Inside Keke Palmer's Hollywood Journey, From Nickelodeon Star to VMAs Host
By Jennifer Drysdale
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Keke Palmer is just getting started. The 26-year-old actress and 2020 MTV VMAs host has been performing for nearly two decades. She has starred in movies, television shows, released two albums and successfully made the transition out of child stardom. She's built a legion of fans of both her work and her personality.
Palmer's "Sorry to This Man" meme from her 2019 Vanity Fair lie detector test is arguably as well known as her moving, impromptu pleas to National Guardsmen during a Black Lives Matter protest in June. She's shown that beneath her humor and beaming smile lies thoughtful discourse, self-awareness and an ability to inspire others. That's the core of Palmer's Hollywood journey.
Born in 1993 in Harvey, Illinois, Palmer didn't grow up around the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. The multi-hyphenate's parents met in drama school and worked as professional actors before finding other jobs (her father, Larry, worked for a polyurethane company, while her mother, Sharon, was a high school teacher), so they understood their daughter was a natural-born performer. Still, her career grew from humble roots. She started singing in a church choir at age five. At nine, she auditioned for the stage production of The Lion King; though she was too young, the casting director told her parents she had talent.
Palmer's star shone so bright that her parents decided to move the family -- including her older sister and younger twin siblings -- to Los Angeles. She booked her first role playing Queen Latifah's niece in Barbershop 2: Back in Business, and over the next few years, scored parts in Madea's Family Reunion, ER and Cold Case.
The actress' breakout role came in 2006 with Akeelah and the Bee, in which she starred as a bright 11-year-old girl who participates in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Palmer starred opposite Oscar-nominated actors Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett -- and held her own. "This young woman is an extraordinary actress. It was an honor for both Angela and I to be in her first starring role," Fishburne said of Palmer during a 2006 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
"I don't know the last time there was a movie that the lead of the movie was an African American female," he added, pointing out the "importance and significance" of Palmer's powerful performance.
Audiences took note of Palmer, and by 2007, she had started to solidify her fan base, starring in Disney Channel's Jump In! with Corbin Bleu. She also branched out into music that year, with the release of her debut album, So Uncool, through Atlantic Records. In 2008, she scored her own TV show on Nickelodeon, True Jackson, VP, and her$20,000 per episode salary and clothing line for Walmart made her the fourth-highest-paid child star on TV.
The performer turned 18 in 2011, the same year her sitcom ended, after which she continued to work on music and released her first mixtape, Awaken. "I'm ready," Palmer told ET at the 2010 BET Awards of launching her music career. "Next year, hopefully I'll be performing [at the BET Awards]."
Worlds collided soon after, as she reunited with Latifah for the 2012 musical comedy-drama Joyful Noise, also starring Jeremy Jordan and Dolly Parton. She couldn't contain her excitement during ET's visit to the set, gushing over how the film connected to her roots in church.
"This movie's a gospel film, and that's where I learned how to sing, in the choir. My father's a deacon, and my mother was a choir director, so it's pretty close to home," shared Palmer, who also noted her connection to Latifah. "So, I feel at home with it, just because that's where I come from."
"This is the first movie I've ever gotten to do music in, so this is the first time people will see me onscreen singing. So, I'm definitely having fun with that," she added.
Fans would soon get the opportunity to see Palmer sing onscreen again, as she portrayed Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas in the VH1 TLC biopic CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story in 2013. She continued to rack up roles on TV, including parts on 90210 and Masters of Sex, and in 2014, she made history, both as the youngest-ever talk show host with her BET show, Just Keke, and as the first black Cinderella on Broadway.
"I waited my entire life for a moment like that. I hate saying it was a huge deal that I was the first African American to ever be a part of this musical," Palmer told Essence in 2016. "It’s great, but I also want people to feel like it’s crazy, because it shouldn’t always be this way. But I loved that my little brother and sister got to watch this show and actually see a diverse world just like the one around them."
