If you’re one of the 30 million people who follow Zendaya Coleman on social media, you’ll understand why I thought she’d be a hugger. From sending emoji-filled replies to fans who tweet Zendaya memes to doing some mean muggin’ in Snapchat videos to calling out all those wig haters via Twitter, the 19-year-old seems insanely accessible. So when the willowy star of the Disney Channel hit K.C. Undercover strolled onto our cover shoot set, I was surprised to encounter a calm, cool, confident young #boss who, while polite, isn’t particularly effusive upon first meeting. The woman was there to work. Shooting a fashion cover and being grilled by a reporter for an hour? Just another day on the job for Zendaya (like her idol Beyoncé, her unique first name has eclipsed the need for a last) who, in five years, has taken multi-hyphenating to the extreme. She’s an actress–dancer–singer–Disney star–author–model–TV producer–social media maven–shoe designer–fashion darling–activism queen. The kind who spends her rare off-hours sitting front row at Kenzo and Emanuel Ungaro during Paris Fashion Week.
And she just graduated from high school in June.
“I was that weird eight-year-old who was really interested in Shakespeare and understood it and appreciated the language,” says Zendaya, a self-proclaimed shy child whose first acting gig was at the California Shakespeare Theatre outside Oakland, where her mom, a teacher by day (same as her dad), worked nights. But a girl can’t live on Shakespeare alone. Like millions of kids, Zendaya—pronounced Zen-day-uh—was a Disney Channel fan, and the 2000s were its golden age, churning out Hilary Duff, Shia LaBeouf, Raven-Symoné, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. “I remember Hannah Montana came out, and I was so depressed I started crying because I was like, ‘I want to do that,’” she recalls. That tear-fuelled passion led to an agent, which led to an audition in 2009 for a new female buddy comedy on Disney called Shake It Up. Zendaya landed the role of an aspiring dancer who makes it onto a Chicago dance show with her best friend, played by fellow teen sensation Bella Thorne. In 2011, its young stars released a single, a duet called “Watch Me.” Zendaya was now a Billboard-charting artist.
Music has always been part of the Zendaya brand. Her self-titled debut album was released on the Disney-owned Hollywood Records label in September 2013, kicking off with the lead single “Replay,” which has amassed more than 113 million views on YouTube and went platinum. Many budding young stars would be advised to rush out a sophomore effort to capitalize on buzz, but Zendaya took a break and has been working on her rather hush-hush second album for almost a year now.
In early 2015, she signed a joint record deal with Republic Records, home of Drake, Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift (who, BTW, personally contacted Zendaya and asked her to appear in the “Bad Blood” video as the assassin Cut Throat). Mega-producer Timbaland is a collaborator on the unnamed album, along with hit-machine songwriter Diane Warren (“she’s a beast”). But make no mistake, the success of this release is all on Zendaya. “I’ve had a lot of voices tell me what I should be making. Personally, I would much rather live and die by my own hand. If my stuff sucks, then at least I made it suck. I didn’t allow some person, some old dude in a suit, to make it suck for me.” The teasers she’s shared on social media have included a slowed-down, percussion-driven R&B jam, her voice smooth and light, and a horn-happy track that turns catchy as hell in just 15 seconds, tagged “recording real horns…. I’m not settling this time around. @diane_warren.”
In 2013, after Zendaya finished as runner-up on Dancing With the Stars, Disney came calling once more. This time, they offered her a starring role in her own show, about a teenager who discovers she comes from a family of spies, called K.C. Undercover (airing now on the Disney Channel). The girl-power twist is that K.C., a math genius and tomboy, catches bad guys herself, roughing them up in a series of stunts, many of which Zendaya performs sans double. But in order to dance with the Mouse once more, she had one request. “Some actors get a producer title as part of their deal, kind of like an extra perk,” explains K.C. Undercover executive producer Rob Lotterstein. “But Zendaya takes her role as a producer very seriously. She’s been a real partner to me, coming up with ideas for everything from how to film a scene to story fixes.” The show is such a hit that Disney tapped it to anchor the launch of Disney Channel Canada earlier this fall, NBD.
This drive to do more, to be extra involved, to control her every move on her own terms is what separates Zendaya from many of her Disney compatriots. You get the sense that she is not being told what to do or how to act, that she’s just doing Z. There’s little chance that in a few years she’ll break free of the network in a spectacularly scandalous fashion. She’s a good girl. A role model. And she knows it. “In the words of Tupac Shakur: I am a real model because I’m not playing a role and I’m not pretending to be some good kid that’s perfect,” she says. “It just happens that I’m a good kid, and I don’t do bad stuff and I like to be positive because that’s just how I was raised. I think if I were faking it, then you would’ve seen me break character a long time ago.”
