TIME has been spotlighting some of the 30 Most Influential Teens of 2015 with extended interviews. Today: 19-year-old Zendaya, a Disney channel star who’s garnered millions of followers online (14.1 million on Instagram and 6.1 million on Twitter) partly because she’s not afraid to speak up about body image and beauty standards. In February, she called out E!’s Giuliana Rancic for mocking her hair at the Oscars during an episode of Fashion Police; recently, she posted un-retouched images from a magazine photo shoot after she was “shocked” to see how her waist was slimmed down.
“I keep it real, I do what Zendaya does, I do what Zendaya feels right doing,” the actress and singer tells TIME. “That’s what people gravitate towards. That’s why people like me or spend time looking at my Instagram. It’s because I really just like to keep it 100 percent.”
Who’s had the biggest influence on you in your life?
I’ve always looked up to people like Michael Jackson and Beyoncé. I’ve loved Michael Jackson since the minute I was born. He’s probably the most talented person ever. He was able to create such an amazing career and be probably the biggest star we’ve ever had. But also, never did he cuss in his songs. He always had a positive way of doing what he did. He had such a love for the art of music and tried to make people feel better through that.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized my true models are my parents. My mom is like a sheroe. My dad is so strong. I look up to my big sister and realize the influence she’s had on me and making me a better person. Having such a big, grounded family, I realized as you get older how important that is.
It’s interesting that you mention Michael Jackson not swearing. A lot of performers who get their start on the Disney Channel feel they need to make a strong break from that image with material that’s not necessarily kid-friendly. Will you be doing that?
No. I think what I’ve been doing is slowly transitioning and allowing my fans to grow with me. I have no shame in the fact that I’m still on the Disney Channel. I’m able to have two careers going at different times. I’m able to grow up and do awesome things with an older audience, and all the kids who were watching when they were 14, they all grow up with me.
Young people have always been so important to me. They have to have someone to look up to. I was one of those people put in that position, and that became my role. It’s a lot, it’s definitely a responsibility, but I accept it because it was a role that was gifted to me. I do not want to take advantage of it or annihilate it or take it for granted. When you’re put in a position to really affect young people who are going to run the world one day, if you’re able to be in their life at a young age and make a positive impact, I think that’s a beautiful thing. I wouldn’t ever want to be one of those people. I think it’s okay to grow up and express yourself and be edgier and do all that. I think it’s possible to do it without completely annihilating a whole sector of your fanbase.
You don’t ever feel like you were forced into that role by other people, whether they were making comments about your hair or manipulating your body in photographs?
I think I pretty much knew what I signed up for. But I wasn’t forced to do anything. It’s a gift, it’s a blessing, to be that person for a lot of people. It’s not going to be easy, I fully accept that responsibility. Another thing is, people are like, “Do you feel like you’re a role model for a lot of people?” And in the words of Tupac Shakur, I don’t feel like a role model because I’m not playing a role. I’m not pretending to be someone that I’m not in the hopes that people will like me. I’m a real model. I keep it real, I do what Zendaya does, I do what Zendaya feels right doing. If you pretend to be a role, one day that role is going to break. You’re going to want to be yourself, and people are going to be really disappointed finding out you’re not who you’ve been living your life to be. Just keep it real and be yourself—that’s what people gravitate towards. That’s why people like me or spend time looking at my Instagram. It’s because I really just like to keep it 100 percent.
What do you think is the most influential thing about you? What influence have you had that you’re most proud of?
I don’t think people understand the power of social media or our phones. I am really proud of the fact that I’m able to use people knowing my name and knowing who I am for good things, whether it’s a simple tweet or a paragraph about how something made me feel. There’s going to be one girl or one boy that is going to scroll past that, and it’s going to affect them in some type of way. If that helps them in a positive way through whatever they’re dealing with, then I did my job. With this platform, I’m able to work on so much charity, I’ve been able to do so many cool projects and get people donating through their phone. I think that’s really cool, using myself to promote things other than myself.
People associate you with speaking up about body image issues and unfair beauty standards. How do you feel about being perceived as a champion of those causes?
It’s a beautiful thing. It’s another role I was blessed with, I guess you could say. Now I’ve become a spokesperson for people and accepting yourself and loving yourself. Everyone has their insecurities. Even myself, as confident as I am, there are things I’m insecure about, things I worry about. But I constantly remind myself there’s a little boy or girl or grown woman out there that needs someone to look to. I feel like I can be that person. I try my best to make myself stronger and learn more about myself and not just talk the talk but walk the walk. It’s easier said than done. It’s easy for me to write a paragraph about body image and how we should all love ourselves. I don’t think that happens overnight. I don’t expect anybody to go home and feel better about themselves just because they read my tweet. I don’t think me just writing it will change someone’s life completely, but I definitely think it can spark a change or a be a piece to somebody’s puzzle.
Do you ever feel like there’s a cost to, say, calling out the way you were photoshopped? Do you worry about possible consequences?
Yeah, there’s always going to be people who are like, “You’re being dramatic! You’re doing it for attention!” Those aren’t the people that I’m worried about, and those are clearly not the people that needed to read my tweets. The people who needed to read my paragraph or see what I’m saying, those are the people that come up to me and say, “I really appreciate what you wrote.” I just had a dad come up to me a couple days ago and go, “My daughter is just hitting 13, she’s in middle school, she’s really self-conscious about her body and her seeing that really helped.” Those are the people it’s meant for. If you don’t understand or don’t get it, then that wasn’t for you. Maybe another day when I write something else, that will help you, but that wasn’t meant for you at that time.
