For months, it’s been raining in L.A. But the first day of spring dawns bright and clear. As I make my way to Zendaya’s house in the San Fernando Valley, wildflowers, nourished by the downpour, sprout along the roadside in fistfuls of orange and purple, and everyone—everyone—seems to be leaning out of their car windows to snap shots. It’s a moment for stopping and smelling the roses, so to speak, and I’m expecting to find Zendaya doing some version of that. It’s her first day off after a season of breakneck work, toggling between the splashy debut of her TommyxZendaya collection in Paris, photo shoots for Lanc?me—the 22-year-old recently became the brand’s youngest global ambassador—and filming HBO’s gritty new series Euphoria, in which “Z,” as everyone involved with the show calls her, plays the lead role of Rue, a recovering and relapsing young drug addict. Surely Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman will be lazing about, maybe soaking up rays by the side of her pool.
Instead, she jokes when I arrive, she’s taken yet another job. “I’m an Uber driver now,” she says as she unlocks the massive black SUV parked outside her garage. Her car is in the shop, she explains with a shake of her shower-wet hair, so she’s rented this gargantuan thing for the purpose of picking up her half-sister Kizzi’s two daughters from school. She’s in a hurry but doesn’t seem like it; she tucks her oversize button-down into her jeans in a leisurely, offhand way, and pours her miniature schnauzer, Noon, into a bed in the backseat. He curls up without complaint, and just like that, we’re back on the road, headed to a nearby middle school. Zendaya likes to drive fast. “This’ll make her nuts,” she says, anticipating the pickup of twelve-year-old Imani. “I’m going to honk the horn really loud, a bunch of times, and watch—she’ll be so embarrassed.”
Tweens mill about outside the school, blissfully unaware of the presence of a superstar many of them likely follow on Instagram. Honk. Imani, eyes glued to her phone, looks up. Honk-honk-honk. Zendaya laughs as her niece shoots us a stormy glare. “Imani likes to pretend she doesn’t love me,” she says. “But she does.” “I hate you,” Imani says, not meaning it, as she slides into the seat beside Noon. And we’re off, racing to Burbank to collect Niece #2.
Zendaya asks Imani about her day. Silence from the backseat. “Now, that I remember from school,” she says. “That thing of getting home and saying, Oh, nothing happened, I didn’t learn anything, my life is so boring, leave me alone.” Zendaya left her traditional school when she was about Imani’s age, moving from her childhood home of Oakland to Hollywood and a mini-classroom on the set of the Disney series Shake It Up, where she worked with a tutor handpicked by her parents (Kazembe Ajamu and Claire Stoermer, both former teachers). “The funny thing is, here I am, working on a show where I play a high school student, and it’s like—at that age, everything is happening, all the time. It’s all coming at you.”
Imani at last pipes up from the backseat. “I was telling you what happened today,” she exclaims. Zendaya and I exchange a confused look. “I was doing it in sign language!” OK, tell me, Zendaya says, glancing in the rearview mirror as she pulls up to a red light. Imani, with a wry smile, spells out “N-O-T-H-I-N-G.”
EUPHORIA IS A HAND GRENADE. Loosely based on the Israeli series of the same name, the show delivers a kaleidoscopic, hyperbolic depiction of contemporary American high school life, where the youth of today are formed in a crucible of social media, online porn, and easy access to drugs of all kinds. The series, which begins this month, comes from executive producer Drake and showrunner Sam Levinson, and like Levinson’s feature film, the Sundance darling Assassination Nation, it moves at the clip of a Twitter feed.
At first blush, Rue, Zendaya’s character, would seem a role for her Shake It Up costar Bella Thorne, who has cultivated a wild-child persona since leaving the Disney fold. Yet it was a photo of polished, self-possessed, avowedly abstemious Zendaya that Levinson pinned to his mood board as he was developing the show. “There’s a way Z can vacillate between seeming extremely tough and extremely vulnerable, and it’s all in her face,” Levinson explains. “She can flip on a dime. I felt like, That’s the person who can channel this character, and her mix of madness and sweetness. It was an instinct.”
Whatever opinion you’ve formed of Zendaya, whether you grew up watching the Disney Channel or just took note of her in recent years—tracking the daring looks she wears on the red carpet, or how she lights up the latest reboot of the Spider-Man franchise (the new installment, Spider-Man: Far from Home, in which she returns as Peter Parker’s wisecracking pal Michelle, opens in July)—Euphoria will upend your assumptions. Dressed in pointedly unglamorous, androgynous togs,anxiety-prone Rue shambles through her days in search of calm and connection and, top priority of all, a high that can quiet her gyrating mind. Levinson was smart to cast against type: Zendaya is so innately grounded that she makes Rue a reliable guide through a chaotic world.
“Obviously, there’s not much in my own experience of being a teen that I could draw on, especially when it comes to struggling with addiction,” Zendaya admits. “My policy is, when in doubt: Ask Sam. Because Sam’s gone through all that, and, you know . . . basically, he’s Rue.”
