Even if you have no idea who zendaya is—and it seems a pretty safe bet that most of the adult tourist crowd at Sarabeth’s (the bustling Central Park South restaurant that serves as the setting for the 18-year-old Disney star's Teen Vogueinterview) do not—you’d probably suspect, just by looking at her, that she’s someone. In sneakers she stands an imposing five feet ten, and at lunchtime her face is expertly made up; both her pink-painted nails and her jet-black lashes are improbably long. And if her attire—which includes a pair of slim-fitting gray sweatpants, a black hooded sweatshirt bearing a picture of rapper Tupac Shakur, and orange Nikes, which she kicks off almost as soon as she’s seated—sends a slightly different message, it’s one that serves only to underscore the larger implication: This is a girl who doesn’t need to worry about fitting in. (The gigantic bodyguard who’d waited with her by the host station is a somewhat more obvious tip-off.)
Among those in the know, Zendaya’s willingness to stand out is a much-admired quality. But that hasn’t always been the case: Back when she was 13 and first started trying out for professional acting gigs in Los Angeles, she says, “there was this kind of energy, particularly among the other girls, of, like, ‘Oooh, I’m going to get you.’ A lot of the kids who were auditioning had been doing it since they were, like, 2. They were these purebred Hollywood children, and I was this random chick from Oakland just doing my thing,” she explains. “They’re always onstage, and I was just so not into it. Like, you’re 12. Chill out. It’s not the end of the world. I’d literally sit there before auditions with my headphones on, listening to Michael Jackson.” Needless to say, it didn’t exactly help when she promptly nabbed a starring role in the Disney Channel series Shake It Up. “I think a lot of them hated me,” she admits.
Fortunately Zendaya seems to have had no trouble taking the haters in stride, especially given that she’s been busy pursuing her dreams at full throttle. It all began, Zendaya says, when she was a kid, accompanying her schoolteacher mom to her second job as a house manager at the California Shakespeare Theater. “My passion was always in the arts,” she says. “I was that weird 8-year-old who was into Shakespeare.” On show nights Zendaya sold enough raffle tickets to earn a free trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico—which, she notes, she never actually took. And when the curtain went up, she recalls, “I had a routine. Everyone knew me, so I’d go over to the food stand and they’d give me a chocolate-chip cookie, a Snapple, and a veggie burrito, and then I’d sit in the back and watch all the plays over and over and over again.”
Her favorites included Othello and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but she made her own stage debut in a more humble production: a children’s theater presentation ofJames and the Giant Peach. “I played the Silkworm, which means I didn’t have any lines—I might have said, 'James, look!’ or something like that. But I was up there the whole time, reacting to things.” Zendaya was, she reports, an introvert (“When I was younger, my parents had to go to a seminar about shy kids”), and acting gave her a chance to break out of her shell. But it was still difficult to live apart from her mother, who remained in Oakland while Zendaya was shooting the first season of Shake It Up in L.A.—especially at the arrival of, as she puts it, “woman time,” which forced her to dispatch her clueless father to a drugstore in search of supplies.
Now, more than a year after the end of her first series, Zendaya is poised to conquer a larger audience. But she’s not quite following the path forged by fellow former child stars Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez; for one, she’s not ditching Disney at all. Instead she’s working with the network on her new show, K.C. Undercover, for which she serves, crucially, as coproducer. “It was going to be called Super Awesome Katy,” she explains, “but I changed it. I don’t look like a Katy, and I wanted something a little more mature. It wasn’t really right for the demographic that I’m trying to reach now.” Which is&? “Well, the majority of my fan base are young girls, and I don’t want to leave that world forever. But I also want to reach the preteens, the teenagers. A lot of college students watch the Disney Channel in their dorms, actually.”