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What makes Zendaya a great celebrity

Why Zendaya is one of the brightest stars of Generation Z: “You can’t manufacture cool.”

Zendaya on the red carpet at the Oscars.
Zendaya at the 2015 Oscars.
Steve Granitz/WireImage
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Zendaya, the 22 year-old star of HBO’s Euphoria and the newest set of Spider-Man movies, has been on the path toward stardom since she was 13. That was 2010, and young Zendaya Coleman was starring next to fellow future star Bella Thorne in the Disney Channel’s Shake It Up!, about two normal teenage girls who also happen to be backup dancers on a local TV show. (This was when all Disney Channel programming was made under the combined shadow of High School Musical and Hannah Montana.) But she didn’t become really famous — mainstream famous, you’re-allowed-to-get-away-with-only-using-one-name-because-you’re-just-that-famous famous — until the 2015 Oscars.

That was when Zendaya, age 19, happened to appear on the red carpet in a white silk gown, with her hair in dreadlocks — and on E’s Fashion Police, Giuliana Rancic commented, “That hair is swallowing her. I feel like she smells like patchouli oil.” An offscreen (and never-identified) voice added, “Or weed.”

Outrage followed thick and fast, with commenters across the internet decrying the Fashion Police segment as racist. And in the ensuing controversy, Zendaya could easily have let those commenters position her as the passive victim of Rancic’s ignorance. Instead, she rapidly took control of the narrative herself.

“There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair,” she wrote in an Instagram post the next day. “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 beauty and strength, almost like a lion’s mane.”

Zendaya’s response went viral. Solange, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Whoopi Goldberg, and Ava DuVernay all rallied behind her. Rancic apologized on air during an episode of Fashion Police later that week. Mattel announced a Barbie modeled after Zendaya’s Oscar look.

By the time the dust had settled, Zendaya had become the kind of celebrity that you’re supposed to have a general idea of and opinion about if you’re vaguely pop culture literate. And her star was only beginning to climb.

Even then, at the very beginning of her wider fame, the way Zendaya handled the Oscars controversy was telling. Embedded in her response were all the elements of savvy celebrity-image wrangling that she’s since developed into a fundamental part of her public persona. That’s why, to fully understand why Zendaya has become such a household name in such a short period of time, you have to understand why her response to the 2015 Oscars controversy worked so well.

Zendaya is consistently thoughtful about social politics

What got people excited about Zendaya during the Oscars controversy was how careful and measured her response was: She explained exactly what made Rancic’s remark so offensive and how fraught the history of talking about black women’s hair is, and then ended on a note of uplift.

And since that episode, Zendaya has consistently continued to use her celebrity to talk thoughtfully about race and social justice. “I am inspired right now by people who use their platforms,” she told Glamour in 2017. “If people know your name, they should know it for a reason.”

She often talks about how she feels she has a responsibility to help represent the black community onscreen. So when Disney offered Zendaya the starring role in a new show when she was 16 (K.C. Undercover), she says, she insisted that her character have a black family. “I was like, ‘If I’m going to do this, this is how it has to be.’ There needs to be a black family on the Disney Channel,” she said in the Glamour interview. “A lot of people who aren’t people of color can’t quite understand what it’s like to grow up and not see yourself in mainstream media.”

She talks about her struggles to finagle her way into the audition room for parts that default to white actresses. “I always tell my theatrical manager, ‘Anytime it says they’re looking for white girls, send me out. Let me get in the room. Maybe they’ll change their minds,’” she told Marie Claire in 2018.

And she talks about the ways in which her light skin (Zendaya is biracial) makes her a more palatable option for casting directors than her darker-skinned peers. “I am Hollywood’s, I guess you could say, acceptable version of a black girl, and that needs to change,” she said at BeautyCon in 2018. “We’re vastly too beautiful and too interesting for me to be the only representation of that.”

