All singing, all dancing Disney-kid Zendaya is more than the sum of her impressive CV.

Disney stars. They get a bad rap, really. The 90s saw most of the squeaky-clean Mousketeers emerging out the other side of Disneyland with platinum-selling records before inevitably descending into drug addictions, divorce, lawsuits, failed albums and mental health issues.

Enter the fresh wave of Disney graduates, of whom Zendaya, at 19 years-old, is currently the most famous.They’re a new breed; composed, sober and engaged, they’re even more heavily surveyed by the media, but shrouded by PR and management teams.We track their virtual lives on Snapchat and Instagram, but what of the real people behind the zany talk-show appearances and “in-depth” interviews? Largely their lives remain a carefully curated digital construct. Zendaya, however, is a little different. She’s quickly garnered a fanbase that extends beyond her Disney audience, and far beyond that of her peers, for her outspoken and deft dissections of mainstream media’s mistreatment and misrepresentation of women. She is wise beyond her years and her fans love her for it. “Whatever you see on Twitter, that’s all me. There’s nobody behind it.There’s nobody telling me what to do. I choose what I do, because I have a brain.”

Zendaya assures me that her life has always maintained a “level of normality. It’s just not that crazy”, acknowledging that this grounding, in part, comes from “living at home, with my parents”. She grew up in Oakland, which she reluctantly concedes has a mixed reputation. “I think there are young people who fall prey to the negative aspects of a town like Oakland. It’s a rough neighbourhood, and not the easiest place to grow up.There’s a lot of violence, but there’s also a developing arts scene. I want to send the positivity back to where I’m from.” She attended Oakland School for the Arts and was auditioning for her first Disney role come 10th grade.“There were times when I would get a call back for an audition and I’d drop everything I was doing, go and get my homework from my teachers and my dad would have to drive me up and back from Oakland to LA multiple times a week. Both my parents are teachers. It wasn’t a lucrative exercise.” She takes a moment.“It was hard and it was a financial stress and a burden and more importantly, a risk. An audition is just an audition, it’s not a role.” At 13, she bagged her first job at the Disney Channel and moved to LA:“That was the big break really.” I believe her when she says she just “knew” her career would take off.“Miley Cyrus and that group of people were already grown when I started Disney. I definitely remember watching Hannah Montana, and thinking ‘Man, I really want to do that.’” Despite every insistence of a very “normal childhood”, and despite her unnerving maturity, I push her on how “normal” an upbringing that consists of relentless auditions can really be: “Some people just have ‘yes’ men around them: people who are just there to say: ‘Yes, yes, yes’, but I have the people who are going to be real and honest with me. Mostly all my friends are from childhood. Even when I do have new friendships it’s very, very few.”

Isn’t she desperate to move out of home? “I’m not that teenager that’s like, ‘I hate my parents, I’m moving out!’ They have my best interests in mind.You have to be really cautious as to who you have around you, for me, it’s for security reasons, I need to be protected all the time.” I detect in her voice some gravity when she talks about her personal “security”, not paranoia, but certainly an urgent desire to be autonomous. Has anything happened to make her feel threatened? “There’s only been a couple of times where things have gotten weird,” she says casually.

Things did get a little weird for Zendaya last year and not for the happiest of reasons.After wearing her hair in a dreadlocks on the Oscar’s red carpet, Giuliana Rancic, a host on American TV show, Fashion Police, suggested that her hair looked as though it might smell “like patchouli oil. Or, weed.” Suddenly, Zendaya’s physical appearance was the talk of the internet. I ask her about the furore that ensued. “I could have easily said the first thing that came to my mind. It’s easy to be upset and lash out. It takes courage to take a moment. I stopped myself from doing something dumb or rude and I wrote something that I felt was worth people listening to.” She’s referring to an Instagram post that she penned after Rancic’s offensive slur, which read:“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. My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of colour that our hair is good enough.” Suddenly Zendaya was more than a Disney star; she was a role-model of empowered bi-racial beauty and strength. An activist.An antidote to the passive selfie-taking young stars of today. “I consider myself, as Tupac said, to be a ‘real model’. I don’t feel like I’m pretending to be anything that I’m not. I have young nieces and nephews and I have a lot of people who look to me for inspiration and so I have a responsibility.” She coolly cites the incident as, “an educational moment, where I could shed light on an issue about hair and acceptance. It became about something bigger than me. People think it’s ok to adopt certain aspects of different cultures without educating themselves or really having respect for that culture.”

