IT’S A SPRING NIGHT in Hollywood, and I’m driving down Sunset to meet Zendaya when my phone rings. It’s Darnell, her soft-spoken assistant. Though Zendaya is making her movie debut this summer in one of the season’s biggest blockbusters, Spider-Man: Homecoming, she is also still filming the Disney sitcom that planted her in the hearts of little tomboys everywhere—K.C. Undercover, in which she plays a teen spy who is both a math whiz and a black belt in karate. Darnell is calling to say she is running late; a fight scene is taking longer than expected. “She’s swinging from a chain right now,” he explains politely.
When the elevator opens onto Soho House’s lobby, I walk straight into our date for the evening: Zendaya’s father, Kazembe Ajamu, a 64-year-old former P.E. teacher from Oakland. (Her mother, Claire Stoermer, is also a teacher.) Ajamu is tall and sturdy, in jeans and a navy sweatshirt, with thin shoulder-length dreadlocks pulled into a half ponytail.
We’re here because, having by now spent some time with Zendaya (pronounced “Zen-day-a”), I’m trying to wrap my mind around how a 20-year-old Disney star could be so insanely normal. There are clues that her father, who moved with her to Los Angeles when she was thirteen, may be a key piece of the puzzle.
There is, for instance, a certain refrain running through the stories from her childhood. She lowers her voice into a spot-on imitation of Ajamu when she says it: “We’re going home.” It’s what he would say whenever Zendaya misbehaved. The time she carried on at her grandparents’ Thanksgiving table: “We’re going home.” The time she “acted like a diva,” as she puts it, on a Sears job: “We’re going home.” But while in person Ajamu does inspire the instant respect one reserves for, well, a supremely cool P.E. teacher—if he told me to run laps around Soho House right now, I’d abandon my glass of Malbec and strive for record time—he tells these same stories with a different emphasis.
“Man, she was two,” Ajamu says of the Thanksgiving incident, marveling at his daughter’s iron will even then. “Got a block away from home before she finally gave up.” Of the Sears episode, he recalls her obstinate pleading: “Dad, I can’t go home a failure! I can’t not do this!” He shakes his head. “She’s a tough one, man. She goin’ all the way.”
All the way indeed. Five months after the July release of Spider-Man—it bears repeating that the juggernaut franchise is her first feature film ever—Zendaya will appear in her second, The Greatest Showman, a musical about P. T. Barnum starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and Michelle Williams, scored by the Oscar-winning songwriting duo behind La La Land. Not only has she managed to parlay Disney stardom into a career in the most major of movies, she’s done it before her Disney days are even over.
Are there any grades left to skip? Designers swooped Zendaya up long ago. Michael Kors, who calls her “fashion-fearless,” helped transform her into an intergalactic Cher for last year’s Met gala. “I’ve got my cast of women,” Kors says. “I’m always looking for a new character. Not only does Zendaya love fashion but she understands that you can play a role when you get dressed.” In Dolce & Gabbana’s spring campaign, she was a tambourine-playing, sneaker-wearing Carmen Miranda on the shores of Capri. And jaws dropped at this year’s Met gala when she appeared on the stairs of the Metropolitan Museum as a tropical disco princess, wearing a Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda ball gown rendered in parrot print, a bold tangerine lip, and an enormous Afro.
To really understand how Zendaya got here, her father says, you have to go back to 2013. You need to appreciate how she changed the Disney game. Zendaya explains it herself when she arrives at Soho House, unnoticed in sweats and a cardigan. She is tall, five feet ten, with curly hair that she’ll soon pile into a topknot. If I didn’t know that minutes ago she was swinging from a chain, I might take her for a stylish first-year med student. She sits down on a tufted sofa next to Ajamu and orders cauliflower rice and a ginger ale. Zendaya often plays the clown, teasing her dad, her assistant, Darnell, and especially her stylist, Law Roach, with uncanny impressions. Now, for the first time, I get a glimpse of the take-no-prisoners, suffer-no-fools businesswoman her family and inner circle frequently describe.
“I got in a room with the heads of Disney Channel,” Zendaya says, recounting a meeting that took place four years ago, when she was sixteen. By this time she had already completed her first Disney show, Shake It Up, in which she costarred as an aspiring dancer alongside Bella Thorne. For her to sign on to K.C. Undercover, she decided, Disney would need to meet demands. First they would need to make her a producer. Next she objected to the show’s title, which at the time was Super Awesome Katy. “I was like, ‘The title is whack. That’s gonna change.’ ” She then rejected her character’s name (“Do I look like a Katy to you?”) and insisted that the show feature a family of color.
