Keke Palmer Keeps a Check


If you have ever seen a peregrine falcon slice cleanly through the pale dawn to capture and dismember a starling midair, you have a rough idea of what will happen this weekend, when the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards ceremony is hosted to within an inch of its life by Keke Palmer.

The assignment is both a perfect application and shameful waste of Ms. Palmer’s talent for showmanship. Every year for the past three, the V.M.A.s have plunged deeper into record-setting ratings lows, excavating previously undiscovered levels of audience indifference. If this year’s broadcast follows the same pattern, the fault will lay with MTV’s rigid adherence to custom and the fragmentation of cultural consumption, rather than with Ms. Palmer, 27, who is all but certain to execute her task with brazen aplomb.

Ms. Palmer will present the V.M.A.s on Sunday because MTV has wisely asked her to, but she could just as comfortably be hosting the Oscars, a Zoom funeral, a vice-presidential debate or “The Ellen DeGeneres Show Starring Keke Palmer.” Keke Palmer holds the eye.

“My skin’s falling off,” she said matter-of-factly at the start of a FaceTime call this month from her Manhattan apartment — and it was. Not from nerves (she judged her nervousness level about the impending event to be a polite 6; it seemed more like an honest 0.5). Ms. Palmer’s skin was being corroded in real time by acid from a pre-V.M.A. chemical peel. Dried scrolls curled away like sheaves of ancient parchment from her lovely almond-shaped eyes and apple cheeks.

“I’m trying to stop you from having to see that,” she said, extending her arm to hold the phone as far as possible from herself.

Things about Ms. Palmer that set her apart from the rest of humanity and make her particularly suited to guiding the masses through the tribulations of live television: She is energetic, charismatic and imbued with a superabundance of screen presence (for evidence, see her starring role as an inspirational 11-year-old spelling champ in “Akeelah and the Bee” from 2006, or her scene-stealing turn as a convivial stripper who drugs and robs men in last year’s “Hustlers”); she can manifest natural gravity to an effect either comedic (see: the “sorry to this man” meme) or profound (see: footage of her pleading with armed National Guardsmen in Los Angeles to join protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s death); she can control the flow of conversations by approaching sentences at a running start (see: National Guard footage); she is indefatigable (see: previous film work, TV work, musical work and also a new Facebook TV show featuring a family of five characters she created on social media, all of whom she portrays).

She is possessed of remarkably bright, gaze-holding eyes, enunciates like a tongue twister and speaks from her diaphragm. Perhaps most important, she is as quick on her feet as wing-sandaled Hermes, the sociable messenger god who escorts the souls of the dead to the underworld much as Ms. Palmer will guide MTV viewers to the depressing Best Music Video From Home category on Sunday night.

In her 2017 book, “I Don’t Belong to You: Quiet the Noise and Find Your Voice,” Ms. Palmer — who grew up in Section 8 housing outside Chicago and was starring in (and performing the theme song for) her own Nickelodeon show by age 15 — writes movingly, and with lots of emoji, about her adolescence spent managing anxiety as the primary breadwinner for her family of six.

“One of my responses,” she writes of her extraordinary childhood, “as a defense mechanism, was to become very positive about everything in my life.”

Ms. Palmer made her first film appearance in 2004 at age 9 in “Barbershop 2.” Over the next decade and a half, she worked constantly, as an actress (in more than 55 films and TV shows), a singer (she has released seven singles), a talk-show host (she’s hosted two, including an Emmy-nominated stint on a “Good Morning America” spinoff), a dating show host (on Quibi) a stage performer (Broadway’s first Black Cinderella) and, lately, as a reliable source of viral moments.

The capacity to spontaneously generate one’s own cheer is a prerequisite for professional TV hosts. They must soothe and charm an audience in the face of technical difficulties, awkward and off-putting acceptance speeches and other acts of God.

Ms. Palmer’s ability to embody that energy, even when not presenting the day’s entertainment news in digestible chunks to ABC viewers, is in some ways her calling card. She wields her good humor with the ease of a master swordsman.

But that does not mean it was forged without effort.

“I wore other people’s expectations on me,” Ms. Palmer said on the FaceTime call. “It started twisting from being positive to thinking that making other people happy is my job.”

Over time, the young Ms. Palmer’s aversion to disappointing strangers shrank her world — a world that, though it included life lessons from Laurence Fishburne, was more insular, in many ways, than the lives of children who, say, went to school. Because she was reluctant to decline photo requests from fans under any circumstances, “it got to the point where I stopped going places,” Ms. Palmer said. “That’s how I would deal with it. I would just not really go places where people could ask me.”

In promotional videos from the early aughts for the Nickelodeon-themed cruise trips Ms. Palmer took as part of her duty as network talent (she starred for three seasons as a kid fashion executive on the Nickelodeon sitcom “True Jackson, VP,” — a job that found her on set for 10 hours a day, five days a week, for periods of six months), a teenage Keke beams at the camera while articulating her excitement about various excursions and planned onboard activities.

“I didn’t like them,” she recalled, sheepishly, of the cruises. “I felt like SpongeBob, but I couldn’t take the suit off.” (This observation is not entirely abstract; Ms. Palmer’s cartoon colleague SpongeBob SquarePants manifested at sea as an individual in a removable costume.)

“I did the second one because I wanted my little brother and sister to be able to go, but I just stayed in my room the whole time,” she said.

Later, with a note of longing while describing carefree cruise scenes from her own imagination — bumping into one’s new cruise friends at the buffet, for instance — Ms. Palmer declared: “My personality is made for a cruise!” (Ms. Palmer has never taken a non-Nickelodeon themed cruise.)

