Khadija Shari is a model, dancer, and actress hailing from Brooklyn by way of Trinidad and Tobago. She has performed with Beyoncé, toured with Rihanna, performed with Pharrell and been the face of his controversial “Marilyn Monroe” single art with a glittery red lip. You may have caught her in a L’Oréal commercial, Luke James’s “Make Love to Me” video or the visuals for Anthony Hamilton’s latest record, “Amen”.
In other words, Khadija is bae.
Khadija got her first big break at 18, when she scored a gig on Beyoncé’s “Ring the Alarm” performance for the 2006 MTV VMAs. Fast forward to 2016 and she’s Beyoncé’s right-hand woman in the hall scene of the “Formation” video. You’ll also find her amongst the slew of brown faces in the pop singer’s critically acclaimed visual album, Lemonade. And when Yoncé and her lady Black Panthers hit the gridiron for Super Bowl 50, Khadija was in the line-up, of course in #Formation.
She was also invited to join the Formation World Tour, but when the lights went up for the first show in Miami—she wasn’t smiling beneath them. But Khadija is smiling. She is determined to chase down a few new dreams. I hopped on the phone to chat with her about the ride she’s been on for the last decade, and what she wants her new journey to look like.
You’ve been dancing since you were 5 years old. Is dancing professionally what you always wanted?
It definitely started off as a recreational activity. I felt like my mom put me there because I had so much energy and needed an outlet to express that.
Was getting dance gigs after the VMAs easier— I imagine it would be with Beyoncé on your resume—or were there still struggles after that?
Oh my God! Absolutely not! My first major realization that this industry was harder than what I thought was after performing with Beyoncé, doing videos with Beyoncé, going to 3 callbacks and then not getting picked for the tour. I was depressed for like 3 months.
How’d you bounce back?
I thought there’d never be another opportunity, that I’d never get another chance. My mom was like “You’ve been working your behind off. For you, this is not the end all, be all. You’re going to have to get out of this.” For me, that was it. Her saying that was definitely a wake-up call.
You’ve talked about packing up and moving to LA once your career got going because you said you wanted to do things “even bigger”. Did you have any reservations about the move or was it an easy transition?
It definitely wasn’t easy. After I did a L’Oreal commercial, I was able to save up a bunch of money and move to California. But as soon as I got there, all of the residuals stopped coming. I wasn’t getting any callbacks or jobs for like 2 months. Every day it was like, ‘Man, is this the right move? Am I supposed to be here? Did I do it too early?’ And then, the Rihanna audition came.
You danced for some of the biggest names in the business—Bey, Pharrell and Rihanna. Which of those moments do you look back on and cherish the most.
Rihanna, all the way. She’s a West Indian girl like me. You’ve got this one girl from an island that nobody would have probably ever heard of if the guy who found her didn’t go on that vacation in Barbados. That experience alone—being on tour with her and working with her for 3 plus years—allowed me to say, “There’s a chance that I can be bigger than what I think I am.” I think she was one of the people that I spent the most time with. When you stay in one space to give yourself time to grow and learn and be tested? That’s when your character begins to build. That’s one of the experiences that I look back on and say, “Man, I’m so thankful that I spent that time with her.”
Was there ever a specific interaction with her that inspired you?
There was a time where we were working on the show and she had “You Da One” in the set list but she decided to take it out. I went to her on the bus and said, “You know you can’t take “You Da One” out? That’s like a crowd favorite!” She was like, “For real? I should keep it in?” And then she came to me after the show and was like, “You happy now?” I was just laughing. It was funny that she listened. She’s the type of person where if you come to her with straight talk, then she’ll respect it as opposed to being like “Who are you to talk to me?” That’s never been her vibe. It made it all worth it to feel like I could talk to her and we’re on the same wavelength in the art world.
You dance, model, act, sing, you’ve choreographed routines. Do you ever get overwhelmed with all the things on your plate?
I absolutely get overwhelmed because it’s like the minute you do something, it seems so colossal in the moment. But right after that, you have to do something bigger.
What do you do to relax and get peace of mind?
I take time for myself. I watch podcasts—Joel Olsteen is one of my favorites. I go to church. I love to get my nails and toes done. I get massages frequently. I like to enjoy my time with friends. Especially the friends that aren’t in the business. For me, hanging out and speaking to friends back at home keeps me grounded and centered. It’s the only way I could not lose my mind in Hollywood.
You have a friend working for NBA TV. Another just appeared on ‘Grease Live!’ and another of your home girls is a pretty successful model. What advice do you give to women about building a great circle and maintaining that in a business like yours?
