Inside Zendaya's bad experience with Disney

Zendaya Coleman has the type of star-power that requires no surname — like the Drakes, Madonnas, and Chers that came before her. This didn't happen overnight. First, the actress-slash-singer had to shake the nearly unshakable stigma associated with being a Disney Channel star, something she was adeptly able to achieve without cutting off her extensions or posing nearly-nude in Vanity Fair like Miley Cyrus. Zendaya never got caught in a drug (ahem, salvia) scandal, though she does play a teenage drug addict on HBO. She never got a DUI. There were no nude photo scandals that severed her ties with her mouse overlord (though her Euphoria character does admit that nudes are the modern "currency of love"). Actually, Vogue describes the actress as "insanely normal," which may be part of the reason she was able to transition into more adult roles while simultaneously starring on K.C. Undercover.

Just because Zendaya was able to leave the Disney Channel relatively unscathed, that doesn't mean it was an easy road. If it wasn't for her constant push-back on the network notoriously known for imposing strict rules on its young actors, she would have never become a different kind of Disney star, the kind that uses her voice for activism, rejects the brand's narrow portrayal of adolescence, and even penned her own memoir. Here's a look inside Zendaya's difficult ride with Disney.

Zendaya wouldn't buy into the 'Disney-girl persona'

Disney Channel stars succumbing to the network execs' list of insanely strict rules is a tale as old as time. Mostly, this manifests in an absurd — almost antiseptic — level of squeaky-cleanness (see: the Jonas Brothers' purity rings and that time Vanessa Hudgens almost lost her High School Musical job over nude photos). Zendaya was forced to reckon with that same beast.

According to Vogue, the actress moved to Hollywood with her father in 2010. Because she wasn't motivated by money, she didn't feel any pressure to accept roles she didn't vibe with, but when she was cast in Shake It Up, she still tried to adopt a "Disney-girl persona" alongside co-star Bella Thorne. In the past, Thorne owned up to going as far as heightening the pitch of her voice during interviews in order to fit within Disney's image. Zendaya's experience wasn't far off, but her willingness to change was short-lived. "Slowly I realized that was stupid. People think I'm cool when I'm Zendaya," she told Vogue.

Ultimately, the actress learned how to say no, which is a tall ask when you're up against what may just be the most powerful company in all of Hollywood. "A lot of people don't realize their power," Zendaya added. "I have so many friends who say yes to everything or feel like they can't stand up for themselves in a situation ... No: You have the power."

Zendaya's acting career separated her family

When Zendaya was just starting out in Hollywood, her career actually tore her family apart — if only physically. The actress was lucky enough to have ultra-supportive parents, who fought for their daughter's dreams even though it meant splitting up their family.

In an interview with Glamour, Zendaya revealed that her father, who was a teacher, quit his job to help her pursue her acting career. When she was in middle school, the pair would drive back and forth from Oakland to Los Angeles for auditions. Her mother took on two jobs to pick up the slack and pay for all of the trips. She was a staffer at the California Shakespeare Theater and a teacher, but this kept her tied to the Bay Area. When Zendaya landed her role on Shake It Up and had to make a more long-term move to Hollywood, the actress was forced to leave her mother behind.

"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 told Glamour. "It was very difficult because I was dealing with all the pivotal girl moments. I remember getting my period and him not knowing what to do. It was a weird transitional phase."

Did Disney force Zendaya and Bella Thorne to compete on the set of Shake It Up?

Zendaya and Bella Thorne are verified besties. Even a decade after first meeting on the set of Shake It Up, the Euphoria actress still emphatically supports her former co-star. According to HuffPost, this was never more evident than in the midst of Thorne's nude photo scandal in 2019. Zendaya reportedly texted her, "Just a reminder you are strong and beautiful inside and out. You're a light and I'm super proud."

As tight as the pair may be now — like get your BFF a nacho truck for her birthday kind of tight — they weren't always as close. In an interview with J-14, Thorne blamed Disney for their rocky start, claiming the network pitted them against each other. "Zendaya and I were put in a very unfortunate position where we were kind of forced to compete against each other, which made the whole first season of the show just very awkward for us," Thorne said. "We wanted to love each other, but yet we were constantly being put against each other. It was, 'Who's better at this?' and 'Who's better at that?'"

The pair eventually realized what was happening and hashed it out during the second season, which ultimately proved that neither actress was the type to let the Disney Channel get the best of them. According to Thorne, that moment was when Zendaya became her best friend.

Zendaya had to fight Disney to get better on-set education

As the daughter of two teachers, Zendaya cared about her education, but signing onto a Disney series meant she'd have to pull double duty to get the same schooling as her non-famous peers. Most teens don't work all day on set; they work for a couple of hours after school. Even though Zendaya's plate was immeasurably full, she wasn't about to cut corners.

