20 Questions With VMAs Host Keke Palmer: ‘It’s an Opportunity for Representation’

Keke Palmer
Lawrence Murray

Keke Palmer

Palmer is the first woman of color to host the VMAs since then-MTV-VJ Downtown Julie Brown co-hosted in 1986-87—before Palmer was even born.

Keke Palmer will get a big look, as they say, on Sunday night (Aug. 30), when she hosts the MTV Video Music Awards. It’s her first time hosting a major show—no slight intended to the digital Shorty Awards, which she hosted in 2018.

Palmer is the first woman of color to host the VMAs since then-MTV VJ Downtown Julie Brown co-hosted in 1986-87—before Palmer was even born.

Palmer, who turned 27 on Wednesday (Aug. 26), is super busy these days. Today (Aug. 28), she released a 12-song EP, Virgo Tendencies, Pt. 1. She executive produced the collection and wrote or co-wrote 11 of the 12 songs. She released it on her own label, Big Bosses Entertainment.

Palmer took a break from rehearsals for the VMAs to talk to Billboard on Friday morning.

1. What made you decide to say ‘yes’ when you got the offer to host the VMAs?

I love the VMAs. It’s impactful pop culture. I wanted to get the opportunity to have some fun with that and hopefully bring people some joy and excitement when we’ve had such a crazy 2020.

2. Have you ever hosted an awards show before?

I don’t think I have. I’ve hosted many things but I think this is the first awards show.

3. Have you watched awards shows over the years thinking that might be fun to do?

Yes, for sure. Definitely had interest in it.

4. Who do you look up to as a host?

I love anytime Jamie Foxx hosts anything. I think he’s really a great host and a great entertainer. He’s so skilled in so many areas—comedy, music. When I think of somebody that, growing up, I would want to be like or admire, it’s definitely Jamie Foxx.

5. Did you talk to any previous hosts for advice?

A comedian who was more than willing to offer so much help on this journey was Amy Schumer. In terms of hosting, a comedian skilled in that area, she’s definitely someone who has been nothing but kind. When she heard that I was hosting, she said ‘If you ever need anything, I’m here.’

6. Did she feed you any lines for the show?

She didn’t feed me any lines because I’d actually finished writing my monologue by the time that she reached out. But [as a result of us] having that conversation, I feel like hopefully there’s something we can do together in the future. She’s so cool. I’ve been a fan of hers for awhile.

In terms of writing, I got some help from Ryan Albanese and Jack Helmut as well as Max Wyeth.

I just realized I did host an awards show—a digital awards show—The Shorty Awards. [Editor’s Note: The Shortys recognizes people and organizations that produce real-time short form content for the social web.]

7. You’ll be the first woman of color to host the VMAs since Downtown Julie Brown more than 30 years ago. When you first heard that, what did that mean to you personally?

Personally, it meant to me, wow. It’s an opportunity for representation. Just knowing that someone who looks like me will get the opportunity to see me up there, which will make it more possible for them to see it for themselves. I want to give it my best so I can let them know what’s possible for them -- and they can obviously go beyond that.

8. Representation is important.

Yep. And it’s representation on all levels—a female, a Black female, a millennial.

9. I liked your promo where you sang: ‘I’m hosting in my own way/Gonna change up the scene.’ How so?

It’s really marrying the things that make me me, as I try to thread through everything that I do. When people watch the show, I want them to feel like I’m taking them for a fun ride.

10. What will you perform on the show?

I guess you’ll just have to wait and see. We have some surprises.

11. But I assume you’ll perform something from your new EP.

You can expect some Keke music throughout the show. We just dropped the EP today and I’m super-excited about it.

12. Is it fair to say you had more creative control on your new EP than you did on either of your previous EPs or your three mixtapes or your one studio album?

Definitely. Creatively, I’ve always put my heart and my all into it, but in the music industry you don’t always have control over how it’s assembled. But now I’m in such a place where that’s not the case. I feel like I’ve had the most control of every aspect of it—not just the creating of the music, but also giving the music to the world and how it’s presented.

13. You’ve recorded for Atlantic and Interscope, but this EP was released on your own label. Is this the first project you’ve released on your own?

This is. Leading up to this project, there were different songs I had as a solo independent records, but not as a full project. So this is my first project. It’s been in the making for awhile. The way it’s arrived was quite a journey.

14. Now that you’re the boss, you’re the one who has to decide, for example, if it’s worth spending that much on a video or not.

Exactly. That is the whole thing. It’s all about the money. I’m making the investment in myself -- betting on myself. And I’m very thankful that I’m in a position to be able to pretty much sponsor myself.

15. This EP has only one featured artist--Atlanta rapper 24hrs on the track ‘Marvelous.’ Was that a deliberate decision?

I figure if a collaboration happens, it happens organically. I don’t ever want to force it. 24hrs is somebody I’ve known for many years, that’s why it was such an organic collaboration for this project.

16. The title of your EP begs the question: Will there be a Virgo Tendencies, Pt. 2?

There definitely will be.

17. Have you already recorded it?

I have cut a lot of it. For me, it’s down to the point of what’s the complete story that I’m telling. The songs are there, but the last part of it is how do I want to present it; what do I want it to feel like; what’s the conversation that I’m having that’s stringing these songs together. That’s the last producing step of what do I want this to feel like; what’s the attitude of this story.

18. You’re a Virgo, hence the title of your EP.

The people that I created it with are also Virgos-- Tasha Catour, who produced, and “A-Lex” [Alexander Lloyd], who wrote on the project.

19. What are the Virgo tendencies you most relate to?

Oh, being a perfectionist, being a workaholic, the anxiousness of a Virgo always trying to be [the best can] create a slight neurosis. I’m always trying to make sure everything is in order. [Adopting a playful tone] And obviously extremely, extremely talented, like Beyoncé and Kobe Bryant and Mother Teresa. Just kidding—but they are all Virgos.

20. In May, you got a Daytime Emmy nomination for co-hosting the third hour of Good Morning America, GMA 3: Strahan, Sara & Keke. Then last month, the show was cancelled in favor of a newsier program, GMA3: What You Need to Know. That’s so typical of the ups and downs of show business.

When the world changes, so does art. When COVID happened, it was so horrible that it became the focus of our entire nation, which it should be. It made no sense for our show [to continue since] it was so heavily built on audience engagement. Our conversation was so much different than the conversation that was necessary in that moment that it just kind of lost its place. 

Keke Palmer on How She's Preparing to Host 2020 VMAs, Most Iconic Performance of All Time & More | Billboard