Although a photographer has been documenting her every smile and twirl for the past few hours in a Manhattan studio, 18-year-old Zendaya isn’t too tired to sneak in a few selfies. Or, rather, she has enlisted her father, a former gym teacher-turned-manager to help. Hopefully, these behind-the-scenes shots will appease the actress-singer-dancer’s 4 million social media followers, a ravenous fan base with whom Zendaya always finds time to communicate — no matter how hectic her schedule is.
Lately, her days are pretty jam-packed. The Northern California native has been making a name for herself ever since 2010, when she landed a role on the Disney Channel series Shake It Up opposite Bella Thorne. Less than five years later, Zendaya (who was born Zendaya Coleman) has already released an advice book for tweens called Between U And Me, as well as a self-titled debut album that mined pop and R&B influences with great success. (Zendaya recently went platinum, a feat in a post-Spotify world.) She was the youngest person to appear on Dancing with the Stars (she was a runner-up), and is currently working on a new Disney sitcom. Yet as fast-paced as her own life is, on a recent visit to New York City, Zendaya admits that she doesn’t think she could survive in the City that Never Sleeps. “I could see myself being here for a month, tops,” laughs Zendaya. “I would spend way too much money. My sleeping pattern would be all messed up. There’s just so much available! Anytime I was hungry, I could go out and eat. At home, things close. You have to go to sleep.”
Home now means Los Angeles, where she lives with her family and Midnight, her giant schnauzer, but for Zendaya it all began in Oakland, a city that is changing like the star herself. “It’s a very inspiring place,” she declares. “It has a bad reputation, but honestly, a lot of creative people come out of there.” As a child, Zendaya immersed herself in Oakland’s artistic communities: She spent three years performing with the youth dance troupe Future Shock Oakland, honing skills that would later be of use in her music career, and she was a regular fixture at the nearby California Shakespeare Theater, where her mother worked as a house manager and trained conservatory students.
While most girls her age are flipping through teen magazines for prom inspiration and tips on college applications, Zendaya is sitting in the front row at fashion weeks and appearing on the covers of those very same teen magazines. As she fast approaches the cusp of adulthood, it’s inevitable that her relationship with Disney and its preteen viewers will change. Unlike the most recent batch of Disney-branded starlets, Zendaya plans on sticking with the company that gave her a start. “Selena, Miley, Demi — they’re all different and they all went different ways. Everyone has their own version of their career that they want to create and things they want to do and accomplish. For me, I obviously want to continue to stay in the Disney world and grow at the same time.” So far, growing within Disney means taking on more responsibility: For the upcoming K.C. Undercover, a show about a high school student who is recruited as a spy by her parents, Zendaya will star as well as co-produce. “Now I’m able to really have a vision,” she says, leaning forward with noticeable excitement. “I can say what I want and be assertive. I can have a really, really strong voice and presence on my own show and be listened to. That’s the coolest part. I have more control; I have more freedom to make [K.C. Undercover] something that I’m proud of.”
Zendaya isn’t the first Disney star to fight for a seat at the table — Raven-Symoné, a woman whom the young actress looks up to, also produced her own Disney Channel series, That’s So Raven. “I look to her comedically,” Zendaya says of her friend and mentor. “I think she is so funny and that, to this day, she had the best Disney show that was on air. When I met her, she was a genuinely kind person, and that’s what you want to see: someone who has grown up as a young star but still has a heart of gold and is very sweet. That’s the most important thing.” When asked about the controversy surrounding Raven-Symoné’s recent interview with Oprah in which the actress claimed to be “American, not African-American,” Zendaya, herself half-black, seems unperturbed. “She’s grown; she can say whatever she wants. Everyone has an opinion. Opinions are like buttholes,” she says. “Everyone has one and everyone thinks everyone else’s stinks. Let people live.”
Surely she wishes people would’ve let her live when she was recently given the chance to pay homage to one of her heroes. The Internet exploded with criticism after Zendaya was cast as the lead in Lifetime’s Aaliyah biopic, a role she later backed out of due to concerns about the quality of the film’s production. One of the loudest critiques was that Zendaya wasn’t “black enough” to portray the late R&B singer. Rather than hurtful, she found the assessments just strange and ignorant. “It doesn’t make sense,” she says. “Here’s how I put it: The first African-American President of the United States is half-black. So is he not the first black president? Is he just the first half-black president? Do we take that credit away from him? No. Whoever is supposed to play [Aaliyah] — whether they are half-Asian or whatever — it’s not about that. It’s about doing it with respect and integrity.”
Yet the young star doesn’t let any ill will get her down: “It’s just irrelevant. I have so much to be thankful for — why am I going to let some random person in Idaho kill my vibe?” Zendaya has much more to do: a series to lead and produce, a second album for which she is trying to woo Drake (“He has to know I’m obsessed with him,” she laughs), charitable endeavors, and soon possibly a project with fashion. “2015 is about showing my work, showing the things I can do, and continuing to have fun in the process, ” she says. “As much as I do, I actually love it. As long as I’m happy while I’m doing it, I’m going to keep doing it for a long time.”