Zendaya Coleman is nuzzled in the corner of her living-room couch, next to her dad, Kazembe Ajamu Coleman. They’re mirroring each other’s body language, both pausing to look up from their phones when I walk into the room. Her mother Claire—whose towering posture resembles Zendaya’s 5′10″ stature—is the one who opened the door for me at their modest home in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood. After leading me downstairs to the sitting room, she retreats to the master bedroom.
Zendaya stands up to greet me, then settles down on a different couch. It feels like I’ve come over to a childhood buddy’s house, not the home of a mega-famous Disney Channel actress and pop star on the rise—well, if not for the framed posters of her TV shows (Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover) covering the walls of their foyer. “I hate having those posters up there, it’s so awkward,” Zendaya says, like any kid annoyed with her parents for draping their home in souvenir photos and trophies. And furniture: On the other side of the room sits a director’s chair that has “@zendaya’s_dad” written on it.
This is a rare day of relaxation for Zendaya. Today, there’s none of the head-turning red-carpet fashion she’s become famous for, only a worn-out gray Voltron T-shirt and pink checkered fleece pajama pants patterned with black terriers. A big, real-life version of that dog, Midnight, walks by while her parents lounge nearby.
When we meet, Zendaya is fresh off a trip to Dubai for her 19th birthday. For someone who’s been on TV since she was 14, the almost-no-longer-a-teen star shows no diva blueprint. Instead, she’s pristinely good—almost immaculately so. It shows in the bookshelf full of fan mail that she refuses to throw out, and the fact that the only thing resembling dirty laundry in her bedroom is an empty box of takeout lying on the floor. Want to get dirt on Zendaya? Not going to happen.
It’s why, in the wake of Miley Cyrus, the new Disney breakout star has become such a huge role model for her massive tween fan base. When not calling out Giuliana Rancic about culturally insensitive comments, she’s schooling kids on cyberbullying and donating to various charities—something her vast audience of followers on social media (6 million on Twitter, 12 million on Instagram) sees on a regular basis. It’s easy to be skeptical about how much of Zendaya is actually real, but just a few minutes into our conversation it’s clear that she has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues. (At this point in her life, Zendaya promises to not have her own “Miley moment.”)
Her strong tie to her family is a huge factor behind how Zendaya stays grounded, despite having grown up in the industry. She still lives (and records music) under the same roof as her parents (both ex-teachers), who have kept her (and her five older siblings) humble and raised her to always remember where she came from. After all, they named her after the word meaning “to give thanks” in Shona, the language of Zimbabwe. Too good to be true? Maybe not.
You went to Africa for charity work recently. How was that experience?
Being a young African-American woman, it’s important to know where you come from. And I think there’s a big disconnect with realizing that we’re from Africa and knowing what’s actually happening there and having a connection. I’ve always had that because my father took the steps to be in touch with his roots and where he comes from. He took a DNA test and reclaimed his African name. I have an African name and a French middle name. I have two parents who are very proud of where they’re from. My mom and my grandma do tons of research on where we’re from: Scotland and Germany. I think it’s important that I help other young people gain at least the interest of knowing where they’re from.
Growing up biracial, what was it like to find your identity?
You get the best and the worst of both worlds. I know there were a lot of times when you try to figure out where you fit in. I just realized that it worked to my advantage because I just got along with a lot of people. But to literally be two races, it’s really hard to see color because I’m the gray area. I had to learn about both sides of myself and be really proud of and educated in both. I think that’s why I’m comfortable with myself and can speak on certain issues because I’ve taken the time, or my parents have taken the time, to teach me who I am.
Has there been a moment when you felt really out of place?
Maybe a little bit. I went to a predominately white private school in the [Oakland] Hills where my dad was a teacher, and then I went to a school in downtown Oakland that was predominantly black. It was interesting to learn and see the differences, but I also realized how easy it was for me to adapt to both. I’m proud of both and I can fit into any kind of scenario or situation.
