Zendaya Rise to Fame

From Disney Channel To the Red Carpet: Zendaya's Rise To Fame


| LAST UPDATE 10/20/2021

By Manny Ray

From her days as a Disney Channel star to strutting down the Red Carpet, Zendaya Coleman's certainly come a long way. Find out how this stunner climbed her way to the top and eventually made Hollywood history.

Growing Up

Before her rise to stardom, Zendaya Coleman grew up in Oakland, California, with her mother and father. She's always been incredibly proud of her identity; "I literally have, like, a timeline in history in my name," she said.

Childhood ZendayaChildhood Zendaya
Instagram via @zendaya

"I have my African first name, I have a middle name that is [my mom's] middle name, which is French, but we did it African spelling." With the support of her parents, Zendaya was able to become the ultimate quadruple threat.

Born To Be a Star

Zendaya's been thriving in the spotlight ever since she was a kid, it all starting with her role in the school play. The brave soul auditioned for James and the Giant Peach, and the rest was history. "I tried out for the lead, but I ended up being cast as the silkworm," she revealed.

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Getty Images via Kevin Winter

"I didn't have any lines, but you know what? I killed it." Zendaya's also been dancing her heart out for most of her life, so by the time she made it onto Dancing With the Stars, it must've been a breeze! "As a kid, my main interest was dancing," said Zendaya. "When I was 8-years-old, I was in a hip-hop troupe."

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Backup Dancer for Selena Gomez

She made her first onscreen appearance as a backup dancer for Selena Gomez in a Sears commercial years later. "That's a funny commercial because it's so weird to think that later on - Ross Lynch was in it, Leo Howard was in it - and we were backup dancers, we weren't even lead kids," Zendaya explained.

Backup Dancer for Selena Gomez Backup Dancer for Selena Gomez
Getty Images via Michael Buckner

Little did she know, she and Ross Lynch would eventually both become Disney Channel stars. But before taking on Disney, Zendaya and Ross were both Bop Kids for the Kidz Bop 15 album. "It's funny where things evolved from, and it's cool to start small," Zendaya shared.

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Disney Debut

When she was 13-years-old, Zendaya landed her first TV role on a brand new Disney Channel series. She played Rocky Blue in Shake It Up, alongside Bella Thorne, Roshon Fegan, and numerous other rising stars. This truly kickstarted her career, and Zendaya's future was looking bright.

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Getty Images via Valerie Macon

She and Bella had a lot in common; They were both in their early teenage years and looking to jumpstart their acting careers. So, it made sense that these two would become close friends, but they had no idea what the network would eventually put them up to.

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Pinned Against Bella Thorne

While Zendaya and Bella both had secured roles on Shake It Up, Disney supposedly encouraged competition between the teen actors. "Zendaya and I were put in a very unfortunate position where we were kind of forced to compete against each other," Thorne explained.

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Getty Images via Steve Granitz

"Which made the whole first season of the show just very awkward for us," she added. "We wanted to love each other, but yet we were constantly being put up against each other. It was, 'Who's better at this?' and 'Who's better at that?'" Eventually, Zendaya and Bella decided to prioritize their friendship over the potential drama.

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Demanded a Proper Education from Disney

Since Zendaya still had years of school left when she started acting, she had to make time for her studies in between scenes. She revealed that many of her colleagues would "cheat their way through" online classes, but with teachers as parents, Zendaya certainly wasn't going to take the easy way out.

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Getty Images via Jeffrey Mayer

But Disney didn't provide the education she needed, so her mother wrote letters to the network to hire a teacher who would travel everywhere with Zendaya. "In the hotel room, she'd be like, 'Are you tired? I don't care,'" she explained. "I remember doing Dancing With the Stars and literally falling asleep reading a book." 

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Her Career Took a Toll on Her Family

Both of Zendaya's parents were incredibly supportive of her career, but continuously driving from Oakland to L.A. became difficult. So, Zendaya's father quit his job as a teacher when she was in middle school after she landed her first Disney series, and her mom picked up an extra job to make ends meet.

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Getty Images via Bill McCay

"I got my first job on the Disney Channel when I was 13, and it was just me and my dad in an apartment in downtown L.A.," Zendaya explained. "It was very difficult because I was dealing with all the pivotal girl moments." While it was challenging to be away from her mother and her hometown, Zendaya knew it was best for her career.

