Arts & Culture

Keke Palmer in tune with challenges of fame

A one-time child star, Keke Palmer portrays a sassy CIA case-officer in the Epix series, “Berlin Station.” (Katalin Vermes/Epix/TNS)
A one-time child star, Keke Palmer portrays a sassy CIA case-officer in the Epix series, “Berlin Station.” (Katalin Vermes/Epix/TNS)

PASADENA, Calif. — You’d never know by watching Keke Palmer as the determined CIA case officer in Epix’s “Berlin Station” that she was a child star.(At 25, Palmer has earned the gravitas she displays as the sassy millennial who challenges the old guard at Berlin Station.)

But that poise was hard won. She sang in church as a youngster, and was only 9 when she first tried out for a stage production of “The Lion King.” Two years later she was cast in the movie “Barbershop 2: Back in Business” as Queen Latifah’s niece. At that point her parents — both former actors — decided to pack up the family and move to Los Angeles to foster her career.

It was a bold move, thinks Palmer today, who has a younger brother and sister — twins — and a sister four years older. “All six of us drove down here in a Dodge Caravan,” she says.

“The first couple of weeks I did a national K-Mart commercial and a couple weeks later I did an episode of ‘Cold Case’ and ended up getting a movie for TNT called ‘The Wool Cap.’”

Her mom accompanied her to Montreal to film “The Wool Cap,” but it was the first time Palmer had been away from the rest of her family. For months the Palmers lived in an inn in Tarzana, a suburb 19 miles from Los Angeles, and it was decided her siblings would stay with their grandmother in their native Illinois while her father found a place for the family to settle.

All that sacrifice made her feel guilty, says Palmer. “I felt tons of stress, tons of guilt.”

“It wasn’t anything my parents were saying, it was just, ‘Oh, they did all this stuff for me and everybody’s life changed, including my older sister’s.’ She’s the oldest and so much of her socialization and adolescence was interrupted by my dream.”

Looking back, Palmer confides, “It was really about the bigger picture that my parents wanted to send to their kids, but it seemed like it was all about ME. That really made me feel separated from my siblings. Also being on the road all the time, it was very, very lonely. I felt misunderstood. I wasn’t around people my own age. I felt very lonely and, as I got older, I got to look into it and understand the meaning of some of the things I was feeling.”

The most difficult time was her three-year stint as star of “True Jackson, VP” on Nickelodeon. “The workload was so heavy and it was hard to get a life outside,” says Palmer.

“My parents were overprotective and they were disciplinarians — like no phone after certain hours ... that’s how I got a lot of my release or my access to the real world through the internet, on MySpace, social media, Twitter, AOL (Instant) Messenger. So it was very hard and difficult because I would be working all day and would have to be on set, then in school and couldn’t text on my phone, so I didn’t get any time to be something other than just a working kid.”

She thought she had no life outside of work. “I felt like I had no balance. And I didn’t know how to express that. I didn’t know how to put it into words. It’s not like I don’t love what I’m doing, I just want to have another outlet.”

That show also brought her fame, something else she wasn’t prepared for. She remembers attending the Universal Studios tour with her uncle who suffered from kidney disease. “We needed to get out of there and a whole swarm starts to come around me,” she recalls.

“And we’re trying to get out of the park to make sure he’s OK and gets home to take his medicine on time. And I remember feeling so horrible that I caused all this stuff. And they were all, ‘You need to go into the stands.’ And I didn’t know how to get out of there. And I realized my life would never be the same,” she says.

“I remember going to my grandmother’s and there were all these people I never met. And I remember just hiding in the bathroom and not wanting to come out because I just felt not real, felt that no one saw me as a real person. Once you’re kind of famous — even if you’re not as popular at this moment or that moment — you’re always famous. And that just changes your life. Your life is never the same.”

But Palmer sought help. “I started doing yoga, meditating, went to a therapist ... My attorney, I spoke to him about how I was feeling and he made me feel very normal. He said, ‘This is very normal for an entertainer for what you’re going through, and you maybe should go see a therapist.’

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“I think a lot of people — a lot of people in the black community specifically — see going to a therapist or getting any kind of help means you’re crazy. It actually means the opposite. It means you’re smart and being aware and you say, ‘I need some assistance because it’s hard being a human being and whatever subculture you’re a part of, that has its own set of things on top of just having a brain and a heart and feelings.”

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