Zendaya Sets the Record Straight About Cultural Appropriation and Braids

Zendaya Coleman may be a teen millennial rockstar, but she has an old soul. "Oh, absolutely. I'm 19 going on 90," she confirmed when we met in NYC. "I'm an old lady, but I accept that."

Her dear father sat in the plush hotel suite with us. But aside from his presence and her youthful glow, it was easy to forget that she's under the legal drinking age. That's because Zendaya is wise beyond her years. While many of the other Young Hollywood crew are seen partying and acting out, Zendaya doesn't have to sing songs about being sorry. She's basically the valedictorian of her class, Gen Y. And she's aligned herself with other power teens like Amandla Stenberg, who is outspoken about cultural appropriation.

This makes sense given the fact that in addition to being a triple threat (singing, dancing, and acting), she hopes to earn a college degree. "I don't want to go because I feel forced or pushed," she said of this personal goal to learn about more than just the Tinseltown business (though don't count directing out of her future, either).

Before she dives head first into a textbook, the Disney star is making a name for herself as a style icon. Both CoverGirl and Chi have tapped her as a spokeswoman. When it comes to makeup, she's a DIY girl, often doing her own face for red carpets (including the 2016 Grammys!).

But hair is where she really breaks boundaries and experiments! Zendaya is known to top her naturally curly strands with every wig imaginable, from luscious mermaid waves to a boyish bowl cut. And somehow, like a unicorn, she looks gorgeous no matter what style she's sporting. The biracial beauty has the kind of features — lush brows, smoldering brown eyes, striking cheekbones, and a begs-for-lipstick pout — that could look stunning with a mullet (oh yeah, she's worn that).

This dynamic part of Zendaya's personality is what Chi tapped into when the brand cast her as the face of its #REALisBEAUTIFUL campaign. In each of the six different advertisement shots, Zendaya wears a unique hairstyle. They show off both her shiny mane as well as how versatile the Chi hot tools and products are. Her strands seamlessly transform from supersleek to glam waves and kinky coils. It very much mirrors her real-life red carpet style.

To top off her impressive career path, she worked with Barbie to diversify the iconic dolls. Brains, beauty, and bravery are three words that describe this impressive woman. And she gets through it all, as she told us, by ignoring the haters. "It's OK to love yourself!" she said. "There's nothing wrong with that. That's who you're supposed to love."

Keep reading to hear more empowering (and emotional!) words from Zendaya.

Getty | Dominique Charriau

POPSUGAR: You're such a hairstyle chameleon. How is hair a part of your identity?

Zendaya Coleman: Hair has allowed me to experiment and have fun. It has allowed me to build up my confidence. That made me more dependent on what I like, what I want, and not listen to or care at all about other people's opinions of what I look like and how I feel about myself. So, simply through experimenting, having fun, and not being afraid to try things, I have become stronger in myself.

PS: Have you ever struggled with self-esteem issues?

ZC: Thankfully I've never had a body image problem. Even when people would say things about me when I was younger, like, "Oh, you're skinny, you look . . . whatever," it never affected me. I never had a problem with it. I don't know why. I think it is just because of the way I was raised. But, one problem I did have was caring what other people thought about me — meaning what I wore, how I wore my hair.

Getty | Desiree Navarro

PS: How do you tune that all out? I'm 31 years old, and I still struggle when I hear negative comments about myself. What's your advice for being above it all?

ZC: You cannot allow other people's opinions, comments, or decisions affect how you feel about yourself. Understand that it's OK to feel it and be affected. It doesn't mean you're weak. You're a human being. [The problem is] allowing someone else's words to affect you and create action in your own life. When you start living or dressing for other people and their opinions, you lose sight of what you like. That's when you give up control of yourself and your confidence starts to deteriorate.

I've gotten to a point with fashion where I just don't care. I wear and I do what I want because I like it, because I am confident in it, because it makes me feel good. That's the only way you can do it. The greatest of the greats are only great because they did what they wanted. And they didn't allow people's opinions to destroy who they are and stop them from being themselves. So please, wear and do what you want! These rules and these trends are so temporary.

Getty | Axelle/Bauer-Griffin

PS: You're definitely a rule breaker! You went from that talked-about mullet at the Grammys to today's beautiful mermaid curls. Where do you draw inspiration from for these quick and drastic changes?

ZC: My stylist Law [Roach] has kind of become my creative director. Together we're very much inspired by the past. We're inspired by Cher and Bianca Jagger — people who I think have made pivotal fashion moments. Maybe at some point, they were not even accepted, but they made statements in the fashion world. Also people who just do what they want. We are inspired by past and previous looks, and then create our own versions of those things.

PS: Obviously Chi is an important brand to you, and the hot tools are cult products. What is your approach to using them?

ZC: For me, it's all about what you do before and after you use hot tools on your hair. It's about how you protect against the heat damage, what you put on your hair before, how you moisturize and take care of it before, and how you restore and balance everything after. That is definitely why I wanted to work with Chi. When I sat down with them, they told me about the different sciences and how much work goes into creating these products that are effectively helping with hair damage. There's nothing wrong with experimenting with your look and having fun. People should be able to do that without burning their hair off.

Getty | Frederick M. Brown

PS: What do you do to protect your own natural curls?

ZC: They have this argan oils section, that's for me. Everyone has their own process. I can't shampoo my hair every day or it will get dry and brittle. So I shampoo every other day and only do the roots. I can't shampoo all the way down to the end, because it will dry my hair out. I use a mask multiple times a week to restore moisture. I have a styling cream gel that's really nice. [I apply it], scrunch my hair up, and then use a diffuser to help get the curls rolling.

