While Zendaya’s career could be illustrated in hundreds of images, she has an uncanny way of making the latest one the biggest moment. The ability to make an entrance, to elicit a gasp, would seem like something that she was born with; rather, it’s something she has grown into. To see her — Emmy winner, Instagram centurion, and fashion icon (overused but apt) — on a red carpet is to see the newly 25-year-old at the top of her powers, an influence Zendaya wields more casually on a set, driving herself and showing up in sweats and a baggy T-shirt. It takes a particular confidence, and power, to give the people what they want — and how! — and then deliberately recede into work and a very private life.
VIDEO: Zendaya Opens Your Fan Mail
Laura Brown: As I’ve gotten to know you, I’ve noticed you have a naturally refined visual sense. On this shoot, you asked the crew to follow you up some stairs, and damn, there was the perfect sun dappling your Valentino Haute Couture dress.
Zendaya: I’ve always been interested in things behind the camera. But Euphoria really grew my love for cinematography, just watching Marcell Rév light things and make every frame gorgeous. He and [series creator] Sam Levinson build these beautifully intricate shots and put so much detail into everything. I’m a Virgo and I like to be thoughtful of everything. But watching them work inspired me to get more into photography.
LB: And yet, on your Instagram, you put up three epic pictures at the BET Awards [in a Versace-dress homage to Beyoncé] in June and then disappeared for weeks. [laughs] That was so chic.
Z: I haven’t been posting, and my fans probably hate it, which I understand. But I get too overwhelmed with having to post things, and if I think too much about it, I’m not gonna do it. It’s not worth it.
LB: With a following of 100-something million people, I think it might make your brain bleed.
Z: Exactly. I’d rather do what I love and then post when I have a project to promote.
LB: And you have Dune coming out Oct. 22. Are you good in vast quantities of sand?
Z: We’ll see what the world thinks. But I had such a fun time. I think [director] Denis [Villeneuve] is one of the most extraordinary filmmakers we have — he’s just so consistent and thoughtful. I loved working with him, although it wasn’t for very long.
LB: But you’re coming back for a sequel, aren’t you?
Z: We’ll see how the first one goes, but I’m ready to do a second. Whenever they call, I’m here. [Co-star] Timothée [Chalamet] is an extraordinary talent and just a lovely person—he’s become my family.
LB: You’re so hugely visible now. Didn’t you once say that you watch a Harry Potter movie every day to chill out?
Z: Yeah. I haven’t done that as much this past year, but I used to watch them to get through the first season of Euphoria. Some days I just want to go home, cuddle up with my dog, and watch a little Harry Potter. I also love Shrek. That’s another staple in my household when I have heavy days at work.
LB: When you have to film a traumatic scene, how do you prepare?
Z: If I overanalyze a scene before I get to it, I’ll eventually get blocked because I’m judging myself, like, “You’re not doing this right.” There’s such a high expectation that I end up not being able to give anything at all.
LB: Can you shake it off easily afterward?
Z: Sometimes it takes a while, but it’s case-by-case. You can also use whatever you’re going through in therapy. I let that be a catalyst or an outlet for my personal feelings or things that I’m going through. A lot of times, with [my character] Rue, I have such a deep love for her that when she’s going through something, it breaks my heart. And your body doesn’t know that the situation isn’t real; it’s absorbing those things and really going through it. It can take time for your body to come back to normal.
LB: Speaking of heavy days, you shot a [September 2020] cover with us last year in the worst of times. We’re now seeing a little light, but a lot of people feel almost a psychological jet lag, coming out of it. How have you felt?
Z: It’s very difficult for me to complain about this time, considering how lucky I have been to get through it. I was healthy. I knew I had a job waiting for me when I got out, which for a lot of people wasn’t the case. I had my rough moments, and it wasn’t easy — I was figuring my shit out, trying to understand who I was without my job and finding purpose and meaning.
LB: Exactly — when the thing you do most days is gone, it’s jarring.
Z: Absolutely. I’ve worked consistently since I was 13 years old. So when I had nothing but free time, I was like, “What do I do with this? What are my hobbies?” I don’t even have hobbies — I do my hobby for a living.
LB: Weren’t you learning to paint? Are you good?
Z: I think I’m pretty good. I painted a female figure, and it was one of my first times trying oil paint. [Euphoria co-star] Hunter [Schafer], who is one of the most special people in my life, is a phenomenal artist. She took me to the art store to get the proper tools for oil paint. Every now and then I’ll whip out my kit and do a little something. She also inspired me to keep a sketchbook.
LB: Given your self-described tendencies, do you want your work to be perfect? What makes you nervous?
Z: Messing up. Making mistakes. Not being the best I can possibly be at something. Failure. Again, that’s a Virgo thing. If something is not perfect or the best, then I feel like I might as well have not even done it. I turn something into being the worst thing, even if it was fine. But it’s not fine to me.
LB: As you get older, are you able to reconcile that a little more?
