This Is Not an Interview With Keke Palmer

This was, in fact, meant to be an interview with Keke Palmer. The oft-viral actor’s team hit PAPER up for an interview opportunity tied to the Pride festivals Palmer has performed at, Capital Pride and Outloud in West Hollywood among them. That, and she was gearing up for a new mockumentary project on her YouTube channel KeyTV, DivaGurl, about an aspiring girl group of the same name.

I spent most of the week preparing, myself being a fan of Palmer’s work over the decades since she came into my life, like most others, in her starring role for Akeelah and the Bee. Since then, she has turned her childhood stardom into the sort of longevity most aspire to. Besides recent, critically acclaimed roles in movies like Jordan Peele’s Nope, she’s also released new music after time away from the studio, started work on a new book, Master of Me, out in November, and briefly appeared on the judging panel of the widely celebrated HBO Max vogue competition, Legendary. Beyond that, she also launched KeyTV as a way to take back the reins of her career, in her own words, and produce content on her own terms.

Among these offerings is the upcoming DivaGurl project, which we were approached for when Palmer’s team broached the possibility of an interview. On Instagram, fans were left puzzled when videos of the group, starring Palmer under the alias “Keyana,” surfaced alongside an Instagram account and teasers for new music. A quick scroll of the comments includes plenty of anticipation, and just about as many questions. Was it a new series, an actual girl group, a prank, or something else entirely?

Good news: it’s the first option. I was excited to dig into the work behind the series and what inspired it, after her team sent over a treatment for the series’ plot beats, alongside character overviews and initial visuals. Having not publicly addressed it at the time of our chat, I’d be the first to get the down-low — always an exciting prospect as an entertainment reporter.

Leading up to our chat, Keke decided to attend in character, as Keyana. While I was hesitant about the improv of it all — I would be interviewing her as a “radio host” — it was still Keke Palmer, after all, the woman who lights the internet on fire every few months for her candor and wit, and a sense of humor unmatched by most peers. (“Sorry to this man” being just one of a million such instances that all sprung into my head at the thought.)

So I did improv with Keke Palmer successfully and even made her laugh a few times. I didn’t even break character once. Read PAPER‘s conversation with Keyana, below.

It’s very exciting to be on the phone the breakout star of DivaGurl. How has it been doing this big press junket?

It’s been amazing. I’ve always done music. It’s been a big part of my life growing up. But working with KeyTV and getting some of these bigger opportunities. It’s really done amazing things for the group. And we’re just really excited to show the world what we have, because there hasn’t been a girl group in a really long time. And I know that we have what it takes to make it a thing again, so to speak.

So tell us how DivaGurl came about? You mentioned that girl groups haven’t been around for a really long time, so it seems like a big moment for there to be a new girl group that’s dominating the charts.

It came about very organically. I grew up with Saturday we’ve been going to school together, since like the sixth grade, maybe even a little bit earlier. And she’s always just really supported my vision to be an artist. And then when I started working with this producer, who was working with Monèt, we ended up meeting with Sadè at some dance studios. We kind of all just came together. And thankfully she’s always been the person who’s backed us financially. We haven’t always had a lot of money. I’ve worked odd jobs and things here and there singing in restaurants and even did a cruise once. But ultimately, we just came together and said, “Hey, let’s do this.” KP the producer that we’re working with, he was really into helping us and then we got signed to Underground Records, which is a really up-and-coming independent record company that believed in us and next thing you know we’re coming out with our album SOB.

If I heard you correctly, Sade is financially supporting the group. Has that ever put a strain on your friendship or your working relationship?

I don’t want to put her business out there or anything. I won’t speak for her, but I will say it’s tough, especially when … this is the first time I’ve ever experienced anything like this. I don’t know if this ends up being on the blogs, or if it ends up being a thing. She can’t sing like me, and I do think it’s a difficult thing being in a group and just having people decide who’s going to be in the front. But she’s the one that has been really supporting us. Hopefully, the group itself can start supporting itself. But I definitely do think that with her making those financial moves, she wants to be the one that picks the song, picks the thing, you know what I mean? But it’s a group. It’s a democracy where we all do what’s best for the group. So it’s a learning curve, you know?

I’ve seen critics talk about DivaGurl quite a bit, and I’ve seen many comparisons to Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child. Have you taken any notes from the queen of Destiny’s Child, you know, Beyoncé herself?

1,000% for me, Beyoncé is the goal. When you look at the story of Beyoncé from being in Destiny’s Child. I truly admire the way that she always knew who she was from the very beginning and what she wanted, while also creating a community of women that she loved. And to this day, we get opportunities to see them together and supporting one another. B has always known where she was going. With DivaGurll it’s the same thing. I’m so happy to be in this group with these girls. Most importantly, I’m looking forward to how I continue to grow as an individual within my community of this group. I think that’s important. You gotta keep pushing forward and you have to always maintain your voice and that’s what’s going to make the group unique.

“Diva,” DivaGurl, it all makes sense.

