Even after the show exploded, the star slept on an inflatable mattress for six months, worried the success wouldn't last

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Kat Graham
Credit: Nicolas Gerardin

Singer, dancer, actress and L'Oréal Paris League Member Kat Graham, 31, had her breakout role as Bonnie Bennett on the hit CW show, The Vampire Diaries, which aired from 2009-2017. She sat down with PEOPLE's Wendy Naugle and revealed how she wouldn't give up on success — and how her mom taught her to give back.

PEOPLE: During the pandemic, we've all had that moment of looking deep and thinking about who we want to be. How did you answer that question for yourself? 

KAT GRAHAM: Pre-COVID I was busy and traveling and it was nonstop — I didn't necessarily have time to reflect. But then when I did, and my hair was in big curls, and I was barefoot in my garden, literally holding a shovel and covered in dirt — no makeup and pure happiness. I said, "Well, how do I carry this energy with me? And how do I connect with people in the same way I've connected with nature and myself?" So that's been really my journey. And I really feel like I'm getting there. 

You've chosen to live in Georgia, outside the usual Hollywood bubble. How does that help, aside from frequent flier miles?

Delta loves me. The airline definitely loves me. [laughs] I would say you become the environment you're around. I don't necessarily like being treated like a queen because I am [a celebrity]. It shouldn't matter what I do for a living. It shouldn't matter what I look like. It shouldn't matter what I have. It should matter who I am. And unfortunately, throughout my time in Los Angeles, that didn't matter. It was who I was to the industry. And I like to go to my neighbor's house and [be] surrounded by animals. [laughs]

You started working when you were 6 years old. What was that like? Did you ask for that?

I did. I didn't have a stage mom. I was somebody like, "I'm going to be a successful actress, this is my path." I had been auditioning and I started off on Disney and did little things here and there. [Then when] I was about 13, my mom and I were kind of on our own, and things got really difficult. We did not have a lot of money, and I had to work harder because I saw my mom, who's so brilliant, so fierce, struggle. 

She was clearly a great role model for you.

It showed me that even if you have no money, even if everything is almost working against you, you can still believe that you're worth a good life. And we fought for [that]. And I would watch these L'Oréal commercials of girls that I thought were just amazing. And they'd look you dead in the lens and they'd say, "Because you're worth it." I think when I booked Vampire Diaries, I was sleeping on my mom's floor and I had 86 cents to my name and I would see that commercial and I'd feel like, yeah, I'm worth it, damn it, I'm worth it. Mommy, we're worth it — even in poverty, living in these crappy apartments with no money and sometimes no food.

Kat Graham
Credit: Nicolas Gerardin

How did your mom instill that lesson in you?

She got me meditating and told me that it all comes from within. And I really didn't get it. I would be so embarrassed. I wouldn't bring kids over to my house. ... [Later] I realized that if I could be everything that she could have been, we both succeed. So it became my mission for us to succeed. I remember I would be crying because I wouldn't get an audition, and she was like, "Why don't you volunteer? So many more people don't have what you have, why don't you change the way you look at things?" She cold-called the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and it was because of my mom that I'm now working with them. She made me focus on being of service and not traditional success.

Early in your career, you started in music, with Prince and Missy Elliott and some of the greats. What did you learn from working with them?

I hope Missy remembers me as her [back-up] dancer! But Will.I.Am was, I think, the first person that gave me a shot with those records. And [one] big mentor was Prince. I asked him once, "Who's your favorite artist of all time?" He said, "Well, me." I said, "Yeah, because you're Prince." He said, "No — you always should be your favorite artist no matter what. You've got to be your biggest fan." The power comes from in [you]. 

After music, you transitioned to TV.

I had just gotten off tour with the Black Eyed Peas and I was back home living with my mom in her apartment when Vampire Diaries pretty much exploded. I was on an inflatable mattress for the first six months of filming because I just didn't trust [it would last]. 

Kat Graham
Credit: Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty

And you recently posted a picture of you and Nina Dobrev. Is there a chance for a reunion?

She and I are forever united. But I feel like I've learned my lessons from that show. Eight years, if you can't get what you need out of a character in eight years… So I don't think so. I don't feel it, you know? I'm a soul person. I don't feel that that's my path.

You've talked about sometimes being the only person of color in the room. Have you seen Hollywood change? Do you think change is finally happening?

I think awareness is finally happening. I think that when I stop seeing African American men and women used as tokens, when I start seeing more Asian actors and actresses as leads, as multi-dimensional characters, when I start seeing more Latinx actors, I'll feel better. When I start seeing more trans actors and actresses, I'll start feeling more comfortable, but I'm not comfortable saying that I've seen a lot of change. I've seen things that sometimes feel inauthentic. It's just about who's in the room. You want to talk about inclusivity, but you're not telling it from the point of view of people who have actually been there, done that? I think that we're seeing developments, but I wouldn't say that the change is quite there. We're still not on equal playing fields. We're just not.

Kat Graham
Graham (wearing L'Oréal Colour Riche red lip in 350) at the Cannes Film Festival. "Cannes has always been really fun with fashion and makeup," she says. This year, she saw "a lot of red lip [looks]…We're all ready to get out!"
| Credit: Nicolas Gerardin

As a little girl you admired those beauty commercials — and now you're a L'Oréal Paris League Member. How in this past year has your idea of beauty changed?

I think all of us, women and men, experienced this self-revelation — this moment of, who am I without everything? And now when I approach beauty, I'm definitely coming at it from a different place. I'm like, do my freckles show? Am I wearing my hair the way I feel most myself? Before I think, especially in Hollywood, there was almost like a makeup culture where you want to hide or contour. And I think being in our homes so much and really learning about our skin has helped us make our beauty now even better. And we can have more fun because we're all ready to get out!

Is there something you carry wherever you go?

What people don't really realize is that our beauty bags are real tiny! You have to make some hard cuts, you know what I mean? I will always have a lip and I will always have a powder — I have my Infallible [24-Hour Freshwear Foundation, $15 at drugstores]. It's a foundation and a powder. And then when you open it, you have your little pad and then you have a mirror. So if I have to pick one, I would say my powder. But it's also important for women to know that … as long as you feel good when you walk out the door, you're good. Let it go.