This type of self-awareness is apparent in the way Zendaya handles her social media feeds, which she runs herself: six million on Twitter, 13 million on Instagram, 10 million on Facebook, too many to count on Snapchat. She posts regularly, everything from typical teen emoji-speak to positive messages and well-spoken rebuttals to trolls, both online and, in one famous incident, on-air. Her post-Oscars 2015 takedown of E!’s Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic put her into a whole new type of spotlight. While walking the red carpet, Zendaya wore a simple ivory Vivienne Westwood off-the-shoulder gown, her hair enhanced by faux dreadlocks twisted away from her face. On Fashion Police the next day Rancic stated that she looked like “she smells like patchouli oil or weed,” which triggered accusations of racism across Twitter and beyond.
Zendaya took to Instagram to offer an eloquent response, part of which read: “There is already harsh criticism of African-American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscars red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of colour that our hair is good enough.” In September, Mattel honoured the moment with a special-edition Zendaya Barbie (sadly not for sale). “It’s something that is long overdue,” she says. “There have been black Barbies, but not ones with locs or even natural hair or different facial structures. When I was little, I had a Barbie, but I didn’t have a Barbie that looked like me because there was no mixed-girl-with-curly-hair Barbie!”
Black women’s hair is often talked about, but Zendaya’s seems to garner more press than most. She experiments on the regular, from those faux dreads to pixie wigs to sleek bobs to cornrows at Paris Fashion Week in October, which created such a buzz that she tweeted: “People just love my cornrows… honestly its not the most original hair style I’ve had…@TreySongz and @1Omarion been slayed that look.” She seems genuinely surprised at the effect her hair and wardrobe choices can have on people. Zendaya’s style accolades were the first time many people had heard about her. She works with stylist and family friend Law Roach and isn’t afraid to be unpredictable. Her whirlwind Paris Fashion Week wardrobe was a master class in quicksilver changes, going from a school-girl chic Lacoste sweater-dress in the morning to the aforementioned cornrows paired with a sequined Fausto Puglisi mini later that day. “A big reason I play with beauty and hair is that it’s important to show different kinds of beauty when I’m on the red carpet. I don’t want to be just one-dimensional or relatable to one type of person. I want a different woman to be like, That’s like me! That’s like my hair! or That’s so my style! If I went out there and was just like, pretty, all the time, doing the same thing, it can be cool, but you’re also catering to one type of person, and what about all those other kinds of beautiful out there?”
Zendaya cares. She wants to make sure every message is authentic. “I’ve always been honest with my fans, and I want to keep that up because I feel they can see through the fakeness. They would know if I let someone tweet for me,” she laughs. It’s her message, through and through, but it never feels scripted. During our conversation, she replies more succinctly to a question about her take on feminism than women twice her age: “A feminist is a person who believes in the power of women just as much as they believe in the power of anyone else. It’s equality, it’s fairness, and I think it’s a great thing to be a part of.” A few weeks after we meet, she calls out French magazine Modeliste for slimming down her hips and torso in a recent editorial. Posting side-by-side shots on her Instagram (retouched and real), she noted: “These are the things that make women self-conscious.” The magazine swiftly removed the images from their website.
I sense Zendaya’s conviction most strongly when she’s speaking about her charity work. She supports Convoy of Hope (which delivers supplies to victims of natural disasters), and she attended the Global Compassion Summit with the “freaking!” Dalai Lama. (About his recent gaffe, where he stated a female Dalai Lama would have to be “attractive,” Zendaya has this to say: “If he was like, ‘She needs to be skinny with big boobs,’ that’s different. Maybe he’s talking about an attractive soul, an attractive personality. I’m just trying to find the positive here.”) On a visit to South Africa with UNAIDS this past summer, she met three brothers, the oldest of whom had become the younger siblings’ guardian after their parents died from AIDS-related complications. They had no electricity, running water or plumbing. “As soon as I got home, I was like, we gotta help them,” Zendaya says. “It was constantly on my mind.” So for her 19th birthday on Sept. 1, she asked her fans to donate money on Crowdrise, hoping to raise at least $40,000 to improve the brothers’ living situation—and vowing to match the first $10,000 herself. She ended up raising $50,000. For her 18th birthday, she fed three schools in Tanzania, the Philippines and Haiti through Convoy of Hope affiliate FeedONE, and she hopes to visit one of the schools this year.
Throughout our conversation, Zendaya has been opening up, her body language going from us sitting side by side to her facing me, cross-legged, sneakers kicked off. And although she’s been polite, engaging and honest, I still feel a bit of a professional remove. We wrap up, and she untangles her long legs from each other. As she walks away, she pauses, as if remembering she forgot to switch off the stove, and turns back, tossing off, “I love your hair. Very luxurious,” with a smile and continues on her way. It’s not a hug, but I’ll take it.
Hair: Larry Sims, Tracey Mattingly.
Makeup: Allen Avendaño, Diorshow, Opus Beauty.
Nails: Carla Kay, Londontown, Cloutier Remix.
Set Designer: Anthony Asaro, 11th St. Workshop.
Art Director: Jed Tallo.
Editor: Briony Smith.
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