You wore dreadlocks to the Oscars and Giuliana Rancic said that you looked like you smell like patchouli oil or weed. You responded on Instagram, writing that Rancic’s remarks were “ignorant slurs” and “outrageously offensive.” What’s the response been since you called her out?
Honestly, only positive. It was a learning experience for myself and for everyone who read it. A lot of people don’t realize that hair is a big thing for a lot of people, not just African-American women. It’s something to be aware of and to be cautious of. So it was something that I really felt like I should speak on. There were so many women, of all races, that came up to me and were like, “I really love what you said,” or “I had my daughter read that.”
All my brothers and my dad at one point had dreadlocks. My little nieces have curly hair. And if they were to have someone say something demeaning about what they have and what they hold dear to them, then I would want them to at least have the pride within themselves to come up with a response that made sense and that they were proud of. Honestly, I think about my little nieces and my little nephews first. Because one day they’re going to have Twitter and they’re going to have Instagram, and I’m going to be like, “This is how you handle it, kids.”
Do you actively think about being a role model?
Of course. I think it’s a responsibility, but like Tupac Shakur, I’m a real model. Which means: I’m not pretending to be something that I’m not, because like he said, people are going to be disappointed when they find out who you are, because it’s not going to be what you presented to the world. So just keep it real. I’m a good kid and that’s all.
You seem so down-to-earth for having been on TV since you were little.
I think it’s being from Oakland. Oakland kids are always the best.
Do kids still say “hella”?
I say hella all the time. Hella’s like hecka.
When did you move to L.A.?
Seventh grade, so I was 12 or 13. For [the Disney sitcom] Shake It Up.
How did your parents feel about moving with you for your acting career?
Well, when I first started out in the industry I was 12 or whatever, and I wanted to be on something so bad and I didn’t know what I was going to be on. At the time I was in school and I was working on drama and theatrical stuff, so I never thought that I’d end up going to comedy. I never did that before. And I just happened to be a cute 12-year-old who worked perfectly for Disney. Me and my dad, we would drive back and forth from Oakland to L.A. multiple times.
At what age were you like, “I want to be on TV”?
I don’t know. I just watched Disney Channel a lot. I really liked it and had an attraction to it and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. It wasn’t like I was that kid that was like, “I want to be an astronaut.” I wanted to do this. I wanted to be an entertainer.
What are your thoughts on some of the Disney graduates, like Miley Cyrus? Because she went in completely the opposite direction.
I think again it’s that real model, role model thing. A lot of them were forced into being role models and they had to pretend to be something that they didn’t feel matched up with who they were. And that’s because they started really, really young. So you’ve got to realize when you’re really young you don’t know who you are yet. And as soon as you figure it out, you’ve already been forced to become something that you didn’t really know you signed up for. So it’s like, I get it. There’s a lot of pressure, so I completely understand. Everyone has their different ways of learning and growing and finding out who they are, and you can’t fault people for that. Again, I think with all the prior Disney stars, at least you can say they are themselves now.
Do you think you’ll have a Miley moment?
No. That’s why I said, in order to avoid those problems just be yourself from the beginning and be honest with the world, because that’s the only thing you can do. There will be no surprises.
I’m not suddenly going to be like woo, crazy.
But you might and if you do…
And if I do, then hey. But I highly, highly doubt it.
You almost starred in the Aaliyah biopic on Lifetime but backed out. Why?
I just didn’t like the way things were going down. There were a lot of things that came to my attention that I didn’t know about, about the family and production value. You just assume that things are taken care of when you step onto a project. But when you realize that things are just falling apart, you’re like, “This is not what I signed up for, this is not what I thought it was. This is not what I think is worthy of her movie.” It really ate me up inside. A lot of people thought that I knew that the family wasn’t involved, and I didn’t. I just auditioned like anyone else and got the job.
So you thought it wasn’t honoring her in the right way?
