LOS ANGELES – Show business has a nasty habit of breeding brats — pampered kids destined for an adulthood of fawning entourages, outrageous demands and egos as large as a wrecking ball.
It’s too early to be sure, but 14-year-old Yara Shahidi appears to be headed in a different direction.
The Minneapolis-born actress easily could have dominated a recent conversation at a cozy coffee cafe with self-absorbed chatter about her standout performance as a self-centered teenager in ABC’s hit sitcom “Black-ish,” her high-profile cameos on “Scandal” as a young Olivia Pope or her film debut as Eddie Murphy’s on-screen daughter in 2009’s “Imagine That.”
Instead, she’d rather discuss the John Steinbeck novel “East of Eden” and the eye-opening history courses she took last summer at Oxford University. Over the past three years, her Christmas wish lists have included a typewriter, record player and vintage pocket watch.
“She’s an old lady,” said her mother, Keri Shahidi, a veteran model and actress who now runs a consulting firm for parents of child actors called Commercial Mommy.
Minnesota has helped to keep Yara grounded, even though she moved from the Twin Cities to Los Angeles when she was 4. Her father, Afshin Shahidi, was Prince’s personal photographer, and it made more sense to be on the West Coast.
But the family, which includes two more siblings, returns several times a year so the children can spend time with doting grandfather Mark Keljik, who operates a Persian rug store in Uptown Minneapolis, and attend the State Fair, where Yara can go through a bucket of mini-doughnuts in one afternoon.
“L.A. is great, but it’s a completely different beast,” she said. “I go back to Minnesota and I borrow a bike from my neighbor and go around Lake Harriet saying ‘hi’ to people. Some of that is missing in L.A.”
Getting outside Hollywood also provides insight about people and topics that have paid off for her. She nailed the audition for the 2011 Jennifer Garner comedy “Butter” in large part because she was the only one in the room who had participated in a butter-sculpting contest.
“Having life experiences outside of acting is something my family has always made sure happens,” said Shahidi, who hopes to spend her next hiatus taking classes at Harvard University and is contemplating a career as a historian or with the CIA.
Anthony Anderson, star and co-executive producer of “Black-ish,” said child actors like Shahidi are few and far between in the entertainment industry.
“She’s growing up to be a Rhodes Scholar,” said Anderson, who plays an advertising executive continually trying to make his four children proud of their African-American roots. “She’s beautiful, talented, intelligent and still evolving as a young woman. That’s what’s scary about her in a great way.”
He also heaped praise on her parents for their commitment and protectiveness.
This industry is “a crazy machine,” Keri Shahidi said, who makes sure her daughter retains all the acting money she earns while handling financial obligations to the IRS, agents and lawyers. “As parents, we need to stand by them and block them from what they don’t need to know about the adult business. They don’t need to hear the negotiations.”
As for Yara, she’s not in any hurry to grow up — with one exception. She’s dying to be old enough to operate her own Jet Ski.
That revelation caused her mom to look up from her cellphone and shoot her a never-going-to-happen look. Seems there was a recent incident in Mexico in which Yara took her father for a spin on the water, a trip that left him screaming.
“I’m not reckless,” Yara said with a light giggle. “I pay attention.”
And so will we.