Z: I’m learning to not let those fears stop me from trying things. It’s OK to be an artist and to explore.
LB: It’s a very big life that you’ve got. How do you manage to live inside and outside of yourself?
Z: It’s interesting because with our profession, there’s no real blueprint for how it works. When you have more of a corporate structure, there are promotions and you move up in the ranks. In this avenue, it’s kind of like, “I don’t know what I’m doing now.” What I urge a lot of people to understand about this business is that it also is a business. It’s the entertainment industry, and it’s important to remember that money and contracts are involved. I try to be prepared and understand as much as I can about that too.
LB: How invested are you in what you make financially?
Z: I find the business fascinating and important. When I was younger, I wasn’t hugely into it. My parents would have to make me read contracts. But as an adult, having been through ups and downs with different things not working out, I started wanting to read contracts on my own.
LB: At this stage of your career, I wouldn’t think a lot of people would say no to you.
Z: I don’t know if I’ve put myself in many situations to be told no. I think with a lot of things you need to get resistance. Maybe it is foolish to believe that anything is possible, but I do kind of believe that. Just because you haven’t done something before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
LB: When was the first time you owned your shit and really stood up for yourself?
Z: I was pretty young. I think my parents [instilled] in me at a very young age [the ability] to stick up for myself. If you don’t like something, you say it. If something makes you uncomfortable, you tell somebody. I’ve always had a good handle on that.
Z: I’m definitely a shit owner.
LB: You are also now an Oscar voter and working to make a difference behind the scenes on your projects. What I thought was magnificent on [your Netflix film] Malcolm & Marie was that you made sure everybody on the crew got paid equitably. What else in the industry would you change if you could?
Z: Other than becoming a director, my dream is to create my own things. I would love to make films that allow space for young up-and-coming artists, writers, and filmmakers — because especially with Black talent, it’s not a lack thereof; it’s a lack of opportunity. I’d like to give those opportunities: Partner upcoming filmmakers with different writers and mentorships, connect them with the actors they want to see in their films, and create those special bonds. And make sure they get paid and taken care of.
LB: It’s bizarre that it was so hard for Black and diverse talent to get a real foothold for so long. Interesting people come in all different colors.
Z: Even with photo shoots, I’m now at the point where I can request photographers to work with. But before that, if I didn’t choose them, I never had the opportunity to work with Black photographers — and that is disgraceful, if you ask me. I feel lucky to be able to find new talent or work with people like [InStyle photographers] Ahmad [Barber] and Donté [Maurice], who are so talented.
LB: With all this change in the past year, how big of a B.S. radar do you have? A lot of people are disingenuous and making these changes cosmetically.
Z: I know when a moment is honest. It’s kind of like a “put your money where your mouth is” thing. Unless you’re really willing to pay people and give them jobs and opportunities, then we don’t need you to keep talking about it. How about you just do it?
LB: You lead a team yourself. What sort of boss are you?
Z: I think my biggest flaw as a boss is that I am a procrastinator. I don’t like to answer email or questions; I just want to do the fun, cool stuff. I’m also very detail-oriented and won’t let anything go. Those two things don’t really go hand in hand, so I’m learning how to be better at that.
LB: Where’s your Emmy for Euphoria, by the way? Do you polish it?
Z: It is sitting on my mantel. I have not polished it. I don’t know the proper etiquette. It lived with my mom when I was in Atlanta [filming Spider-Man: No Way Home]. When I got back it was weird to be like, “Hey, Mom, can I come and pick up my Emmy?” [laughs]
LB: Typical mother-daughter conversation. Speaking of Spider-Man, did you ever think you’d be part of it?
Z: No, definitely not. I had no idea that was coming. I actually went to see Spider-Man on my first date when I was 16. The version with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.
LB: There is a very popular meme of you sitting in a store with [your co-star and rumored boyfriend] Tom Holland, who is in full Spidey costume, and you are looking a bit annoyed. Do you remember what was being discussed?
Z: Yes. We were shooting in New York, and you can’t block off streets because it’s public space. It’s difficult for Tom, who has to be in the full Spidey suit; it’s not like he can be incognito. He has to take his spider eyes out just to drink water. I don’t remember if he’s drinking water in that picture, but I think his eyes are popped out.
LB: He was actually bugging.
Z: Yeah. The paparazzi can be wherever they want. Even our holding area was a vitamin store with glass everywhere, so it wasn’t super private. I’m assuming someone was looking through the window, trying to scare us or something. So that was my face.
LB: Tom is looking as unimpressed as you in that pic. But tell me, what do you appreciate about him as an actor and as a chap?
Z: There are many things, obviously, that I appreciate. In an actor way, I appreciate that he really loves being Spider-Man. It’s a lot of pressure — you take on the role of a superhero wherever you go. To the little kid who walks by, you are Spider-Man. I think he handled that so well. And seeing him at work, even though he’s not a Virgo [laughs], he is a perfectionist.