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Signed With Hollywood Records

In 2012, while she was still studying and starring in Shake It Up, Zendaya signed with Hollywood Records and began focusing more on her music career. Other artists, including Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers, also started with this label, so Zendaya had high hopes for this next chapter. 

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Getty Images via Jennifer Lourie

The record label helped her release her very first album, titled Zendaya, in 2013. Evidently, it was a massive success, landing number 51 on Billboard's Top 200 list. Zendaya was extremely passionate about singing and imagined a bright career doing it, but she would eventually change her opinion years later. 

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'Dancing With the Stars'

In March of 2013, Zendaya competed on Dancing With the Stars, which many people thought would be a walk in the park as she'd grown up dancing. But in reality, "I am such a perfectionist that criticism is hard to take," she revealed. "I tried to hide my feelings on national television."

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Getty Images via Debra L Rothenberg

But with the guidance and support from her partner, Valentin Chmerkovskiy, Zendaya took the judges' criticism and used it to better her performances. In the end, she and Val got second place, and while they didn't win, like many people had expected them to, Zendaya overcame significant challenges and bettered herself.

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Rocking Her Tween Years

Launching her career as a teenager gave Zendaya the ability to relate to many of her teenage fans. This motivated her to write a book called, Between U and Me: How to Rock Your Tween Years with Style and Confidence. "The tween years can be really fun and exciting, but they can also be a tough time in a girl's life," she shared.

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Getty Images via Astrid Stawiarz

"You're just finding your voice and personal style. There's a lot of drama in relationships with other girls, parents, siblings, teachers, and boys," Zendaya continued. "I hope this book will help girls through the tougher parts of the tween years and help them appreciate the fun parts."

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Made a Comeback on Disney

Shake It Up was canceled after three seasons, and Zendaya had thought she was finished with Disney Channel. When she got the opportunity to start filming a new series, she agreed, under a few conditions. "The only way I was going to come back to the Disney Channel was if I was in a position of more power," Zendaya revealed.

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Getty Images via Dimitrios Kambouris

So, she took on the lead role while also producing K.C. Undercover, which aired in 2015. In terms of the main character, "I wanted to make sure that she wasn't good at singing or acting or dancing," Zendaya told Vogue in 2017. "That she wasn't artistically inclined... There are other things that a girl can be."

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Bringing Diversity to Disney

Zendaya envisioned K.C. as a powerful young woman; "I want her to be able to do everything that a guy can do... But I also want her to be socially awkward, not a cool kid. I want her to be normal with an extraordinary life." On top of taking on atypical traits, Zendaya had one other condition she required for the show.

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Getty Images via Johnny Nunez/BET

"One thing that is really important to me is diversity on the channel," she revealed. "It's hard as a young person of a different ethnicity or background to look at the TV and not see anyone who looks like you. Representation is important." And her hard work paid off, as the series was a major success.

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Criticized by Giuliana Rancic

Zendaya was very open about the pride she took in her identity and background, and that's part of what fans admired about her. However, at the 2015 Oscars, Giuliana Rancic of E! News publicly insulted the star for being herself. Zendaya wore her hair in dreadlocks, and Rancic was quick to give her input.

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Getty Images via Vallery Jean

The Fashion Police host said Zendaya's hair must have smelled like "patchouli" and other things that deeply hurt her feelings. Not only was Zendaya extremely offended by this remark, but other celebrities were also taken aback, including Kerry Washington and Whoopi Goldberg, who defended Zendaya on social media.

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Zendaya Clapped Back

"There is a fine line between what is funny and what is disrespectful," Zendaya responded in an Instagram post. "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."

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Getty Images via Kevork Djansezian

No matter what anyone else said, Zendaya wasn't ashamed of her appearance; She remained incredibly proud of who she was. "To me, locs are a symbol of strength and beauty," she added. Rancic later apologized on Twitter and then again on the next episode of Fashion Police, explaining that she didn't mean to offend anyone. 

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Made Into a Barbie

Later that year, Mattel, a popular toy company, created a Barbie that resembled Zendaya's Red Carpet look from the Oscars. "She's a role model who is focused on standing up for yourself, your culture, and for what you believe in - that's very relevant for girls," said Michelle Chidoni, a Mattel spokesperson.

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Getty Images via Kevin Winter

They aimed to honor Zendaya for truly being herself. "The doll looks exactly like my look! Literally down to my pinky ring," she said. "I really appreciate that they took the time to make [the doll] super detailed and took time with the hair because obviously, the hair was so important."

