Whitney Peak sheds a light on why the new Gossip Girl characters are more complex than before
Photographer & Director
Ruo Bing Li/Saint Luke Artists
Naeemah Lafond/The Wall Group
Tyron Machhausen/The Wall Group using Chanel Beauty
Cecilia Elguero/Pat Bates and Associates
Whitney Peak greets me with a wide smile when we jump on Zoom from two hustle and bustle cities. She’s joining our call from the grey-skied streets of New York, and I—from a book-filled room in North London. ‘I’ve just moved to a new place. It’s my sanctuary, my quiet place,’ smiles Peak blushingly whilst walking down the street.
The 18-year-old Uganda-born and now New York-based actress (Molly’s Game, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Home Before Dark), took our screens by storm in the highly anticipated Gossip Girl reboot, inspired by the books of Cecily von Ziegesar. In the series, a new generation of New York teens is targeted by a mysterious figure calling itself Gossip Girl, eight years after the original website went dark.
If you haven’t seen the enthralling HBO release yet, please cover your eyes for a clue that you’re about to discover next. Even though the real identity of the new GG (Constance Billard teachers unite!) on the block is known to the audience, it doesn’t make the series less enticing to watch. ‘That catches you off guard, right? I read the script and I was like what, why do we know it from the very beginning? But I think it’s different once you think about it as an audience member. It lets them in on a secret that the cast doesn’t know about. It feels more personal,’ says Whitney.
One of the complex characters that gives depth to the show is played by the talented Peak herself. Dear readers, meet Zoya Lott—the new girl in town, a high school freshman on a scholarship at Constance Billard, the Upper-East side school of riches. Throughout the series, Whitney’s character is battling the dilemma relatable to oh-so-many-of-us—should we alter ourselves to the world that we live in, or should we accept who we are?
No spoilers here on how this will turn out for Zoya, but as for Peak (who’s also the brand ambassador for Chanel, joining the likes of Lily-Rose Depp, Kristen Stewart and Jennie Kim of Blackpink), the answer is clear. Her frankness is truly refreshing, and the je ne sais quoi energy that surrounds our heartfelt conversation will undoubtedly bring her into the ones to watch stratosphere. If she’s not on your radar yet.
Thank you so much for your time today, Whitney. I’m calling you all the way from the other side of the pond, London. First things first, can I just say how amazing you looked at the Met Gala.
Oh my gosh, thank you! (laughing)
I loved your look and I’ve said to myself that I must ask what was the inspiration behind it all?
It was my first Met Gala and I feel that the entire time I was just looking around because I couldn’t believe where I was at. I also wanted to ask everybody so many questions. (smiling)
As for the look, Chanel was very kind in giving me a lookbook and asking me to pick what I wanted to wear. I saw this beautiful dress and I thought that I need to wear this. We had fittings and it fit pretty well. It took 200 hours to make and I think it had 30,000 beads and sequins sewn on it. It’s so crazy to think that I just wore it for one night. I felt pretty comfortable though. I could eat very well in it so that’s a good sign. (laughing)
I didn’t get to make that much of a statement with the dress in relation to the theme because Chanel is not an American brand. I’ve figured that African culture has influenced American fashion in so many ways, so we had to go big with the hair and the make-up. Hairstylist Naeemah Lafond knew exactly what I wanted. She was fantastic. Tyron Machhausen who was the makeup artist complimented the look so well. It was very very intricate.
Everything just worked really well. Thank God. It’d be pretty horrible to have a terrible experience for your first Met, so I’m very grateful.
As you’ve already mentioned, this year’s theme was all about celebrating American fashion. Who or what do you think is the underdog of it?
I don’t know… I think there’s a lot of fantastic up-and-coming independent designers. Lately, I’ve been loving Dion Lee. I also just know cool people who make amazing things. I think Shirley Tang will also blow up really soon. She makes fantastic clothing which is very different.
Speaking of fashion, you’re one of the brand ambassadors for Chanel.
