Zendaya is being celebrated for being the youngest-ever woman to win the Emmy for lead actress in a drama series.
The 24-year-old star of Euphoria beat out The Morning Show’s Jennifer Aniston, The Crown’s Olivia Colman and Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh. It’s a pretty incredible achievement.
But let’s also celebrate this former Disney Channel star for something incredible she did when she was just 16. She used the power she had to force the Disney Channel to show more diversity.
Zendaya, born Zendaya Coleman to two teacher parents, started acting in theatre productions at a young age. She also scored modelling and dancing gigs, and was back-up dancer for Selena Gomez in a TV ad. But it was getting cast as Rocky Blue, one of the leads in the Disney Channel sitcom Shake It Up, that made her famous. She had just turned 14 when the show premiered.
While on the show, Zendaya launched her singing career, and then, at the age of 16, became the youngest person to compete on the US version of Dancing With The Stars. She finished runner-up.
With Shake It Up ending in 2013 after three seasons, the Disney Channel wanted Zendaya to star in a new series: Super Awesome Katy, about a high school student following in the footsteps of her spy parents. But she was only going to consider it on her terms.
“The only way I was going to come back to the Disney Channel was if I was in a position of more power,” she told Cosmopolitan.
Zendaya, then aged just 16, wanted to be a producer on the show. She wanted her character to be super-smart, trained in martial arts, no good at dancing or singing, socially awkward… and she didn’t want her to be called Katy.
“Do I look like a Katy to you?” she asked Disney execs.
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The last of her terms was that she wanted the show to feature a family of colour.
“One thing that is really important to me is diversity on the channel,” she 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.”
The execs agreed to Zendaya’s terms. The show, newly titled K.C. Undercover, was a hit. Zendaya had an input into the content, including a storyline about the controversial stop-and-frisk policing policy.
“I have so many friends who say yes to everything or feel like they can’t stand up for themselves in a situation,” Zendaya told Teen Vogue. “No. You have the power.”
Growing up with an African-American dad and a Scottish-German-American mum, Zendaya was aware of race being an issue from a young age.