In an interview with Glamour, the actress revealed that some of her peers would "cheat their way through" online classes. "They'd just look up the answers and type them in," she said. "That's insane to me." Instead, her mother became her educational advocate, writing letters to Disney's lawyers justifying her need for a particular teacher. This was a person who was willing to work with Zendaya everywhere — her press tours, her hotel rooms, while traveling via car, plane, or train, etc. and she had a tough love approach. 

"In the hotel room. She'd be like, 'Are you tired? I don't care,'" Zendaya said. "I remember doing Dancing With the Stars and literally falling asleep reading a book. I'd never been so tired in my life — there's no off time. But she stuck with me and made sure I got what I needed."

Zendaya won't hit replay on her music career for one big reason

The Disney Channel has a clear formula for its stars: cast them as a lead in a series, have them record the theme song, parlay that into a platinum-selling music career with Hollywood Records, and try really, really hard to avoid all scandal. Zendaya trudged this same path that's been followed by every Disney star before her. Yes, that's her voice on K.C. Undercover's theme song. According to Cosmopolitan, Zendaya was only 17 years old when she put out her self-titled debut. The single "Replay" went platinum, but there's a reason you haven't heard her singing in recent years.

In an interview with Paper, Zendaya revealed that she purposely paused her music career, claiming the industry "takes a little bit of passion away from you." She didn't elaborate on how, but left a little hint that bad contracts may be to blame. "It sucks you dry a little bit. 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," Zendaya said. "If anyone asks my number one advice ... it's look over those contracts, every single word, and don't sign anything that isn't worth it to you."

Zendaya refused to do K.C. Undercover without some creative control

When the Disney Channel came to Zendaya with the idea for K.C. Undercover, she was already a little wary about re-appearing on the network. After Shake It Up ended, the star was exploring other facets of her career. She appeared in Taylor Swift's music video for "Bad Blood" and had proven she could hold down a feature-length film with the Disney Channel original movie Zapped. If the network wanted her to sign onto another series, they'd have to shake things up — and that meant putting Zendaya in charge.

In the past, Disney has given some of their stars production roles. Debby Ryan was nearing her 20s when she was named a producer on Jessie. According to Vogue, Zendaya was just 16 when she met with execs and made her demands. In an interview with Cosmopolitan, the actress revealed, "The only way I was going to come back to the Disney Channel was if I was in a position of more power."

According to Glamour, Disney met her demands, and Zendaya became one of the youngest producers in Disney Channel history. According to her IMDb credits, she was a co-producer on a whopping 43 episodes and a producer on nine. The series also helped her step into the big leagues when it came to work behind-the-scenes. In 2018, Deadline announced that the actress be working with Reese Witherspoon to produce a thriller called A White Lie.

Zendaya fought for K.C. Undercover to be a different kind of Disney show

Zendaya didn't just want to be a producer on K.C. Undercover. She actually went to the network with a list of demands. According to Vogue, there was surface level stuff like the show's name. It was originally Super Awesome Katy, which Zendaya thought was "whack." She didn't like her character's name, either. "Do I look like a Katy to you?" she asked Vogue. Katy became K.C. Cooper. Then there was the issue of actual content.

Zendaya wanted to use her platform for representation — including expanding on Disney's very narrow view of teenage girlhood. She didn't want K.C. to sing and dance like most Disney characters. She didn't want her to be "artistically inclined" in the least. "There are other things that a girl can be," she told Vogue. Instead, Zendaya wanted K.C. to be able to run with the guys. Her martial arts-trained character had to be whip smart, but a little bit awkward. "I want her to be normal with an extraordinary life," Zendaya added.

She also insisted that the show center around a family of color. "One thing that is really important to me is diversity on the channel," Zendaya told Cosmopolitan. "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 very important."

Zendaya bravely stood up to the Fashion Police

Zendaya has always fought for representation, which is why she wore dreadlocks to the 2015 Academy Awards. That was the same year K.C. Undercover premiered, and it seemed like a radical statement coming from a star on a network better known for its absurd use of hair extensions than for showcasing people of color. This was only emphasized by Giuliana Rancic's now-infamous Fashion Police comments. The TV host claimed Zendaya must've smelled like "patchouli oil" or "weed" because of her hairstyle.

In an interview with Vogue, Zendaya admitted she "went to [her] room" to collect her thoughts after hearing the comments, then wrote up a blistering — but truthful — statement on Instagram, slamming Rancic for perpetuating harmful stereotypes. "I'll have you know my father, brother, best childhood friend, and little cousins all have locs," she wrote. " ... There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. 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."

