Who Is Zendaya?
On September 20, 2020, Zendaya sat down with her family to watch television. It could have been any ordinary family night. But this night was special.
Zendaya was wearing a glamorous designer gown and full movie--star makeup. Her hair was swept into an updo. It wasn’t what she would usually wear just to hang out at home. But she had a good reason to be so fancy. It was the night of the 72nd Emmy Awards. And Zendaya was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her role on the HBO series Euphoria
The Emmys are given out by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Usually, they are presented in a big theater in Hollywood, with all the stars walking along a red carpet into the event. But in the fall of 2020, the COVID--19 pandemic was still raging. Large indoor gatherings were considered unsafe. So, instead, Emmy nominees got dressed up and watched from their homes. A messenger from the awards show waited outside each nominee’s house with the award statue. If the nominee won, the messenger could hand them their trophy. If they lost, the messenger would simply leave.
Zendaya didn’t expect to win. The other nominees were much more experienced than she was. Most of them had won other important acting awards during their careers. She felt honored just to be on the same list as them.
Many awards were given out during the show. Winners and presenters made jokes and speeches. Then, finally, it was time for the Outstanding Lead Actress category.
Livestreams began from each nominated actor’s home so the TV audience could watch their reactions in real time. Zendaya sat quietly with her family as the Emmy show host read each nominee’s name. Then, he opened the envelope that held the name of the winner and said, “And the Emmy goes to . . . Zendaya, for Euphoria
Zendaya gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. Her family began to scream. She could hardly believe what she had heard. But when her assistant handed her the Emmy Award statue, she knew it was true. And she was expected to say something.
She caught her breath and turned to the camera. “This is pretty crazy!” Zendaya said. She thanked her family and the cast and crew of the show. But then she spoke to her fans.
“I know this feels like a really weird time to be celebrating, but I just want to say that there is hope in the young people out there . . . ,” she said. “And I just want to say to all my peers out there doing the work in the streets, I see you, I admire you, I thank you, and yeah, thank you so, so much!”
Zendaya had started out as one of many cute child actors. Now she had become the youngest woman to win one of the most important acting awards in Hollywood. Along the way, she has been a singer, dancer, writer, fashion icon, and a spokesperson for people of color. Most of all, she has always been true to herself.
And it all began with a shy little girl who watched Disney Channel shows and thought, “I can do that . . .” Chapter 1: Beginning in Oakland
Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman was born on September 1, 1996, in Oakland, California. The name Zendaya
is inspired by the word tendai
from the Shona language, which is spoken in Zimbabwe. Tendai means “to give thanks.” Her mother, Claire Stoermer, is from a German and Scottish background. Zendaya’s father, Kazembe Ajamu, was born Samuel David Coleman, but he changed his name to reconnect to his family’s African roots. When Zendaya was born, he already had five children from another marriage. Although her three brothers and two sisters are much older, they have always been an important part of Zendaya’s life.
Both of Zendaya’s parents were teachers. But they worked at two very different types of schools. Her father taught at a private school that Zendaya attended for elementary school. Many of the students were wealthy. And Zendaya noticed that she was one of the few Black students. But things were very different at the public school where her mother taught. Some students there were immigrants. Some were from struggling families. Zendaya saw how different opportunities could be for kids who didn’t even live that far away from each other. “I was lucky to go to a private school that provided computer science activities/courses,” she told Essence
magazine. “As a child, I could clearly see that the public school where my mom taught did not have the same resources, not even close.”
Zendaya was a very shy, quiet child. She didn’t speak at all in kindergarten. Her parents decided to have her repeat the grade. They hoped it would give her a chance to catch up socially with other children.
At first, it seemed like sports might be Zendaya’s passion. Both of her parents had played basketball and they got Zendaya interested in it at an early age. She loved the game and was good at it, too.
But she already had her mind on something else. Like many kids, Zendaya enjoyed the shows on the Disney Channel. As she watched the young actors sing and dance, she found herself thinking she’d like to do the same thing. When she was six, she got her first chance to perform. She sang with her father at a school event. Her voice was strong and everyone was impressed.
Zendaya’s mother had a summer job as a house manager for the California Shakespeare Theater. By the time Zendaya was seven, she was helping her mother out at the theater. She passed out programs to audience members and then stayed for the shows. Zendaya was enchanted by the theater world. She spent hours watching long rehearsals and never got bored.
Zendaya became interested in dancing, and joined a hip--hop dance troupe called Future Shock Oakland when she was in third grade. Her mother also signed her up for children’s classes at the California Shakespeare Theater. She hoped that would help with Zendaya’s shyness. The classes taught Zendaya the basics of acting. And she got to perform scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, like Macbeth
, As You Like It
, and Richard III
Zendaya was becoming serious about acting. She began to get cast in plays at big local theaters. She worked with an acting coach to prepare for important auditions. Soon, her father was taking her on the long drive from Oakland to Los Angeles so she could try out for professional jobs.
Her first jobs were modeling for stores like Old Navy and Macy’s and as a dancer in a Kidz Bop video. In one Sears commercial, she was a backup dancer for Disney star Selena Gomez.
People began to notice Zendaya. A casting director for the Disney Channel named Judy Taylor thought she stood out from other kids. “You never tire of watching her,” Taylor said. When Disney began to plan a new show about teen dancers in 2009, Taylor remembered Zendaya.
More than two hundred young actors auditioned for the lead roles in the show. Disney kept bringing Zendaya back to dance and act in more rounds of auditions.
Finally, they made a decision. Zendaya and Bella Thorne were cast as the leads in the show, Shake It Up
. Zendaya was going to be a Disney Channel star, just as she had once imagined. She was thirteen years old and on her way.
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