“My family loved them,” she said with wry affection. “My brother and sister, they talk about them like they were the best time of their lives.”

At 18, Ms. Palmer moved out of her family home and in with a boyfriend. As she entered adulthood, her anxiety about how others perceived her gradually mutated into a kind of agoraphobia. She found it “very difficult” to drive alone, or do things by herself.

“It’s so weird,” she said, as though she herself was surprised to hear this. “I used to really, really be afraid of it. I used to really be afraid of it!”

She credits therapy with teaching her a kind of assertiveness that keeps her anxiety in check.

“Now, if I don’t want to take a picture, I can still be polite and positive about it,” she said. Her chatty voice alchemized into something warmer and gentler, but also more decisive: “‘I’m so sorry, baby! Right now is not the right time.’”

While she believes her natural reaction is still cheer by default, she no longer behaves at the mercy of her own amenability.

“You learn boundaries. Boundaries are part of that too,” she said. “But,” she added, evincing the hard-wired optimism, “I’m glad that I taught myself to go positive rather than negative in a situation.”

Ms. Palmer is the kind of go-with-the-flow guest who makes the late night talk-show exercise seem more like a spirited game than a possible violation of the Geneva Convention’s interrogation rules.

In video from a June Q. and A. she hosted with Joe Biden, Ms. Palmer is clearly the more at-ease participant, enveloping Mr. Biden in an almost grandmotherly warmth as he frets about whether their chat function is working. (“Yep, I see you good and everything,” she assures her 77-year-old grandbaby.) These days, she exudes such preternatural poise, it is difficult to imagine she might ever have been otherwise.

Yet when Ms. Palmer experienced her early career success, she and her family struggled to fit comfortably into a dynamic in which she, a minor and a middle child, was the chief conduit for financial stability.

“I just got ‘True Jackson, VP’ and we move into a big house,” she said, “then people come into your home and they’re like, ‘Oh, y’all moved here now? Wow.’ You know what that’s about. It’s like, ‘So-and-so’s dad is going to work but mine ain’t.’ But mine isn’t because who else is going to help keep the family up when my mom is traveling around town with me?” (Ms. Palmer used a somewhat fresher word than “me.”)

Her mother, a special-education teacher when the family lived in Illinois, was usually the parent who accompanied Ms. Palmer on set. Ms. Palmer’s father, who had had a job in polyurethane manufacturing in Illinois, and initially continued working after the move, eventually transitioned into being a stay-at-home parent.

Ms. Palmer’s older sister was a high school freshman when the Palmers moved to Los Angeles; her younger siblings were not yet in school. In her book, Ms. Palmer writes that it “became easy for them to feel like a family without me. I was like the father who always worked.”

“I’m a kid,” she said, remembering the time, “so I’m not realizing our life is different because my family is trying to help me maintain my dream. They’re all pitching in to help me keep my dream alive. Everybody’s being quite selfless. But as a kid, you can’t really understand or fathom all of these things.”

“All you can take in are other people’s judgments,” she said. But “those people also can’t fathom or understand what’s really going on either.”

Ms. Palmer recalled that tensions crested when she was in her late teens. It was then that, on the advice of her lawyer, she sought therapy.

“At the time, at 17, my real thoughts were: ‘I want to get emancipated,’” she said. “And his words to me were, ‘Talk to your parents. Tell them you want to go to therapy. Because you don’t have to get emancipated from them and reject them and it needs to be this thing, because you guys can’t communicate what you’re both experiencing. They don’t know how to be the parents to a child as a child star, and you don’t know how to be the child star. You guys can work through that.’”

“It’s kind of a traumatic thing to have a child star in the household or as a brother or a sibling,” Ms. Palmer said. “Our life became revolved around Keke.”

Ms. Palmer’s lawyer, who had worked with her since she was 11, and who had other child entertainers as clients, counseled her not to “feel weird or ashamed about” wanting to talk to someone outside her family about her unusual situation, Ms. Palmer recalled.

The lawyer arranged to have Will Smith, whose first rap single became a radio hit while he was a high school senior, reach out to her. In the end, she did not pursue emancipation from her parents; today, the family is close.

“Fame is nothing to fool with. It’s not a game. It’s not fun. Yes, it has a perk to it at times, but it’s nothing that you should ever be in pursuit of. Now, you want to be in pursuit of being the fastest runner in the world and you become Usain Bolt and that brings popularity?” Ms. Palmer said. “You want to be the best person in science because you love science so much and you become whoever — the ladies that Taraji played and they played in the movie?”

Ms. Palmer laughed. She was trying to summon the names of the NASA mathematicians depicted in the film “Hidden Figures.”

“And that brings fame? That’s one thing. But fame in itself, it’s going to bring so much trauma to your life. Just as much as any extreme thing would, because it’s an extremity,” she said. “It’s not easy to find somebody that can relate to the experience.”

Given the opportunity to tweak her childhood experience with the benefit of hindsight, Ms. Palmer insisted she would “keep everything the same because everything made me who I am.”

“Growing up is realizing that things aren’t perfect, but life is what you make it. And I feel like that message came through to me well.”

For Ms. Palmer, it is exhilarating to do the most. She described anticipating audience response as “my pastime.”

“Let me see how I can gag you today. That’s literally part of my joy.”

“As long as I am passionate and have a lot to say, I’m going to be banging, banging, banging, banging, banging stuff out,” she said. Her words, by this point, were like rubber balls dropped from 20 stories up, bouncing out hard and fast. “I still have so many ideas that I haven’t gotten out, to say.”

To those vicariously exhausted by her energy, she offered a warning: “I won’t be chilling anytime soon, soon, soon.”


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