A Toast to Everything Yara Shahidi Accomplished Long Before Her 21st Birthday

Actress and activist Yara Shahidi hasn't been idling away her youth. In honor of her 21st birthday Feb. 10, we're celebrating all the ways the Grown-ish star has made her mark.

By Natalie Finn Feb 10, 2021 11:00 AMTags
Yara Shahidi, 21st Birthday FeatureGetty Images; Melissa Herwitt/E! Illustration

In these times of utmost turmoil, we're happy to report that there's a really inspiring, heartening trend to go along with the dispiriting, wake-us-when-it's-over devolutions in our society.

And that's the rise of young people putting their seeming bottomless energy to good use and making it happen, both for themselves and to better the world around them.

There is a litany of names to appreciate, but right this moment it's Yara Shahidi getting the shout-out, an actress and activist who can't help but make you scratch your head and wonder what you were doing at 21.

Finishing school, maybe planning for more school, getting a job, but otherwise... well, surely we were doing something...

Young Activists Guaranteed to Inspire You

The eldest of three kids, Yara grew up immersed in the arts and became a voracious reader thanks to her Black model mom Keri Salter Shahidi and Iranian-American photographer dad Afshin Shahidi, who made sure their daughter was absorbing a diverse array of perspectives.

"Like, my education was very intentional," the Grown-ish star told The Guardian in 2019. From history books so she could go beyond what was being discussed in the classroom at 6 to reading James Baldwin by the time she was 13,  she said, "My parents have always put me in environments that were intentionally progressive and forward-thinking."

Her intellectual curiosity piqued at a young age, and taught by example that she should speak up for what she believes in, it was the tiniest of leaps from acting to activism, the politically outspoken performer never one to shrink from a tough conversation. In fact, it's more likely she'll be the person starting it.  

"I feel like activism has always been ingrained into who I am because of how my parents have raised me," Yara told Teen Vogue in 2017. "When I first started earning money, my mother would help me divide it into three: saving money, spending money, and donation money. Giving became a very integral part of the process, especially as people that had as much abundance as we were able to have. I think having a platform optimized how I wanted to use my voice. I was always an outspoken child, but over the past few years, I've been able to say that I am comfortable—in any situation—voicing my opinion about how I feel, which is a fantastic way of vying for social change."

True story.

"If you get Yara talking, she will not stop talking," Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays her mom on Black-ish and Grown-ish, told Vogue in 2018. "When Yara gets comfortable, she gets comfortable."

You'd be forgiven for assuming she'd reached this milestone already (or you're wondering how the heck little Zoey Johnson on Black-ish grew up so fast), but Yara is celebrating her 21st birthday Feb. 10. And while she may not be one to rest on her laurels, we're paying tribute to the multihyphenate's various laurels for her.

Here's everything she managed to get done long before she was old enough for a much-deserved champagne toast:

The Early Years

Along with her model-actor little brothers, Minneapolis-born Yara Shahidi got into show business as a baby, booking commercials for major companies such as Target, McDonald's and Ralph Lauren.

Her first series role was an uncredited appearance on Entourage when she was 7, the 2007 episode where Vince and the guys hitch a ride to Cannes on Kanye West's jet, and two years later she made her big-screen debut in Imagine That, with Eddie Murphy playing her father.

Her Big Break

So Yara was already a veteran actor with credits including SaltAlex Cross and the short-lived sitcom The First Family when, at 13, she auditioned for ABC's Black-ish, reading for the role of Zoey Johnson, one of the precocious kids in an affluent family whose dad, played by Anthony Anderson, is concerned that they've become too far removed from the more pressing challenges faced by so many in the Black community.

"I remember having, like, the best time during that audition," Yara told The Guardian. "I walked out and said, like, 'I honestly don't even need to book this,' the audition was just a really good time."

Spoiler alert, she got the part and Black-ish is in its seventh season.