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Called Out a Magazine for Retouching Her Photos

Between embracing her natural beauty and encouraging fans to be true to themselves, Zendaya's made it very clear that she doesn't support retouching photos to make herself appear as someone she's not. So, when she saw the picture of herself on the cover of Modeliste magazine in 2015, she wasn't pleased. 

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Getty Images via Jon Kopaloff

"Had a shoot come out today and was shocked when I found my 19-year-old hips and torso quite manipulated," Zendaya shared on Instagram. "These are the things that make women self-conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have." The last thing she wanted to do was send the wrong message to other young women.

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Honest Self-Love

Plus, she was satisfied with the original photos, without the heavy editing, and those were the pictures she was excited to show the world. "Anyone who knows who I am knows I stand for honest and pure self-love," Zendaya explained. "So I took it upon myself to release the real pic, and I love it."

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Getty Images via Jacopo M. Raule

After Zendaya expressed her feelings on the matter, Modeliste deleted the retouched photos and released a letter from the editor thanking Zendaya for making such a meaningful statement. "Thank you, @modelistemagazine, for pulling down the images and fixing this retouch," she captioned the unedited photo on Instagram.

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Easy, Breezy, Beautiful

And things continued to take off from there; Zendaya became the face of CoverGirl in 2016. She was thrilled at the opportunity to continue celebrating beauty and diversity while also weighing in on the cosmetics industry. "She's a quadruple threat... and total girl boss," as said on CoverGirl's Instagram.

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Getty Images via Brendon Thorne

"CoverGirl celebrates powerful, beautiful, and strong women of different races and ethnicities," Zendaya said. "It's inspiring. I'm thrilled to be part of the diversity and expansion of beauty." After standing up to Giuliana Rancic's controversial comment and refusing airbrushed photos, this was the cherry on top for Zendaya.

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Julie Klausner Put Her Down

After the 2016 Kids' Choice Awards, comedian Julie Klausner called Zendaya a "thinspo model for your impressional tweens" and implied that she had an eating disorder. "I'm concerned with the generation of girls who aspire to look like Zendaya," Klausner wrote. "I do not worry about Zendaya's health or care whether she eats."

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Getty Images via Steve Zak Photography

"You don't have to have an eating disorder to attend the Kids' Choice Awards... but it helps!" Julie added. Zendaya couldn't believe what she was reading, especially after vouching for self-love and embracing natural beauty. "Do you find this funny?" Zendaya responded. Fans jumped to her defense, but Klausner stood by her words.

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Collaborated With Other Musical Icons

Zendaya was ecstatic about the opportunity to appear in Beyonce's Lemonade visual album; "It was beautiful because it hit on so many points, not just about feminism or empowerment, but it talked about heartbreak and healing all at the same time," she explained.

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Getty Images via Vincent Sandoval

"It touched on cultural and societal issues... It was so empowering as a black woman to watch it and be a part of it," Zendaya continued. That same year, she also collaborated with Chris Brown on her hit single, Something New. "He's such a talented person and is held at such a high level in entertainment," she said about Brown.

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Dressed by Daya

In 2016, Zendaya launched her clothing line, Daya, but released a second collection the following year, which was meant to be accessible for everyone. She aimed to make the pieces gender fluid and affordable, so all of her fans and fashionistas could show off Daya designs.

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Getty Images via Kevin Mazur

"This time around, I wanted it to be a little more wearable," Zendaya shared. She collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger and stayed true to herself with the practicality and style. "I guess you could say [it's] elevator streetwear - something that's easy to dress up and dress down, comfortable and realistic for your everyday person."

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Took the Big Screen by Storm

The following year, Zendaya broke into the Marvel Universe, landing a part in Spider-Man: Homecoming. After that, it was clear that the actress was meant to be on the big screen. Before she knew it, she would land a leading role in The Greatest Showman, alongside Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron.

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Getty Images via Don Arnold

Zendaya played the role of Anne, which combined her love for singing, dancing, and acting. The film was nominated for multiple awards, proving that the star was capable of anything. She even spent countless hours training to perfect the trapeze scenes, as the director preferred not to use stunt doubles.

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Lindsay Lohan Bashed Her Wardrobe

Zendaya blew people away with her wardrobe at the 2019 Met Gala. She dressed as Cinderella, wearing a stunning Tommy Hilfiger ballgown, accompanied by her stylist and 'Fairy Godbrutha' Law Roach. However, Lindsay Lohan was unimpressed; "Claire Danes did that with @zacposen already," she wrote on social media.