Rancic, of course, released a public apology — which Zendaya accepted — but the damage was already done. According to The Washington Post, Kelly Osbourne quit Fashion Police days later, and The Wrap reports that the show was temporarily pulled from the network.

Did W magazine whitewash Zendaya's cover?

By the time K.C. Undercover rolled into its second year on air, Zendaya had transformed from a Disney Channel starlet to a cover girl in her own right — but even that didn't happen without controversy. When the actress graced the cover of W magazine's April 2016 issue alongside Willow Smith and Kiernan Shipka, fans slammed the publication for supposedly whitewashing her complexion.

Though W's "Dream Teens" issue was meant to showcase up-and-coming talent, it's hard not to notice that Zendaya and Smith's skin tones are notably pale, be it from some heavy-handed Photoshop or the studio's lighting. As Seventeen points out, the coloring was so egregious that one Instagram commenter questioned, "Can ppl even tell there are two black girls on this cover?"

Zendaya wasn't quite as outraged, though she was sure to not write it off completely. "I didn't notice it on-set and I don't believe that was their intention, but it is something that happens often for women of color," she told Cosmopolitan later that year. " ... Do I think somebody sat there and thought, Oh, I'm going to do this? No, but I do think it's almost a subconscious thing, like that's just what the cover's supposed to look like in their head. And that's the fault of society, but at the same time, I'm glad people had the discussion."

Zendaya has dealt with racial insensitivity on set

As a former child star, Zendaya is well-versed in the PR rounds. The actress has endured a veritable metric ton of photo shoots in her decade-long Disney career. She knows what to expect, and that's perhaps the sad reason why she was so nonchalant about W's apparent cover gaffe. It wasn't the first time something like that has happened. In an interview with Cosmopolitan, the Euphoria star revealed that in the past, she's had some incidents "on-set with people being racially insensitive," including an exchange with her own publicist.

"I didn't like my hair and makeup one time on a photo shoot," Zendaya said. "And my publicist told me, 'You should just be happy with it — they haven't had a black girl on the cover since forever.' She's no longer my publicist."

In that same interview, Zendaya readily admitted that her lighter skin gives her more privilege "compared to [her] darker sisters and brothers," and she felt a "responsibility to be a voice for the beautiful shades my people come in." In other words: she won't be silenced, especially as Hollywood casting agents still somehow struggle to label mixed race talent. "It's a hard thing in Hollywood when you're mixed," her mother, Claire Stoermer, told Vogue. "You're not white enough to be white, and you're not black enough to be black." 

Zendaya's secret boyfriend broke her heart, but was it a fellow Disney star?

Zendaya has always been pretty quiet about her love life. Most fans assumed she wasn't dating anyone while working with the Disney Channel, but in 2017, she revealed that she was hiding a secret boyfriend for actual years. In an interview with Vogue, the actress shocked fans when she admitted her boyfriend of four years dumped her in the spring of 2016. This puts the timeline of them dating somewhere between the end of Shake It Up and beginning of K.C. Undercover.

"It was my first love. It wasn't a good ending," Zendaya told Vogue, adding, "You know you're OK in a breakup when your first thought is not, What did I do wrong? It's, That was the dumbest decision of your life, and you're going to regret it forever."

A couple months later, the actress took to her app (via Entertainment Tonight) and revealed that she's been cheated on in the past, which made her "so anti being in a committed relationship when you're young and people are learning and growing." Based on the timeline — and considering Vogue claimed she hadn't been in a relationship since her breakup — that cheating boyfriend may have very well been her aforementioned first love. So who is he? According to J-14, fans previously linked Zendaya to Trevor Jackson, who she appeared with on a couple red carpets and who had a romantic guest-starring role on K.C. Undercover. Hm.

Zendaya finally shook her Disney past with Euphoria

It wasn't easy for Zendaya to break out of her shell and become an adult actress with serious roles. It's definitely something she's struggled with since leaving the network. Even these days, some of her most prominent roles have still technically been Disney affiliated, like her part in The Greatest Showman or her role as Michelle in Marvel's Spider-Man flicks alongside Tom Holland. "Having a Disney past sometimes makes it difficult for people to take you seriously, so I have to pick the right projects, make sure I do the right things, take my time," she told Glamour in 2017.

In 2019, Zendaya took the risk that seemingly launched this new facet of her career — though it didn't completely sever her from her Disney star image. She nabbed the role of Rue in HBO's edgy teen drama Euphoria. "I still get the corny stuff. It's cool," Zendaya told The New York Times. "I feel like I can do [Euphoria] and still have another world outside of it where I can do family movies and fun things like that."