Yeah, basically. I just thought that it was being rushed. I thought that there was nobody who really knew her on that project at all—literally no one. I can only know so much about someone from watching their interviews. I don’t know what she was like in her kitchen talking to her mom. That would be rude of me to try to figure that out without knowing. If god forbid something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t want my parents to have to deal with that. I just felt that it was inappropriate, so I didn’t want to do it.
You’ve got such a good head on your shoulders. The more I talk to you I’m like, I didn’t know shit at your age.
Everybody says that who talks to me. And honestly I don’t know why I’m so deep. I don’t know! Everybody says I’m like 19 going on 80, honest to god.
It’s kind of amazing. What is your dream role?
A small part is OK. [Like] I’m Denzel Washington’s daughter. I have one scene, I have four lines, but at least I got to interact with Denzel Washington and it’s an Oscar-nominated film. It’s OK. I don’t need a big role; I don’t need to be the lead; I don’t need to be the star. I don’t mind being the little side guy; I don’t mind being the janitor who’s like, “Hey.” It’s like, yeah, well, I said “Hey” to Johnny Depp, so suck it.
Do you think you have the chance to go “EGOT” and win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar,
I’m sure it’s possible. I just got to live a little bit longer to make it happen.
You’re working on your sophomore album now. I saw you posted a preview clip of a new song. When is that album dropping?
There’s no date yet. At this point, I’m trying to, at least for me, perfect everything. I’m a perfectionist. I’m a Virgo, so everything has to be exactly the way I want it. It’s also sticking with your vision. Once you really find that, a lot of people have opinions and you just got to really stay focused.
I know when I was younger, I didn’t really know any better and I didn’t really know that I could say “no” or that I had that power. Then I look back and I’m like, “I wish I wouldn’t have done that” or “Damn, that sucks,” when at the time I could have been like, “No.” But I just didn’t know any better. So it’s really important to stick to your guns.
You’re working with some amazing people, like Diane Warren and Timbaland.
Tim, Diane Warren, Babyface—for being as big as they are, they could easily be such divas. They could be like, “I want it just the way I want it.” I think part of them having longevity is the fact that they were never afraid to continue to learn from young people. They don’t treat me like I don’t know anything. They treat me like they value my opinions, what I bring to the table, what I think of things, and I think that’s why they’re still around. That’s why people still care about them.
Who do you listen to now?
I listen to a lot of older R&B, so like a lot of Brian McKnight, a lot of Usher. My friends will text me because they’re way more into the world than I am, so they get cooler music than I do. And they’ll text me like, “Hey, you gotta cop these new songs.”
What’s your squad like?
My squad! What is my squad? I don’t really have a squad, I just have friends.
Are they from L.A. or are they from back home?
I think the closest person to me is my niece, who’s 20. She lives in L.A. with my sister who’s out here with her two daughters and husband. So I escape to their house all the time. I’ll call her at any time about anything, we’ll go out to dinner for random stuff. We just chill. My other best friend is actually Janet Jackson’s dancer. Her name is Dominique and she’s one of the best hip-hop dancers I’ve ever seen. My best guy friend, Trevor, I’ve known since I was 12. He’s not an industry kid; I don’t do industry kids. That vibe is just so weird because I feel like you want something from me. So he’s not that kid.
There are dating rumors with him, aren’t there?
Of course there’s dating rumors.
But you’re not dating him?
Any male that I’ve ever been around in my life, if they follow me on Twitter, if they look at me, if they breathe the same air as me, we’ve dated. So yeah.
Do you have a boyfriend?
No, you’ve got to realize my schedule is kind of nuts. I don’t have time to go out and get to know somebody. If I didn’t know you from the last three or four years of my life, it’s probably too late.
So Trevor is squad, not bae.
Definitely squad, not bae.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing literally everything that you’re doing?
Nothing. You see that computer over there?
As soon as you leave, I’ll go on my bed and watch Grey’s Anatomy. Anything Shonda Rhimes does is gold. I order food and just chill. Because that’s an occasion for me. Chilling is like, whoa.