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Getty Images via Dia Dipasupil

"@clairedanes you wore this dress so beautifully. I don't know why someone thinks that they can be more chic. Ever," Lohan added. Zendaya's fans immediately shut Lindsay down, saying things like, "Lindsay Lohan got some nerve criticizing @Zendaya when her reality show was canceled and music belongs in the trash."

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Said the Music Industry Took Away Her Passion

In 2019, Zendaya stepped away from music and focused more on her acting career, but there was more to the story than just her desire to land more movie roles. "I think the [music] industry takes a little bit of passion away from you," she admitted. "It sucks you dry a little bit."

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Getty Images via Axelle/Bauer-Griffin

"What I thought I wanted, it's not what I want anymore, [especially] when I think about what I had to deal with in the music industry." While singing was once something that Zendaya loved, making a career out of it made her look at music in a new light. "I allowed myself to step away from it until that passion comes back," she shared.

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Advising Aspiring Musicians

Following her explanation, Zendaya also gave some advice to anyone looking to pursue a music career. "If anyone asks my number one advice, for [the entertainment] industry in general but mostly the music industry, it's look over those contracts, every single word, and don't sign anything that isn't worth it to you," she shared.

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Getty Images via Bennett Raglin/BET

"The industry felt like it wasn't really for the music," she admitted. After her own experience as a successful artist, Zendaya wanted to help steer other passionate musicians in the right direction and reminded her followers, "You are worth more than they will say that you are."

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'Euphoria' Forced Her To Open Up

One of Zendaya's most significant roles yet has been playing Rue in Euphoria, an HBO series. Not only did the role demand incredible acting, but it also forced Zendaya to open up, and change more than she'd expected. "A role like that requires you to be a lot more open and a lot rawer with your emotions," she explained.

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Getty Images via Jeff Kravitz

"If you aren't, it won't work." Zendaya revealed that she's noticed some changes in herself since filming the series in 2019. "I guess I have softened a little bit. I'm more emotionally connected," she shared. "I've learned more about people, empathy, and understanding by playing her."

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Insensitivity on Set

Since Zendaya's practically grown up in the spotlight, she's been exposed to all sorts of behavior in Hollywood and admitted she's faced incidents "on-set with people being racially insensitive." She revealed, "I didn't like my hair and makeup one time on a photoshoot… And my publicist told me, 'You should just be happy with it.'"

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Getty Images via Frazer Harrison

"They haven't had a black girl on the cover since forever," said Zendaya's publicist. "She's no longer my publicist," Zendaya shared. "It's a hard thing in Hollywood when you're mixed," Zendaya's mother, Claire, explained. "You're not white enough to be white, and you're not black enough to be black."

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Being a Voice

Zendaya admitted that the color of her skin has in some cases given her more privilege, "compared to [her] darker brothers and sisters." Because of this, she said she felt a "responsibility to be a voice for the beautiful shades my people come in." And over the years, Zendaya's learned to use her voice whenever necessary.

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Getty Images via JP Yim

So, when her former publicist encouraged Zendaya to accept the conditions of the job, even though they went against her values she immediately fired her. "People think I'm cool when I'm Zendaya," she shared, so what's the point in trying to be anyone else or fitting into a mold for a job?

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Learning How to Say 'No'

That particular modeling job, along with various other music and acting gigs, have given Zendaya the clarity she needs to turn down jobs that don't feel right. "I have so many friends who say yes to everything or feel like they can't stand up for themselves in a situation," she explained.

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Getty Images via Theo Wargo

"No: you have the power," Zendaya added. This is why she wouldn't conform to the typical "Disney-girl persona, as "slowly I realized that was stupid," Zendaya admitted. "A lot of people don't realize their power," she shared, but in Zendaya's eyes, recognizing your own power and self-worth means the world.

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Making History

This past September, Zendaya made history as the youngest woman to receive an Emmy for Best Actress. At 24-years-old, she was recognized for her incredible performance as Rue in Euphoria, a role that she said genuinely changed her as a person. And chances are, things will only continue to go up from here.

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Getty Images via Kristy Sparow

She's certainly come a long way since her teenage years on Disney Channel and has become an inspiration to women all over the world. "Becoming a young woman and learning more about yourself and growing into your own, you learn about yourself," Zendaya shared. This quadruple threat never fails to impress.

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