Palmer went from one musical to another, starring in Fox's Grease: Live in 2016. Then 22, she opened up to ET at rehearsals about her new awareness of how work affected her personal life. "I've been so driven by my career at such a young age -- that's one thing that I've noticed about myself, is I've gotten older. I'm used to having so much order, but relationships aren't about order. Friendships, not just romantic relationships -- relationships in general are not about order. They're about going to the flow," she said. "You have to let go."
Later that year, fans got more words of wisdom from Palmer as she released her first book, I Don't Belong to You: Quiet the Noise and Find Your Voice. She took control of her music career, releasing Waited to Exhale, which was recorded when she was 16.
"These are the words I was afraid to stand behind because I had too much anxiety and could not process my experiences and how they were separate from the spirit of who I was," she explained to fans on her website at the time. Palmer described how her anxiety and stressful personal life created "years of depression" for her. Now, she was ready to be fearless.
In a sit-down interview with ET at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019, Palmer said she really started to work on herself and "refuel" around the time she turned 18. "I did a lot of spiritual work but I'm also into therapy," she explained. "I think therapy is extremely important and very pivotal in my life, from the time I was 17 until now."
"You gotta check and balance yourself. Sometimes you gotta have somebody assist you in that. You're not always gonna know what to do and how to do it, and so therapy is an important tool," she added.
Finding that focus helped Palmer push forward. In 2019, she permanently joined co-hosts Michael Strahan and Sara Haines on Good Morning America's Strahan, Sara & Keke.
"I've always loved hosting, but I didn't know how it was going to deliver itself to me. I had a talk show when I was 19, 20, that went away, then I co-hosted on The View or co-hosted on Anderson Cooper when he had his show. It's come in different moments throughout my life. So, for it to come back in this way and with Michael and Sara, I don't think it could have been done in a more perfect way," she told ET.
Palmer admitted that the work was challenging, especially as she's been part of the pop culture that she's now covering, but she was grateful for the consistency and time to work on other projects -- like starring opposite Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Hustlers.
"It feels like I'm living my dreams. I feel like I'm going full steam… I'm the kind of person that definitely chases the extremes, especially as a creative," Palmer reflected. "I want to always push myself to the brink, but the more simpler things in life, the more mundane things, the more priceless things, I really always want to make sure that as I've gotten older that I'm appreciating those as well."
"[I] bare my soul through my craft," she told ET at the Hustlers press day soon after. "I do it because I enjoy it but I think that's the craziest thing I think you can do, period."
Last fall, Palmer was honored alongside politicians, activists, performers and more as part of Time 100 Next 2019. In a piece for the magazine, Strahan raved about Palmer's work ethic, but said he also admires "how sure she is of herself as a person." "She stands by what she believes and never compromises her values," he wrote. "I am so impressed with how level-headed she is, especially for someone her age who has been in this business as long as she has."
The key to Palmer's success lies in that combination Strahan noted -- how her work ethic and refreshingly untamed personality intersect. She's become a beloved part of people's homes every day as they tuned in to see her on GMA3, and was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Entertainment Talk Show Host in May. The award ended up going to Kelly Clarkson, and Strahan, Sara & Keke was later canceled as ABC replaced the hour with coronavirus-focused programming. While Palmer said she expected the cancelation due to the outbreak and challenges of upholding a show in current times, she maintains a good relationship with the network.
In June, Palmer made headlines for her powerful exchange with National Guard soldiers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles. Her impassioned speech left fans inspired, and soon after, she announced she'd be focusing on the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in an upcoming thriller, Alice. Palmer will also be executive producing the project, set to film soon.
Earlier this month, Palmer was announced as host of the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards. She'll emcee the awards ceremony, which will take place virtually, with some outdoor performances with "limited or no audience," and has been teasing fans on social media with what she's got up her sleeve.
The actress told ET last year that she was letting "inspiration" take the reins on her career.
"I've been in front of the camera for a long time -- done dramatic films, fun films, and I'm just at the point where it's like I can't say exactly what's next. But I'm going to follow where the excitement leads me, where the inspiration leads me," she said. "That's what's most important, is to make sure I'm always engaged in what I do creatively."