Kat Graham is in hair and makeup preparing for a photo shoot at the Towers of the Waldorf Astoria residences in New York City on a gloomy November day. The actress and musician has always had a love for all things glam, but, since she’s been quarantining at her home in Atlanta for most of the year, she’s learned to live with less. “I’ve really stopped hiding everything,” says Graham. “We all want to cover up and pretend like we’re OK, but I think that the more honest you are about where you’re at, the more beautiful you are.” Discovering new beauty and hair routines on her own has been revealing and powerful for Graham, and has brought her to a new place of self-acceptance.
“Hair has been a spiritual journey for me this year,” she says. “I’ve really learned to accept my curls, my ’fro and my African roots.” Graham describes going to a hair salon at age 6 because her mother, who is white, didn’t know how to style her hair’s texture. “My mom would just drop me off at the salon. Emotionally, it felt like I was being rejected because my parent couldn’t really handle it.” After associating “manageable” hair with success in her personal and professional life for so long, she says it’s freeing to feel content with her natural locks. “Whether you’re Black or not, we all struggle with self-acceptance,” she says, “and we all have our own individual journeys.”
“Whether you’re Black or not, we all struggle with self-acceptance.”
Graham’s fashion journey has been another form of self-expression. She is a fan of Dior and regularly attends the French fashion house’s runway shows and events. “Maria Grazia Chiuri’s interpretation of Dior is what I want to do in my acting,” explains Graham. “She gives a voice to the voiceless.” This includes incorporating traditional African textiles and fabrics into Dior’s resort collection (which Graham is modeling in this photo shoot). Clearly, the feeling is mutual: “Kat is a perfect representation of the current Dior aesthetic simply because she is authentic,” says Chiuri. “She wears her clothes in a natural way, thereby embodying my idea of what it is to be a woman who chooses fashion as a tool to reflect her own identity.”
While Graham explores many different creative avenues, there is a common thread through it all. “I want to bring attention to the things and people that need to be paid attention to,” says Graham. “With my humanitarian work, it’s refugees. Through my acting, it’s marginalized communities or relationships and aesthetics that people might overlook or undervalue. Maria Grazia does that with her fashion, and I think that’s why I’m super devoted to her.” Graham has also just been named a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, joining the likes of Cate Blanchett, Ben Stiller and Kristin Davis. She is only the fifth American to be appointed to the role.
The 31-year-old, Swiss-born Graham began her career as a backup dancer for Pharrell Williams and Jamie Foxx both onstage and in music videos before joining the Black Eyed Peas on tour in 2007 as their supporting act. At the same time, she was branching out into acting, taking roles in The O.C. and, most notably, The Vampire Diaries for eight seasons.
Graham’s latest role was in the new Netflix film Operation Christmas Drop. It’s based on the real-life U.S. Air Force humanitarian mission of the same name, an annual holiday tradition of airdropping much-needed supplies to the locals in Guam. The film also features a biracial romance (Graham stars opposite actor Alexander Ludwig). “What Netflix does with me, and they also did this in The Holiday Calendar, is that they don’t think twice about putting a Black girl with a white man,” she says. “They normalize those things and empower young Black leads.”
Following a busy year of films like Operation Christmas Drop, Cut Throat City and Emperor, Graham’s next roles include voicing April in Netflix’s animated martial arts superhero film Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She also has new music slated for release early in the new year. The album will showcase a different sound from her 2017 album Love Music Funk Magic, which flirted with groovy disco vibes. While Kat Graham can’t reveal much, she does disclose that fans can expect a new moniker for the star that will also serve as the album’s title. “It’s a different genre of music. I’ve just gone left.”
But everything else she’s doing feels so right.
Click through the gallery above for a look at our photo shoot with Kat Graham at the Waldorf Astoria.