"A lot of actors came in and I felt like they were pushing, pushing, pushing," series creator Kenya Barris recalled to Vogue in 2018 of the star-in-the-making. "And there was just an effortlessness to her acting that spoke to me."

Added Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Zoey's doctor mom Rainbow Johnson, "Yara has a beautiful, quirky light about her. She's a hard worker, a deep thinker, and a very free thinker."

A Helping Hand

Joining ongoing efforts to end poverty through education, she teamed up with the Young Women's Leadership Network to launch Yara's Club, a digital mentorship program for teens that hosts bi-monthly online meetings where the kids can discuss anything on their minds.

"I'm filming nine and a half hours a day, five days a week," she told the New York Times in 2015, "but whenever I have a free moment, I'm talking to the U.N. or working on how to get Yara's Club launched. Giving back is not just something you do as an adult."

Awards Central

Yara has shared in two SAG Award nominations for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series with her Black-ish co-stars, but on her own she won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 2015 and the BET Awards' YoungStars Award in 2017 and 2018. (Plus, she's been nominated for a slew of People's Choice, Teen Choice, Kids' Choice, MTV Movie & TV Awards, et al.)

The Alliance for Women in Media Foundation presented her with a Gracie Award for Outstanding Female Actor in a Breakthrough Role in 2016, and she was honored with the GenerationNext Award at the 2017 Essence Black Women in Hollywood ceremony, where Ross sang her TV daughter's praises in a moving letter celebrating her "Black Girl Magic." 

"Dearest Yara," she began. "What a gift it is for me to be able to witness you in this moment of tremendous growth and grace. I was here in this life 27 years before you arrived. And you lived 13 years before we met, yet it has been almost four years that we have been walking beside each other, sharing early mornings and long hours, stealing moments of silliness and claiming moments of connection...sometimes in the form of sisterhood, generally under the guise of a mother/daughter, but mostly as kindred souls from different eras."

In December, Yara was honored (virtually) with the Trailblazer Award at the 2020 Bounce Trumpet Awards for her achievements on camera and off. In a video montage highlighting her work, she graciously said that she was astounded by the work going on around her. "Honestly, I really find my role more so to continue to advocate and to shine a light on all that Gen Z is doing," she said, "and I'm just grateful to be along for the ride."

On the List

Yara made TIME magazine's 2017 list of the "30 Most Influential Teens," as well as Forbes' "30 Under 30" both that year and the next.

Growing Gains

When it was time for the Johnsons' little girl to go to college, 18-year-old Yara graduated into her own Freeform spin-off, Grown-ish, which follows Zoey's exploits at "Cal U" and (spoiler alert!) her eventual realization that college may not be for her as she pursues her goal of becoming a stylist.

"It's life imitating art imitating life," similarly university-bound Yara told Vogue in 2018 of her dueling college storylines on and off-camera. "I really connected to Zoey's level of discomfort and vulnerability."

Higher Education

After graduating from the Dwight School in New York City, Yara was accepted at Harvard (and everywhere else she applied to), her application packet including a recommendation letter from famous Harvard Law alum Michelle Obama. That fortuitous connection was fostered by the STEM education advocate's work with the White House's Let Girls Learn initiative.

In 2016 she joined the first lady on Oct. 11, International Day of the Girl, for "A Brighter Future: A Global Conversation on Girls' Education" with Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive and female students piping in remotely from around the globe. They discussed the unique challenges facing girls all over the world and the imperativeness of not just improving their access to education, but also encouraging them every step of the way to dream big and pursue their goals.

But while her letter from FLOTUS was obviously an attention-getter with the admissions boards, that wasn't the only weapon in Yara's arsenal. "I've got to tell you, I have another really cool letter from my AP Calc teacher," she informed Jimmy Kimmel in the spring of 2017, before she'd heard back from any schools, giving a shout-out to her calculus teacher, Ms. Lee. "I just want to brag. My AP Calc teacher wrote me a letter, that's not easy...It's a process, you have to do well all year. So I'm actually very proud."

