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Zendaya: From Childhood To Dune

Zendaya is on a roll. Few child stars in history, let alone from the late-2000s or early-2010s Disney Channel generation, have been able to reach such a high level of artistic accomplishment and near-universal popularity in such a short span of time. It seems like it was just yesterday that we were gaping at the potential demonstrated by her debut album, and now she's winning Emmys and stopping the presses at the Met Gala.

It really can't be overstated just how much the Oakland-born actor, singer, dancer, activist, and fashion icon has been able to accomplish in the years between her teenage breakthrough and today. As she once remarked of a particularly momentous night, "I'm still not truly convinced [it] really happened, cause that's how dreams feel." To put it all into perspective, let's have a look at the whole of Zendaya's dreamlike — yet very real, and inarguably well-deserved — success, from her Disney Channel days to her role in the successful "Dune" franchise.

She had an auspicious Disney Channel beginning

Named after the word meaning "to give thanks" in the Zimbabwean language Shona, Zendaya Coleman grew up with loving and supporting school teacher parents, who always made sure to keep her grounded and humble. Nevertheless, ambition always burned like a fire. She knew from a young age that the world of entertainment was her calling. After joining the dance group Future Shock Oakland, she learned her craft at the Oakland School for the Arts and the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda. She hopped between bit parts and modeling gigs for a while before landing a role on Disney Channel's "Shake It Up."

In the role of the bookish, hardworking high schooler and aspiring dancer Raquel "Rocky" Blue, Zendaya got to show off her dancing background, her gorgeous singing voice, and her extraordinary charisma. She also discovered a natural knack — hitherto unknown even to herself — for comedy. "Shake It Up," which ran from 2010 to 2013, led to roles in other Disney Channel projects and an appearance in Season 16 of "Dancing with the Stars," on which Zendaya broke ground as the youngest contestant ever up to that point. Alongside professional dancer Valentin Chmerkovskiy, she finished as the season's runner-up.

Like many young Disney stars, she also launched herself as a singer. Her 2013 self-titled pop album that spawned the hit single "Replay" was well received. And, lest anyone doubt her credentials as a source of inspiration for her teen audience, she released the book "Between U and Me: How to Rock Your Tween Years with Style and Confidence" in the same year.

She took up producing and made herself a major star

By 2015, Zendaya was already reconfiguring the realm of possibility for a Disney star: She became a big enough name to have an entire show built around her. The rising star didn't stop at just starring on Disney Channel's spy comedy "K.C. Undercover," however — she actively negotiated with the network to define key aspects of her character before signing on, and ultimately became a producer despite still being a teenager.

From that point on, it was nowhere but up, up, up for Zendaya. "K.C. Undercover" proved a sterling showcase for her outsized star power, and she built on it with roles in two hit films. The first was, of course, "Spider-Man: Homecoming," in which the cast of lovable teen rascals around Peter Parker (Tom Holland) included an unusually droll Mary Jane counterpart, Michelle "MJ" Jones. Zendaya played the original character to perfection, endearing her to Marvel Cinematic Universe fans the world over.

The other role came in the hit musical "The Greatest Showman," in which she and Zac Efron bridged a gap between two generations of Disney Channel actors as star-crossed lovers Anne Wheeler and Phillip Carlyle — as if the world needed any more proof of Zendaya's tremendous pipes. She plays a trapeze artist in the film, so she had to add that to her already long list of abilities. What's mind blowing is that Zendaya and Efron performed most of their own stunts in the movie.

Zendaya became a fashion icon

A key aspect of Zendaya's public persona from early on has been her sense of style. A fashion model from a young age, she garnered as many fans on social media for her always-impeccable looks as she did for her acting and music. In 2015, she launched her own shoe line, Daya, and dished to Complex about her enthusiasm for the endeavor. "I want to make something that I love, that I'm going to wear out, that I'm going to work on the red carpet, that I'm going to be proud of," she said. A year later, Daya became a whole clothing line that was praised for its inclusivity by Elle: "It's androgynous, goes up to size 22, and everything costs under $160."