There were other conditions: “I wanted to make sure that she wasn’t good at singing or acting or dancing. That she wasn’t artistically inclined. I didn’t want them to all of a sudden be like, ‘Oh, yeah, and then she sings this episode!’ No. She can’t dance; she can’t sing. She can’t do that stuff. There are other things that a girl can be.” Zendaya issued some final requirements: “I want her to be martial arts–trained. I want her to be able to do everything that a guy can do. I want her to be just as smart as everybody else. I want her to be a brainiac. I want her to be able to think on her feet. But I also want her to be socially awkward, not a cool kid. I want her to be normal with an extraordinary life.”
In using her leverage to seize control in this manner, Ajamu says, “she broke all the rules.” To Zendaya, it was a no-brainer. “A lot of people don’t realize their power,” she says. “I have so many friends who say yes to everything or feel like they can’t stand up for themselves in a situation.” She is now pounding a fist on the dining table at Soho House. “No: You have the power.”
THIS SELF-ASSUREDNESS—this innate, unwavering belief in her own value and that of others—is exactly what Zendaya projects to her young fans, both through the Disney character she helped create and in real life. Right as the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many more were sending the message that black lives did not matter, Zendaya was bringing a strong character of color into the world of children’s television, and in doing so became a kind of beacon—one who continues to say, over and over, “I know your worth.” It’s why she’s trailed by more than 41 million followers on Instagram. And it’s why, her Spider-Man costar Laura Harrier says, recalling the weeks they spent shooting in Georgia last summer, “we’d be getting our nails done in Atlanta, and people would come up to her, crying.”
The moment Zendaya sealed this bond with her fans was unplanned. In 2015, at eighteen, she attended the Academy Awards in a white off-the-shoulder goddess gown by Vivienne Westwood, paired with thick, long, flowing black dreadlocks. The fashion world took notice. “One part Lisa Bonet, one part Venus de Milo,” said this magazine’s website. Then, in an Oscars segment the following day, the E! host Giuliana Rancic remarked of Zendaya’s look, “I feel like she smells like patchouli oil or weed.”
After yelling at the TV, Zendaya recalls, “I went to my room, gathered my thoughts, and wrote something down, which is what two teachers would have wanted me to do.” Her response came that night, uploaded to Instagram. “There is a fine line between what is funny and disrespectful,” she wrote. “I’ll have you know my father, brother, best childhood friend, and little cousins all have locs.” The Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay and Harvard professor Vincent Brown do, too, she noted, along with many other luminaries. “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. To me locs are a symbol of strength and beauty, almost like a lion’s mane.” The statement went viral, with DuVernay, Solange Knowles, Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, and Whoopi Goldberg rallying behind Zendaya. Davis addressed her directly on Twitter: “You are beauty personified.”Asked what he made of the way Zendaya handled the situation, Ajamu points to his cheek. “My allergies acted up,” he jokes. “I was overwhelmed with pride.”
Much has changed since the Oscars incident. Roach, who had dreamed up the hairstyle, now calls Zendaya by a new nickname, Zoprah. (He has also taken on a second powerhouse client, named Céline Dion.) Barbie is producing a doll in Zendaya’s mold, replete with dreadlocks.
ZENDAYA WAS BORN and raised in Oakland. Though she has four older half-siblings—two sisters, two brothers—she is the only child of Ajamu and Claire Stoermer. (They divorced last year but remain friendly.) Zendaya grew up in the house where her father and his seven siblings were raised, in Emeryville. In the sixties, Black Panther Party meetings were sometimes held in the basement. “My aunties were Black Panthers,” she says. “Afros, the whole nine.”
Oakland was defined by scrappy outsiders long before it was infused with Berkeley politics. Jack London grew up there, as did Gertrude Stein. (Stein was referring to her razed childhood home in Oakland when she made the quip “There is no there there.”) When the civil rights movement blew through, Oakland begat the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, originally to monitor the behavior of local police. Guys from Ajamu’s neighborhood were among its first members. He remembers spotting the party’s leaders around. “I would see Huey,” he says of Huey P. Newton. “Those were good times.” Then, Ajamu says, “the drugs came in and separated everything.”