It’s in part because of Zendaya’s commitment to thoughtfully participating in a conversation about race that she has grown such a passionate fanbase. Laura Harrier, who co-starred with Zendaya in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, told Vogue that when they were shooting the movie, “We’d be getting our nails done in Atlanta, and people would come up to her, crying,” overwhelmed at her sheer presence.

Zendaya knows how to use fashion to tell stories

Zendaya at the Oscars.
Zendaya at the fateful 2015 Oscars.
Steve Granitz/WireImage

Before that infamous Fashion Police segment even aired, Zendaya was coming out ahead on the 2015 Oscars red carpet on the sheer strength of her look. Her white satin dress was eye-catching but restrained, so that the whole effect was pointedly adult; but adult in a mature way, not in a provocative way. At the time, she was still starring in K.C. Undercover, but the look seemed to be deliberately saying, “I am not just a Disney kid,” without trying too hard. And the fashion cognoscenti sat up and took notice.

Zendaya Is This Academy Awards’ Breakout Style Star,” declared Vogue on the night of the Oscars, in a post that went on to laud the outfit as “one part Lisa Bonet, one part Venus de Milo, and all very grown up (which is to say, all very un-Disney).”

“We’ll be keeping our eye on you, Zendaya,” the post concluded — and, in fact, Vogue has kept an eye on Zendaya. They follow her fashion choices rapturously. She has been a Vogue cover star twice.

In large part, that’s because Zendaya knows how to dress for a moment. She uses her outfits to tell her audience a story about how she wants to be seen on a given day — and she proved with her response to Rancic that she is willing to back those choices up when questioned on them.

None of this means that she’s making her style choices all by herself. She’s been dressed by stylist Law Roach since she was 14 years old — including on that fateful Oscars night — and his playful, performative aesthetic and commitment to storytelling is definitely at work in Zendaya’s outfits. (When Roach wants her to wear a particularly challenging look, Zendaya told Vogue in 2017, he tells her, “It’ll be a mo-ment.”)

But not just anyone can pull off the looks that Roach is putting together. It takes someone like Zendaya, who understands the way that clothing creates image and finds the attitude necessary to make them work. “You’ve got to be a strong girl to do that on the red carpet,” Roach told the Guardian in 2018, referring to the time he dressed Zendaya as Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie for the Grammys. “You have to have conviction to say, ‘I like this, and I think I look cool, and fuck you to everybody who doesn’t.’”

Their work is collaborative — which is why, at this year’s Met Gala, Roach walked the red carpet with Zendaya, playing the fairy godmother to her Cinderella in a tongue-in-cheek farewell to Zendaya’s Disney days.

Zendaya as Cinderella and her stylist, Law Roach, as her fairy godmother at the 2019 Met Gala.
Zendaya as Cinderella and her stylist, Law Roach, as her fairy godmother at the 2019 Met Gala.
Rabbani and Solimene Photography/WireImage

Zendaya is strategic and deliberate in her appearances

One of the oddest things about the 2015 Oscars controversy is that there was so little reason for Zendaya to be there in the first place. She was a Disney Channel star who, at the time, had never made a feature film, and she was not involved in the ceremony at all. So why was she on the red carpet for the Fashion Police to discuss in the first place?

She “basically snuck onto the red carpet,” Zendaya told Vogue earlier this year. She was the “plus one of a plus one” — and then she used that precarious position to establish herself as someone the pop culture and fashion worlds needed to keep an eye on. At the 2018 Oscars, Zendaya was back again, and this time in her own right as a presenter.

At its most basic level, this is a classic showbiz strategy: When no one knows who you are, get yourself into a room with a lot of celebrities and a lot of photographers and make yourself someone who has to be noticed. And repeating that strategy over and over again is part of how Zendaya built up her public image while she was still working on the Disney Channel.

