Zendaya Coleman introduced herself to the world as simply Zendaya (pronounced Zen-DAY-uh) on Disney Channel’s Shake It Up in 2010. "My first name is so beautiful and it kind of speaks for itself that it needs nothing else," she told AccessHollywood.com. "Zendaya — like Madonna." It was a bold move, but Zendaya — which comes, in part, from a word that means "to give thanks" in Shona — has certainly backed it up.
Zendaya had two Disney Channel shows, an album, a book, and a fashion line under her belt before the age of 21. She hadn’t even graduated from Disney Channel when she scored a role in the mega-blockbuster Spider-Man: Homecoming. Not bad for a film debut, right? Since then, she also appeared in The Greatest Showman and Spider-Man: Far From Home, lent her voice to Smallfoot, and shocked the entertainment industry in HBO’s Euphoria. Here’s a look at how Zendaya made the notoriously difficult transition from child star to one of Hollywood’s up-and-coming stars.
Zendaya had a much different upbringing than her father
Zendaya grew up in the same Oakland home as her dad, but it was hardly the same Oakland, Calif. The only child of a white mother and black father — both of whom were teachers — Zendaya told Vogue the Oakland she was raised in was full of "free-spirited, forward-moving" millennials. Her dad, Kazembe Ajamu Coleman, on the other hand, grew up during the civil rights movement in the same neighborhood as some of the original members of the Black Panthers Party. Apparently the revolutionary organization held meetings in his family’s basement. "My aunties were Black Panthers," Zendaya said. "Afros, the whole nine."
Despite the difference in eras, Coleman, who has four children from a previous marriage, believes Zendaya, who attended the private school where he taught, is in touch with her roots. "Because I lived it, and her brothers and sisters experienced it, she knows it exists," Coleman told Vogue. "She knows she’s reaping the benefits from those who paved the way for her."
The reason Zendaya had to repeat kindergarten
Zendaya wasn’t always the outgoing entertainer she appears to be in public. Her mother, Claire Stoermer, told Vogue that her daughter would sit in a circle with other children and not say a word. Unsure what to do, her parents attended seminars to learn how to deal with a timid child. Her shyness became such an issue that she did kindergarten twice.
Zendaya told VEVO Lift, "I didn’t like being in front of people," which is why her dad had to nudge her to sing a duet with him at her school’s winter concert when she was 8. "He was like … ‘I want you to try it and see if you like it.’ And then, of course, my parents were right. I got on stage and I was ecstatic," she shared. She went on, "And it’s history from there."
But as much progress as Zendaya has made, she hasn’t completely overcome her timidness. "I’m a very shy, introverted person," she told Vogue in 2019, adding later in the interview, "I just like to stay at home and stay to myself. I can’t help it." We’re sure many people can relate to that.
Before she was famous, Zendaya landed a part in a Selena Gomez ad
There was a familiar face dancing behind Selena Gomez in her 2009 commercial for Sears — a few of them actually, though they weren’t famous at the time. Zendaya landed the role of backup dancer in Gomez’s ad after years of honing her craft with her hip-hop dance troupe, Future Shock Oakland. She told J-14 that Gomez "was really sweet to me and really nice," adding, "And she was really helpful."
Gomez was starring in her own Disney Channel show, Wizards of Waverly Place, at the time, while Zendaya hadn’t yet landed her first series, Shake It Up, on that very same network. If you look closely at the commercial, you’ll also spot Leo Howard, future star of Disney XD’s Kickin’ It, and Ross Lynch who’d go on to star in Austin & Ally and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. "That’s a funny commercial because it’s so weird to think that later on — Ross was in it, Leo Howard was in it — and we were backup dancers, we weren’t even the lead kids," Zendaya previously told J-14. "It’s funny where things evolved from and it’s cool to start small."
Zendaya’s big break on the Disney Channel
The odds were stacked against Zendaya when she auditioned for Disney Channel‘s Shake It Up. She had no TV experience at the time, according to her interview with the East Bay Times, and was competing with over 200 girls for the role. Oh, and she revealed to TV Guide that she blew a line during her chemistry read with eventual co-star Bella Thorne. But in the end, Zendaya landed the part, which, FYI, wasn’t the role she originally came in for. Zendaya told J-14, "I originally came in for CeCe, and they asked me to read for Rocky. And I really felt Rocky. I had a connection with her character."