Her rise as a style-icon has been rapid (there are Tumblrs dedicated to her “looks”) undoubtedly aided by her beauty, which is partly down to her Celtic mother and Nigerian father’s heritages. In fact, her career really began as a youngster modelling for Macy’s.“My interest in fashion was not overnight. I have been working with my stylist since I was 13. It just took a long time for people to care or to notice.” She changes her hair as frequently as she does her shoes (she wore a very major mullet to the Grammy Awards) and, with her six foot waif frame to drape clothes on, she’s very much wearing the clothes and not the other way round. It has also meant she’s being increasingly photographed for glossy magazine covers, and with that, she’s found herself yet again having to fight to maintain control of her own image. I’m talking about Modeliste magazine’s quite major blunder when they attempted some very heavily photoshopped images of the teen, who, before they had a chance to intervene, had posted the un-retouched images alongside the barely-recognisable retouched ones. “We all know about Photoshop. Sure, you edit some stray fly-away hairs or a pimple out” she laughs,“but that’s very different from changing someone’s body-shape.” Needless to say, Modeliste ran the originals. Once again, we’re back to discussing the sense of duty she feels to call these industry habits out:“It was a very strange decision to slim me.Thankfully I don’t have any body issues but I know too many people who do. I owe it to the women around me to not perpetuate those standards.”

Through all the criticism she seems to emerge, ironically, with not a hair out of place.“Oh, I mean sometimes I’ll respond to a troll. If I can make people laugh and in turn educate someone, that’s great.”Things were less clear cut when in 2014 Zendaya exited, seemingly abruptly, from her first lead-movie role, a Lifetime production about the 90s R&B star Aaliyah. I ask her to set the record straight: “I felt like it was being rushed, it didn’t have anyone who really knew her on board or part of the project, it didn’t have the blessing of anyone and I felt it’s production value wasn’t as high as it should have been. I’m too much of a fan to do something that I felt wasn’t worthy of her.”

This year, her focus has been elsewhere. She’s busy generating her second solo record and has been holed up with legendary songwriters and producers BabyFace and Timbaland in the studio, making music that she’s “very proud of” that’s all about “growing up.” If she could work with anyone though it would be “Beyoncé, she’s top of the list. Who wouldn’t want to work with her?” I ask her if downtime is ever an option.“I don’t get as much time to myself as I would like, but yeah I get time to chill.There are some months where it’s non-stop and it’s exhausting. I think for me that comes with the territory and I’m fine with it.” She says she loves to travel because it “makes you feel very small in the best way — you realise what a small little piece you are in the entire world” and that she can “sleep anywhere.” Zendaya resting? I’m not sure I can imagine it.

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Grey cotton t-shirt by NOON GOON, black and white cotton top by ISA ARFEN at SELFRIDGES, white tulle skirt by MIU MIU, blue denim jeans by LEVI’s by REDONE

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Blue and white checked cotton shirt and purple and yellow printed silk dress both by MIU MIU

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Red and rose heart printed lurex pleated skirt by GUCCI and black cotton trainers by CONVERSE

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Red printed cotton dress (worn underneath) by CHRISTOPHER KANE, pink and sheer embellished silk dress by PRADA

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Grey cotton t-shirt by NOON GOON, black and white cotton top by ISA ARFEN at SELFRIDGES, white tulle skirt by MIU MIU, blue denim jeans by LEVI’s by REDONE

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Grey cotton t-shirt by NOON GOON, white silk embellished dress by ASHISH, blue denim jeans by LEVI’S by REDONE

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Pink printed silk dress by SIMONE ROCHA, silver jewellery worn throughout Zendaya’s own, cherry plastic earrings worn throughout Petra’s own and white cotton socks by TOPSHOP

Photographer: Petra Collins

Fashion: Gary Armstrong, Law Roach

Hair: Shlomi Mor

Makeup: Allan Avendaño at Opus Beauty using COVER GIRL COSMETICS

Fashion Assistants: Abigail Hazard and Georgia Medley

Words: Nellie Eden


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