Soon enough, with the help of her brilliant personal stylist Law Roach, it became clear that Zendaya had grown into nothing less than a fashion icon for her generation. In 2018, she partnered up with Tommy Hilfiger to design a collection that found its way to the Paris and New York Fashion Weeks — and she made a point of having her runways celebrate the beauty of women of color, plus-size women, and older models. The following years saw Zendaya's star rise even higher in the fashion world. She made a splash in back-to-back editions of the Met Gala, with stunning Joan of Arc-esque armor in the 2018 edition, and a dreamy light-up Cinderella dress that managed to stop the 2019 high camp festival in its tracks.

She appeared in high-profile music videos

In addition to releasing her own music, Zendaya has appeared in the music videos of several high-profile pop artists. The actor is one of over a dozen individuals who feature in Taylor Swift's popular "Bad Blood" video. Released in 2015, the video is known for cameos from supermodels like Gigi Hadid and Cara Delevingne, other singers like Selena Gomez and Ellie Goulding, and actors like Jessica Alba and Ellen Pompeo. 

Each featured celeb got to choose the name of their character, and Zendaya chose Cut Throat. In the video, she wields knives and uses them to pierce a teddy bear. "There are some really powerful women in this cast, the ensemble, and I think that's really cool," Zendaya said of the video when speaking with Entertainment Tonight. "For me, it was just a cool experience because [Taylor Swift] asked me to be a part of it."

Zendaya also appeared in Beyoncé's visual album "Lemonade," featuring in the music video for the song "All Night" in 2016. The album is considered one of the best of all time, with the Associated Press naming it the top album of the 2010s. She appeared in the video alongside Amandla Stenberg and Chloe and Halle Bailey. In 2017, Zendaya also appeared in Bruno Mars' "Versace on the Floor" video.

She became a two-time Emmy winner

After two Disney Channel shows, Zendaya's next series took her career to new heights. She hit new milestones with her portrayal of Rue Bennett (a queer teen struggling with her sobriety as a drug addict) in "Euphoria," the second most-watched HBO show behind "Game of Thrones." Created by Sam Levinson, the series follows students at a high school in California balancing teen issues alongside darker topics like drug abuse and grief.

"When I read it, I immediately just loved it. There's no other way to put it," Zendaya shared with Collider. "I just fell in love with the script, and I fell in love with Rue and all of the characters." The show sees the actor pushing herself to her limits, like in the opening scene of Season 2's fifth episode. "I mean, I beat myself up," Zendaya commented to Entertainment Weekly about the episode. "I still have some scars on my legs, and got quite a few bruises."

Not only did the role introduce the actor to new audiences and help put her Disney Channel days behind her, but it also helped her make history as the youngest winner of the Emmy Award for outstanding lead actress in a drama series. Zendaya has won the award twice. In addition to her Emmy wins, she's also won a Critics Choice Award, a Golden Globe, and a People's Choice Award for playing Rue. The actor has also contributed music to "Euphoria," earning two Emmy nominations for outstanding original music and lyrics.

She made a movie during the early days of the pandemic

Zendaya continued working with Sam Levinson on her black-and-white film "Malcolm & Marie." Starring alongside John David Washington, the movie follows a writer-director and his girlfriend, the fallout of the reviews of his latest project, and an argument over who inspired it. 

"Malcolm & Marie" was filmed over two weeks in the summer of 2020 as one of the first movies to start and finish production during the COVID-19 pandemic. Zendaya and Washington received praise for their portrayals, but that did not help the Rotten Tomatoes score for the movie, which sits at 56% at the time of this writing. Viewers were a bit more forgiving: The film currently has an audience score of 67%. Most of the criticism was aimed at the screenplay, written by Levinson. "In self-indulgent dialogue reverberating around ego, art and filmmaking, 'Malcolm & Marie' more reflects a Twitter argument brought to life," Jake Coyle wrote for the Associated Press, calling the film "frustratingly hollow."

