The secret to Zendaya’s success: A mix of perseverance and inquisitiveness

The 26-year-old star of the series ‘Euphoria’ has been the actress of the moment for over five years. She has been working since she was 13, hates free time and uses social media as a platform to raise awareness about the issues that are important to her, such as mental health

Zendaya Euphoria
Zendaya accepts her second Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in Drama for 'Euphoria' in September 2022 in Los Angeles, California.Kevin Mazur (WireImage)

Zendaya was one of the undisputed stars of 2022. Again. Since her 2017 film debut in Spider-Man Homecoming, the 26-year-old actress has consistently carved out a leading place for herself as one of the leading lights in celebrity culture, and this past year was no exception. The Oakland native began the year by finally confirming her relationship with fellow actor Tom Holland, six years after they met, and starring in the second season of Euphoria. The HBO teen show became the second most-watched program in the platform’s history, after only Game of Thrones, as well as the decade’s most-tweeted-about series. In September, the actress received her second Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her work in Euphoria; previously, in 2020, she became the youngest woman ever to win that award at age 24. Zendaya spent the second half of the year focused on shooting Challengers, director Luca Guadagnino’s (Call Me by Your Name) upcoming film, but the public has made up for the lack of news about the star with gossip. In the summer, there were rumors that she was pregnant, which she herself denied, and now there is speculation that she may have gotten engaged to Holland. Whatever she does, and even if she doesn’t do anything, Zendaya never ceases to fascinate the public. She is Generation Z’s biggest star.

At 13, Zendaya starred in the Disney Channel show Shake It Up. At the time, she was already aware of the dangers “child prodigies” face, and she promised she wasn’t going to mess up like Miley Cyrus. She had long-term plans. She explained that her goal was to be a mix of Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé and Shonda Rhimes. She wasn’t exaggerating. At 17, when Disney approached her about starring in a series called KC Undercover, Zendaya demanded to be a producer so she could be involved in the decisions. “I wanted to make sure that she wasn’t good at singing or acting or dancing… No. She can’t dance; she can’t sing. She can’t do that stuff. There are other things that a girl can be... 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,” the actress explained in an interview in Vogue.

At 14, she hired her own stylist, Law Roach. She met Roach when he was a thrift store clerk and together they came up with a strategy to get her noticed: Zendaya wore dresses on red carpets that other celebrities, like Beyoncé and Kylie Jenner, had recently worn, so she’d appear in the “Who wore it best?” sections of magazines. In February 2015, she attended the Oscars, as she put it, as “the +1 of a +1.″ She wore a design by the recently deceased designer Vivienne Westwood and dreadlocks, leading Giuliana Rancic, an E! Fashion Police host, to exclaim that “I feel like she smells like patchouli oil. Or weed.” Far from eschewing the controversy, Zendaya took to Instagram – where the actress now has 163 million followers – to criticize Rancic for the racist connotations of the comment.

“I’ll have you know my father, brother, best childhood friend and little cousins all have locs. Do you want to know what Ava DuVernay (director of the Oscar nominated film Selma)… Terry McMillan (author), Vincent Brown (Professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University) and Heather Andrea Williams (Historian who also possesses a JD from Harvard University, and an MA and PhD from Yale University)…have in common? Locs...None of which smell of marijuana…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.” Days later, Mattel announced that it would produce a Zendaya Barbie doll wearing the same look. Thus, the actress captured the attention of the public who did not know who KC Undercover was. Before she ever filmed a single movie, Zendaya was already positioning herself as a cultural icon.

Zendaya, at the 87th Oscar ceremony in 2015, wears Vivienne Westwood and sports dreadlocks.
Zendaya, at the 87th Oscar ceremony in 2015, wears Vivienne Westwood and sports dreadlocks.Steve Granitz (WireImage)

Zendaya went to a majority-Black high school, where she was the whitest student, and later attended a majority-white high school, where she was considered Black. One day, she straightened her hair, and everyone complimented her. She found it so strange that she asked her aunts, some of whom were Black Panthers, to explain to her the importance of hair among Black women and how it has often been used to ridicule them and deny their beauty.

She brought that same inquisitiveness to Hollywood with her. She convinced her agent to send her casting calls for non-racial roles, not just parts portraying characters of color (as was the case with MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Rue in Euphoria and Chani in Dune). Once Zendaya became a full-fledged star, she used her status to raise awareness about the causes she believes in. For instance, when she launched a collection with Tommy Hilfiger in 2019, she persuaded the brand to include plus sizes in its runway collection for the first time, explaining that “size-inclusivity has been important to me always – if women in my family can’t all wear it, I don’t want to make it.”

Zendaya on the red carpet at an event in Los Angeles in October 2010.
Zendaya on the red carpet at an event in Los Angeles in October 2010.MARCOCCHI GIULIO/SIPA (MARCOCCHI GIULIO/SIPA /Cordon Press /Cordon Press)

Zendaya also uses her social media presence to raise awareness about mental health. She herself has suffered from anxiety and perfectionism to the point of being unable to enjoy her successes. “I’m always so nervous to try things because I don’t want to not be great at them,” she admitted in an interview with Interview magazine. She hates time off and doesn’t know what to do with herself when she’s not working. That’s why she asked Euphoria creator Sam Levinson to write and shoot Malcolm & Marie when the show was on hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic. “I like being on set…It’s my social life,” she has said.

In early 2020, Zendaya took a vacation for the first time (a trip to Greece). She asked her assistant, with whom she has worked since her Disney Channel days, to take her credit card, pay for everything and not tell her how much she was spending to avoid stress. Jacob Elordi, Zendaya’s Euphoria co-star, accompanied her on that trip to Greece, sparking rumors that the two were dating. Many people took the news as a personal betrayal: Zendaya and Tom Holland have been the internet’s favorite couple since before the pair admitted they were an item. In September 2021, Holland’s birthday message to Zendaya became the fifth most-liked photo in Instagram history, racking up 20 million likes. This past June, after the couple had made their relationship public, Zendaya uploaded a photo of the two and wished Holland a happy birthday on Instagram; the actress’s post surpassed Holland’s record by garnering over 25.7 million likes.

The actors have been so discreet about their relationship that no one knows when, exactly, it began. They met in 2016, when they were both 20 years old (he is three months older than she is, but their physiques and attitudes lead everyone to assume it’s the other way around), but the first photo of them kissing only appeared in July 2021. “It was quite strange and weird and confusing and invasive,” Zendaya told GQ magazine. “The equal sentiment [we both share] is just that when you really love and care about somebody, some moments or things, you wish were your own.” The actress is referring not just to being hounded by the press, but also to fans obsessed who pressured them to confirm their relationship on social media. In the context of a celebrity culture that promotes proximity to the stars, internet users behaved as if Tom and Zendaya were their friends and the secrecy with which they protected their relationship were a guessing game they needed to solve.

Since the romance is now official, fans have been busy speculating about pregnancies and engagements. Neither Zendaya nor Holland has responded to rumors of an impending wedding, although last December Zendaya’s mother posted on her Instagram a definition of the word clickbait, which has been interpreted as a denial. For the time being, the actress is keeping silent. She is taking the longest break of her career, until she starts shooting Be My Baby, the biopic of singer Ronnie Spector, and Guadagnino’s Challengers and the second installment of Dune premiere. Whether or not she gets married, 2023 will certainly be Zendaya’s year again.

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