Keke Palmer Says She Used To Work Until Exhaustion—Then She Learned To Say No

Keke Palmer is a force of nature. Take the way she speaks, for instance—rapid-fire and full of vigor, as if she had just been blasted from a cannon. Even on this lazy afternoon, she is bursting with energy, which is especially impressive since only moments before, she’d been at the spa. I’d expected her to have that post-massage floating-on-air vibe. Instead, Keke, 29, speeds forward like a woman on a mission.

And right now, that mission is to tell me about the retreat, where she’s been for the past five days. “It’s a spa,” she says. “But it’s really like a health clinic. So, I’ve been meditating, resting, doing yoga, juicing, working out—just all this spiritual and health grounding.” In other words, this wasn’t a primp-and-pamper situation. Keke was preparing physically and mentally for hectic days ahead.

In a few weeks, Keke, who’s been acting steadily for more than two decades, will head out on a whirlwind promo tour in support of two of her biggest roles yet: starring opposite Daniel Kaluuya and Steven Yeun in Jordan Peele’s hotly anticipated spine-chilling thriller, Nope, and as the voice of Izzy in Disney/Pixar’s Lightyear. The latter project will bring her to the U.S. Naval Observatory in D.C. to join Vice President Kamala Harris as she screens the film for military families; the former will take Keke around the world.

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“We’re doing a lot of traveling for Nope,” Keke says. “Korea, Germany, London, Paris, so many different places, which I’m excited about. But I also know it’s going to be extremely physically taxing,” she adds. “I’m going to be expending so much energy, talking, laughing, and engaging. And I don’t do anything half-assed. So if I’m talking, I’m talking; if I’m laughing, I’m laughing; if I’m engaging, I’m engaging.”

On top of that, she says, is the challenge of eating well on the road. “It’s trying to find the right things—to make sure I’m not always eating garbage because I’m getting too tired, or I forgot. I want to make sure my body is at its best.”

And so she came to this compound in California’s Desert Hot Springs to sip wheatgrass juice, practice Reiki, and take part in a cleansing ceremony led by a shaman named Mari. This expedition was less an effort to replenish her depleted reserves than a preemptive move—think of it not as a recharge but a precharge—like taking a deep breath just before bolting full steam ahead: “I’ve learned over the years that to keep my sanity, and to physically keep this machine running, I have to pour into myself as often as I can.”

Self-care has not always been a priority for Keke. In fact, the actor spent most of her early career hustling and striving, sometimes “to the point of exhaustion,” she adds.

keke palmer

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Keke grew up in suburban Robbins, Illinois, the second of four siblings, with parents who encouraged artistic expression. As a small child, she sang in the church choir. At 9, she auditioned for a national touring production of The Lion King. Although she didn’t get the part, the experience ignited a spark: “I was like, ‘This acting thing is really fun.’”

Keke studied the craft with her mother, Sharon, whom she still taps for career advice today. “My mom taught me how to break down characters and how to find the rhythm in the scene, whether it’s drama or comedy,” says Keke. “I would love to present the Sharon Palmer [acting] method to the world someday, because she really is skilled. Honestly, my mom’s brilliant.”

Keke made her film debut at 11, playing Queen Latifah’s niece in Barbershop 2: Back in Business. Two years later, in 2006, she found herself starring opposite screen legends Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, playing spelling bee champ Akeelah Anderson in Akeelah and the Bee.

Keke not only held her own, but her breakout performance was described by one film reviewer as “quite simply remarkable.” From then on, Keke—born Lauren Keyana Palmer—was unstoppable. She launched a music career and appeared in a steady string of film and TV roles, including as the star of Nickelodeon’s True Jackson, VP.

keke palmer

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Keke credits her early years in the industry for instilling a professional work ethic. “You can’t work for Disney or Nickelodeon and not be professional,” she says. “They don’t care if you’re 5 years old!” But still, she says, sometimes the breakneck pace of stardom “was just way too much.”

When she was 14, Keke was tapped for another starring role, opposite Ice Cube in The Longshots, based on a true story of a young girl quarterback who led her team to the Pop Warner Super Bowl. The film went into production not long after Keke’s debut album, So Uncool, was released. “I would go from long days on-set learning how to play football to touring and performing music at army bases on the weekends.”

