The Making of an "It" Girl: Inside Zendaya's Euphoric Rise to the Top

Hollywood is littered with cautionary tales of child stardom gone wrong—Zendaya's story isn't among them. Here's how the Disney star seamlessly transitioned to in-demand Emmy winner.

By Taylor Bryant Feb 25, 2021 9:25 PMTags
Watch: Zendaya's Most Iconic Suit Moments

For those still not quite clear about the full-on Zendaya obsession making its way through Hollywood, we invite you to read this breathless account from Stranger Things star Noah Schnapp.

"I remember seeing her in the corner of my eye and walking up to her," the 16-year-old recalled during a March 2020 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, some four months after their encounter at E!'s People's Choice Awards. "And I was really, really nervous and I was like, 'Oh, my God. It's actually her. This is the first time I'm meeting her.'" 

Everything that happened after was both a blur and indelibly etched in his mind: "She smelled great. And she was so…she was so cute and she was, like, towered over me and she, like, bent down and she was like, 'Hi, Noah,' with her little squeaky voice," he said of the 5-foot-10 star. "Yeah, I remember everything."

Yup, Zendaya fever is alive and well in Hollywood. 

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Zendaya Through the Years

Though the industry is full of cautionary tales from child stars, the actress' journey is not among them. At just 24 years old today, Zendaya Coleman—already known by just her first name—has managed to set up a future as one of Hollywood's most in-demand actresses.

 

Emma McIntyre/E! Entertainment/NBCU Photo Bank

Transitioning from Disney Channel star to the industry's "It" girl is no easy feat, but just a couple years removed from her Mouse House days, Zendaya is part of a super successful drama series—her role on HBO's racy Euphoria netting the star her first Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama—and shutting the red carpet down pretty much anytime she steps onto it. 

Starting as a children's fashion model—even dancing back-up to fellow future network standout Selena Gomez in a Sear's commercial—Zendaya spent the first stretch of her career on Disney, starring on shows like Shake It Up, where she got her big break in 2010, Frenemies, a Disney Channel Original Movie, and KC Undercover, her final network gig wrapping in 2018. 

"The only reason I wanted to come back to the Disney Channel is because there was a lack of diversity at that time," she explained to The Seattle Times of taking on the title role of K.C. Cooper, a high school math genius and secret sleuth. "There weren't any leads or families of color, and I felt like that was something that needed to happen. And I thought the idea of a girl doing a 'guy role' was really important. Young women are able to look at the screen and see that they can be anything, that they can do it all. A little boy can look up to a girl and say, 'I want to be like this girl.' And that's awesome."

DISNEY CHANNEL/Image Group LA

The starlet's transition into the big leagues wasn't all that surprising because even while appearing on the children's network she was able to nab some feature film roles. She starred in both installments of Marvel's beloved superhero series—Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017 and Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019 as Michelle "MJ" Jones—earning her three Teen Choice Awards for her efforts, Summer Movie Actress both years and Female Movie Star of 2019. 

Come 2017, she found herself soaring into a role as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler in the Oscar-nominated musical The Greatest Showman alongside some impressive names. Read: Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams and Zac Efron. 

She had considered more than a few other jobs before making the leap into the 19th century tale, inspired by P.T. Barnum's infamous attraction. "There were a lot of opportunities that came my way that would not have been the right choice—the low-hanging fruit, doing things just because it's a thing to do," she told The Seattle Times in 2017. "But I wanted to do quality projects, cool things that made me excited, and I didn't care if I only had one line. Saying no is as important as saying yes."

Niko Tavernise/20th Century Fox

Exciting her as much as the stunts was her ill-fated romance with Efron's high-society playwright—an interracial relationship not exactly the done thing in the 1800s. "You want it to happen, but you know that it can't happen, and that was exciting to me," Zendaya said of their love story. A commercial success, the film earned her a Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Award for Favorite Movie Actress. 

Having proved she was more than just a child star, Zendaya quickly leveled up onto cable television securing the part of Rue Bennett, a recovering drug addict with severe anxiety, on controversial HBO drama Euphoria, a drastic change from her more conventional roles on Disney. 

Many were surprised Zendaya took on such a risqué character, but her explanation was simple. "This sounds corny, but I listened to my heart," Zendaya said when speaking with Deadline in May 2020. "I didn't think strategically 'this is the role I should be doing'. I just fell in love with what I read, the character and there was no doubt in my mind that I needed and wanted to do this. It's purely because I felt connected to it."

