Zendaya on How to Love Yourself and Your Hair

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Zendaya, your future life coach.
Zendaya, your future life coach.Photo: Dominique Charriau

The last episode of Oprah aired in 2011. But if there were ever to be an heir to Winfrey’s empty mantle, it would be sage 19-year-old actress, singer, and aspiring self-help guru Zendaya Coleman, who suffers no fools and has shown the world that she has a zero-tolerance policy for body-shamers, hair-shamers, or shamers of any kind. “I want to be a life coach. I’m going to hold seminars and stuff,” she told the Cut when complimented on her wisdom. The new celebrity ambassador for CHI Haircare, Zendaya (pronounced zen-DAY-uh) gave the Cut a mini life lesson on hair, unrealistic standards of beauty, and why she doesn’t have a problem with contour.  

How do you like to wear your hair?
I like to wear my hair natural because I like to stay away from heat products. I use wigs and clip-ins and then I can go to town with anything I want. But it’s also important to use proper protective sprays, styling creams, everything like that. On a day-to-day [basis], I would say that the CHI Argan Oil collection over there, that’s my jam. I’ll use the CHI Argan Oil Plus Moringa Oil Rejuvenating Mask maybe a couple of times a week and I use that CHI Styling Cream Gel to scrunch up my hair and then diffuse, so that I can get the curls. The cream styling gel is not crunchy. It helps define my curls, but then I can shake it out and it’s soft. It’s not hard.

What do you feel like is a good hair day for you?
A good hair day is when my curls are popping. Sometimes my curls and waves, they like to go a little wild sometimes. They have a mind of their own. But some days they just fall right into place. They agree with me and I’m like, “You go, hair.” Because I can tell my hair what to do. Don’t make me whip out the tools I need.

How do you think that growing up biracial has affected the way that you see your hair?
When I was younger, I went through a phase when I didn’t like my hair. Because the school I went to was primarily Caucasian, there wasn’t anyone who had my hair texture. I remember one day I straightened my hair and that was the first day that people gave me compliments on it. I didn’t quite respect and love what I had, hair-wise. It took me a while to appreciate the hair that I have and find it beautiful.

When I deal with my little nieces, I’m like, “Don’t you touch your hair.” It’s really cool now seeing a movement of women of color embracing their natural hair, posting about it, having blogs about it, and really showing it as beautiful. Women need to see that at a young age and connect and identify with it, so that they can feel that what they have is good enough. Everyone wants what they don’t have, and it takes learning and experience to realize that what you have is exactly what you want. That was something that I had to grow into. I had to learn to appreciate it. It takes time. Everyone has their own little journey.

When did you feel like you first started appreciating your hair?
As I got older and my hair got bigger, I just let my hair out. I didn’t quite know how to handle it and deal with it, but I definitely started getting more confident with it. I also moved to a different school. I went to a public school in downtown Oakland where there were all types of people. I was friends with girls who had the same hair texture as me, and that’s when I kind of started embracing my hair a little bit more. And my parents have always made me confident with who I am. I’ve never had a body issue, I’ve never had a self-confidence issue, and there’s been very few times in my life where I’ve felt down about the way I look or the way I feel. Hair was a part of my life that I learned about, and I grew up, and then I understood.

Looking at your hair now, how does it relate to the way that you see yourself and your sense of self?
It’s allowed me to experiment, to play around. When I am able to experiment and have fun with hair, that allows me to have confidence because you’re not worried about what other people think. When you do things for other people, that’s when you give up the control of your life. You allow other people’s words to affect you and determine how you feel about yourself, which just doesn’t make any sense. For me, experimenting and having fun have allowed me to be in a really free space where I do things for Zendaya.

You said you’ve never felt bad about your body, but a lot of people often struggle with body image.
For some reason, in my entire life, even though people would say things to me like, “You’re so skinny and scrawny and you look like a boy,” that type of stuff didn’t bother me. I think it has to do with the parenting and whatever magic-ness my parents put on me, but I think it also has a lot to do with self-respect and loving yourself.

I was just lucky to get that lesson at an early age, but that comes for everyone at different times. For my mom, her self-respect and her self-loving literally happened within the past year, with her coming into her own again and putting her energy and her time back into herself. That can happen for anybody at anytime. It doesn’t have to happen when you’re young. It might not happen right away. It’s a process and it’s a journey that everybody has to go through. Mine is going to be different from everyone else’s. My job, now that people know my name and know who I am, is to help facilitate that process for other women.

Is that why you’re so active in calling things out like Photoshop? Do you see that as part of your mission?
The social speak-out thing isn’t new to me. I would be doing that even if nobody knew who I was. It’s exactly how I was raised and who I am. I’ve been doing that. I did that when I was like in fifth grade. I was making social statements in my school.