“It became a habit to hustle hard,” she continues, “which is essentially how our country exists anyway, so I’m not original in that.” But the hard work took a toll. Over the years, Keke experienced exhaustion; she fainted; she lost her voice. But, she says, sometimes you figure out what you need to do to take care of yourself only after “you’ve hit the wall.”

keke palmer

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At 17, Keke started therapy. The next year, she began practicing yoga. Initially, she admits, her goals were mostly aesthetic. “It was like, ‘I want my body to look good because one day I want to do action movies,’” she recalls with a laugh. “It was a superficial start, which I think is fine. The entry point doesn’t always have to be so serious.”

But as she got deeper into her practice, Keke had an epiphany: “I realized I’m not supposed to be competing with my classmates. I’m supposed to be getting into my own zone. I discovered that mind, body, and soul appreciation don’t have to result in a six-pack.”

And then another awareness took hold: Keke started reflecting on the discipline that led to her successful career and wondering what might happen if she dedicated a similar energy to caring for herself. “It hit me that I have to practice loving myself the same way I practice acting,” she says.

Keke also thought of her grandmother and how she’d encouraged her grandchild to say her prayers before bed, which Keke recognized as another act of “rejuvenation through self-practice.” Making these connections felt like an awakening. “That was when I started thinking about how I want to exist in the world.”

In 2021, Keke went public with her diagnosis of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), an endocrine disorder marked by overproduction of androgen, which can cause symptoms such as persistent acne and irregular periods. Keke posted the news of her diagnosis on Instagram with an unfiltered photo showing the acne she’d struggled with for years.

PCOS affects as many as 5 million women of childbearing age in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is no cure for PCOS, but some women find their symptoms improve when they follow an anti-inflammatory eating routine and focus on exercise to reduce stress, which can aggravate the condition.

With her busy schedule, Keke finds her favorite way to work out is with the Melissa Wood Health app, which offers a variety of yoga-infused Pilates routines and meditations. “My body responds incredibly well to Pilates,” she explains. And the app gives her flexibility to get in a workout of whatever length she can. “There are videos that are 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 40 minutes long. It’s so smart because sometimes 10 minutes is all the time we have.”

keke palmer

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Today, Keke is dressed in a light sweatshirt, olive-colored high-waisted Lululemons, furry slides, and no makeup, with her hair in twists pulled into a bun. And she’s got that glorious smile. Keke radiates warmth and charisma. Her presence is so captivating, her manner so engaging, that, at 20, she was anointed to helm her own show, Just Keke, making her the youngest talk show host in TV history.

These days, it feels as if Keke is everywhere: She’s judging spins and dips on HBO’s Legendary; she starred in and executive-produced the thriller Alice, a feature film about an enslaved woman who gains her freedom and seeks revenge; her Facebook Watch series, Turnt Up With the Taylors—a send-up of reality TV in which Keke plays all the characters herself—won the star a 2021 Emmy Award.

And this just in: Keke is slated to star opposite Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph in the upcoming animated series The Hospital. Oh, and did I mention she’s launching a YouTube channel that’ll be a mix of scripted and unscripted original content? It’s no wonder the woman wanted a few days to herself.

Still, spending five days at a spa is a rare treat, even for Keke. She says the real secret to maintaining her well-being is a habit she’s recently begun to manifest. She’s learning how to say no.

“I realized it’s hard to say no because we don’t trust,” she says. “We don’t trust that if we say no the opportunity will come again. Or we don’t trust that if we say no we’ve made the right choice. Or we’re scared that if we say no we’re going to offend somebody. But I realized that saying yes to too many things was stressing me out the most.”

So she’s been challenging herself to be fearless: “I’ve learned not to be afraid to re​arrange things and to accept that I’m not going to be able to do it all without hurting myself.” She remembers receiving a job offer not too long ago that she wanted to accept, but the timing was impossible. “A couple of years ago, I would have been like, ‘Well, your career’s over if you don’t do this.’ But this time I was like, ‘Physically, this is not possible. I would have to dishonor myself in such a cruel way [to make it happen] that I simply have to say no.’”

For Keke, success is a balancing act. On the one hand is the drive and enthusiasm that got her to where she is and tempts her to say yes to everything at once. On the other is the commitment to self-care and protection, which tells her it’s okay to slow down. “It’s been two years since I embarked on this whole ‘saying no’ thing,” she says with smile. “And I must say, I’m getting really good at it now. That’s the grace and the silver lining. Everything I’ve been through has taught me how to love myself more.”

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Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom. Styled by Kristen Saladino
Hair: Ricardo Roberts. Makeup: Jordana David. Manicure: Temeka Jackson. Set design: Danielle Von Braun. Staud top and shorts, staud.clothing; Soko earrings, shopsoko.com, Keke’s own bracelets.


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