Zendaya on Blackness, Beyoncé, and Telling Disney 'No'

One of the first times I met Zendaya was at the 2015 Radio Disney Music Awards, which she was hosting. Though my show Black-ish had only aired for one season—we didn’t even know if we’d be renewed—I will never forget when she bounded up to me and said, excitedly, “Man, I really appreciate the work that you’re doing.”

Zendaya was just 18 at the time, the same age I will turn in a few months. And she was already a bona fide superstar, having appeared in nearly a dozen films and shorts, released an album of hits, and ridden the success of the Disney Channel sitcom Shake It Up into producing and starring in K.C. Undercover, about a black family of spies. Zendaya has always been clear about the importance of speaking one’s mind. When executives originally suggested the show be called Super Awesome Katy, she told them the title was “wack.” She asked, “Do I look like a Katy to you?” (They made her character’s name K.C. instead.) And she knows her value. Zendaya is one of the youngest Disney Channel producers ever. She is a young woman on a mission!

Zendaya is like a big sister to me. And we have a lot in common. On season two of Black-ish, she guest starred as Resheida, the poster girl for a made-up holiday. Being thought of as a poster girl, in any situation, is a double-edged sword. Personally, as a young black actress, I’m happy when people see themselves reflected in my professional work, and that I’m able to tell those narratives. But it has never been—and will never be—my or Zendaya’s intention to be the only versions of “blackness” in the world of entertainment.

Dior dress, hat, choker, bronze necklace with pendant, belt. Vionnet T-shirt. Natalie Dancewear leggings. Maison Fabre gloves. Free People armbands. Tomas Maier enamel heart necklace. Cleopatra’s Bling gold necklaces. Louis Vuitton boots.

What I love about my friend Zendaya is that you cannot categorize her. She is a true creative. Within her acting world, no two characters are the same. As an entrepreneur, a talented musician, and a ridiculously fierce dancer, she is focused and driven. I have literally watched her Lip Sync Battle rendition of Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” on multiple occasions. That was not Bruno! That was Zendaya! And then there’s the fact that she tackled trapeze artistry for her new movie The Greatest Showman, a reimagining of the life of P.T. Barnum that also stars Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron. She told me her thought was, “Trapeze? Yeah, I’m gonna do that.”

There's a misconception in this industry that everybody who looks like you, or may, at first, seem like you, must be your competition. What I so deeply respect about Zendaya is that she’s actively helping to dismantle that myth. She is showing young women how to speak our minds, stand up for our peers, and give love to the global community of women. Because, at the most basic level, we need to see a variety of characters whose likenesses reflect the society we live in. But we also need diversity in representation, roles that show the true range of our experiences as women. Zendaya is doing that. She makes it known that she is dedicated to showing young people that they are meant to be seen and counted. And that they are never, ever just one thing. That's no small feat. I'm honored to know her, and excited for you all to get to know her better.

YARA SHAHIDI: Let’s take it all the way back. How did you end up moving to Los Angeles from Oakland as a middle-schooler to act?

ZENDAYA: I was basically like, “I want to do this,” and my dad quit his job as a teacher to make it happen. My mom stayed in Oakland because she had two jobs: teaching, and working at the California Shakespeare Theater at night. Those two jobs paid for all of our car trips back and forth for the year I was auditioning. Luckily I had parents who were like, “You know what? We believe in you.” I got my first job on the Disney Channel when I was 13, and it was just me and my dad in an apartment in downtown L.A. It was very difficult because I was dealing with all the pivotal girl moments. I remember getting my period and him not knowing what to do. It was a weird transitional phase.

YARA: I feel like everybody in our industry goes through that moment of transition. When Black-ish started, I tried to do the first season while going to high school full-time.

ZENDAYA: So difficult.

YARA: Yeah, but my mom got her master’s in education. I think coming from a background in which education is so valued provided me with a sense of grounding. In this industry there are always opportunities for someone to say that education is peripheral. There have been times when a lawyer has said, “All that’s required is that you’re provided with four walls and a human.” And it was like, “Wait, but I actually want to excel in school.”

Gucci dress, T-shirt, headband, statement necklace, hand accessory. Dior choker. Cleopatra’s Bling necklaces. Maison Fabre glove.

David Koma dress. American Apparel tights. Zana Bayne harness. Left hand, on index finger: Me&Ro chain ring. Annelise Michelson ring. All other rings: Kendall Conrad. Louis Vuitton boots.

ZENDAYA: See, that’s always the thing. I remember some kids I knew would cheat their way through an online school program. They’d just look up the answers and type them in. That’s insane to me. It’s funny that you talk about lawyers, because my mom had to write letters to Disney lawyers to say, “Listen, my daughter needs this teacher,” because I’d finally found someone who would work with me when I had press tours. In the car. On the plane. On the train. In the hotel room. She’d be like, “Are you tired? I don’t care.” I remember doing Dancing With the Stars and literally falling asleep reading a book. I’d never been so tired in my life—there’s no off time. But she stuck with me and made sure I got what I needed.

YARA: You mentioned how your mama had to move between two jobs to help you achieve your dreams. What does this powered-by-women issue [produced by female contributors] mean to you?

ZENDAYA: What I’ve learned most from my mom is selflessness. She taught in underprivileged communities for 20 years, and she worked her ass off to get her students to have experiences like outdoor science camp. There are students who will tell you, “Without Ms. Stoermer, I don’t know where I’d be.”