So crazy. I don’t think that’s hit me yet. (laughing)
What’s the story behind it? How one does become a brand ambassador?
I wish I could tell you. One day my manager called me and said that Chanel wants to work with me. I’ve said—‘Okay, em, why? But sure, I’ll do it.’ And then, we’ve started making magic together. (smiling)
"That catches you off guard, right? I read the script and I was like what, why do we know it from the very beginning? But I think it’s different once you think about it as an audience member. It lets them in on a secret that the cast doesn’t know about.
“That catches you off guard, right? I read the script and I was like what, why do we know it from the very beginning? But I think it’s different once you think about it as an audience member. It lets them in on a secret that the cast doesn’t know about. It feels more personal.”
Back in the old Gossip Girl days, when blogs did exist, I used to have a fashion blog called Fashion ABC. From time to time I’d pick a different letter and explored the fashion history behind different brands. Letter C was all about Chanel. Its history and legacy are incredible.
It’s fantastic! It’s also crazy how much work goes into all the garments.
You’ve probably been asked this question so many times but I’m genuinely interested in ‘how I got where I am’ stories. How did you get into acting and did you always wanted to be on stage or on-screen?
I think I always wanted to but I didn’t think I could. In terms of where it all started, I will try to go into this story in-depth for you. I tend to skim over the entire thing. (laughing)
I was born in Uganda and my entire family—my two big sisters, my big brother, my mom, my dad and myself moved to Canada in 2012 when I was 9 or 10. A few years later, we moved out of our house into this other place that didn’t have WiFi. All I really had for entertainment was the radio which I would listen to all the time. I heard this ad for a casting (mimics a male voice)—’Do you want to be on the Disney channel?’. I thought, yes, of course, I grew up loving Disney shows like Shake It Up, That’s So Raven, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The last one wasn’t a Disney show but you know what I mean. Oh my God, these puppies are so cute. Wait, can I flip the camera over? I want to show them to you!
Of course! Go for it!
I want one so bad!
I want to get one too. We’ll get to that!
Me too! Where were we? I’ve called my mom and asked if I can go to the audition if my sister was willing to take me. My sister and I went there and she also wanted to audition. She got really nervous so she couldn’t follow it through. I’ve got a callback, followed by another callback and then finally signed with the agency. 3—4 months later, we found out that it was a scam. They had asked me to pay money to be a part of it and I didn’t know then that it wasn’t a thing. I felt devastated.
But through that agency, I’ve started doing background acting. I was on set for the Minority Report, the TV show that unfortunately ran for only one season. They needed a younger version of Meagan Good, so they’ve cast me. Accidentally. The director wanted somebody else that he had seen in the background and I think he thought that he had met me. When they brought me to the set, hair, make-up and wardrobe-ready, the director said that I wasn’t the girl that he wanted to see in the role. It was so awkward. (laughing)
They sent me home but brought me back the next day because things fell through with the other girl. I did the little part of young Meagan Good which was fun, and Colin Lawrence who played my dad on the show said that I should apply to his agency. And so, I did. I took a cute little selfie and photoshopped it onto a plain grey background. That’s what I’ve heard headshots were supposed to look like. It was a terrible job. (laughing)
I sent it with a letter saying ‘Hi, I’m Whitney Peak, I’m 14-years-old, I was on set with Colin, he told me to submit, I haven’t done much acting.’ And so on. Then my now agent sent me a script and asked me to tape it. A few weeks later, we had coffee and she signed me.
I think it’s so important to be genuine and let other people know that you’re here to learn and take it all in. The message that you sent to your now agent proves that, and probably has encouraged the other party to sign you too. It also shows the importance of building a great team and support network around you. How’s your support network finding it all that’s happening now?
I honestly think that my family… I don’t know how they do it. I get so… detached. I’m going 50 miles an hour and I’m terrible at reaching out, communicating and talking.
And here our interview breaks off.
‘Are you Whitney Peak?’—I hear a male voice in the background.
