Zendaya has been around for a decade, but she’s gone from Disney prodigy to pop star to acclaimed actress. Here are the highlights of the 24-year-old’s already impressive career.
Shaking it up: Zendaya on Disney
The world’s first encounter with Zendaya was a little Disney show called Shake It Up, a series where two high school girls land gigs as background dancers on a local show called, yes, Shake It Up. If you want an idea of the stakes involved, the first episode follows the girls, CeCe Jones (Bella Thorne) and Rocky Blue (Zendaya herself) as they try to save up enough money to buy a cellphone. Tale as old as time, story as old as rhyme, etc etc.
I mean, look. It’s not Shakespeare. But this genre requires much more talent and charisma than many people think. Kids are way harsher critics than adults. An adult will wait three seasons for a series to get good. Kids won’t even wait three minutes.
Zendaya doesn’t make the kids wait three minutes. From the jump, it was clear she had something to set her apart from the (mostly) clean-cut and wide-eyed Disney starlets that preceded her. She’s more engaged, that much more willing to push to get the jokes across the line, and frankly, has a once-in-a-generation magnetism. Disney might mess up a lot (no more CGI lions please), but they know a star when they see one.
Put this song on replay: Zendaya as pop star
If you were a Disney star in the 21st century, common sense (and contracts) dictated that you also had to be a pop star. See: Lovato, Demi. Gomez, Selena. Duff, Hilary.
Zendaya is no exception, and she definitely benefited from coming at the tail end of the Disney pop star boom – her first, and to date, only album saw her working with a range of then up-and-coming producers, including The Monsters and Strangerz, Jonas Jeberg, Autumn Rowe. As a result, it holds up a lot better than a lot of these albums tend to do, with a playlist-friendly mixture of low-key bangers (‘Bottle it Up’) and chill ballads (‘Fireflies’). Don’t believe me? Rude, but give a listen to ‘Replay’ above, which goes as hard as it did seven years ago.
(You might also have heard Zendaya on the soundtrack to a little movie called The Greatest Showman, duetting with another former Disneyer, Zac Efron, on ‘Rewrite the Stars’. I am trying to erase that movie from my memory, so I will not engage any further with it.)
Zendaya is Meechee
Have you heard? Zendaya is Meechee.
But seriously: Outside of her starring role in Smallfoot (available to rent on Neon), Zendaya pivoted from the small screen to the silver screen almost effortlessly. She’s pretty much the best part of the Spider-Man series reboot, bringing a strong, sardonic take on classic character Mary Jane (slightly renamed to MJ here) that asserts both character and actress as more than just Spider-Man’s number one plus one.
Look, charisma will take you a long way. Just ask [insert politician/morning radio host here]. But does charisma make you Meechee? No, it does not. Only Zendaya is Meechee. But also MJ, and Chani in the upcoming Dune film.
Going undercover: Zendaya does Disney… again
“You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave”, sang The Eagles about the Hotel California. The adage also proves true for Disney, clearly.
Look, I’m a 30-year-old man who had to do some research for this piece. I am, conservatively, a decade or two too old to be in the target audience for a live action Disney series. But I can’t deny that KC Undercover is one of the better live action Disney shows I’ve ever seen. The pitch is simple: a high school math genius, the titular KC, gets recruited by her spy parents to also be a spy, which she has to balance with the demands of being a teenager. So, it’s basically a live action Kim Possible. It’s funny, it’s a little bit mean, and it’s a hell of a lot more fun to watch that I was expecting.
It’s also even more of a showcase for Zendaya’s brand of star power than Shake It Up was. While she had to share the screen with Bella Thorne there – which is the charisma version of putting Muhammad Ali in the ring against a literal butterfly – Zendaya is carrying everything here. While the series doesn’t have the profile of, say, Hannah Montana, it’s a similar sort of thing: there’s a lot of jokes that involve KC keeping her double life a secret, and a lot of mugging for the camera. Again, it’s not Shakespeare, but damn if Zendaya doesn’t give the material everything she has; there’s a lot to be said about committing to the bit, and she commits. Unfortunately, KC Undercover came to an end in 2018, after 75 (!) episodes. But! It left the actor free to do something that was… decidedly un-Disney.
Euphoria star: Zendaya wins an Emmy
Without a doubt, the crowning achievement of Zendaya’s career is HBO’s Euphoria. The series, which focuses on Rue, a recovering teenage drug addict who has just come out of a stint in rehab, is what Skins was like if Skins was a lot more serious, and frankly, a lot more audacious.
Euphoria is more than just the story of Rue, though. It also follows a very loose circle of teens – who alternately fall in and out of love, disdain, fucking and angst with each other – and tackles the myriad issues that face a teenager in the modern world. Spoiler: it’s a lot. Every episode is directed and written by series creator Sam Levinson, and the series immediately sets itself apart for its visual and aural flair. Euphoria isn’t content to just be about teens. No, Euphoria puts you right inside the messed-up heads of teenagers, and folks, the kids are not all right.
Zendaya’s performance as Rue would be a star-making performance if it wasn’t for, well, all of the things I’ve written about above. She’s already a star, but Euphoria uses her magnetism to great effect; even when she’s surrounded by swirling neon lights or underscored with what sounds like 50 different music riffs, Zendaya holds the centre. You can see why she became the youngest person to ever win the Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama; she fully embodies Rue and her damage from the very first episode, while never losing that charisma that made us watch her in the first place. She makes the viewer understand why people are charmed by Rue, and then turns right around and shows us how low her addiction, and even her recovery, has taken her.
The series is currently filling the gap between seasons with hour-long specials – the second of which dropped yesterday – and the first is essentially a pared back showcase for Zendaya. Due to filming under coronavirus restrictions, all the super-stylised visuals and music cues were cut back. Thus, the special is one long conversation, between Rue and her on-again-off-again sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo). It’s a quietly emotionally devastating hour; with Ali slowly but surely nudging Rue to believe that despite her mistakes, her flaws, and the explosive chemistry that makes up her inner life, she’s worthy of both love and life.
Domingo, a long-time stage veteran, is gorgeously raw and understated in the special, but Zendaya more than holds her own against him. This isn’t the Rue who is caught up in the exhausting back and forth between mania and depression, or the Rue who is trading her drug addiction for an addiction to a person (Jules, gorgeously played by Hunter Schafer, and who the second special focuses on). No, this is a Rue who is so worn down by the trauma of living her life that she can barely acknowledge her own humanity.
The end of the special, a long take on her face while ‘Ave Maria’ plays, feels like a moment of both Rue, and Zendaya, coming full circle. On one level, it’s Rue, slowly realising that she might be worth something after all. On another level, it’s Zendaya cashing in all the cheques she’s been banking for the past decade. She’s not having to sell the slapstick of Shake it Up, the beats of ‘Replay’, or even having to be whatever the hell Meechee is. It’s just her effortlessly – because all the best stars make it seem effortless – calling upon that mystical essence that keeps people watching.
The second Euphoria special, ‘Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob’, is on Neon now. The first season and first special are also available on Neon.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.