Before landing Shake It Up, Zendaya and her dad, who she told Glamour quit his job to help her pursue her dreams, would make the long drive between Oakland and Hollywood for auditions. "I tried to hold back the tears," her dad told the East Bay Times about watching his daughter film the pilot. "But then I said, ‘The hell with it. Let them flow.’" Can you blame him?
What let Zendaya to go meat-free
Zendaya can pinpoint the moment she first considered giving up meat and becoming a vegetarian. She was 11 years old and had passed a slaughterhouse on a road trip with her dad, which led to a conversation about what exactly went on in there. "I thought it was awful, all those animals getting packed up in there waiting to be killed," she revealed on her now-defunct app, as reported by People. "I couldn’t believe that’s how I’d been getting my meat!" Once she watched the PETA documentary Glass Walls, she’d seen everything she needed to see to go meat-free.
Was it hard? She told New You there was an adjustment period, but once "you find out the things that you like, you end up not missing it at all." But there is one thing she craved after going vegetarian. "The only thing I kind of miss are my mom’s famous turkey burgers," she revealed on her app, "but that’s it."
Zendaya had certain demands before starring in this Disney Channel show
There’s a side to Zendaya that the public doesn’t see: the businesswoman side. She refuses to get taken advantage of and has been that way from an early age. When she was only 16, Zendaya famously got in a room with Disney Channel heads to discuss her follow-up to Shake It Up and made it clear she’d only sign on to the series, originally called Super Awesome Katy, if her demands were met.
She had the show’s name changed — "I was like, ‘The title is whack,’" Zendaya told Vogue — as well as the name of her character ("Do I look like a Katy to you?" she questioned). And she wanted the show, which was renamed K.C. Undercover, to feature a family of color because she felt the mainstream media was lacking in that department. "There needs to be a black family on the Disney Channel," Zendaya told Glamour. "A lot of people who aren’t people of color can’t quite understand what it’s like to grow up and not see yourself in mainstream media." In the end, Zendaya got what she wanted, as well as a producer title.
Zendaya called out Giuliana Rancic for her "outrageously offensive" comments
Giuliana Rancic felt the wrath of Zendaya and her supporters following the 2015 Oscars. While discussing Zendaya’s dreadlocks at the awards on Fashion Police, Rancic said (via Entertainment Tonight), "I feel like she smells like patchouli oil or weed." Zendaya responded in an Instagram post that went viral by calling the remarks "ignorant slurs" and "outrageously offensive." Zendaya added, "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 Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough."
Rancic apologized on Twitter, claiming her comments "had NOTHING to do with race" and then apologized some more on-camera. "I’ve learned a lot today," Rancic said, "and this incident has taught me to be a lot more aware of clichés and stereotypes, how much damage they can do –- and that I am responsible, as we all are, to not perpetuate them further." Zendaya responded on Twitter, saying, "I appreciate your apology."
Zendaya fell in and out of love with the music industry
Zendaya followed in the footsteps of Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Lizzie McGuire star Hilary Duff when she ventured into music after establishing herself on the Disney Channel. She released her self-titled debut album in 2013 and watched it peak at No. 51 on the Billboard 200, thanks, in part, to her platinum single "Replay." She told MTV News in 2016 that her follow-up album would be "harder" and have an R&B sound with help from the likes of Babyface, but those plans appear to have been scrapped.
Zendaya has yet to release a sophomore album, and, judging by her interview with Paper, it sounds like she never will: "I think the [music] industry takes a little bit of passion away from you. It sucks you dry a little bit. What I thought I wanted, it’s not what I want anymore, [especially] when I think about what I had to deal with in the music industry." Still, she hasn’t completely given up on the music business. She wants to write songs for other artists one day… just not right now.
Zendaya launched a gender neutral fashion line… but it didn’t last
Zendaya didn’t let gender expectations dictate the clothes she wore growing up. She told Glamour that she mostly shopped in the boys’ section. So when it came to designing her own clothing line, Daya, she didn’t want to put restrictions on who got to wear what. "If you’re a dude and you want to wear a dress, then wear it," Zendaya told People. "The whole point is [to wear] whatever you feel confident in." Zendaya said fashion played a large role in her confidence, explaining to Glamour, "Everybody can hate my outfit, but if I feel good in it, I’m the only one that should matter."