But of course, Yara also told W around that time, the first lady was "very amazing and such a supporter, which is something very surreal to say."

Her stated plan (after taking a gap year) was to double major in sociology and African American studies starting in 2018.

Civic Engagement

Before she was even of age, she co-founded Eighteen x '18, a nonpartisan youth-voter-engagement organization, initially with an eye on getting more young people registered and ready to vote in the 2018 midterm elections, a raison d'etre that organically translated into #WeVoteNext ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

"Midterms will come up and there will be so many of us that can vote," Yara, barely 17 at the time, told W in 2017. "It's more important, too, to not just vote during midterms, but if you're of voting age—or even if you're not of voting age, like I am—there are ways to make changes and be involved, versus this feeling of helplessness because we don't have any political sway."

Accepting her Trumpet Award in December, she explained, "#WeVoteNext started from a feeling of knowing that I had to continue my own voter education, and so instead of coming from a perspective of, like, 'Well, I have all this information, let me share,' it's really, 'Well, how do we go through this education process together?' And it's been so wonderful because it's meant we've been able to gather so many of my incredible peers to come together and talk about the things that matter to us."

Stronger Together

Yara interviewed Hillary Clinton to kick off the inaugural Teen Vogue Summit in Los Angeles in 2017, the former first lady, secretary of state, senator and presidential candidate confirming that her teen interlocutor was on the right track with her Eighteen x '18 organization.

"Vote," Clinton advised. "This is the most inclusive, diverse, thoughtful generation. If you vote, we're going to win."

Dressed for Success

Yara's already been a style and beauty icon—of the red carpet and streetwear variety—for years, serving up fashion inspiration for kids and adults alike. She's a Chanel ambassador and has put her best foot forward in Brooks Brothers, Coach, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch and more, any photo of Yara in their clothes instantly giving every one of those storied brands more cachet among the cool-kid set.

Even the already-cool kids are happy to have Yara's endorsement. Case in point: She wore Ivy Park to a Beyoncé concert, met some of the executives from Bey's athleisure brand at the show, and ended up in a Spring 2017 Ivy Park campaign along with the likes of SZA and Yara's BFFs Chloe and Halle Bailey. (Yara first met Beyoncé herself in 2016 at the last White House Easter Egg Roll of the Obama administration—you know, where all the regular high-school kids get to meet their idols.)

Meanwhile, her love of fashion and her commitment to activism and staying politically engaged are fully intertwined in her eyes. "I've gotten a lot of questions about if it's scary to be on a public platform given the current administration and given that I'm a Black Iranian," she told W when the Ivy Park campaign came out, featuring all the models spotlighting their favorite workout activity. (Yara's was karate.) "I say that to say, companies that are still supporting individuality—that are still supporting self-empowerment—are so crucial."

Besides, she continued, "If you look at the history of art and fashion, it's always been political. It's always been pushing boundaries."

Fresh Face

Pimples? No problem. Yara was a face of teen acne abolisher Clean & Clear, launching the brand's Triple Clear line in 2017.

"The Clean & Clear version [of exfoliator] is nice because it has aloe and peppermint, which I really love because I'm an essential oils kind of gal!" she shared with Teen Vogue.

Being the face of such a classic brand also fit right in with Yara's bigger goal, to see more representation in the beauty industry. "I think it's definitely getting better, what I'm seeing," she told the magazine. "There are so many of my friend's beautiful faces that I run into every single day at film awards and such. In that aspect, I think they're finally trying to embrace the true spectrum of color.

"At the same time, we can go so much further. I think it's interesting that you can see diversity in one aspect, but lacking in another aspect a lot of the time—whether that's diversity in ethnicity, body type, gender spectrum, sexuality, or whatever it may be. I think every brand can have diversity in one aspect but true diversity means every piece of person's identity is embraced and you embrace that intersectionality."