There’s one diva girl and that’s Keyana!

Did you ever have to run and sing like Beyoncé?

Oh my god. It’s crazy. The training that I had to do! I mean, I do think that the school of Beyoncé has impacted how all of us do stuff. I even had to swim one time, swimming, singing, swimming, singing. It was absolutely insane. I had to literally swim and sing like, it was crazy. So yeah, I’ve actually sung while swimming.

That’s impressive. I mean, I feel like it is not something many people can say they’re capable of, swimming and singing. That’s a drowning risk. But it’s cool that you persevered over it.

We call it the two S’s: swimming and singing.

You should brand that. Put that on some T-shirts maybe?

I love that actually. It’s great.

Can you tell us about any musical inspirations that you have? Obviously, we’ve talked about Destiny’s Child, but are there any other girl groups that you’ve looked up to, any other singers that you admire?

Oh, without a doubt. The Spice Girls are a big one for us. Spice Girls, obviously Destiny’s Child, also En Vogue. I think when it came to the styling of DivaGurl, there was a little essence of both En Vogue and Spice Girls. It’s all about the individuality that exists within the group and that’s big for me. I really wanted us all to stand out in our own way. Sadè is a boss bitch and she’s gonna get it done by any means necessary. She gives that chic corporate girl, but still very sexy then there’s myself who in many ways I’m the sultry one, you know? That Posh Spice energy. Then we have Monèt. She has a kind of perceived as innocent. She’s very much girly. She’s always got her pigtails.

I also love how En Vogue was always so fashion-forward. That’s something that we loved to implement in our upcoming video and single. The fact that all of us are wearing full-on designers. We really wanted to push that.

I heard you say there’s this perceived innocence with Monèt. Do you ever find it hard to balance what people expect from you as public figures and what you know about each other behind the scenes?

It’s based on what we want the impact to be and what the purpose of the work is. And so I feel like it’s one of those things where we’re always having to balance that. And as we keep growing, it becomes something we start to understand more. We got the opportunity to do a couple of tour dates with Keke Palmer, for when she was doing pride. It was awesome. She really took a moment to speak to us about our experience and what her experience has been growing up in the industry and balancing the perception. She talked about having all those people weigh in on who you are and what you’re trying to do. She told us to stay focused and remember what our goals are as performers, what we want our music to be and how we wanted it to feel to people. To remember not to take everything personally because it’s not personal. If who the world is perceiving you to be isn’t you, it’s not something that you should internalize. You know what I mean?

I mean, Keke Palmer is a bonafide gay icon, and we’re talking during Pride month after all. I’ve noticed that gay fans have really latched on to DivaGurl, as they tend to do with girl groups. Have you at all thought about your position amongst the gay community, or what they’re connecting to?

Oh my gosh, that first of all, gives me so much excitement. Like genuine, genuine, genuinely. It is amazing to even hear you say something like that. I think it’s the camp of it all. We love the community, we love when we see people go all the way. And DivaGurl is that kind of group. First of all, literally “diva.” But then also when you see us go full throttle, not holding back, we’re giving you everything, we’re staying true to the narrative. I think everybody appreciates that. Also, I was excited at the opportunity to do Pride and when we came out for the shows, I think people were like, who is DivaGurl? You know what I mean? And then after we started promoting our new single and KeyTV has been really encouraging, and just supporting us. We actually have a show that’s going to be coming out. They’ve been following us. Besides that, I can’t wait to do more shows. And you know, all the queens that come to them, they know I live.

It’s the classic adage first you get the gays, then you get the girls. I’m interested in this reality show that has been filming. I heard a little bit of whispering about it while we were preparing for this interview.

So KP, our producer, he’s worked with Keke before. He started playing her some of our songs brought her to a session of ours, and we all hung out, turned into a little party actually, we just started getting into it. She was like, “Well, I have a network. We do a lot of different scripted and unscripted shows.” KP was like, “Why don’t you follow the group, the girl group, I think it’d be great for them and for the network. She agreed, and then she invited us to go on those private dates with her. We just started getting into filming, and so some of the stuff is happening in real-time, and some of it was pickups. I’m really getting used to this whole reality TV world. We’re still filming stuff now.

We’re big reality TV fans here at PAPER. I would love to know if you can give us any backstage gossip on the show. Were there any moments where you couldn’t believe they caught it on camera? Or said, “We have to put these cameras down.”

I don’t want to say too much. But there has been some salaciousness going on with one of our members and our producer. I probably shouldn’t have said that. But just stay tuned and watch the show because a lot of changes are being made constantly.

You know, sometimes when you’re working with people, things can happen. I imagine in the studio, it’s an intense environment for anybody.

I mean, look, I’m not trying to put my business out there. I’m not trying to put her business out there, but me and KP… he and I’ve gotten very close. I didn’t take nobody’s man because I can’t take nothing that is somebody’s. So at the end of the day, I’m just doing me and working on my craft.

Photos courtesy of DivaGurl

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