really reinforced the idea of being purpose-driven and having a mission statement in everything I do. I enjoy acting and all the things it’s allowed me in terms of my platform and being able to speak about our socio-political landscape, and it’s easy to feel more secure in what you’re doing when it’s coming from a place you have considered. Which means the criticism, it’s like ‘Okay, I hear you, but this is my mission’.”

It’s these building blocks of acceptance, equality and empowerment that will help her generation strive towards a non-discriminatory society. She quantifies feminism “as a belief in equity and equality, for both genders, and about getting rid of the hierarchy. I do classify myself as a feminist but in that same conversation we realise that women’s liberation looks different in different women. So it’s about being inclusive. It’s not saying ‘this is what a liberated woman looks like’,
it’s about a conversation that each woman chooses for themselves.” Similarly, she doesn’t feel qualified to muse on what attributes are important to a modern woman today. “I can only speak for myself, but I think it really goes back to that idea of being in a community with one another. Being able to support, because we have to be ourselves and represent ourselves and support one another.

It’s about globalism and expanding our view of what community is and realising how universal our experiences are and embracing those aspects of ourselves that help us realise how similar we are to people both in our city and an ocean away.” With the same token of inclusivity, Yara refuses to define beauty, “because in defining it, you leave someone out.”

Yara Shahidi

Jacket, and French culotte suit in white tweed, Chanel Haute Couture S/S18. Sneakers, Yara’s own

Representation is the cornerstone to Yara’s mission of celebrating and broadening communities, and “understanding that we don’t know everything about everyone and should give people the space to represent themselves.” When it comes to diversity and inclusion, she believes it’s about having voices behind the scenes because “that’s how we change constitutional issues, because I think while to a certain extent we’re getting better at representing people in the public, where we need to change is on the infrastructure side. When we turn to corporations and production companies, it needs to be emulated on the private spectrum, too.”

All these words of wisdom are mined from a long line of women who have, over time, diverted Yara’s destiny to that of a socio-cultural crusader. From African-American authors Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, to Ilhan Omar, the highest elected Somali-American in public office in the US, fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim-American woman wearing
a hijab to represent the US at the Olympics, and Naomi Wilder, the 11-year-old school girl who spoke at the March for our Lives in March, Yara’s realm of influence is wide.” There is also Somali-American model Halima Aden – “I think it’s really cool to see
a hijab model, it means that anything is possible. A lot of times they say to get somewhere you have to fit into a box, but her presence proves you can stick to what you believe in and the world can shift around you” – and, of course, the women in her family.

“I have to say, I’ve been learning more and more about what the women in my family have accomplished and it’s extraordinary. Their dedication to people, to science, to community, to politics… But my mama, she’s my first role model. She’s really shown me how to be a woman of colour.”

Yara Shahidi

Pink embroidered faille dress and gloves, both Chanel Haute Couture S/S18

She calls herself “ever-changing, awkward and 18”, describes herself as “extremely indecisive” and says sleep is her guilty pleasure – “I think I could be a hundred times more productive but I take so many naps” – surely the genetic make-up of many a teenager. Still fascinated by history, socio-politics and global communities, Yara hasn’t changed much, she says, from the young girl who dreamed about becoming a history professor and took 10 books to bed every night. “The one thing I applaud myself on is consistency,” she muses, “as a lot of my interests have remained the same, in terms of history, people and culture.” She still sees herself working in education “one way or another” and recounts the best advice as “something my mum said the other day that ‘There is nothing more interesting than an interested human.’”

Vehemently fighting for a future she believes in, the world could do with more Yaras. And the more she grows into her skin as the active, engaged Iranian-African-American woman she is, the more the community she builds around her will evolve into one of sustained equality and acceptance. As to what fuels her moving forwards? “The general sense that I want to look back on almost anything I’ve done and not feel a sense of shame. Thus far, it’s been pretty good,” she smiles. Yara’s journey to this point, I feel, is merely a prelude to her enduring potential, from Black-ish to Grown-ish to all grown-up.

Photography: Taylor Tupy
Executive producer: Ashumi Sanghvi at MAD Productions.
Producer: Christopher Sararo at MAD Productions.
Production assistant: Donovan Kosters.
Photographer’s assistants: Andres Norwood, Marco Collucci and Andrew Ngu.
Stylist: Andreas Kokkino at The Wall Group.
Stylist’s assistant: Patrick Rammelkamp.
Hair stylist: Nai’vasha Johnson at Exclusive Artists using Oribe Haircare.
Make-up artist: Emily Cheng.
Manicurist: Emi Kudo at Opus Beauty