'Black-ish' star Yara Shahidi on authenticity, data privacy and the women she most admires

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Credit: Illustration by Paul Holland

Yara Shahidi is a breakout TV star, yet she spends most of her time listening to podcasts. Like a lot of 18-year-olds, Shahidi prefers to watch content when and where she chooses (though she does support certain shows by watching them within the three days after they air, when advertisers still care about viewer numbers, or on Hulu). In short: She very much resembles the elusive young consumers marketers are desperate to reach.

But unlike most of her peers, Shahidi, a star of ABC's "Black-ish" and the center of its Freeform network spinoff, "Grown-ish," has become an unofficial spokeswoman for a generation eager to get involved in political causes.

Yara's Club, a partnership between Shahidi and The Young Women's Leadership School, brings together high school students to discuss social issues and how to take action. Shahidi recently began an initiative with NowThis called Eighteen x 18 to rally young people to vote in this year's midterm elections. And she has worked with Michelle Obama's Let Girls Learn education initiative. (The former first lady wrote a college recommendation for Shahidi, who will attend Harvard this fall.)

Shahidi has also endorsed several brands, appearing in campaigns for Fossil, alongside her mom in a Tory Burch video and as part of American Eagle's "#AerieReal Role Model" push. But she's a critic of brands that try to capitalize on social movements to sell products.

Shahidi spoke with Ad Age about authenticity, data privacy and the women she most admires. Our conversation has been edited.

What's your view on the TV landscape? How do you and your friends watch TV?

I'm a TV consumer. But I mostly listen to podcasts. I follow TV shows and support actors as individuals, but I'm on set 16 hours a day and don't have a lot of time to watch TV.

Still, I've watched more TV in the last year than I ever have, because there's the feeling that I can turn on TV and see multiple relatable narratives. Even as a podcast listener, I still like that TV is now more expansive and slowly getting more inclusive, which has really benefited all of us in normalizing certain imagery. And now that TV is such a large part of social media, it's becoming even more integral to the sociopolitical narrative.

And having friends on TV and narratives and stories that I love means it's more than just a pastime. It's really being intentional, saying, I'm going to go support this show. I'm going to make sure I talk about this show and make sure other people watch this show. And even if you can't watch tonight, make sure you DVR it—three days or seven days, that really helps. If you watch it on Hulu, that really helps.

What are your favorite podcasts?

A whole lot of NPR, "The Nod" from Gimlet Media, "Pod Save America" and "Pod Save the People" from Crooked Media, "Revisionist History"—which is also, by the way, one of the only podcasts sponsored by Chanel. I always find it really funny that Malcolm Gladwell gets the coolest sponsors.

When are you listening to all of these?

I always have my headphones in. They call me a walking playlist.

You have 2.4 million Instagram followers and over 300,000 Twitter followers. What's your relationship with social media, especially with all of the conversations around Facebook and data privacy? Is that something that you and your generation worry about?

We're most definitely worried, and we're engaged in the conversation around data privacy—really, all conversations about the role social media plays and the larger implications it has on even policy. We're becoming more and more aware that social media has real-world implications. At the same time, it's an important part of our lives, for better or for worse, in terms of how we communicate, how we engage with one another, how we spread information. It's that catch-22 of figuring out how you utilize and optimize this tool that's not going anywhere. So just opting out isn't the most sensible option, though it's definitely an option. I mean, it's really funny because a lot of the data privacy conversations are happening on Twitter. A lot of these conversations where we are talking about data or anything pertaining to social media happen on social media.

What is a brand's place on social media? Should brands be taking part in sociopolitical conversations?

The partnerships I currently have with brands, a lot of them stem from a certain level of authenticity. The one thing we don't want is this idea of "engaging" Gen Z. There are some commercials, without naming any names, that feel as though they were optimizing current movements and rallies that we feel passionately about to sell a product. I feel like we usually as a generation see right through those moments in which there's such overt marketing to us without any level of authenticity, without any level of accountability. OK, you want to talk about being socially engaged. Well, what are the politics of the brand?

I know not everything occurs on social media, but the downfall is if you don't publicize it, it's as though it never happened. And if you do publicize it, does it seem fake or ill-motivated? Social media, being more engaged with the buyer, will add a level of transparency. So not just for brand pushes, but just the day-to-day, this is what the brand is doing. There are so many brands I know that are doing great work, that are sponsoring great work.

Social can be used to make it feel like we're part of the process, as though we're being included in the conversation more than just marketed to.

What women do you admire?

I have to start with my mama. On the personal side. she raised me, but on the business side, she was the one who really added this idea of transparency for me in terms of the teams I work with and the corporations I work with.

I entered this business from a point of wanting to be educated, wanting to know what's happening—as more than just the client or more than just a product, a monetizable object. I wanted to be engaged in all levels of it. I wanted to walk in and understand that this is how deals are formed, this is what ratings actually mean, this is what syndication is. All these things, they're terms that are thrown around, but they aren't terms that are actually explained to young kids. This industry is crazy and can swing you any which way, but she has guided me has given me more of a sense of control.

And then two other people I really like: Naomi Wadler—she's the 11-year-old that spoke during the March for Our Lives. She's so eloquent and well-spoken, but that doesn't even do her justice. It's more than just her putting words together; the concepts she conveys and the fact that she's so vocal at such a young age is really special. And another person is Margaret Zhang [age 24]. She's a fashion photographer, stylist [and writer, director and consultant]. She represents the new-age millennial and Gen Zer who strives to be that renaissance person and do it all—to not only be in front of the camera, but behind the camera and adjacent to the camera and in the boardroom, and really taking that sense of creative control.

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