Many people realize that hair can political, but there are also some people who say, “It’s just hair.” How would you respond to people like that?
Well, here’s the thing: It’s not just hair. If it were just hair, then people wouldn’t be fired or not considered for jobs because they have dreadlocks or because they have natural hair.

Also, hair to many people is a confidence thing. Hair allows you to feel differently about yourself. Like my mom, cutting her hair and doing this thing — the action of her being able to cut her hair and do something different and dye it a completely different color, that was a way for her to shed something, start fresh, and do something different. It’s an emotional thing.

Hair is important. It depends on who you are, but hair is to me at least a way to express yourself. It documents your life in a sense, like with trends or whatever. You can think back to a time when highlights were all the rage. You felt fly because of this, or your first haircut, you know. That’s emotion you feel, so that’s not just hair. It’s also something we’ve talked about forever. We talked about it in the Bible, hair being powerful then. It’s never just hair.

You’ve been vocal about Photoshop and unrealistic images of beauty. What do you consider to be unrealistic versus realistic standards?
Unrealistic means something other than the pictures I took. Unrealistic is changing something about someone’s physical body. Unrealistically, I don’t look like that. Unrealistic, like that’s an unrealistic interpretation of what I look like. Like I couldn’t make my body do that if I wanted to.

Like, a pimple? Okay, a pimple is here today, gone tomorrow. Whatever. But someone’s shape, someone’s skin color, that type of stuff, when you start changing that, you create a version of what people think human beings are supposed to look like. I’m not saying that any skinnier or any thicker is better. “Better” is what I look like — that’s the better version. The unrealistic part is anything other than what I can physically make myself look like.

Do you consider hair and makeup to be realistic or unrealistic?
It is realistic. We can put that on anytime we want to. It’s tangible. We have fun with it. I love playing with makeup. Makeup has become a thing where it’s an art form. It’s not a thing where you use it because you need to feel beautiful or because you don’t like the way you look.

Now, you do it because it’s fun, because we enjoy experimenting with colors and different highlighters and contour. It makes us feel good about ourselves. It’s become more fun. It’s not what it once was. You know, I don’t wear a highlighter out because I hope a guy is going to be like, “Oh dang, her highlighter is nice.” They’re not going to care.

They’re not going to notice. I do it because this highlighter is bomb and I want to put it on my face and this is my face and I can choose to put on it what I want. That’s what I like seeing happening.

How do you feel like being in your business has affected the way that you see beauty?
I’ve always felt very open to different types of beauty. Look at me. I’m a combination of two different types of beauty. Oakland to me is a place that celebrates diversity. It’s just a fun place to live, so I don’t think I’ve ever succumbed to one type of beauty. That’s never really been something that made sense to me.

Somebody asked me in the airport one time about the word ugly, and I just hate the word ugly. There’s no such thing as ugly. That doesn’t even exist. What is ugly? Ugly is a personality trait. Somebody can be an ugly person, as far as how they act and how they carry themselves and what they do to others. I get that. But as far as the physical, I don’t see that because everybody is beautiful to someone. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it should be the eyes of yourself. You should be the beholder of your own beauty. There’s somebody in the world that thinks that everybody is ugly. You have to understand that that doesn’t exist. I don’t like that word. It’s an ugly word.

I’m sure people tell you this all of the time, but you seem very wise.
I say I’m 19 going on 90. I have the soul of a grandmother.

How do you feel like you balance appreciating beauty with also recognizing some of the contradictions that can come with beauty? Such as no-makeup makeup, for example.
Yes, but no-makeup makeup is the look. The look is to look like you didn’t do anything. And the fun thing is trying to achieve a look that looks like you didn’t do that much. It’s not supposed to be a literal, political message or anything. You want to create a look that looks like you didn’t really do anything.

It’s fun to sit there and figure out what concealers are going to blend the right way, how do I add enough contour to where people can’t really tell that my face is contoured, but it’s just enough? What’s the perfect lip to wear so it looks a little red, but it looks like something from my skin? Should I use a tint? That stuff is fun. It’s supposed to be enjoyable.

It should be enjoyable, but beauty can sometimes get a bad rap, especially with people who equate it with vanity.
Here’s the thing: You have to have the right mind balance. As long as you put on makeup and do those things for yourself, to impress yourself, because you love yourself, do whatever you want. It’s not because you need to impress somebody and not because you feel down about the way you look. As long as you’re doing it for yourself, do whatever you want. You can wear as much makeup as you want, as long as you are doing it for you, not because somebody told you you needed to put some makeup on. That is the difference: the meaning behind it and the reason why you’re picking up that brush.

I wear makeup because it’s fun for me. I enjoy sitting in the front of the mirror and putting stuff on and playing with colors and playing with stuff. But do I feel like I need it? No. Not at all. There’s nobody who could sit there and demand, “Go put something on your face.” I’d be like, “Girl, if you don’t get out of my face … I’ll look exactly how I want to look.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.