Here Comes A Superstar… Zendaya
She is 19 years old and already has two wax figures at Madame Tussauds, a platinum album, a hit Disney show, and 18.5 million Instagram followers. For someone so young, Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman—known simply as Zendaya—demonstrates an uncanny maturity for a young woman who hasn’t even touched two decades on the Earth.
Just recently, the actress, singer, and dancer called out the editors of Modeliste for unnecessary Photoshopping of her pictures, which she feels perpetuates “unrealistic ideals of beauty.” Her dismissal caused such a rukus, it prompted the Los Angeles-based fashion magazine to pull its November 2015 issue in order to restore the images to their original, natural, realistic beauty. And who can forget the media frenzy that erupted after she took to Instagram in scolding response to E! News anchor Giuliana Rancic’s acerbic remarks about her braided hair on the red carpet at the Oscars? Time magazine voted Zendaya one of the most influential teenagers of 2015 and it is her aspiration to use this platform to impact society through her positive role-model actions. Zendaya—which means giving thanks in Shona language, spoken by African tribes in Zimbabwe—is truly living up to the sentiment of her name. Here, she speaks freely about her journey, her family, her desire to give back, and a girl’s best weapon to have in her arsenal: self-confidence.
NEW YOU: In a world where snark gets more attention than praise, you are so impressive in your positive actions and in the way you respond to negativity with grace. How important is it to be nice to others?
ZENDAYA: It is very important because I have a lot of young people on Instagram and Twitter who are looking to me for guidance and inspiration. I feel responsible to be real with them, honest with them, and inspire and help them in any way that I can while still learning and figuring out who I am.
NY: You have been known to draw attention to excessive Photoshopping in magazines, which certainly causes teenagers to have an unrealistic view of themselves and chip away at a healthy, positive body image. Why have you been so vocal about this?
Z: There is no such thing as ugly. That’s a word that doesn’t really enter my vocabulary. If there’s any definition to being perfect, you’re perfect at being yourself. No other person can be you 100 percent; no one has your fingerprint; no one has your DNA. You are you 120 percent, through and through. Whether it is through my social media or whatever, I want anyone who looks up to me to know that I go through the same problems. I have to be confident in who I am. When I learn things about myself, I like to share that journey with people because I know there are a lot of people going through the same thing.
NY: Were you ever bullied at school?
Z: I was made fun of but it didn’t bother me very much because I was very comfortable in who I was. I was taught as a young child by my parents and family to love myself. And it’s the same today—there are certain things that don’t bother me. I just focus on being a good person. I was always very aware of the world and I was never sheltered from the negative things that were out there. I feel that if you shelter your kids from everything, one day they are going to be out in the world on their own and they are going to have to figure it out. You can’t give them a test if you never taught them anything that’s on the test. They’re going to fail. You have to prepare people and sometimes that’s just being honest with them and letting them know things sooner.
NY: What lessons have you learned from your mom?
Z: My mom is a very selfless person. She was a teacher and she put all her heart and effort into her students in her inner city school. She also puts all her heart and effort into my father and me. She forgets about herself—that’s what moms do. She is one of those people who would give somebody the shirt off her back. I’ve learned from her how to just be a great person.
NY: You also trained in your early years with the California Shakespeare Theater when you were growing up in Oakland and performed in numerous stage productions, in between helping your mother, who was the house manager, to seat patrons and sell raffle tickets—you’ve had quite a well-rounded education. How important is education for young children?
Z: Education is something that we often take for granted because we have it at our disposal, but there are people—women, children, men—in the world who don’t have access to education, and it’s powerful. If you talk about slavery, the whole point of being able to control people’s minds, to not allow them to succeed, was because they were denied education. I am very lucky to have parents who pushed me to learn and broaden my horizons. I’m lucky to have parents who are teachers.
NY: Congratulations on making the list of Time’s Most Influential Teenagers. A powerful platform like that is a great opportunity—what is your message?
Z: I want to promote to young people that it’s okay to be a good citizen. It’s okay to learn. It’s cool to be knowledgeable, to know what’s going on in your country and your world. To form opinions and to talk about it, have discussions and be respectful. I’m trying to make that the new cool.
NY: For your birthday wish, you teamed up with CrowdRise by offering donors a chance to have a video chat with you with all funds going to the non-profit IKAGENG in Africa. This charity supplies a number of programs and support to families in need—what did you experience from that visit to South Africa with UNAIDS?
Z: [My trip to] South Africa was one of the most beautiful, amazing, and thought-provoking times. It’s really hard to see extreme wealth and extreme poverty all on the same block. You see people living next to people but not reaching out a hand to help. I felt bad meeting this family of young boys I sponsored for my birthday. This family of kids [with parents who are victims of AIDS] has no choice but to live the way they live and deal with the circumstances that they deal with; that’s all they know. Then you go home to a beautiful hotel, 30 minutes away. It’s just so wrong to me. In America, there are homeless shelters, financial aid, and food stamps; things the government helps with. But this family is not even recognized. It was hard to see and, by the same token, it was an amazing trip because I learned so much about Africa, and as a young African American girl that was really cool. I went to a lot of museums and hung out with the Mandela grandchildren learning from them. I would definitely go back a billion times to Africa.
NY: What do you mean when you say it’s necessary to be your true self?