I bet. With everything else on your plate you also have a shoe line?
I do. It’s called Daya, which is my nickname that really only my family calls me. It was a personal name and I wanted the shoes to be very personal. I didn’t want to make something that’s like, “OK, clearly she didn’t make these. She’s just putting them on her feet and calling them hers.” We’ve seen that happen before with like, “Girl, those look nothing like anything you would ever put on your feet and you know you hate them.” I want to make something that I love, that I’m going to wear out, that I’m going to work on the red carpet, that I’m going to be proud of, that I’m going to dedicate 120 percent into. I really wanted to wear the shoes and be like, “Yeah, they’re mine.”
Who’s on your radar for 2016? Who do you think will be big?
Oh my god, there’s so many people! That’s a big question. I would say Kehlani. I’m biased because she’s like my sister, because she also went to Oakland School for the Arts with me and we met when I was in sixth grade and she was in eighth grade. She was one of the first people that was nice to me when I was new to middle school, which was obviously awkward and weird for me. And in school there’s this thing where everybody had families, like daughter, sister, brother, aunties, uncles, cousins, whatever. So I was her daughter. Then we were like, “OK, we’re grown now, now we’re sisters, alright.” But she had always been nice to me when I was little. We grew up in the same area but doing very different things and going on very different paths, but also being in the same circles and the same worlds. It’s cool to see her do her thing. I’m really happy for her.
Another girl who comes to mind, because I think you guys are pretty similar, is Amandla Stenberg. I know you’re friends.
Oh yeah, she’s the bomb. Freaking Amandla, who’s so smart and so wise. She’s just a great young person who’s trying to not only be aware of her surroundings, but also speak on it, which is really, really cool. There’s a lot of really good stuff happening. Yara Shahidi, who’s on Black-ish is so freaking cute and gorgeous.
Whose career would you want to have?
Oprah plus Beyoncé.
That’s a powerhouse.
That’s what I’m saying! Plus Jay Z. No, I’m kidding. But honestly, just because I feel like Oprah has that brand where it’s like, it’s trusted. If Oprah says she likes it, it must be good. She’s a very trusted figure. She’s like, “This is the chai latte to drink; you’re going to drink it.” She says at book club, “This is the book to read,” you read that book.
So you want to be the tastemaker?
Yeah! She’s been able to do so many things. She’s an amazing actress, she’s an amazing philanthropist, she has a TV channel! Great entrepreneur, but she just seems like a good person. She just seems cool. You never catch her having problems. There’s never anything super scandalous. It’s Oprah.
Everybody loves Beyoncé! Like if Oprah did music.
By the way, how did you end up in Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” video?
Just a text message. She literally texted through someone and was like, “Hey, I think you’re dope, I want you to perform in my video.” I was like, “Thanks, that’s dope.” Boom, that was it. Thanks bro. And here we were, and she was just really nice to me. She’s one of those people who make you feel very comfortable and made sure my family was taken care of and everyone was comfortable.
Do you still feel weirded out when you interact with a famous person and then you’re like,
“Oh wait, I’m also a celebrity”?
I won’t be weirded out except with Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Oprah, Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp. Anyone else I feel like I can handle. I think that’s my list.
So aside from Michael, these are people you have yet to meet?
Johnny, Beyoncé, Denzel, Oprah.
Just a few ideas. But other than that I feel like I can handle it.
Funny, I brought them all. They’re waiting outside.
Oh, lovely. Come on in!
Is there a territory that you haven’t explored yet that you’re dying to?
I can’t wait to do movies. That’s something I really, really want to do.
Let’s get Zendaya in a movie!
Or at least on Scandal. Hey, Shonda. What’s up, Shons?
Working with Shonda would be amazing. If you played like, Olivia Pope’s teen protégée.
And I’d go over and talk like her. Oh, I forgot to add, Oprah plus Beyoncé plus Shonda Rhimes.