Yara Shahidi On Fashion, Filmmaking And Being Named ‘Face of the Future’

Words by Rachel Silvestri

6 min read

This silver-screen Tinker Bell may be fresh-faced, but her astounding career and activist’s spirit betray a maturity beyond her years. MOJEH meets Yara Shahidi, recent recipient of the FIW Max Mara Face of the Future award, to discover how we may soon find this inspirational young woman more often behind the camera than in front of it

In a live-action retelling of its classic tale, in 2023 Disney celebrated 70 years since the release of the original Peter Pan animation with a new rendering titled Peter Pan & Wendy. But as any fan of this magical Victorian yarn will tell you, there is one particularly diminutive character that can make or break any version of the story — and we’re not talking about Mr Smee. From 1953’s sassy cartoon sprite to Julia Roberts’s hopeless romantic in 1991’s Hook, it’s Tinker Bell who inevitably steals the show from the title characters. And in the newest version, Yara Shahidi who was chosen to give what would turn out to be a most masterful performance.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the baby-faced 23-year-old aced it as, despite her seemingly young age, she’s spent a lifetime in showbusiness. Born to an African-American and Choctaw heritage mother and an Iranian photographer father in Minnesota, the family moved to California when Yara was four years old and by the age of six she was featuring in advertisements for Ralph Lauren, Gap, Guess and Disney. In 2009 she filmed her first movie role, starring opposite comedy juggernaut Eddie Murphy in Imagine That, astounding her co-star and the film’s crew with her maturity and intelligence. She became a regular TV fixture after that, playing parts in series ranging from Cold Case to Wizards of Waverly Place, until she landed the role that would shoot her to household name status in 2014 — that of Zoey Johnson in ABC sitcom Black-ish.

Yara’s partnerships with fashion Houses such as Max Mara allow her to take her empowering activism further . Yara wears printed shirt, shorts and belt by Max Mara

With the series surrounding an upper-class African-American family’s negotiation of socio- political issues, Yara didn’t neglect to cultivate her own political sensibilities, founding Eighteen x 18 — an organisation encouraging young people to vote — as well as Yara’s Club, which aims to end poverty through education and online mentorship.

Art imitated life when Yara left the regular ensemble of Black-ish to star in her own spin-off Grown-ish, featuring her character’s journey into higher education. And when Harvard called for Yara herself in 2017 — former US First Lady Michelle Obama wrote a letter of recommendation to the university after observing Yara’s activism — the young actor took time out of her career to study in the prestigious institution’s Social Studies and African American departments, graduating in 2022, a year after she joined the Dior Stand With Women campaign. She continued her passion for supporting womankind by speaking at the Cartier Women’s Initiative ceremony in 2023, and she has just been revealed as the recipient of the WIF Max Mara Face of the Future award, a prize that recognises her achievements in all aspects of her life. So how does Yara plan to continue her activism through this new honour?

“At the most basic level, I am a part of a support network of women,” says Yara. “My day- to-day life normally involves being supported by women and, vice versa, showing up for my friends, their careers and journeys. On a more technical work level, my work in production and fashion always involves a philanthropic component behind the scenes with a focus on how we can use our partnerships to support BIPOC women. My mother raised me with the saying: ‘Abundance must flow’. So whenever a collaboration provides me with new opportunities, it feels like my responsibility to figure out how to pass on the opportunity and the abundance.”

Yara’s red carpet looks at the WIF Max Mara Face of the Future awards

Indeed, the opportunities do continue to arise for Yara — despite being fresh out of college, a moment when most other new graduates may be planning to take a breather, she’s not only wrapped up filming on both Black-ish and Grown-ish, but she’s also made an impression as the first person of colour to portray Tinker Bell on the big screen and come out swinging as Jane in heartfelt comedy-romance Sitting in Bars with Cake. Not content to simply act in the movie’s leading role, Yara also executive produced the film — which may be a sign of things to come.

“On a professional level, I genuinely love the production process and the ability to develop a project from the ground up because, often, the actors are the last part of a process that existed well before we were involved,” says Yara. “While the future of the industry may seem unstable, I am encouraged because we have never seen this level of solidarity, and hopefully this means that we are going to walk into a whole new era where people can prioritise creativity. We have been able to share so many incredible stories, so I can only imagine what is yet to be shared when we create a more equitable experience.”

Using her partnerships with fashion houses in a shrewd way to continue her politically-conscious work, Yara seems to be getting the best of both worlds. But having starred in fashion campaigns since she was just a little girl, and proving a stunning clothes-horse today, surely she harbours an interest in personal style too? “I’ve always used fashion as a form of self-expression,” says Yara. “My parents let me wear even the quirkiest of outfits and go through every fashion phase, from only wearing skirts and high-top sneakers in middle school to super preppy knee-high socks and plaid skirts in high school. Now that I have the privilege to have so much fun with great fashion partnerships, I still try to maintain the core theme of self-expression. In my public-facing life, I love to have fun with colour, great references to fashion history and silhouettes. Privately, I’m still figuring out my style. This has been my year of ‘getting dressed’ and not just wearing tracksuits in my free time… Although I will admit, I have a soft spot for a matching set and tracksuit!”

Yara at the Cartier Beautés du Monde high jewellery launch in Madrid

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Yara is her candid and unpretentious style — for a young woman who’s so accomplished and highly educated, she doesn’t pretend to know everything or have it all figured out. She even credits the success of her Tinker Bell to the special effects team who so expertly miniaturised her for the role. But with a distinguished career under her belt, a strong moral compass to guide her and having just managed to shake off the shadow of any lingering ‘child star’ reputation, Yara’s future is looking incredibly bright.

“I have never been one with a five-year plan, but I have just tried to check in with myself to see where my curiosities and passions are steering me,” says Yara. “With that said, there is still so much I want to do. From empowering my peers to turn their passions into policy through voting to wanting to open a music studio: I have no plans on dropping music, but I love watching the process! So I think I will continue to see where this journey takes me.”

Her journey has certainly been an exciting one so far. And if you’ll pardon the soothsaying, we have a feeling that the only way for this rising star is up.

Read Next: Exhibition of the Month: From Palestine With Art