Malcolm & Marie: How Zendaya went from Disney kid to one of Hollywood's biggest stars while fighting for equality

WITH roles in major Blockbusters, an Emmy award, music hits and now a lead role in a Netflix film, actress Zendaya is proving a force to be reckoned with.

The 24-year-old stars alongside John David Washington, 36, in black and white Netflix hit Malcolm & Marie.

It follows her character as she becomes embroiled in a long row with her on-screen director boyfriend – a moving performance that is a far cry from her Disney roots.

The film, which is one of the first Hollywood features to be written and produced entirely during the coronavirus pandemic, throws both stars’ acting abilities under the spotlight and has led to huge praise for each of them, despite the movie itself receiving mixed reviews.

But it follows years of hard work for Zendaya, who was so shy as a child that she had to repeat a year of school.

Born for the stage

She burst into the limelight at just 13 years old on the Disney channel, before securing spots on mega hits like Spiderman and The Greatest Showman – all while becoming a voice for change in the industry.

Growing up in Oakland, California, as the daughter of two teachers, Zendaya saw her life completely transform in just a few short years.

Her mother, Claire, worked as house manager at the California Shakespeare Theater, meaning Zendaya spent a lot of time around actors – but it was her mum’s work as a teacher that truly inspired her from a young age.

“Growing up, I watched my mom teach in the heart of Oakland, California, at inner-city schools that were always underfunded,” the actress told Teen Vogue, adding: “Watching her was magical; it instilled within me a true appreciation of and devotion to the importance of education.”

Her father, Kazembe Ajamu – also a former teacher – quit his job to “make it happen” for her, with the pair moving to LA so she could audition while her mum continued working to support her.

She credited both of them with keeping her grounded during a chat with Ellen DeGeneres, as well as instilling “core values that I think I have to carry with me through everything”.

“Everything has been a climb,” she told Allure of her start in her career. “And I’ve been able to take my family and friends with me. I came from humble beginnings.”

Painfully shy in school

While she’s now commanding attention around the globe, Zendaya was a very shy child.

She had to repeat kindergarten – the first year of education in the US – to catch up.

All that changed as she succeeded in her passion, entertaining. And with it, she also dropped her last name – to be “cool, like Cher or Prince”.

It eventually culminated in her landing two dream gigs – starring as a backup dancer behind Selena Gomez in a commercial for Sears, and in a Kidz Bop music video in 2009.

Zendaya continued to pursue a career in music through her teens – which included collaborations with friend Bella Thorne – and her big break came in 2010 when she landed a role as Rocky Blue on Disney sitcom Shake It Up.

It proved the start of a fast-growing career, with spots on a string of other Disney hits.

But she admitted in an interview with Glamour that her start with Disney also meant it can be “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”. 

Red carpet racism row

A major step away from her roots came in 2013, when Zendaya competed on the US version of Strictly, Dancing With The Stars.

At this point it seemed there was little she couldn’t do. With popular TV roles, dancing skills, modelling and Billboard-charting music to her name, the showbiz world was her oyster.

However, it became about much more than her work on screen in 2015 – around the time she was producing and starring on K.C. Undercover – when Zendaya attended the Oscars.

Appearing on the red carpet, she wore her long hair in dreadlocks and it sparked a controversial outburst from reporter Giuliana Rancic, who claimed they must have smelt of “patchouli oil” or “weed”.

Zendaya’s lengthy response on Instagram earned her praise worldwide, as she wrote: “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."

Rancic issued a grovelling apology and it led to the creation of a Barbie doll that honoured Zendaya’s look later that year.

'There's a lot to prove'

It’s one of many times Zendaya has used her platform for good and she often discusses the lack of diversity on-screen, including once describing herself as “Hollywood’s acceptable version of a black girl” – insisting it “needs to change”.

Proving she’s also her young fans’ biggest supporter, Zendaya called out Modeliste magazine in 2015 for editing her "19-year-old hips and torso” – saying it was creating “unrealistic ideals of beauty”.

The mag later pulled the edited photos in response to the backlash.

She’s since said she’s inspired “by people who use their platforms: If people know your name, they should know it for a reason”.

While pushing for change across the board, Zendaya continued her incredible rise to stardom in her career.

She appeared in Beyoncé's Lemonade visual album in 2016 – the same year that she launched her own inclusive clothing line – and also starred in Bruno Mars' Versace on the Floor music video the following year.

A major personal success also came in 2017 when she starred opposite Zac Efron in The Greatest Showman, as trapeze artist Anne Wheeler.

That same year she played MJ in Spider-Man: Homecoming and when it came to auditioning, she admitted to Marie Claire she straightened her hair to improve her chances of getting the spot.

However, she added: “I didn’t know that they were going to be more diverse in their casting. I didn’t know that I was walking into a situation where they were already breaking the rules.”

Proving a hit in the film, Zendaya returned two years later in Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Adding to her ever-growing list of credentials, Zendaya has also been named ambassador for Lancome and won an Emmy for her more recent role as drug addict Rue in HBO’s Euphoria.

She told the New York Times of the job: “There's a lot of people who probably think I can't do it because they don't truly understand my personality. And I get it: I'm a Disney kid. There's a lot to prove.”

But prove she did. It seems the sky really is the limit for this talented star.

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