“Nobody wanted to dress her when she wasn’t known,” Roach explained to the Guardian last year. So he came up with a simple workaround: He started putting Zendaya in outfits that had already been worn by people more famous than she was (Beyoncé, Kylie Jenner). That move made her into a “Who Wore It Better” fixture — and that, in turn, made Zendaya a known quantity in celebrity and fashion columns. She picked up name recognition. And after a while, she could wear any kind of clothes she wanted to, in the same way that, after a while, she could go to the Oscars as a presenter instead of the guest of a guest.

These kinds of just-show-up strategies are great for grabbing people’s attention. But for the move to pay off, you have to have something to say once you’ve caught them. And that’s always been Zendaya’s greatest strength.

Zendaya is determined to take control of the conversation surrounding her

After that fateful Fashion Police segment, it’s easy to imagine another young up-and-comer in Zendaya’s place stepping back and keeping her mouth shut, choosing to take the coverage as a win and trying not to create waves.

Instead, Zendaya put a thoughtful, powerful response in writing, ensuring that the entire controversy surrounding her hair and Fashion Police’s responsibilities unfolded on her own terms. And that’s because Zendaya is incredibly good at both finding a way to take creative control and then at doing interesting things with it once she has it.

That’s part of how she got the Disney Channel to make her onscreen K.C. Undercover family black: Despite Zendaya having just one major TV credit under her belt at the time, she insisted that the Disney Channel make her a producer when Disney offered her the starring role in K.C. Undercover. She was just 16 years old.

And the changes she made didn’t stop there. With her new power as producer, Zendaya got the show retitled from Super Awesome Katy to K.C. Undercover. She demanded that her character, K.C., be brainy rather than artsy (“There are other things that a girl can be” besides the Disney-standard singer or dancer, Zendaya explained to Vogue in 2017), and that she have martial arts training. She thought that when K.C. was at school, she should be a socially awkward teenager.

When the show premiered in 2015, reviews lauded specifically the elements that Zendaya had requested be added in. “Those who do watch will find a lot to admire in K.C., who’s both book- and street-smart, a critical thinker, and always graceful under pressure,” said the children’s media guide Common Sense Media.

Now that she’s in the wilds of Hollywood, Zendaya doesn’t seem to have quite the leverage she had within the Disney machine: She’s the star of Euphoria, but she doesn’t produce it the way she did K.C. Undercover. But she’s assiduously watching which projects she takes on and working to find ways to control her projects herself.

“Having a Disney past sometimes makes it difficult for people to take you seriously, so I have to pick the right projects, make sure I do the right things, take my time,” she explained to Glamour in 2017. “And then I want to produce and create shows and movies, whether or not I’m starring in them. You know when you watch a show and you’re like, ‘That’s so good, I wish I’d made it’? Why not? Why not make it?” In 2018, she announced that she’d be producing and starring in the thriller White Lie, with Reese Witherspoon signed on to produce as well.

“A lot of people don’t realize their power,” she told Vogue in 2017. “I have so many friends who say yes to everything or feel like they can’t stand up for themselves in a situation. No: You have the power.”

Zendaya inarguably does have the power. As her star has risen, her projects have leaned increasingly heavily on her image for their promotion. Spider-Man: Far From Home, her most recent film, is roping in a giant segment of its audience by dangling the question of whether Zendaya and Tom Holland are secretly in love. In the lead-up to Euphoria’s release, it was vanishingly rare to see a headline about the show that didn’t name-check Zendaya, and showrunner Sam Levinson says he put Zendaya on his vision board when he created the show.

“There is a warmth that radiates from her and also a sensitivity and a vulnerability that she tries her damnedest to hold back sometimes,” Levinson told the Hollywood Reporter.

Or, as LL Cool J told Vogue about Zendaya following a triumphant guest-starring spot on Lip Sync Battle in 2017, “She’s cool. You can manufacture fame. You can manufacture publicity. You can manufacture songs. You can’t manufacture cool.”

And that insistence on owning her cool and owning her power, on unapologetically taking control of it and then doing smart and interesting and beautiful things with it, is what makes Zendaya such an exciting celebrity to watch. What’s even more exciting is realizing that, at just age 22, she’s really just getting started.