Before you go searching for Daya, we should note the clothing line is no more. There were plenty of customer service complaints, which led to Zendaya announcing (via People) that she fired the company in charge in 2018. That same company was sued the following year for allegedly having "breached the deal" they had with the PR company hired to handle the Daya campaign, according to The Blast. Zendaya wasn’t named in the lawsuit, but she probably learned a hard lesson in business.
How Zendaya avoided the child star pitfalls
It’s difficult making the transition from child actor to adult actor. People are often so used to seeing these stars as kids that they have a hard time accepting them as grown-ups. Every child star goes through it, but few as smoothly as Zendaya. Sure, there were a few small bumps in the road, but she persevered. Zendaya told Glamour, "Having a Disney past sometimes makes it difficult for people to take you seriously, so I have to pick the right projects, make sure I do the right things, take my time."
Zendaya also avoided the headline-making run-ins with the law that often plague former child stars. She told Marie Claire she was afraid of messing up: "What my white peers would be able to get away with at this point in their career is not something that I will be able to do. … I don’t want to jeopardize it at any point because I am not allowed the room to mess up."
Zendaya swung into theaters with the MCU’s Spider-Man
Zendaya wasn’t who most first pictured when they thought of Spider-Man’s love interest, as Spider-Man’s most well known lady love in the comics is Mary Jane Watson, a white woman with red hair. Zendaya assumed the odds were against her when auditioning for the Marvel Cinematic Universe reboot and told Marie Claire she straightened her hair to improve her chances, not realizing the film was taking an inclusive approach to casting. "Part of my pitch [to Marvel] initially was that it should look like an actual Queens high school," director Jon Watts told Backstage. "Queens is one of the most diverse places in the world."
Watts cast Zendaya in the role of Michelle "M.J." Jones in the film, despite not initially knowing who she was after she first auditioned. "She’s been doing it for such a long time that she had both of the things that we want: being a really good technical performer and also having a sort of effortless charisma," Watts said. The 2017 film grossed $880 million at the worldwide box office, according to Box Office Mojo, and introduced Zendaya to older audiences.
Don’t ask Zendaya about her love life
Good luck getting Zendaya to open up about her love life. She doesn’t like discussing the subject and wishes people would stop inquiring about it. When Vogue asked her to name the question she gets all the time but wishes she didn’t, Zendaya said it was, "Who are you dating?" People were particularly interested in knowing if Zendaya and Spider-Man co-star Tom Holland dated, as has often been speculated. Zendaya denied that they were an item in an interview with Variety, claiming, "We are friends."
But Zendaya did give some rare insight into her love life in a 2017 interview with Vogue. She said her boyfriend of four years called it quits with her shortly after gifting her a dog. "It was my first love," she said. "It wasn’t a good ending." But she insisted she wasn’t too down in the dumps about the whole thing. "You know you’re OK in a breakup when your first thought is not, ‘What did I do wrong?’" Zendaya said. "It’s, ‘That was the dumbest decision of your life, and you’re going to regret it forever.’" In other words, she took the Taylor Swift approach.
Zendaya said this her hardest role to prepare for
It was one thing for Zendaya to take on roles in Spider-Man: Homecoming and The Greatest Showman as she transitioned away from Disney Channel. It was another to play a foul-mouthed drug addict in HBO’s Euphoria, perhaps one of the most controversial shows on television. Zendaya told Vogue her Euphoria gig was the hardest role to prepare for. And, in an interview with The New York Times, she said, "There’s a lot of people who probably think I can’t do it because they don’t truly understand my personality. And I get it: I’m a Disney kid. There’s a lot to prove."
Even Zendaya admitted to doubting herself at times while shooting the series. "I finally felt like I was doing something that I could push myself [with]," she told Paper. "But always you’re still going to have that doubt, and [I’m] still in my head, like, Wait, can I do it?" Turns out she could. Variety called her performance as Rue in Euphoria "breathtaking." Tina Knowles-Lawson wrote on Instagram that she deserves an Emmy nomination (via Yahoo! Entertainment). And she’s Beyoncé‘s mom — that has to count for something.