The term “young Hollywood” once denoted a breed of wayward child stars given to a certain showy precociousness—a fallen Disney prince or princess who, once the cameras stopped rolling, would be caught stumbling out of a nightclub, champagne bottle in hand, ciggie hanging off lips swollen from one too many snogs with the latest supermodel.
But today, many of the entertainment industry’s bright young things seem to have a firm head on their shoulders. The very brightest tend to be driven, woke and media-savvy multi-hyphenates who have found a way to speak directly to their fans online and deploy their celebrity for causes they genuinely believe in.
Kiernan Shipka is just that. The actress was only six when she landed her breakout role as the surly, truth-telling daughter of advertising man Don Draper in the acclaimed drama Mad Men (2007 to 2015)—a role she helped turn into one of the most complex depictions of adolescence ever seen on screen.
Since 2018, the 20-year-old has headlined another subversive hit show, Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a supernatural horror series with a postmodern take on the wholesome Archie Comics character. When she is not playing a teenage witch, however, Shipka is casting spells in a whole different light.
Chatting to Harper’s BAZAAR Singapore shortly after wrapping up her cover shoot in Los Angeles, she is warm, witty and frequently hilarious—even when describing her plans for the evening: “to have a very chill night” after hitting up “my one true love of a grocery store”, the health-food supermarket Erewhon, where she plans to pick up “some kind of a kung pao cauliflower situation, some protein bars and some kombucha that I don’t really need but sounds interesting”.
But the longer we speak, it becomes apparent that the quips and youthful exuberance hide a wisdom far beyond her years—a self-possession that comes, perhaps, from having grown up on the set of an Emmy-winning show and being surrounded by adults working at the top of their profession.
That was certainly where she forged the distinctive, retro-cool sense of style she is known for on the red carpet and in designer campaigns such as the Roman Holiday-esque one she did for Fendi’s Baguette purse last year.
“Because I grew up on Mad Men, which is such a fashion‑centric show, I would go in for fittings when I was six or seven years old, and they would have photos on the wall of all sorts of beautiful‑looking fashion, and I’d be seeing all these gorgeous dresses all the time. That was my childhood love of fashion being born on that show,” says the star, who cites Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn as her spirit animals style-wise.
“I also learned on that show that style can tell a story,” she adds. “It can be much more than just a pretty frock—it can be sending out some kind of message, however big or small. That’s when I started getting interested in fashion. Over time, I had the opportunity to go to events and wear a lot of different stuff, so it was kind of my world, whether I liked it or not—and I liked it.”
Yet, Shipka’s ethos when it comes to fashion is anything but precious. “I don’t think my style philosophy is really anything more than just ‘have fun’,” she quips. “I’ll go through different phases of wanting to look super fashionable, classic, edgy, bold, but I think there should always be a playfulness—for me at least. It’s a platform to just have fun and play and be bold—and maybe make a few ‘why did I wear that?’ moments. I get it if you want to look phenomenal in a gorgeous black dress at every single event, but for me, it’s about being fun and being a little extra, if you will.”
Mad Men, she shares, left an indelible mark on her as an actor too. “Because I never went to acting school,” she explains. “I was told very explicitly to not get acting lessons, partially because the show was so top secret, and also because when you’re a child, you have such a beautiful natural instinct that shouldn’t be touched. You’ve never been more uninhibited. So I didn’t have fears. I wasn’t wondering what people were going to think of my performance and I wasn’t scared. I was just moulded and shaped by the performances I saw around me—by Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss and January Jones and John Slattery, so I had pretty good teachers. I look back on that and I’m just so grateful that’s the way in which my eyes were opened to the acting world.”
On the set of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, she is the one setting the example. Co-stars such as Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis, who play her witch aunts, have been glowing in their praise of Shipka’s professionalism and the tone she sets as the first name on the call sheet.
The actress has learned to lean into her power both behind and in front of the camera on this show. “When I started Sabrina,” she shares, “I was 18. I’m 20 now and I feel like in those two years, I’ve grown so much, and I’ve learned so much about my work and acting.”
She continues candidly: “I think there’s a tendency for women to not ask for what they need for fear of being seen as too bossy or too this or too that. But I’ve learned that asking for what you need is not only going to make you better, it’s going to make the entire production better if it’s something that is necessary.”
