The first thing you need to know about Zendaya is that you’re saying her name wrong. It is not zen-DIE-uh. It’s zen-DAY-uh. Maybe you could be forgiven when you consider the fact that she just turned 20 and you’re probably rusty on your Disney Channel cast members. Then again, she’s a legit red-carpet favorite, an accomplished musician, and oh my God, she just turned 20.
“Everything has been a climb,” says Zendaya. “And I’ve been able to take my family and friends with me. I came from humble beginnings.” Her eyes go wide and she looks around her backyard, at the pomegranate and lemon trees, the wooden swing, the inflatable toys. “I’ve never had a pool before,” she says, making a grand, sweeping gesture with her arm that takes in the newly planted baby palm trees and all of the unfurnished rooms inside. “I’ve never lived in a house this beautiful. I appreciate everything so much more because everything I have has been worked for.”
When she was a regular kid with two names, Zendaya Coleman lived in Oakland in a “not-so-amazing neighborhood.” She was the youngest in a big, happy family (“my support system”): two sisters, two brothers, and her parents, both teachers.
She played basketball. She coordinated clothes with her niece. “The shirts with graffiti [Alexander] Wang just did? We had those made for us in the hood. Mine was pink and had ‘Daya’ on the back.” In other words, she was a good kid.
During the summers, she was dragged to her mom’s second job at a local theater. Sounds miserable. But not for Zendaya—she was paid in chocolate-chip cookies and Snapple. She watched every play from the wings. The vast majority of the performances were Shakespeare— and most of the lines sailed over her four-year-old head. Didn’t matter. Zendaya knew she wanted to be a part of this world.
Eight years later, the desire was still very much there, and Zendaya’s parents drove her to a Disney audition. “I just popped up out of nowhere,” she says. “And I was kicking ass. I came. I knew what I wanted. I think they saw that.” They did. The audition was for a show called Shake It Up, and she landed one of the leads, Rocky Blue. Zendaya packed up her 12-year-old belongings, said good-bye to her big, happy family, and moved with her dad to Los Angeles to enter one of the most bizarre professions in the world: child acting. “It was really difficult,” she says, “and I was used to having my mom.” (Two years later, Zendaya was making enough that her mom could join them in L.A.)
Zendaya never went to high school in the traditional sense. Though you could argue she grew up in a place where the cliques are much worse. “I’m nice and cool with everybody, but not a lot of people know me very well,” she says. She keeps to herself—a defense mechanism in a town where everyone wants something. “I have a very tight-knit circle.”
You won’t find her out spraying Dom with models or crashing at Taylor’s for the night. And— amazingly—her goodness has been a point of some controversy. “I’m just not a social butterfly,” she insists. It’s been suggested that Zendaya has manufactured a squeaky-clean image that panders to her fans’ parents (and their wallets) and Disney’s vision for her as a wholesome role model. Her defense? “I’d rather be home with my family,” she says, adding, “I’ve never had a desire to drink.”
That’s not to say she pretends to be perfect. “There is so much stress in my life,” she says. “I’ve got family, a lot of people that depend on me and need me. I try to take care of everybody and sometimes that drives you crazy—you want everybody to be OK, and you’re like, Jesus, am I OK?”
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