If you’re the only one winning in your circle, then you’re really not winning. To me, the people around you make you a better person and if your circle isn’t doing that then you gotta switch up who’s around you. You always wanna feel like you’re growing and succeeding in whatever it is that you’re passionate about and the people who you associate yourself with are going to help those dreams come alive, support you and put your spirits up.
Women should really be mindful of the type of women we keep around us, the type of men we involve ourselves with and the connections we have with family.
One thing I admire about you is you have this fabulous confidence. Have you ever walked into a room full of dancers and felt intimidated? What do you do to shake that feeling?
I’ve definitely felt intimidated before. When I first started out dancing, it was like ‘Man, am I gonna match up? Are they gonna pick me? Is it gonna be an all one-color cast? A lot of times, I get chosen and I’m the only chocolate girl in a group of 4 dancers or a group of 8. It’s always been nerve-wracking in the beginning, but then I have to remember: ‘You are where you’re supposed to be. If this is for you, then it’s for you.’ I maintain a sense of self-confidence because I feel like I’m important. I work hard and my years of experience are going to allow me to move forward.
Do you still get nervous when you hit a stage?
Absolutely. I don’t think the nerves ever go away and if they do go away, you might need to think of something else.
You were Pharrell’s beautiful, chocolate “Marilyn Monroe” for the single of the same name. Please tell me you have that gorgeous portrait up somewhere in your house?
Oh my God. I don’t have a copy of it yet and Pharrell said he would sign it. Once I get it printed, he’ll sign it and I’ll have it up in my room.
There were lots of discussions about the intention behind him deciding to make you Marilyn. You really defended and supported that choice. Was that the first time you found your skin color the source of conversation in your career?
Yes, yes and yes. People just kinda looked at it like one, “Who is the chocolate girl?” And two, “Why does it say “Marilyn Monroe”? Being chocolate and being put on such a pedestal was bigger than I thought it would be.’ In this business, people don’t look at chocolate women as—how should I say—the trophy girl. At the time, Lupita was on a cover of a magazine. Beyoncé was on a cover of and Rihanna was on another. I put the 4 pictures together and I thought, ‘Wow. Black women are really taking back our thrones!’
Now, aside from Pharrell’s art, you’re really bold about speaking about issues that matter to you on social media. You were gushing over Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance. You’ve shared ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ more than once and you took part in arguably Beyoncé’s biggest pro-black moment to date. Why is it important for you to witness and partake in art that speaks to race and culture?
Oh my God, it’s so important. For me, it would be an injustice if I didn’t support my people in a time when they need people to speak out on things who have a platform. And even when people come to my page, it’s not only about beauty. It’s about me leaving you with something. It allows me to show young African-American girls that you can make something of yourself and your platform. Yeah, my voice might be small but people are watching it and paying attention.
You didn’t get picked for Beyoncé’s tour the last time. Do you know if you were picked for her Formation World tour this spring and summer?
I definitely was… and I turned it down.
That’s everybody’s reaction. I just feel like, at what point do I step out on my own dreams and make them come alive if I keep traveling and performing with artists? I’m at a point where I’m going to almost be 30. I feel like I need to transition into the next phase of life. God has allowed me to experience all that I wanted to experience as a dancer. Now, it’s time for me to step out with my own set of wings into the TV and film world.
I’ve always been an actress. Michael Jackson said it best, “Dancers are actors.” We have to create a whole story for you through our bodies. There are many great actors who might feel like, ‘She’s just a dancer. She wouldn’t convey an action hero.” I feel like I can challenge that. You have singers, athletes, rappers. They jump into movies. For me, the transition should be the same. I’m so down to learn from scratch. I’m so down to hustle and grind and work my way up. I’m going to take the same type of hard work and resilience that I had in the dance world and put it into TV and film. I feel like there’s a lane for me to do that.
Your Instagram shows you love a motivational quote. There are Black girls out there with dance dreams like yours—maybe in Brooklyn. Maybe in Trinidad. Maybe somewhere in North Carolina. What would you say to her chasing her dreams?
Go for it, baby! As much as you can, every single day—pray about it, envision it, and write it down. Say to yourself, “I am a winner.” Everything that comes after the word, “I AM,” is going to shape your universe and your life. So look into the mirror, say ‘I am beautiful. I am bold. I am rich. I am talented.’ Every day your life will start to come together based off of how you view it. Our dreams aren’t too big. And be very mindful when you speak to people about your dreams. Don’t get discouraged if people don’t understand it. Don’t feel like people are not going to judge you or shoot your dreams down. They will. It’s all a part of the journey.