“Obviously, I want to be easy and fun to work with,” she concedes. “And that is still 100 percent possible while also being authoritative, knowing your worth and knowing exactly what you need to give the best possible performance. That can be 100 percent maintained while also being kind and present and friendly, and that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned. You can be a boss while also being pleasant and lovely. Stepping into my power on that front has been really empowering.”
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And like other prominent young people, she is ready to step out and be heard, if necessary, on the bigger world stage—“I can’t think of a better way to fight injustices or any sort of system that doesn’t feel right,” she says. And with the rising prominence of youth activists such as Greta Thunberg and the Parkland teens leading the charge on climate change and gun control respectively, Shipka believes her generation is being listened to like never before.
“Young people are being taken much more seriously than they ever have been,” she says, “And that’s a great thing. We’re the future, so it makes sense to listen to and work with and collaborate with us. The fact that we’re being listened to and taking charge, a lot of it is possible because the age of social media makes it easy to get messages across and find people who think the same.”
Shipka has very clear ideas about what she does and does not want to use her celebrity and social-media platform for (she has 7.1 million Instagram followers). “I’ve been super inspired by the people around me who are taking stands on really important things,” she reveals. “For me, it’s really about wanting to be a good role model—especially to young people, young women growing up.
“I want to try and not portray some kind of picture-perfect, ‘everything’s great’ sort of picture. We all have our struggles, and I never want to give out this highlight reel that is unattainable. For me, it’s important to be transparent; Instagram can be a comparison trap and I try to not perpetuate it further.”
A similar philosophy is evidenced by her choice of roles, which have tended towards characters that are complicated, contradictory and feminist in different ways. “It’s sort of a natural gravitation towards complexity,” explains the star, who will headline the upcoming comedy series Swimming with Sharks, a satire of the movie industry that will air on the new mobile video platform Quibi. “I’m not looking to play only good people or heroes. As long as a character has depth, then I have a way in—a way to make that character sing and be truthful.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be a role model of a character,” she further clarifies. “That would be very limiting. But I do want to find characters that have tones to them and layers, because that’s a person.”
Speaking of limits, it seems Shipka has none. Like many other performers her age, she has a bunch of talents besides acting. Sabrina fans will know she often sings on the show; it turns out she also writes songs as well as plays the guitar and piano.
Could this become a side hustle or alternative career down the road? “I would love that,” says Shipka, who describes her compositions as “Pitchfork-y music”—a reference to the alternative‑music festival in Chicago. “I don’t know if I want to put my music out in the world just yet, but it’s definitely something I enjoy, and I might explore that avenue in my life at some point.”
In the meantime, there is karaoke. The star is known to be a bit of a fiend on that front, often rounding up her Sabrina castmates for enthusiastic singalongs in Vancouver, where the show is filmed.
She gamely goes down a rabbit hole when asked what her go-to karaoke songs are these days. “I go to (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s) ‘Shallow’ when I have someone to do a duet with me and it’s a really romantic moment,” says Shipka, who is reportedly dating film-maker Christian Coppola, 26. “‘Everytime’ by Britney Spears when you want a hard-hitting ballad; ‘A Thousand Miles’ by Vanessa Carlton if you’ve already done a couple of high-energy ones and you kind of want to keep the energy but do something that’s also a bit sappy; and ‘Last Dance’ by Donna Summer or ‘Proud Mary’ by Tina Turner for absolute bring-down-the-house moments.”
And just when you think these are nothing more than playful musings, Shipka slips in another nugget of wisdom: “I think you can’t play it safe when it comes to karaoke: Any song that you’re comfortable singing is not a good option. That is the rule of thumb—if you feel like, ‘Oh, I got this 100 percent’, think again. Dream bigger.”
Not a bad rule for life either.
All jewellery worn throughout the shoot are by Bvlgari
Photographer: Yu Tsai
Stylist: Martina Nilsson
Makeup: Fiona Stiles/Star Works
Hair: Bryce Scarlett/The Wall Group
Manicure: Vanessa McCullough/Tracey Mattingly Production 88 Phases
Producer: Trever Swearingen
Digital imaging: Luis Jamie/88 Phases
Photographer’s assistants: Jamie Kang, Max Maurov