YARA: Our generation has a lot going on right now: from North Korea to Charlottesville—

ZENDAYA: It’s insane.

YARA: It’s slightly insane.

ZENDAYA: Here’s the thing—I can genuinely say that I’m not the same person I was a year ago. As my social platforms grew, I realized that my voice was so much more important than I had originally thought. I think if every young person understood the power of their voice, things would be a lot different. And it’s becoming more popular to be outspoken.

"If people know your name, they should know it for a reason."

YARA: I know. It no longer feels like an option whether or not to be active. We can’t ignore what’s happening. It’s also forced us to segue into something a little more hopeful. You and I have had the chance to meet some cool people. Like Representative Maxine Waters—

ZENDAYA: “Reclaiming my time. Reclaiming my time.”

YARA: Her saying that [during a Congressional hearing when she felt Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin was dodging questions] was my favorite thing. What other women inspire you?

ZENDAYA: There’s definitely a long list. I am inspired right now by people who use their platforms: If people know your name, they should know it for a reason. I’m obviously inspired by my mother, and I have an obsession with Oprah. She’s someone who, even with everything stacked against her, has soared to unbelievable heights. If she wants to create a network, she can do it. She wants to produce a movie? She can do it. But then also there’s this level of realness to her. You feel like she’s your auntie.

YARA: You’ve described yourself as the love child of Oprah, Shonda Rhimes, and Beyoncé. Let’s go into Shonda…

ZENDAYA: I mean, Shonda—she saw something nobody else was doing and said, “I’m going to create it myself. I’m going to put strong, powerful women of color in lead roles and create narratives for different types of people.” And she owns a day. She owns Thursdays.

YARA: It’s hers. Don’t even come for her.

Louis Vuitton dress, top, pants, boots. Chanel headband. Tomas Maier choker. Cleopatra’s Bling necklaces. Free People arm bands. Me&Ro bangles. Jacquie Aiche finger bracelets.

ZENDAYA: And then, Beyoncé. She took it to the next level with Lemonade. She’s got twins, and she’s banging. She’s killing it. And, of course, Michelle Obama, because that is an intelligent woman.

YARA: She’s the forty-sixth president that I recognize.

ZENDAYA: She’s my president. Who is going to convince her to run?

YARA: It’s really powerful to see a woman of color [in such a promi­nent position]. Even without a political message, seeing ourselves onscreen is so important. What you did with K.C. Undercover, the fact that you came from a position of power, was huge for me. I’m now in a place where I’m talking to creatives and saying, “Hey, this is what needs to happen with this show, with this character.” Not for my own ego, but because there’s a lot of people watching, and we have an opportunity. What gave you that confidence?

ZENDAYA: I didn’t feel like there was any other choice. I was like, “If I’m going to do this, this is how it has to be.” There needs to be a black family on the Disney Channel. 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. And you know, there is so much work left to be done. I’ve talked about this before, but can I honestly say I would be in the position I’m in if I weren’t a lighter-skinned black woman? No.

Rodarte blouse, pants, belts, boots. Jennifer Behr crown. Me&Ro chain ring. Kendall Conrad stacked rings.

YARA: One thing that I constantly say is that my goal is not to be the face of black girls. The goal is to open the door so widely that I am drowning in a sea of—

ZENDAYA: In a sea of black girls. Absolutely.

YARA: I shouldn’t be the “accessible” version of a black girl. That doesn’t allow people to fully appreciate their heritage. I’m half black, half Iranian, and I’ve never seen a half-black, half-Iranian description of a character in a script ever. There’s more to do.

ZENDAYA: Boom! Let’s kick these doors open.

YARA: I wanted to ask you about your clothing line, Daya by Zendaya. I love that not only are you an entrepreneur, you’ve created a brand that doesn’t say, “This is for a girl; this is for a boy.”

ZENDAYA: That’s the future of fashion, right? I was lucky to have parents who let me wear what I wanted to wear and let me shop where I wanted to shop. Nine times out of 10 I was shopping in the boys section. I wore cargo shorts and hoodies. That was my uniform. And it’s different being a girl. We can wear guys’ clothes, but the second a guy wears girls’ clothes, it’s like—

YARA: What is he doing?

ZENDAYA: That’s not fair. I think, for me, it’s all about the experience of a shopper. For example, my sister is a thicker woman. She just had a baby; she’s got hips, a booty popping in these streets. Why should she have to go to a different section to get clothes?

YARA: It’s interesting what a statement it is to be like, “Everything is available to you, all of you.” Has that influenced how you approach your red-carpet fashion?

ZENDAYA: I think it’s the same thing. A huge part of my gaining confidence is because of fashion. What I love about someone like Rihanna is her fearlessness. It’s almost a sense of, pardon my language, I don’t give a fuck. When she wears a dress, it’s for herself, and you can see that. There’s something to be said for the fact that literally everybody can hate my outfit, but if I feel good in it, I’m the only one that should matter.

YARA: OK, so what’s next for you?

ZENDAYA: There’s a lot I want to do in the movie world. 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. And then I want to produce and create shows and movies, whether or not I’m starring in them. You know when you watch a show and you’re like, “That’s so good. I wish I’d made it?” Why not? Why not make it? Wild idea, I know. 

Yara Shahidi is an activist and actress who has starred in ABC’s Black-ish since 2014. Her new series, Grown-ish, premieres on Freeform early next year.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Glamour. For more personal stories, celebrity content, and news about women who inspire us, subscribe to* Glamour *for just $5.