Alberto Rodriguez/E! Entertainment/NBCU Photo Bank

So she was unbothered by the major backlash kicked up after the 2019 premiere, some viewers taking issue with the raunchy content surrounding the lives of the series' teenagers.

Still, even with following her heart she admits she isn't exempt from her own self doubt. "I'm my biggest critic, so some of it was internal—not wanting to make a mistake or worrying that maybe I didn't have the room to make a mistake and wanting to make the right next move," she told The Hollywood Reporter last year of the pressure she felt. "But I also wanted to prove myself."

Sure, "It's a scary jump," she told The New York Times of the challenging crossover in 2019, shortly before Euphoria's debut, "but I think it was time for me to do this."

John Salangsang/Shutterstock

Although she didn't strategically take her part on Euphoria she does feel a "heavy responsibility on [her] shoulders" she told THR of being careful with each career move, having to consider both her Disney fan base and her role as a Black woman in Hollywood. "I'm appreciative for that because with that there's a lot of good that I can do and I know who is watching. Now, more than ever, specifically with Black Lives Matter and everything, I feel an obligation to make sure that I'm aware and putting out the right things and in line with organizers and people who are on the ground."

Though, if she's being honest, "It's a constant thing," she allowed in that chat. "Being a young Disney actor, that's one level, being a young Black woman is one level, and then being very hard on myself is another level. It's also just a personal fear."

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Feeling like she doesn't have any room for mistakes in her career may be the reason why the leading lady is notoriously private when it comes to her real life. After years of speculation and denying rumors of a romance with her Spider-Man co-star Tom Holland, Zendaya faced another go-round with Euphoria cohort Jacob Elordi

The only difference this time is that the sly starlet was caught—cameras capturing her locking lips with her Australian costar. And though they've each played off the reports, with Zendaya referring to Jacob as her "best friend", while presenting him with the Rising Star honor at the American Australian Association Arts Awards and him saying she was "like a sister," while speaking with GQ Australia in 2019, a source told E! News they were very much an item. 

"Jacob and Zendaya have been seeing each other for months now," the insider told E! News in February 2020. "They started as close friends but it became romantic after their show ended."

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Zendaya Through the Years

Though the ultimately (and quietly) split later that year, at the time, they had been inseparable, added the insider: "Jacob has met Zendaya's family and everyone adores him. They have a lot of fun together and have a lot in common."

And the native of Oakland, Calif. has admitted that dating someone in the industry is easier. "There's just certain things in our lives that's hard for people to understand if they don't live it," Zendaya explained in a 2018 interview for CR Fashion Book. "Like if I have to explain what a call time is or why I have to start glam early. I'm not just sitting around all day. I'm on camera, I'm shooting, I'm working, I can't have my phone. But that doesn't mean somebody who's not in the industry can't understand it or wouldn't want to learn or understand it."

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Initially introduced to us through her acting, the celebrated star is also a permanent fixture on many publications' best dressed list with her daring, bold and statement-making ensembles. Always someone to look out for during fashion week, Zendaya decided to take it a step further last year at NYFW and collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger, her TommyXZendaya collection captivating fans. 

Even her longtime friend and stylist Law Roach is in awe of what the young fashionista brings to premieres and award shows, "Zendaya on the red carpet…I don't think there's too many women in the world that does what she does on a red carpet," he marveled to E! News in 2018. "You could put a trash bag on her and she will not only look great, but she will feel great and she would sell that trash bag like it is a couture gown. It's just all confidence."

And the groundbreaking actress didn't letting the current coronavirus pandemic ruin her plans for September's Emmys. "I do want to dress up. I still want to have the experience." she told Jimmy Kimmel Live! guest host Ben Platt in August when asked if she planned to turn up—virtually—in her best pajamas. 

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Zendaya's Best Fashion Week Looks Ever

Indeed, Zendaya isn't allowing anything to slow down her rise to superstardom. While everyone else was sitting at home in their sweatpants, the actress quietly filmed drama Malcolm & Marie, a new movie with John David Washington written by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson.

Generation Z's "It" girl was also featured in science fiction epic Dune, with heavy hitters like Oscar Issacs, Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet, in late 2020.

So basically, even though most of the world has slowed, Zendaya is steadily proving she's just getting started.

This story was originally published on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020 at 12 a.m. PT.

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