Asked to name some of her beauty-and-beyond icons, Yara offered, "It ranges from my momma to James Baldwin and Eartha Kitt to pictures of my family. I realize so much of it is the aura that everybody has. Rather than say 'insert feature here,' a lot of the people I'm inspired by have a fantastic personality that you can see through the photo."

A Ringing Endorsement

"Your future's so bright it burns my eyes."

So Oprah Winfrey told the teen (quoting what Quincy Jones once told her 35 years ago) in 2018 during a SuperSoul Conversations sit-down together at Harlem's Apollo Theater.

Figuring Out the Future

Still in with the former first family, Yara sat down with Barack Obama at the 2019 Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago to interview him about a variety of issues and how young people can get involved in effecting change. In fact, that's the event during which the 44th president of the United States cautioned against online shaming and famously chided folks for mistaking a social media pile-on for activism.

"Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn't do something right or used the wrong verb. Then, I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because, man, you see how woke I was?" Obama said. "You know, that's not activism. That's not bringing about change. If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get that far."

Naturally, he was, in turn, called out. As Twitter sharks circled, Yara came to his defense—and pointed out that they talked about a lot more than the one thing that made headlines.

"Being that I was part of the 75-minute conversation that preceded it and then followed it, it really was a moment in which I feel like people chose two sentences of what was said," she told The Hollywood Reporter a few days later. "There is something to be said for the importance of accountability. But I think accountability culture is different than call-out culture."

She continued, "There's one thing to be doing something as a force of action and realizing that me being a part of a mass online movement does something, and then there's still a tendency that we have to acknowledge to criticize people with no sort of solution in mind and to be overly nitpicky with no metric for growth of what we expect in return. And so, I think he addressed the nuance. Really, his comments to me were about the importance of action. Action can look different for everybody, but really acknowledging, 'When are you taking action and when are you content just identifying the problem?'"

A Winning Partnership

Yara doesn't just trust her mom, Keri, for book recommendations and beauty advice. They're also business partners, launching 7th Sun Productions together in July 2020 and signing a deal with ABC Studios to develop scripted and "alternative" programming for broadcast, cable and streaming.

"The vision is set. The slate is built," Yara shared in a statement. "Grateful to my ABC family & excited to join the television landscape to collaborate and push forward the stories of our many intersections."

In January Deadline reported that 7th Sun was developing the comedy Smoakland for Freeform, an accomplishment both mother and daughter shared on social media.

"IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING WHAT WE'VE BEEN UP TO," Yara heralded the deal, while Keri wrote, "CHASE CREATIVITY| Proud moment for Team #7thsunproductions."

But is there such a thing as too much, too soon?

Black-ish creator Kenya Barris admitted to The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, "Sometimes I worry about her, because she's been so uber-successful at everything that she's attempted and I want her to leave room for being a kid."

He needn't have worried that Yara wouldn't have her fun. She's had her share. But from the beginning, she wasn't exactly one to focus on...well, kid stuff.

Talking to Vogue in 2018, she said that one of her "greatest fears is living a self-centric life," explaining, "I think this industry is bred to create that—especially if your physical body is your tool or your face is what makes you money. I'm trying to understand that and then pulling back to figure out, How do we avoid that? How do we want something and have a greater purpose?"

So far, there's been no sign of that fear coming to fruition. Not stopping to worry about whether her opinions might put off some people or hinder her career in any way, Yara has continued to use her platform to speak her mind and shape this incoming generation of leaders—especially young, ambitious women with plenty to say and bold ideas about how to make this world better.

Sound familiar?

Yara told The Guardian in 2019 that she was flattered to have been deemed the "voice of a generation" by many of her admirers, but she politely eschewed the label.

"I read that and think it's physically not possible," she said. "I am beyond proud of being a part of a generation that no one person could be the face of. I'm grateful to be one of many voices."