What happened between Zendaya and Disney? From racist publicist to contracts gone awry, here is what went down

From an unnecessarily forged competition between her and Thorne to the platinum career with Hollywood Records we never heard of, here's what went down between Disney and Zendaya.


                            What happened between Zendaya and Disney? From racist publicist to contracts gone awry, here is what went down
Zendaya attends the Bvlgari B.zero1 Rock collection event (Getty Images)
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Zendaya's history with Disney has been long and prolific. Their differences and disagreements, although shrouded in the glory of her coming out of that shell, are elaborate too.

Today Zendaya is the youngest Emmy winner for a role that couldn't be farther from Disney's cut-off. She is also a friend of fellow Disney alum Bella Thorne, who has long grown out of that Disney shell with her stint in adult entertainment. Zendaya is also vocal about the representation in the media and an activist for the African American community and all that signifies them. But these elements about who Zendaya has become might have a bit to do with what Disney wanted her to be. Zendaya's feud with Disney dates back to 2010, with the 'Shake it Up' series.

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Bella Thorne and Zendaya's friendship

Back when Thorne's nude scandal broke out in 2019, Zendaya had reportedly texted her "Just a reminder you are strong and beautiful inside and out. You're a light and I'm super proud." Their friendship allegedly blossomed on the sets of the Disney sitcom and has grown ever since. But this is not what Disney wanted, Thorne has claimed in a J-14 interview, adding how the two were constantly pitted against each other by the network.

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"Zendaya and I were put in a very unfortunate position where we were kind of forced to compete against each other, which made the whole first season of the show just very awkward for us," Thorne said. "We wanted to love each other, but yet we were constantly being put against each other. It was, 'Who's better at this?' and 'Who's better at that?'"

Thorne recounts the incident ended with the two realizing what was happening and settled the matter together without letting Disney get between them. That was how Zendaya became Thorne's best friend, the latter shared.

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Juggling multiple works

Sadly, the then future-Emmy winner's woes with Disney did not end there. She chose the road less taken and decided to juggle the two (acting and school) at the same time, although admitting later in a Glamour interview how many of her peers would "cheat their way through" online classes. "They'd just look up the answers and type them in," she said. "That's insane to me."

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Her mother had to then step in to get Disney lawyers to arrange for a particular teacher who would work with Zendaya constantly, on press tours, when they were on the move, and with a signature tough-love approach.

"In the hotel room. She'd be like, 'Are you tired? I don't care,'" Zendaya said. "I remember doing Dancing With the Stars and literally falling asleep reading a book. I'd never been so tired in my life — there's no off time. But she stuck with me and made sure I got what I needed.

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Zendaya's singing career

In Euphoria's artsy finale, Zendaya dazzled us with her vocals for the Labrinth track 'All for Love'. It led a lot of fans to wonder just why she hit pause on that musical career of hers, that had started off with the title track for Disney's 'KC Undercover'.

Following their signature move, Disney cast Zendaya at 17 as the lead, had her record the theme song, and sold it off into a platinum career with Hollywood Records. But until 'Euphoria' that was the last we had heard a song from her.

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Later Zendaya told Paper, how she paused her music career because it "takes a little bit of passion away from you." Alluding to all blame on contracts, she said: "It sucks you dry a little bit. What I thought I wanted, it's not what I want anymore, [especially] when I think about what I had to deal with in the music industry. If anyone asks my number one advice ... it's look over those contracts, every single word, and don't sign anything that isn't worth it to you."

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Zendaya turns producer

At the young age of 16, Zendaya had met with exes and expressed her interest in more power over their work together. She told Cosmopolitan: "The only way I was going to come back to the Disney Channel was if I was in a position of more power." And she did get that, becoming one of the youngest producers in Disney history. She also went to the network with demands against the original title of 'KC Undercover'. The show was titled 'Super Awesome Katy', and Zendaya found it all 'whack'. "Do I look like a Katy to you?" she asked Vogue.

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Zendaya also wanted KC to strictly not be like other Disney stereotypes. She expressed how she didn't want KC to be "artistically inclined", adding: "There are other things that a girl can be," she told Vogue. A little bit awkward yet running with the guys, her KC would be trained in martial arts and super smart. "I want her to be normal with an extraordinary life." She also demanded more representation, asking the show to follow a family of color.

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"One thing that is really important to me is diversity on the channel," Zendaya 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. Representation is very important."

Standing up for her people

As her own statement to the microaggressions faced with the industry, Zendaya also wore dreadlocks to the 2015 Oscars. Soon on the talk show 'Fashion Police', Giuliana Rancic decided to make infamous remarks about how Zendaya looked like she must smell like 'patchouli oil' or 'weed'. After that, as she told Vogue, Zendaya "went to [her] room" to cool off before writing a scathing clap-back on Instagram, slamming Rancic's statements.

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"I'll have you know my father, brother, best childhood friend, and little cousins all have locs ... There is already harsh criticism of African American hair in society without the help of ignorant people who choose to judge others based on the curl of their hair. My wearing my hair in locs on an Oscar red carpet was to showcase them in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough."

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Even though Rancic's public apology followed soon and Zendaya accepted it too, co-host Kelly Osbourne quit the show days later and according to The Wrap, the network temporarily pulled the show too. This was years after she had to endure being "on-set with people being racially insensitive," as she told Cosmopolitan about her Disney photoshoot days. "I didn't like my hair and makeup one time on a photoshoot," Zendaya said. "And my publicist told me, 'You should just be happy with it — they haven't had a black girl on the cover since forever.' She's no longer my publicist."

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With a relationship this sour, Disney has somehow always managed to seep into Zendaya's filmography. Be it 'The Greatest Showman' or the revamped Tom Holland starter 'Spider-Man', Zendaya and Disney are still tied. "Having a Disney past sometimes makes it difficult for people to take you seriously, so I have to pick the right projects, make sure I do the right things, take my time," she told Glamour in 2017.

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Even with Euphoria being an HBO show, Zendaya hopes to not be typecast. Her Rue is a mentally unwell, drug addict struggling to stay sober. Touted as the most graphic and outrageous teen drama of our times, 'Euphoria' has been torn between criticism and praise. But even though her winning role was Rue, Zendaya still desires to play the other type too.

"I still get the corny stuff. It's cool," Zendaya told The New York Times. "I feel like I can do [Euphoria] and still have another world outside of it where I can do family movies and fun things like that."

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