The “K.C. Undercover” star and Rory Kennedy on dealing with haters and battling gender discrimination in Hollywood
Zendaya thinks that leaning in is as important as chilling out.
The 21-year-old former child star has already had quite the career. While a teenager, she appeared alongside Bella Thorne in “Shake It Up,” a highly-rated Disney sitcom, before going on to helm “K.C. Undercover,” on which she plays the titular high school student who’s also a highly-trained spy. Most recently, she introduced herself to a wider audience on the big screen with a starring turn opposite Tom Holland on “Spiderman: Homecoming.” She appeared on the cover of Vogue. And then, Zendaya realized that she was running on fumes.
“A few months ago, I just kept getting sick because I was working too much and stressing myself out,” she tells Moneyish on the sides of the New York Film Festival, shortly after filming the final episode of “K.C. Undercover” “I was flying here and there and had to say ‘woah! You need to chill out, pace yourself and not try to do everything at once.”
But that doesn’t mean she is going away. The world first came to know Zendaya, who is half black, as a woke voice on gender and race issues when she called out E! host Giuliana Rancic in 2015 for mocking her dreadlocks. While still an adolescent, she famously got Disney execs to change the name of “K.C. Undercover” from “Super Awesome Katy” because the latter sounded “wack.” Indeed, the California native was in Manhattan to lend her support to “Without a Net,” a documentary directed by Academy Award nominee Rory Kennedy that explores the class divide when it comes to technological access.
So how did the daughter of two educators develop that confidence? Partly out of necessity. “For young people, especially with everything that’s happening now, it’s so important to use our voices for positive change,” Zendaya says. “Go with your gut instinct and start a dialogue. If you’re afraid to speak up, nothing will happen.”
That’s partly why Zendaya isn’t hiding about the uncertainty she feels as she enters the next stage of her career. After all, the route from Disney wunderkind to grown-up A-lister is a famously precarious one. “It’s important that I do things that feel good to me,” she says. “If it doesn’t settle right or feel good, it’s never right. I’m in no rush to grow up and I’m going to take my time and pace myself.”
She’s also nonplussed about the haters who seem to come with being an outspoken young woman in the public eye. “I can handle people disagreeing with me,” she says. “If you put something out there that you’re really passionate about, you just have to deal with it.” Zendaya draws particular inspiration from two older “kick butt” African-American stateswomen of the entertainment world in Oprah Winfrey and Shonda Rhimes, who recently told Moneyish about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
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Another voice she can count on for advice is Kennedy, who transitioned from being the hippie daughter of the late Bobby Kennedy into a critically acclaimed filmmaker. But having a famous last name doesn’t mean that the 48-year-old has escaped the constraints of her gender. “I live in Los Angeles and, there’s a fair amount of sexism in Hollywood,” she says, noting that the barriers tend to get higher for female filmmakers as budgets rise. “As a society, we don’t like to give women responsibility when there’s money” involved.
But instead of shedding tears about it, Kennedy decided to work harder than her male counterparts. She has over three dozen producer credits to her name for long-form documentaries that range from the end of the Vietnam War her uncle started to female pioneers in Hollywood. “I keep making films and try to make the best ones possible,” she says. “Many of them are focused on ‘male issues,’ while others are deeply focused on ‘female issues.’ Women are enormously competent and we’ll keep getting the message out there by doing it.” Up next: a documentary tied to NASA’s 60th anniversary next year.
Kennedy even has kind words for First Daughter Ivanka Trump, who recently worked with her father to direct at least $200 million in funding for STEM-related education programs, with a particular focus on expanding access for women. “Generally speaking, boys have favored and targeted more,” she says. “It’s enormously important to support women and get them involved in STEM. Hopefully, that’s going to happen.”
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