Z: It’s important to find out who you are and love who you are. Everyone has a journey. No matter what you’re dealing with, it’s so much harder and more draining and so much more exhausting to be constantly pretending to be something that you’re not. It’s very freeing when you’re just like, “Yo, I’m just going to do me!” It’s so important.
NY: You were the youngest star and the runner-up on Dancing with the Stars. You clearly love to dance and I see that you love to hula dance as well—who taught you?
Z: In elementary school, I had a teacher—well, not a teacher. She was a Hawaiian woman; she was like an auntie that I’ve known since I was little. She wanted to teach a hula class for young girls at the school and I really wanted to be part of it. She didn’t only teach us hula dancing but also the Hawaiian culture and language, which was a really cool experience.
NY: You say you are a big fan of Michael Jackson.
Z: I’ve always been obsessed with him. Ever since I was little, he was always to me the best entertainer that lived. Just the way he moved, his work ethic, and how he was able to make music without cursing or being profane. [He made] music with a purpose and still was the biggest artist of all time, as well as all the charity work he was able to do. I think he was just the best.
NY: Your first album reached platinum status almost immediately. What is it about your music that reaches people?
Z: When it comes to music, acting, and singing, everything I do is a platform for me to do bigger things. So I’m not going to sit here and make an album about self-love. It’s not going to be all earth songs by Michael Jackson. I’m going to make music that is reflective of who I am and what I am going through as a young woman and how I am learning about myself. It is just a platform so that I can help the world and be able to spread more positive messages. You have to do something more than just promote your new single or your next photo shoot.
NY: Why did you feel compelled at 16 to write your book, Between U and Me: How to Rock Your Tween Years with Style and Confidence?
Z: Honestly, I wanted to do something that was actually going to be useful. When I was younger, the coolest books to me were the books that gave you advice, kind of like a big-sister book. I can’t tell a grown woman what it is like to be a grown woman because I’m still growing, but I can tell a tweenager what’s it like to be a tweenager—how you get through it and how you deal with the awkward stuff that comes along with being a tween.
NY: What is the best advice you have received?
Z: Be honest with your parents. That’s how you gain their trust, that’s how you get more responsibility, that’s how they will be able to trust you. My parents never have to question. Even before I became an adult, they would never question or worry because I have already proved to them a million times over that I’m a good kid. If something ever happened, I would come to them first. Just be honest with your parents, it’s so much easier.
Z: I have always loved fashion. I met my stylist and we connected very quickly. We work together on everything and through that I’ve learned more about style and myself. I have no fear when it comes to fashion. It’s a very happy place to be.
NY: What have you learned from your journey so far?
Z: People respond to people who are authentic. You can tell that when I go out on the red that I am not trying to look like I’m dressing for the reviews the next day. I mean, it’s nice for people to be like, oh, we liked your outfit; that’s cool, but that’s not why I’m going out. I’m going out and dressing in this because it’s awesome and I love it. I really just don’t care if somebody doesn’t like my hair or my wig or my makeup that day or what I choose to wear or put on my feet. Everyone has opinions.
NY: Are you scared of anything?
Z: Everyone is scared of something. For me, I’m a Virgo so I’m a perfectionist and I am afraid of not being perfect; of things failing or not doing as well as I think I should. That’s a constant battle that I have with myself because I hold myself to really high standards and I want to be so good. Sometimes I’m like dude, you’re only 19! Relax, stop overdoing it, and just breathe for a second. You’re doing really good, you’re on a roll here, stop stressing yourself out!
NY: You have two wax figures at Madame Tussauds. Is it ever a little bit of an out-of-body experience to stand and look at them in person?
Z: It’s really cool. It’s kind of scary, too: That’s me in wax! So weird. It’s kind of like you made the moment. Not that many people have wax figures. You’ve got to be pretty awesome to have a wax figure.
NY: Who has been your biggest influence?
Z: My little nieces and nephews. When I was little, my big brothers and sisters were so cool to me. I wanted to dress like my sister, talk like her, and do all the stuff she was doing. For my nieces and nephews, if I know it or not, I play a big role in their lives. They want to be like their Auntie Daya. I have to show them what you’re supposed to do and how you are supposed to handle yourself and how you are supposed to deal with things. I’m a big part of their lives so I try and stay positive and be good because I know there’s a lot of extended nieces and nephews who could also be called fans out there in the world and are looking at me.
NY: How important are your fans to you?
Z: Very! I feel weird calling them fans, that is such a general term. To me they are just like distant family and friends. I don’t see them very often, I maybe check them out on Twitter and Facebook sometimes, but I know they have my back. It’s just so cool the people that I have been able to reach. I have little baby fans, adult fans, teenager fans who are my age, and grandma fans, which is so cool.
NY: Ten years from now what do you want?
Z: Ten years from now I see myself doing what I love to do and doing great stuff for humanity. When I say doing what I love to do, if I decide in five years that I don’t want to sing, dance, or act another day in my life and that it does not make me happy anymore, I’m going to do something else. Maybe I’ll go to school for something else and live my life that way. I just want to be happy and I want to be able to [be happy] where I can help people.
NY: International notoriety is a powerful thing. What if fame prevents you from staying so grounded?
Z: I have parents and family who will never allow me not to be grounded. If I thought for a second that I could possibly lift off the ground, I have a thousand people who will grab my ankles.
Photography by: Fadil Berisha