I thought your response to Giuliana Rancic’s comments was worded in a way that probably was illuminating for people who didn’t get why it was offensive.
Of course. That’s the hope, that that somebody can learn something. Not everyone is going to read what I say. But this can be a puzzle piece or a breakthrough or a the beginning of a transition. That young girl, I’m not going to expect that it’s going to completely make it easier and all of a sudden her body-conscious problems are over. It is going to help, it is going to allow her to say, “Hey, I’m not the only one who was to deal with things like this.” Hopefully it sparks something for her.
When I do these things, I think of my fans, I think of all the young women and men that look up to me, I think of my little nieces and nephews. If they’re dealing with something like that, how do I express that it’s okay to speak up and use your words in a positive way so you can reach people who didn’t understand before? That’s what I do.
Do you ever worry about this role overshadowing what you actually got into this business for?
At the end of the day, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized my purpose is not just to be a singer and dancer and actress. I think my purpose in this industry is a lot bigger than putting out music. That’s a beautiful thing, and I’m very lucky to do it. But again, when people start to learn your name and know who you are, you have a responsibility to do good things with that. I’d rather people know me for the human being that I am than the last project that I was on.
You and another teen on our list, Amandla Stenberg, have garnered a lot of fans for speaking up about the intersection of beauty standards and race—how a black woman can be mocked for a certain hairstyle while a white woman is praised for the same one. How do you start to fix this problem?
When you get to learn more about yourself and where you’re from and your background, you learn to appreciate and respect other people’s cultures and backgrounds as well. I thankfully had parents who were very clear to me about where I was from, who I am. I’m very proud that I’m African-American and have roots in Africa. My dad was able to track his DNA. But there are a lot of people who have a disconnect as to where they’re from and their history. You can appreciate other people and have more sensitivity to other cultures when you have a sensitivity to your own. I don’t necessarily have the answers to all the problems in the world, but I would say that it’s important to learn about yourself. The only way that you can love other things is to really love yourself. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true.
After Mattel made a Barbie doll in your likeness, Demi Lovato got criticized for suggesting the company should have picked someone with a different, curvier body type. What did you make of that?
We can only tackle one thing at a time. Tackling a big thing like having a locs on a Barbie doll, that’s a big deal right there! And that’s a big deal for a lot of African-American women. There are so many people that don’t have a Barbie to look at simply because that shade doesn’t exist or that hair curl pattern doesn’t exist. We’re tackling that right now. But she raised a big point. What needs to be tackled in the future is body types and body image, which a lot of people deal with on a daily basis—people in my family, my mother, my sister. There’s so much pressure and so many ideals. I totally agree that it’s something that has to be worked on in the future. But like I’m saying, this right now is focused on this right now, and that’s definitely something that should be addressed. It’s a very, very valid point.
There’s always a lot of panic and hand-wringing by adults about what teenagers today are doing—or doing wrong. What do you think is the coolest thing about people your age?
The coolest thing about people my age—and the scariest thing—is we have technology, and we can use it for so many beautiful things. Not that long ago I was really into politics, I had a politics kick, and I could go on the Internet and pull up up videos and watch interviews. That’s something that quite a few years ago was not even an option. Either you watched it on the TV or you missed it. It’s really cool that we can research and have so many resources for information.
Then again, we can use it for a lot of negative things at the same time. With social media, there’s such a negative component to it. We use it to tear people down, we put the spotlight on the wrong things. It gives people the freedom to say whatever they want without being in trouble for it. People feel they can say things they would never say in person, which sometimes is a good thing but can be hurtful if people don’t think about the person on the other end of the keyboard. It’s easy to detach yourself and not remember that’s a human being. That’s when problems start. A lot of people don’t even have their face as their profile picture. We don’t know who we’re talking to, we’re talking to an icon. It’s easy for people to hurt each other when they don’t see a face in front of them.
Speaking of politics, as one of the teens on our list who’s old enough to vote, are you following the election? Do you know who you’re going to vote for?
I have been! I mean, I don’t know who I’m going to vote for or anything like that. It’s a lot. This is my first time dealing with this and understanding it. I’m just trying to educate myself. I’m not going to pretend that all my life I’ve been intrigued with politics. I have not been. Recently I just got into it because it kind of hits you—woah, this is my country, I live here, I’m an adult now, this is the world my future children are going to live in. You really start thinking about that when you hit a certain age. It gets weird—the cards are really in my hands. So I’ve been urging a lot of my friends to do some research, and we have discussions. It’s cool to say, “Hey, I know what’s going on and really understand.” I don’t think I get it 100 percent, I’m still confused about certain things. I have time! At least I’m getting started. I think honestly what got me interested in politics, I’m not even going to lie, is Scandal.
Yeah! “Wait, so our Fitz is Obama, so-and-so is…” You start to put your fake characters [together with real ones]. You start to understand politics.
I had the same experience when I started watching The West Wing as a teenager. “This person in the White House has the same job as this person on the TV show.”
Exactly! Cyrus Beene! I get it now! It just makes sense.
What are your plans for 2016?
I want to continue to do my show, to be able to balance, again, the younger audience and the older audience. I want to by that time finish my album—it’s very close! I’m a perfectionist, so I take my time. Definitely music will be a big thing. I have my shoe line that I’m working on. A lot of things are in the works. As long as I’m able to keep helping young people and helping people in general by a simple tweet or whatever, then as long as I’m happy I’ll be good. My parents always tell me, “The second you don’t want to do this, the second this doesn’t make you happy, we’ll turn around and go back to Oakland.”
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