‘I am, yes.’—Whitney smiles as she stops to take a picture with her fans. I can’t hear the whole conversation, but the couple that is complimenting our digital cover star on her role in Gossip Girl and her Met Gala look seems to be the politest fans one can encounter.
I told you, that Met Gala look got everyone talking.
I find it so sweet when people approach me. Where was I?
You were just saying that you can get quite detached.
Yes. My family has been very patient with me. In my head, I’m going 50 miles an hour and I neglect to tell them that I love them and that I miss them. If I think about it, then I’m thinking about it all the time and then I want to cry all the time because I’m far away from home. In my head, it’s like out of sight, out of mind, which is not good. They’ve been very understanding and supportive of that.
As for my friends, they are the family you choose. I’ve known my friend Paloma since high school but we didn’t become friends until a year or two ago, and now she’s living with me in New York which is insane. We’re inseparable and she’s been my rock. Yes, I’ve made some great relationships over here, and I’m very happy about that.
"I think the only case when I’m having a hard time is when I’m at events or trying to support friends. People are talking to me instead of focusing on what the event is about. I don’t do good with attention. Or big groups. I just kind of stick to being quiet and
“I think the only case when I’m having a hard time is when I’m at events or trying to support friends. People are talking to me instead of focusing on what the event is about. I don’t do good with attention. Or big groups. I just kind of stick to being quiet and don’t speak unless i’m spoken to.”
I can also relate to what you’ve just said about your family. I moved to London six years ago and my family is not here with me. Sometimes, it’s not even about reaching out to them, but not wanting to burden them with something you’re going through at the moment.
Yes, exactly! Everything that’s happening feels like such a big deal. But it’s not. It is. But it’s not so crazy that you can’t make time. I’m beating myself up about it but I’m getting better. (laughing)
I think just enjoy the ride. I saw your reaction when this lovely couple walked up to you on the street just now. Is it hard for you to deal with public attention?
It’s not that crazy for me. It will happen once a week. I think because in New York, everybody’s so used to see people that are on TV or billboards, whenever someone comes up to you, they are very apologetic about it which I always find sweet. I haven’t had a terrible, violent encounter which I’m very thankful for. So far it’s been calm. I think the only case when I’m having a hard time is when I’m at events or trying to support friends. People are talking to me instead of focusing on what the event is about. I don’t do good with attention. Or big groups. I just kind of stick to being quiet and don’t speak unless I’m spoken to. (laughing)
You sound like an extroverted introvert. You can be open and loud in particular situations but most of the time you enjoy being quiet.
Just like me.
If I need to turn it on, I can. Naturally, I’m usually more of a quiet person. I let everybody else talk and I just observe.
I love observing people as well. What did you learn from observing them?
That people really like to have conversations with themselves. Even if they don’t know it. My accent teacher talked about it in class but it’s so real. I’d just be on the subway and watch somebody having an internal battle with themselves—‘I should but I shouldn’t.’ (laughing) It’s crazy how different people are when they think that nobody’s watching.
Now let’s talk about Gossip Girl. You’ve just wrapped the second part of the first season.
Done and dusted then! Is there something you can reveal about the second part of season one? There must be a cliffhanger leading, perhaps, into the second season…
There’s going to be a cliffhanger, yes. I was just saying that but I don’t know if that’s true because all the episodes are now meshing into one in my head. Let me just think about how it ended. Eeeh. You have to wait and see. You just have to. (laughing)
Reflecting on the very beginning of this journey, how did this role land in your hands?
Prior to even getting to audition for it, my manager called me and said that the Gossip Girl reboot is in the works. She wanted me to read for it, even though we came to the mutual consensus—why would they cast a 16-year-old for an explicit TV show. It doesn’t happen in film and television. (laughing) It’s pretty slim pickings if you’re 16. I immediately said that I’ll do it but I didn’t think it was going to happen. I sent my tape and I didn’t hear anything for quite a while. I went to Uganda at the end of 2019 as my sister was getting married. I came back in January and received a call that I got the part. Then Covid happened so I thought that the show is not happening. But it did. And since then, it’s just been a crazy spiral. (laughing)
The new Gossip Girl doesn’t follow the same story. It’s all happening eight years after Lonely Boy was uncovered as the mysterious figure behind the GG blog. I also think that we have even more complex characters in this run, wouldn’t you agree?
