Most teenagers nearing adulthood go through the same rites of passage: packing up their childhood bedrooms; starting college or a full-time job. Whitney Peak, who stars in HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot, has had a very different coming-of-age experience. In 2020, she moved to New York from Canada amid a pandemic; lived on her own for the first time during quarantine; and began work on one of the most famous shows in recent history. Daunting? Perhaps. But Peak found it thrilling.
The actress, who still thinks of herself as a kid, says she has relied on guidance from family and older friends to help navigate her new, surreal surroundings. “Living in New York as an 18-year-old is definitely crazy, especially at this time,” she says. “I’m meeting people I’ve watched on TV for years, and getting to be a fly on the wall in rooms where important conversations are happening.” Peak has also been named a brand ambassador for Chanel, which she can hardly believe: “It hits me pretty much daily that this is an absurd life that I’m living,” she says.
And yet, it’s barely begun. Peak was born the youngest of four siblings in Kampala, Uganda, to a Ugandan mother, a hairdresser, and a Canadian father, a helicopter pilot and engineer. She went to boarding school, and swam competitively. Her family spent time between Canada and Dubai, where her father worked, and where she was coached by a Sudanese former Olympian.
But after moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, at the age of nine, Peak got into dance, starting with acrobatics, and harbored a secret desire to be on television. She also transitioned to a public school, which was a bit of a culture shock. “A kid slid me a note and was like, ‘Do you want to be friends?’ ” she recalls. “And being completely terrified of the teacher calling me out and having to deal with being disciplined, I flipped it over and was like, ‘Pay attention.’ ”
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Her love of fashion was also kindled at the time, though it tended more toward cartoons than designer brands. “I would wear Hannah Montana and Hello Kitty T-shirts,” she says. “The Disney section at Target was my go-to.”
Peak was convinced she was going to become a doctor. But she found herself watching Disney Channel shows like That’s So Raven and quietly dreaming of an acting career. “I didn’t think acting was a thing that people could just do,” she says. “I always thought I was very far away from that world. And that watching was the closest I could get to being a part of it.”
That all changed one day when she heard a commercial on the radio for a Disney Channel casting call and decided to audition. Her first role came in the film Molly’s Game, and she later became a series regular on Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. But Gossip Girl will be her first involvement in a cultural phenomenon.
Gossip Girl and its prep aesthetics, mean girls, and anonymous texts have a distinctly millennial vibe. Peak’s generation has a different, and yet nostalgic, relationship to gossip. Generation Z teenagers have anonymous and private Instagram accounts—Finstas—and view the idea of exposing too much of yourself online as unwise, much like the secretive students who fed Gossip Girl’s mass text blasts. Peak believes this, too: “There’s a fine line, and what I’m learning now is you can’t really share everything you think. Being a child in the industry doesn’t really allow for changing your mind or making mistakes. So if I said something, and then later felt like I had outgrown what I said, social media makes it very hard.”
Peak is just as interested in fashion as she is in acting. Lisa Bonet, Aaliyah, and Teyana Taylor are her fashion icons. “My style dictates how I want to feel throughout the day,” she says. “So if I want to feel cool, and it’s swag, I’ll do the big pants, maybe a shirt, definitely a cool sneaker, jewelry galore. Probably big hair. And if I feel a little more elevated, I’ll do a leather boot, and a pair of trousers, maybe a black trench coat.” Before heading to the Gossip Girl set in the morning, Peak likes to throw together “crazy” looks: headbands with cat ears, sweatpants, and a towel; a robe or boxers. (The show’s hair team put together a collage of her eccentric outfits.).
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She’s long had an affinity for experimentation. “Growing up, I would borrow my brother’s clothes, and my mom—being the religious woman she is—would be like, ‘Oh no. Wear more feminine stuff,’ ” Peak says. “And now I do love to dress up and go out with my friends and play into my feminine side.” But at the same time, “If I want to put on a pair of Calvin Klein boxers, I’m going to put on a pair of Calvin Klein boxers, and sag my pants. Men’s clothes are cool; women’s clothes are cool. They’re just clothes.”
When she’s not acting, or thinking about acting and how her life will change once her biggest role to date is live, Peak likes to walk the streets of New York until she gets tired, do yoga, and read—at the moment, a collection of plays by María Irene Fornés that the playwright Jeremy O. Harris gave her. She’s still in high school, too: “I have an amazing virtual set teacher whose name, funny enough, is Nathaniel Archibald [the name of an original Gossip Girl character]. When I was interviewing teachers, I was like, ‘I can’t not have a teacher named Nathaniel Archibald; that’s hilarious.’ ”
After Gossip Girl filming ends, she will head back to Canada to be with her family, enjoy the last moments of her anonymity, and think about future projects. Peak would love to work with Viola Davis and the director Whit Stillman. She once felt nervous about how fans would take the new iteration of the series, but now feels ready to show viewers what she’s been hard at work on.
Her character, Zoya, is the “new kid in town” who struggles to fit in without silencing herself, something Peak has experience with. “[The original] Gossip Girl was how life was seen then. And this version is very much true to this time,” she says. “I’m excited for the show to air, and to see what this next chapter in my life is going to look like.”
Photographed by Matthew Kristall; Styled by Rebecca Dennett; Hair by Nikki Nelms for Maui Moisture; Makeup by Emily Cheng and Manicure by Elina Ogawa, both for CHANEL Beauty; Produced by Hillary Foxweldon; Special thanks to 99 Scott.
This article will appear in the August 2021 issue of ELLE.