Our director allowed me to come in every day [of the shoot], and it was cool to see how he cares so much about his work and making it right. I watched him do a fight scene all day, which is exhausting. He’d do a move, come back to the monitors, watch it, and say, “I can do that better.” I’d be like, “Dude, you got it.” But he wants us to be perfect, and I really appreciate that.
LB: He seems like very easy company.
Z: Yeah, he’s a fun time. Very charismatic, can make anybody feel comfortable and have a good laugh and a good chat. A good chat — I sound so British.
LB: Can you do a British accent?
Z: I end up just doing sound bites from Love Island. [laughs]
LB: What speaks to you about Love Island?
Z: I didn’t know about it until I spent five months in London shooting the second Spider-Man. I was like, “What is this?” And I was so against it too — I was like, “Guys, this is ridiculous. You can’t watch this every day.” Then I was sucked in. I don’t remember it having a huge presence in America before that summer, but when I came back, the season that I saw ended up also being shown in Euphoria. It was during Rue’s depression episode and she was just stuck in her room, watching episode after episode of Love Island. Now it’s everywhere.
LB: It’s funny because you’re quite a low-key person, but when you go onto these red carpets, you really amp it up. Is that so you can say, “Thank you, world, I’ve had my moment. I’m going to go home now?”
Z: I think about red carpets as having their own characters and narratives. We build a little story for all the looks. It’s like an extension of my acting career in a weird way — you just pop this wig on or whatever it is. Clothes sometimes are very emotional, so I get to embody these different facets — maybe they’re of myself, or maybe they’re alter egos. But I get to meet these different women through clothes.
LB: What are your favorite red carpet looks so far?
Z: Joan of Arc [at the 2018 Met Gala]. The pink Tom Ford breastplate [at the 2020 Critics’. Choice Awards] was one of my favorites. Nothing could hurt me — I was like a warrior. Oh, and the Moschino butterfly dress [at the Australian premiere of The Greatest Showman in 2017].
LB: You started making things interesting when you did that David Bowie look [at the 2016 Grammys].
Z: I know. I got dragged for my mullet at the time, but kids love mullets now. I’m happy about my David Bowie mullet.
LB: How did you figure out your red carpet pose? Was it trial and error? I’m not saying you spend time at home doing it.
Z: Sometimes I do, actually. When I put on an outfit, I will occasionally look at it in the mirror and see what poses work with the silhouette. I do think a little bit about that.
LB: When you look back at photos of yourself on your first-ever red carpet, what would you tell that girl?
Z: Keep doing what you’re doing. When I was 14 and at my first movie premiere, my outfit was a bunch of stuff that I had from Target. And I thought I was fly. I felt cool. To this day, I think that’s really all that matters. Then you know you’re doing the right thing.
LB: Of any fashion or celebrity icon, whose closet would you love to walk into?
Z: Cher. All that custom Bob Mackie that she owned, I want all of that. Cher, if you ever want to style me, Law [Roach] and I would love it.
LB: Just putting it out there. Who else do you think has great style?
Z: I have a picture of Diahann Carroll on my wall. And I take a lot of style inspiration from my grandmothers. I have old pictures — hold on. I’ll show you.
LB: Oh, you have a visual aid.
Z: [Holds up photo of grandmother] Look at her. This monochromatic high-waist pant and top. Her hair was in these braids, and she has a little pump on. It’s just so cute. She had seven kids and always looked phenomenal.
LB: Do you remember your first fashion splurge?
Z: I think it was my first time in Paris for my Disney show [Shake It Up], and I bought this teeny Louis Vuitton bag. It’s pretty cute. I still have it somewhere.
LB: Do you even buy anything anymore? Or do you just go around in Valentino Couture?
Z: [laughs] I’ll tell you what the coolest thing is. When [Valentino creative director] Pierpaolo [Piccioli] comes up with these beautiful silhouettes for me to wear, he has my name stitched on a little tag inside. So all my custom Valentino pieces have a little “Zendaya” on them.
LB: Isn’t it lovely to see beautiful things made by good people?
Z: Yes. He’s been wonderful to share creative space with. He’s always like, “I want you to be who you are. What makes you feel good and confident? I want you to do that.” I appreciate that because it is Valentino, after all. It’s not a small deal.
LB: It is not. You just turned 25. How does that feel?
Z: It feels good. I’m ready for 25, but it’s a little scary. I feel like I just started my 20s, so that’s a little strange to wrap my head around. I’m closer to 30 than I am to 19.
LB: You’re in decline, basically.
Z: It’s all downhill from here.
Lead Image: Schiaparelli Haute Couture dress.
Photography by AB+DM/The Only Agency. Styling by Law Roach. Hair by Kim Kimble/A-Frame Agency. Makeup by Raoúl Alejandre/Opus Beauty. Manicure by Chaun Peth/The Only Agency. Set design by Taja Feistner. Production by Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the November 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Oct. 22nd.
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