Levinson laughs when I repeat this to him. “Yeah, that’s about right,” he acknowledges. “But I’m not sure Z’s giving herself enough credit. Like, she and I will be talking about a scene, and I’ll tell her about something that happened to me, and then when we start filming, she interprets what I’ve said in this totally unexpected, sometimes even frightening way.”
Fourteen year-old Isys is more voluble than her sister. With exceptional poise, she discusses the report she’s writing for English class about police brutality, as Zendaya navigates stop-and-start traffic along the road back home. Earlier, I’d asked Zendaya whether she’d asked Isys questions about high school life, given that Rue is only a little older than her niece. “Not really,” she told me, and now, with Isys in the car, it’s clear why: This is a girl with her head firmly affixed to her shoulders. What would she know about a character set to self-destruct?
Upon arrival at Zendaya’s spacious but sparsely furnished home, aunt and nieces discuss the usual family things: homework and what we should all have for dinner. Zendaya doesn’t really cook, but she’s contemplating roasting some vegetables, a plan they scrap in favor of ordering Thai food. It’s easy to imagine that this was what life was like for Zendaya when she was growing up on the Disney lot; her parents, who once watched over her career like hawks, made an effort to keep home a place where she could let her hair down and be a “normal” teen. Now that Zendaya has broken free from them a bit (though her mother recently seeded her house with crystals, she shows me), she enjoys taking on a kind of parental role—nodding along in bemusement as Imani reels off the names of her favorite K-pop stars, and smiling as Isys pokes fun at her aunt’s endless love of Harry Potter. (“So much Harry Potter,” Isys says.) Zendaya quizzes her niece for more details on her English paper. Police brutality is something the actress knows about: Zendaya was still living in Oakland on New Year’s Day, 2009, when a young black man, Oscar Grant, was shot by a transit cop, not far from the elementary school where Zendaya’s mother taught. (The shooting was dramatized in Oakland native Ryan Coogler’s first feature film, Fruitvale Station.) The city erupted in protest, a preview of Black Lives Matter protests to come.
“You know, Oakland’s got a history,” Kizzi explains to me later, “and there’s a consciousness that comes along with that, if you grew up there.” Kizzi describes a warm childhood where their grandmother made peanut butter–and–jelly sandwiches after school, and “everyone pitched in,” including ’Daya, as the baby of the family is known (Zendaya has four older half-siblings). “But I think ’Daya was also influenced by seeing the differences between her mom’s public school and the private school where our dad was teaching. Like, ‘OK, there are some discrepancies here. . . .’ ”
Though Zendaya hasn’t lived in Oakland for nearly a decade, she still feels very connected to the place—and to its radical past. At one point, she turns over an unframed portrait of a black man above her fireplace to reveal the mug shot of firebrand academic Angela Davis collaged on its opposite side. “A friend of Law’s made it,” she explains, referring to her longtime stylist Law Roach. “I definitely want more work by young black artists,” she adds, gesturing at the house’s empty walls. “And yeah, maybe I wouldn’t mind playing Angela Davis in a movie one day.” She turns the painting back over, with a wink.
An Angela Davis biopic starring Zendaya makes terrific sense. She’s one of the most politically vocal among a crop of “woke” young stars, posting to Instagram in support of Colin Kaepernick, urging her fans to take action when she picked up a Teen Choice Award the day after the deadly alt-right rally in Charlottesville, and—famously—clapping back at E! announcer Giuliana Rancic’s barbs about her dreadlocks at the 2015 Academy Awards. That was the first time many people outside the Disney demographic took note of her, thanks to the messages of support she got from the likes of Ava DuVernay, Kerry Washington, and Solange Knowles. “That whole thing was so crazy,” she recalls of the firestorm. “I mean, I’d basically snuck onto the red carpet, the plus one of a plus one.” At last year’s Oscar ceremony,Zendaya floated onstage in a diaphanous Giambattista Valli gown. “I got invited back as a presenter,” she notes matter-of-factly. “So I guess I won.”
THESE DAYS, ZENDAYA TELLS ME, she’s taking a particular interest in issues around gentrification. She’s seen it firsthand, watching her grandmother nearly get priced out of her house in Oakland. “I keep thinking, Is there a way I can help with this, through art?” she asks. “I mean, obviously, I’ve got a platform”— about 55 million people follow Zendaya on Instagram—“but I also know, don’t just post whatever. You’ve got to listen to people. Talking is important. But walking the talk is important, too.”
Tommy Hilfiger points out that Zendaya’s commitment to social justice is key to her appeal. “There are so many celebrities with big social-media followings,” he notes, “but are they going to make a difference in society? Right from our first conversations, it was clear she intends to use her celebrity to fight for change. She’s got the heart of an activist.”
Zendaya demurs when people call her that. “It’s nice,” she says, “but I’m not. What I’d really like is to reach out to my peers in the Bay Area. Like, there are kids I was in elementary school with, who are out there doing the work. Organizing. Maybe they can help me figure out what to do.”
You suspect that if Zendaya weren’t spending long days on sets in Hollywood, leaving her vanishingly little spare time, she’d be part of the growing cohort of young people attending meetings of the Democratic Socialists of America and staging sit-ins in support of the Green New Deal. And she’d be good at that, too, because Zendaya doesn’t intimidate easily.
