It’s a blisteringly hot October morning in Los Angeles when I’m dropped off at the end of a nondescript cul-de-sac in the northern part of the city. Through the 100-degree heat, Zendaya appears, miragelike, in a laid-back ensemble of gray sweatpants and a matching T, with her 2-year-old schnauzer, Noon, at her feet. As I step into her sparsely decorated (and blissfully air-conditioned) home, I’m secretly grateful that our original plans to go hiking have been thwarted by the unexpected rise in temperature. While the 21-year-old’s demeanor is not at all intimidating, her athletic 5-foot-10 frame certainly is, especially for this born-and-bred New Yorker, who considers walking to get a cup of coffee a significant form of exercise.
Though Zendaya has lived in her traditional Spanish-style house for more than a year, only a smattering of personal effects is on display. Two framed cast photos from her upcoming film The Greatest Showman and a couch from the dressing room of K.C. Undercover are the lone markers of her showbiz life. “I’m just now getting furniture,” she says while Noon runs outside, chasing a cat up a tree. “I’m trying to have a home, a base. I don’t know anything about my own life. I never know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
One can’t blame her for being too busy to decorate. She’s been working steadily since the age of 13, when her father moved her from Oakland to downtown L.A. so she could try her hand at something bigger than local theater. Over the past few years Zendaya has graduated from being a tween sensation on Disney shows like Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover to releasing her self-titled album and making cameos in music videos for pals Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Bruno Mars. This summer she successfully navigated the holy grail of crossovers by starring in a Hollywood blockbuster—as Michelle, a high school friend of Peter Parker’s, in Spider-Man: Homecoming—which raked in upwards of $800 million globally. She’s already signed up for the sequel.
VIDEO: This Accessory Gives Zendaya Instant Confidence
“It’s weird to be like, ‘Hmm, how successful am I?’ ” Zendaya says when asked about her rise to the top. “I just try to live, and, you know, shit happens. I’ve said it a million times, but I’d rather be known for the active change I’ve made than for what my name stands for.”
Like any kid born in the Internet generation, she has no problem expressing herself on social media, and judging by her followers—45.3 million on Instagram and nearly 11 million on Twitter—the world is listening. Zendaya is just as prone to use the platforms to sound off on issues related to gun control, anxiety, and racism as she is to show off her regular turns on the red carpet. On her app, Zendaya, you’ll see her do everything from giving eyebrow-shaping tutorials (she is also a face for CoverGirl) to taking a shopping trip to Target.
The app is also where she débuts pieces from her unisex fashion and accessories line, Daya by Zendaya, which she co-designs with her longtime stylist, Law Roach. “I just felt that if I’m going to do a clothing line, that’s the only way I see it being done. That’s the future of fashion,” she says of making the brand gender-nonspecific.
Roach has been by her side since she was 13 and is essentially responsible for transforming Zendaya into the wildly celebrated fashion chameleon she has become. For her Spider-Man: Homecoming première, it was a flowing pink Ralph & Russo Couture dress; for the 2016 Grammys, an androgynous Dsquared2 tuxedo, paired with a mullet paying homage to David Bowie. And who can forget the white off-the-shoulder Vivienne Westwood gown she wore to the 2015 Oscars? The look became national news after Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic commented that Zendaya’s hair, worn in long dreadlocks, “must smell like patchouli or weed.” Though the remark incited instant ire on social media for its insensitivity (Rancic later made a public apology), it was Zendaya who took the high ground by saying, “It was a learning experience for everyone.”
Undoubtedly, her ability to stand up and speak out is what makes her so special. Whereas in the early aughts revered pop stars and Disney-bred celebrities rejected their mentor status, Zendaya has followed a different path, joining a new generation of stars who believe that what you have to say is more important than what you are wearing, whom you are dating, or what movies you are in.
“I’ve had the luxury of watching people do this before me, and I realize that [being a role model] is actually a huge part of the job,” she says. “You sign up for that. You’re being watched. You can choose to accept that and appreciate it, or you can choose not to. That’s 100 percent your choice. I choose to acknowledge it.”
If you’re playing the Hollywood odds, it’s that awareness that makes Zendaya a sure bet. “When parents or young people come up to me, the first thing they say is not ‘Oh, I love that show you did.’ It’s ‘Hey, thank you for saying this’ or ‘My daughter really needed to see that.’ That stuff is much more of a compliment.”
When asked about her thoughts on the film industry and the harassment allegations tearing through Hollywood, she offers a response with the grace of someone well beyond her years. “The bravery of the women who came forward is a huge step toward making sure it’s safer for me and other young women who are just coming up,” she says. “I’m at that prime age right now. Twenty-one. Starting off. That’s when people take advantage and abuse their power and do terrible shit. I think it’s definitely a sisterhood.”
Born to a Caucasian mother and an African-American father, Zendaya credits her parents for instilling in her an organic curiosity that makes her want to know all sides of every issue. “My mom and dad and I have completely different opinions about things sometimes, because my dad is a 64-year-old black man, and those different perspectives are important,” she says. “Sometimes it’s pretty random how it all works. You might just happen to be at a meeting and then you start talking politics, and a good conversation develops.”
She was drawn to her latest film, The Greatest Showman, co-starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, for its acknowledgment of racial issues. “A big part of my character’s story line, the reason that she is an oddity, is that she and her brother are black. That is what makes them different,” says Zendaya, who plays a high-flying pink-haired trapeze artist named Anne Wheeler. “That’s why they find comfort in being in the circus. But Anne finds freedom and power in being a trapeze artist—she’s just above everybody. It’s her happy place.” Her character eventually falls for Zac Efron’s Phillip Carlyle, Barnum’s young protégé, which only complicates things further. “It all gets halted when she starts falling for someone who’s white,” she says. “I’m biracial, so there are so many [shared] experiences there. I think it’s a cool side story line. It’s something that you get invested in.”
Another draw? Getting to do her own aerial work. Director Michael Gracey was clear with Zendaya that he wanted to use a stunt double as little as possible. Upon her securing the role, he told her point blank that she should probably start working out, she recalls with a laugh. “Anybody who knows me knows I have no upper body strength. It’s not my jam.”
Five months later, after doing lots of core work and wrist exercises, her hands calloused from trapeze work, she was ready for her big number with Efron. “We rarely touch the ground, so it was quite the experience,” she says. “We had to do this thing where we swing across and swing apart and intertwine and spin around each other. And there’s a take where we literally just bam!” Afterward the two would text each other while icing whatever body part ached that day. “I would write him, like, ‘Yo, does your frickin’ this hurt?’ ” she says. “It was good to have a partner who was just as excited as I was.”
If Zendaya’s career is soaring to new heights, the way she grounds herself is what makes her such an anomaly. Further evidence of this is on display eight hours after our interview when we reconvene at the InStyle Awards, where she is honored as a Style Star. True to her transformative style, the messy bun has morphed into a beautiful Afro inspired by a photo of “her aunties” in the ’70s; the sweats were ditched for a Schiaparelli Haute Couture gown with cascading ombré ruffles.
Amid a sea of stars including seasoned vets like Cate Blanchett and Selena Gomez, the statuesque Zendaya projects a commanding presence, especially when she takes to the podium for her acceptance speech. “We should stop living by the definitions that other people give us and live our own,” she says to the well-heeled crowd. “That’s what fashion has allowed me to do. The only opinion that should matter when you look in the mirror is your own.”
Photographer: Anthony Maule. Fashion editor: Law Roach. Hair: Larry Sims. Makeup: Frankie Boyd. Manicure: Casey Herman.
For more stories like this, pick up the January issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Dec. 8.