Zendaya grew up in a different Oakland, of course, one more akin to latter-day Brooklyn, among what she calls a “free-spirited, forward-moving millennial group.” Still, Ajamu says, generational memory is baked in: “I’ve experienced, in my life, tragedy. Because I lived it, and her brothers and sisters experienced it, she knows it exists. She knows she’s reaping the benefits from those who paved the way for her.” I notice this awareness in her later, when I offer that much good has come out of Oakland, such as the rapper Too $hort. Zendaya fires back: “Everything sprung out of Oakland from a hard place, and it turned beautiful.”
What she did experience firsthand were the pronounced differences between the private school where her dad worked and that she attended, and the public school where her mom taught fifth grade and where Zendaya spent afternoons reading to students. In her mom’s classroom, some kids were dressed only in donated clothes; one, a Burmese refugee, always wore secondhand soccer cleats. At her school, she was one of only a few black students. She remembers the first time she straightened her hair, and all the compliments she got: “That made me feel weird.”
As a small child, Zendaya was so shy that Stoermer and Ajamu attended seminars for parents of such children. So shy that she had to do kindergarten twice. “She would sit in the circle with the other kids and be totally silent,” Stoermer says. And yet Zendaya was drawn to performing. She joined a kids’ dance group, Future Shock, and went on auditions for local acting and modeling jobs. At thirteen she was scouted by a Los Angeles manager. Six months later, Disney offered her Shake It Up.
By the time Zendaya and Ajamu got to Hollywood, in 2010, they had an edge. (Stoermer stayed in Oakland and worked two jobs to support the family.) Ajamu didn’t buy into the stage-parent culture, and Zendaya didn’t care about money or feel pressure to accept roles she didn’t respect. “We weren’t used to dealing with people in a Hollywood way,” she says. “There’s just a certain layer of fake bullshit.” Navigating issues of race and casting could be trickier, says Stoermer, who is white. She cites an uproar that erupted in 2014, when Zendaya signed on to star in a biopic about Aaliyah and a vocal contingent took the position that she wasn’t “black enough” to play the R&B singer. (Zendaya pulled out of the project, though she says she did so over concerns about its production value.) “It’s a hard thing in Hollywood when you’re mixed,” Stoermer says. “You’re not white enough to be white, and you’re not black enough to be black.” Zendaya forged a strong identity in those years. At first she tried to cultivate a Disney-girl persona. “Slowly I realized that was stupid. People think I’m cool when I’m Zendaya.”
ON A SLEEPY SATURDAY MORNING, I tag along with Zendaya for a visit to Catwalk, a vintage shop on Fairfax where Law Roach goes for inspiration. The store’s owners, Renee Johnston and Michelle Webb, maintain a fabled archive of couture, known as the “back room,” to which few gain access. Parked near a case of cat-eye glasses is a rack of Versace print jeans—a loud, baroque denim animal kingdom they’ve pulled for a film that’s being made about the designer. Another nearby rack holds selections for Frances Bean Cobain’s Coachella wardrobe. Roach and Zendaya aren’t looking for anything in particular, but with the Spider-Man promo two months away, they are starting to gather references. (Together they also design Zendaya’s clothing and shoe line, Daya.) Zendaya gravitates to a long Dolce & Gabbana skirt, a layered vision of swirling paisley and black fringe. She has on her own bodysuit by the Italian designers, along with Forever 21 jeans and Vans. A pendant in the shape of a black-power fist hangs from a delicate gold chain around her neck.
Roach first dressed Zendaya six years ago for a Justin Bieber event, after they met through a friend of Ajamu’s, and they’ve been working together ever since. Five years ago, he closed his vintage store in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles. He is known for an editorial approach to the red carpet—he seeks to create characters—and in Zendaya he has the ultimate chameleon.
For instance, a month after David Bowie died, Zendaya attended the Grammyswearing a double-breasted tuxedo by Dsquared2 and a Ziggy Stardust–inspired mullet. To convey how he persuades her to try a daring look, Zendaya adopts Roach’s voice: “It’ll be a mo-ment,” she says, drawing out the second syllable just as he does. This is one of Roach’s bywords. Dreadlocks Goddess was a mo-ment. Intergalactic Cher was a mo-ment. There are other maxims, such as “It’s supposed to be polarizing” and “Everybody’s not supposed to like it.”