What drew more attention than the reviews was that when Netflix bought the distribution rights for "Malcolm & Marie," most individuals involved with the movie received a cut of the $30 million. The cast and crew had a chance to earn film points, which gave them a percentage of the revenue. "It just felt like the right thing to do," Zendaya shared with Variety. "These are the people that are laying all the tracks and were with us through the whole thing — and literally putting their blood, sweat and tears into it."

She played a big role in a major Spider-Man movie event

Zendaya returned as MJ in the 2021 movie "Spider-Man: No Way Home." The third Tom Holland-led "Spider-Man" film, it features Spider-Man villains old and new, college acceptances, and tough decisions for the New York teens. Zendaya takes on a more significant role in this installment, trying to help Holland's Peter Parker as villains from several different timelines appear on their Earth. With the aid of the Spider-Men from those timelines, MJ and her friends plan out how to cure each villain of their ailments and send them back to the timeline they belong in. Ever the skeptic, MJ throws bread rolls at Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man, creating a hilarious scene in a movie with a tragic ending for Peter.

"I wanted them to have a happy ending," Zendaya said about the film's ending during an interview with Marvel Entertainment. "I wanted them just to go to college." Despite not having the ending the actor wanted for her character, MJ still experienced plenty of growth over the trilogy. "Being with Peter has really opened her up," she shared in a behind the scenes featurette (via Yahoo!). "She's a very 'glass half empty,' negative person, but he brings out this hopeful, positive side of her. I think that's really sweet to watch — how they bring out these different parts of each other and rely on each other in different ways."

She breathed new life into an iconic cartoon character

Zendaya has ventured into the realm of animated films: Audiences may recognize her voice from the 2018 movies "Duck Duck Goose" and "Smallfoot." She joined a well-known franchise when she took over as the voice of Lola Bunny in "Space Jam: A New Legacy" in 2021. A standalone sequel to the original "Space Jam," Zendaya entered the world of "Looney Tunes" by voicing Bugs Bunny's frequent love interest. Other members of the voice cast include Gabriel Iglesias, Jeff Bergman, and Rosario Dawson. Landing the gig was a huge moment for the actor, not only because Lola is an iconic character, but also because of the people involved with the sequel.

"It was flattering, because I got a call from Ryan Coogler, who is a producer on the film," Zendaya told Entertainment Weekly. "I've always wanted to work with him." She appreciates the "reimagining" of the character, who underwent a redesign for the new movie to be less provocative and have a more developed personality. This decision received backlash online, which Zendaya wasn't expecting at all. "I didn't know that was going to happen," she continued. "I definitely know we love her, but I didn't know it was going to be as much of a focus as it was." Despite the reaction to Lola's new appearance, Zendaya is happy to have had the chance to be a part of the franchise. "It was a really special experience," she added. "And I really enjoyed myself."

Zendaya takes center stage in Dune: Part Two

Zendaya continued with sci-fi and fantasy films, taking on the role of Chani in Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" franchise. Chani is a Fremen warrior who, in the first movie, appears in Paul Atreides' (Timothée Chalamet) visions. She becomes his love interest in the second film, which blew everyone away at the box office. The films are based on the book of the same name by Frank Herbert, published in 1965.

Despite being a significant part of the marketing campaign for "Dune," Zendaya only appeared in the first film for seven minutes. There was initial disappointment from moviegoers, though the director confirmed the goal was for Chani, and other characters, to appear more in "Dune: Part Two." "There are some characters that are less developed that I'm keeping for the second film — that's the way I found the equilibrium," Villeneuve shared with the Los Angeles Times. "Then, in the second one, I will have time to develop some characters that were left aside a little bit."

The second movie brings Chani back, putting her in the center of the action, but that isn't without trials and tribulations as the film comes to a close. "There's heartbreak, there's betrayal, there's loss and confusion. I feel like it's quite a painful ending," Zendaya said during an interview with ComicBook.com. "It doesn't end like, 'Oh, someone won!' It's not that. [It's] a lot of broken dreams and hearts."