At 16, Zendaya said she would only star on Disney Channel if it had more diversity.

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.

Listen to Mamamia's daily entertainment podcast, The Spill. Post continues below.

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. 


“One day, I came to school with my hair straightened, and that was the only day anyone ever complimented me on my hair,” she told Cosmopolitan. “That kind of messes with you.”

She’s never been afraid to speak out. On Oscars night in 2015, Fashion Police commentator Giuliana Rancic made a comment about her dreadlocks, saying she must have smelled of “patchouli” and “weed”. 

Watch Giuliana Rancic talk innapropriately about Zendaya's hair on the Oscars red carpet. Post continues after video.

Video via E!

Zendaya hit back, saying that was “outrageously offensive”. 

“My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscars red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of colour that our hair is good enough,” she posted on Instagram.


Mattel then created a Barbie in Zendaya’s red-carpet image, including dreadlocks, to acknowledge her status as a role model. 

That same year, she called out Modeliste magazine for retouching photos of her. 

"Had a new shoot come out today and was shocked when I found my 19-year-old hips and torso quite manipulated," she posted.

The magazine’s editor pulled the issue and replaced the retouched images with the originals. 

Zendaya has managed to combine activism – she’s worked with Michelle Obama – with a wildly successful acting career. She’s starred in The Greatest Showman and Spider-Man: Homecoming – and, of course, the TV series Euphoria, where she plays a high school student with drug issues.

When she won her Emmy, her speech included a shout-out to protestors.

"I know that our TV show doesn’t always feel like a great example of that but there is hope in the young people,” 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!”  

Feature Image: Instagram / Zendaya.

00:00 / ???