It’s Zendaya’s remarkable ability to shape-shift that caught the attention of Spider-Man director Jon Watts. Watts was looking for someone to play Michelle, one of Peter Parker’s high-school classmates, an eccentric outsider type who speaks in sarcastic one-liners and is always reading what he calls “clove-smoking books” (e.g., Invitation to a Beheading). “My frame of reference was Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club,” he explains. In her screen test, Zendaya stood out immediately, but though he had seen her Disney show, Watts had no idea who the girl in the audition tape was—without makeup, he says, “she looked like a completely different person.”
She proved to be “an amazingly technical actor,” says Watts. She added flourishes to her character, suggesting Michelle wear no makeup and carry around her own mug of strange herbal tea. “It makes me feel like such a bozo when I’m in front of someone who is that young and already just so good at what they do,” he says.
In The Greatest Showman, Zendaya plays a trapeze artist with whom Efron’s character falls in love. Before reading for the part, she recorded one of the film’s songs at home and sent it to the director, Michael Gracey. “She blew me away,” Gracey says, noting the effortless nature of her talent. On set, Zendaya insisted on doing the trapeze work herself. “I would shout out a direction or give the slightest adjustment, and while flying through the air, she’d do it.” Efron was impressed by her resilience during rehearsal. “While I was wincing in pain and covering myself in Tiger Balm and KT tape, Zendaya would move to her next scene completely unfazed.”
Between the two movies and her series, whose third season she is shooting through September, Zendaya has been working a ludicrously busy schedule. She moved a year ago from her family home in Echo Park to a Mediterranean-style house in the Valley. It remains virtually unfurnished except for a framed poster of Michael Jackson—an old black-and-white photo of the singer dressed as Charlie Chaplin—perched on the mantel in an empty living room. She lives here with Noon, her miniature black schnauzer. Last spring, shortly after he gave her the dog as a gift, her boyfriend of four years broke up with her. “It was my first love,” she says. “It wasn’t a good ending.” There have been no relationships since, she says, but she is moving on. “You know you’re OK in a breakup when your first thought is not, What did I do wrong?” she says. “It’s, That was the dumbest decision of your life, and you’re going to regret it forever.”
Right now she is helping to conceive what may be the final season of K.C. Undercover, discussing with the show’s writers how best to do an episode about stop-and-frisk in a way that kids will understand. Zendaya isn’t sure what the next step in her film metamorphosis will be. She hasn’t yet signed on to any future movies. Drawn back to her origins, she’s been thinking about how she might develop a project about another longtime Oakland resident: Angela Davis.
I CATCH UP WITH ZENDAYA again on a hot Sunday afternoon in Studio City. If The Voice is where mortals get to play pop stars, Lip Sync Battle is where actual stars indulge in arena-tour fantasies of their own, and right now several are doing so inside a massive, meat locker–cold production studio on the CBS lot. I am here to watch Zendaya face off with her Spider-Man costar Tom Holland. It’s evening when she takes the stage, wearing a camouflage bomber jacket, matching pants, and high-heeled Prada combat boots. Her hair is braided into cornrows. “This first song, it’s a classic,” she says. “Real quick I’m gonna go prepare for it.” She scurries to the side of the stage and returns wearing a towering red, black, and gold printed head wrap. Then begins “Tyrone,” Erykah Badu’s signature song about giving a lover the boot.
“Tyrone,” you may remember, was recorded live and opens with bits of Badu’s onstage banter—“Sisters, how y’all feel?”—which Zendaya nails so convincingly that several people backstage wonder aloud if it’s not her speaking. I am watching on a monitor with a dozen or so others, a group that includes John Legend, whose wife, Chrissy Teigen, cohosts the show as LL Cool J’s wisecracking sidekick. The confusion turns to laughs when Zendaya “sings” the first lyric: “I’m getting tired of your shit.” By the time Zendaya-as-Erykah delivers the final punch line—“You need to call Tyrone, but you can’t use my phone”—Legend is nearly doubled over in his chair.
A few minutes later, however, for her second act, Zendaya has transformed into Bruno Mars. Dressed to re-create the look of the silk Versace pajamas and white loafers Mars wears in the video for “24K Magic,” she descends the stairs of a prop jet and channels the singer. The number ends when a giant champagne bottle launches a torrent of metallic confetti strips over the audience, turning the studio into a blizzard of gold. “She embodied him,” Legend says to Teigen, sounding mystified. “She embodied Erykah, too, though.” LL Cool J appears backstage, and I ask him what he made of Zendaya’s performance. “She’s cool,” he says. “You can manufacture fame. You can manufacture publicity. You can manufacture songs. You can’t manufacture cool.”