Absolutely. I think this is because we touch on these people not only because they are just the way they are. We explore why they are or behave like this. By that I mean that we dive into childhood traumas, mental health, the things that they’re dealing with at home and battles that they have with themselves. It’s not the surface level anymore.
I think in the very first episode, Tavi Gevinson who plays your beloved teacher Kate Keller, said that Gossip Girl is like this big Orwellian sister. She’s watching everyone but at the same time, anyone can be Gossip Girl. What a creepy concept when you think about it…
I know, it’s crazy!
One of my favorite elements of the new show is the diverse casting.
Yes. We’re just going to keep adding to the group.
Ooh! Will there be new characters introduced to us shortly?
Oh, maybe. I should’ve not said anything. (laughing)
I promise not to spoil anything. We’ll just keep the mystery hanging in the air.
Yes, there may be. There may be not. Just watch and find out. It’s exciting!
This is going to be a great interview. You’re giving spoilers with no spoilers. We will have great headlines for teasers. (laughing)
Yes. Whitney Peak teases the future of Gossip Girl’s, Part II. (laughing)
Speaking of teasers, I was just watching the new trailer of Succession.
I haven’t seen Succession! I need to get onto it! I have a hard time committing to watch TV series. I feel like I get very bored within the first four episodes. The thing with the TV shows is that you can’t finish them in one sitting. That’s the problem. I think when The White Lotus came out, me and Paloma waited for the entire season to be out, and then we sat down and watched it all in one day. It was awesome.
Succession must go on your to-watch-list. It’s so good, and based in the Big Apple.
I’ll give it a try!
"My family has been very patient with me. In my head, I’m going 50 miles an hour and I neglect to tell them that I love them and that I miss them. If I think about it, then I’m thinking about it all the time and then I want to cry all the time because I’m far away from home. In my head, it’s like out of sight, out of mind which is not good. They’ve been very understanding and
“My family has been very patient with me. In my head, I’m going 50 miles an hour and I neglect to tell them that I love them and that I miss them. If I think about it, then I’m thinking about it all the time and then I want to cry all the time because I’m far away from home. In my head, it’s like out of sight, out of mind which is not good. They’ve been very understanding and supportive of that.”
Creative Studio manager
Heng Qing Zhao
Jon Gourlay/Giant Artists
Video Post Production
Speaking of New York, how long have you been living here?
It’s about to be a year. I’ve moved to New York on September 19th in 2020.
How are you finding everything?
I love it. I don’t love the heat in the summer, the peak of the summer, as I don’t really like to be hot and sweaty. Other than that, it’s been incredible. It’s been very kind to me which I know it’s not to a lot of people so, I’m very grateful.
What do you think is the hardest part about living in New York?
The place where I live, it’s not really that crazy. But wherever I’m in the city, I do definitely feel the chaotic energy of it which is why I try to stay far away, unless I’m working there.
I’m not going to keep you long as I know that you have a busy day ahead. Can you tell us about other projects that you’re working on now?
I can’t say anything about the projects that I will or might be working on. (laughing) You’ll just have to wait and see. There’s something coming up that I’m very excited about.
You’re very good at creating those cliffhanger moments.
I don’t know, I don’t know. (laughing)
That is so Gossip Girl-like.
I know, Josh Safran (Executive writer and producer of Gossip Girl) is infiltrating my brain. Slowly. Every time I’m about to say something, there’s a little Josh in my head that goes ‘what if you would just say it like this’ and I go ‘okay’. (laughing)
Part 2 of Gossip Girl returns this Winter on HBO Max. Stay tuned for more updates.