Her Tommy Hilfiger collaboration is an example. She suspected they’d “promise the moon and the stars,” she says, “then, in the end, all they would want to do is to slap my face on their product.” So she and stylist Roach scoured the web for disco-era images that inspired them, and walked into their first formal meeting with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude and a mood board that wowed the room.
“Anything Zendaya does, she does it, you know?” explains Roach. “Every design meeting, every sample review, she was there. And she was involved with all the casting,” he adds, referring to the Paris runway show in March. “She really wanted to pay homage to the women who inspire her. Like, what about Beverly Johnson, the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue? How about Veronica Webb, the first model of color with a major cosmetics campaign? How about Pat Cleveland? Can we get her?”
The TommyxZendaya show wasn’t just a fashion statement, in other words; it was a statement of purpose. The audience broke out in applause for the all-black cast of models—Johnson, Webb, and Cleveland included—and then they went into raptures when 70-year-old disco icon Grace Jones emerged at the finale.
“We wanted a crescendo,” Roach says. “And I said, ‘What about Grace?’ And Z just looked at me for a second, and then she was like—‘I would die.’ ”
“I mean, what can you even say about Grace?” Zendaya muses to me as the Thai food arrives. “She’s fearless.”
SO IS ZENDAYA—but the Euphoria role did scare her. “It’s a totally different thing than being the star of K.C. Undercover,” she says, referring to her final Disney project. “That first day on set, I was honest-to-God terrified.”
You wouldn’t have known it, according to costar Hunter Schafer, who plays Jules, Rue’s best friend—her “ride or die.” In Schafer’s telling, one of Zendaya’s many talents is to transmute fear into compassion. “She has a lot of power to set the atmosphere,” Schafer says. “She could not have been more down-to-earth and willing to do whatever it took to create a mood for the cast that was open and sensitive. I felt totally supported.”
Zendaya’s social life currently revolves around the Euphoria cast, many of whom are pictured in Polaroids taped up by the stairs in her home, a wall of fame that features Spider-Man’s star Tom Holland, too. She likes to get the group together for movie nights, or engage in the typical downtime activities of wired young millennials, like bingeing true-crime podcasts (she’s a fan of Serial) or falling into Netflix rabbit holes. She and Schafer recently traded increasingly shocked selfies watching the Netflix documentary Abducted in Plain Sight from their separate homes.
Schafer, a model and champion of LGBTQ rights who was barely out of high school in North Carolina when she was cast in Euphoria, is especially effusive about the Thanksgiving dinner Zendaya invited her to last year. “It was my first Thanksgiving away from my family, while I was working on the show,” she says. “Z invited the whole cast. Her being willing to create that sort of ‘chosen family’ is something I’ll always be grateful to her for.”
Zendaya recently installed an extra-long table in her dining room, in order to host more polished versions of that family-style feast. In the meantime, though, our Thai dinner is being eaten out of takeout containers. Talk turns to Zendaya’s spring/summer agenda: There are more episodes of Euphoria to shoot, and then she begins a worldwide press tour for Spider-Man. “I’m really excited about going to Japan,” she says. “And I’m excited about some of the looks Law and I are putting together. Or lewks.” She laughs.
I prod her to cast her gaze a little farther over the horizon, and she replies that, frankly, she just hasn’t made her mind up about what she wants to take on.
“I can tell you, one celebrity whose career I think is interesting is Donald Glover,” she says. “He’s given himself permission to do . . . whatever. And whatever he does—he goes deep, you know?”
Earlier in the day, chatting about fashion, Zendaya had mentioned to me that one of her favorite looks ever is the one-shouldered butterfly dress by Moschino that she donned for the Australian premiere of The Greatest Showman. It struck me, as she said it, that she was a bit like a butterfly set to break out of her cocoon, taking control of her career and evolving her public persona as she figures out where, precisely, she intends to fly. “Girls like Z, in this industry, they can be sheltered,” notes Roach. “And that’s not a bad thing, because there’s so much stuff coming at them, and they need to know who they can rely on. Early on, it was me and her dad, two strong black men going everywhere with her. Now this is her time to grow.”
Zendaya and I decide that maybe a tarot reading is in order. A day earlier, I’d purchased a beginner’s deck from one of those crystal-and-incense shops popping up around L.A., and on my way to the Valley, I realized I still had it in my handbag. Zendaya’s intrigued: She’s never had her tarot read. I warn her that I have no idea what I’m doing, but she’s game nevertheless, and deals out a seven-card spread. She and Isys trade a knowing look when the card auguring her imminent future suggests she might be due to take stock and, possibly, rest. A bit of stopping to smell the roses, as it were.
“My grandparents got my colors read when I was two,” she tells me as Isys shuffles the deck for her own reading. “Apparently, my aura is mostly purple, which signals that you’re creative. And then there was a little bit of green, which is like, practical stuff. Business.”
“I’m ready,” interrupts Isys. ’Daya finishes her story: “Now, I have no idea whether this is true, but according to my grandparents, the guy who did the reading, he stared at my photo for a long time. A long time. And then he looked up, and he told them: ‘This girl, for your whole life—she’s going to amaze you.’ ”
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