PS: That is an old-school way of doing your hair. Gel and a diffuser is straight out of the '80s.

ZC: Yeah! Here's the thing. The difference is that it's styling cream gel. So it's not like the old-school gels, which were crunchy and disgusting. With a cream gel, you can run your hands through it and it will break up. It just helps with the definition, so that you can eliminate frizz and actually have curl.

Getty | Jason Merritt

PS: We know you're a DIY girl with makeup; do you do your own hair for red carpets?

ZC: No, I do not do my own hair for red carpets. But for day to day or little events, then [I can do a] topknot. Done. Got that. Boom. I can also straighten my hair fast and slick it back with some hair spray, no problem. But when get into the avant-garde crazy stuff like that mullet, I can't do it on my own. I need somebody to help me. But I could pop a wig on by myself if I had to. Wigs are the savior. You can have as much fun with hot tools and do whatever you want with a wig.

PS: Braids are a buzz term right now, especially when it comes to cultural appropriation. What do you consider to be cultural appropriation, and where do you think we should draw the line?

ZC: Well, first of all, braids are not new. Black women have been wearing braids for a very long time, and that's another part of the frustration. We've been using that as a protective style, as a hairstyle. That's been in our culture and our community for a very long time. So it's not this new, fresh, fun thing. Another problem is it became new and fresh and fun, because it was on someone else other than a black woman. You know what I mean? So that is the frustration. That's where the culture appropriation element comes into play.

Getty | Jason Merritt

PS: What is your advice for media outlets to write about this in a better way?

ZC: If something feels personal to your culture or to your background, then you take that personally and you feel affected by it. You can't tell someone not to be upset about it. But when it comes to big media outlets, instead of saying, "Oh, it's a big controversy and now I'm making it bigger," they should really talk to people. Saying that people are angry furthers the "angry black woman thing," and people aren't angry for no reason. There's reasons why people are hurt by certain things, so I would suggest talking to people.

Talk to women of color and hear their personal experiences. Get to know the background, understand why people are offended by it, and [learn] how we can be more sensitive of other people's cultures — how we can enlighten ourselves. Use it for good other than just something to click on. Because you click on it and then you read about how people are upset, but you don't know why. You don't learn anything, and you just feel like people are upset for no reason.

PS: Do you have any advice — and I could be wrong here — for how celebrities like Kim Kardashian or Katy Perry can wear a style that's been traditionally a black one? Is there ever an appropriate way to do that? Or is it better just to stay away from those looks?

ZC: I don't know. I really don't know. I would be careful, I would definitely be careful. I don't know if there is an appropriate way — that's not something I can answer.

My girl Amandla [Stenberg], who is super dope, brought up another problem. She wished society loved black people as much as they love black culture. That's the truth. The credit gets taken away from us when we make certain statements or when we do certain things. That is the frustration. People want to be around for the positives and the things that we bring as far as culture, but they don't want to be around when we have problems or when we're getting shot in the streets. You know what I'm saying? You have to be there for the whole experience. You can't just decide when you want to be a part of our culture.

Getty | Jason Merritt

PS: Thank you for being so honest. You're a millennial role model, and it's really important to get voices like yours out there. Let's move over to lighter topics and return to the deeper ones later. You are known for being a DIY girl — even when it comes to major award shows. What's your face-painting process?

ZC: It's a long process. I always start off with good skin. You have to take care of your skin . . . I don't really have a skin care routine. I will say that my number one thing is make sure you take off your makeup before you go to sleep. Make sure you wash your face good before you go to sleep, because if not, [the makeup] will sit in your pores. It is just bad.

PS: Do you have a favorite makeup-removal formula?

ZC: Makeup wipes. Boom, done. It's easy, simple. You don't have to worry about it, and you can go to sleep.

PS: Back to putting makeup on . . .

ZC: I always start with my eyes, because whatever fallout happens, you don't want that on the face you just did. So, do your eyes first, wipe off all the fallout, and then get started on your face — highlight, contour, whatever you want to do.

Getty | Jason LaVeris

PS: What's your favorite part of your face to do? Is it eyes?

ZC: It depends. Some days my eyes are simple, and I'll just pop a little brown on there — no big deal. Sometimes I want to do something a little more challenging, like do a cut crease or something fun like that. But then, I also really love doing my face. I love contouring, I love adding highlights. That's my favorite part, adding highlights at the end because you're just like, "Boom!" It just feels good.

PS: What highlighter do you use?

ZC: In the CoverGirl Roses TruNaked Eye Shadow Palette, there are two highlighter colors. One is a little more matte and one is super shimmery. I actually use that as a highlighter. So you can double up, and don't have to spend extra money, girl. Use it as highlight.

PS: You draw inspiration from past icons for your hair. What about makeup?

ZC: When it comes to makeup, I scroll through Instagram, different tutorials, and different looks. I'm inspired by the [current] movement of makeup where you [don't] feel like you have to wear it to make you feel pretty. Now it's just art. We can share different looks with each other. We can have fun. We can record as many videos as we want. I love going on there and seeing men and women who are creating these superdope looks. Sometimes I literally want to do what they have on, and other times I am just inspired by the different looks and lip colors.

Getty | David Livingston

PS: It seems like your makeup is very modern and your hair is very retro. I've also read that you're a lip balm girl.

ZC: Absolutely, I can't do chapped lips. Chapped lips is just a no-no.

PS: I'm actually pretty addicted to lip balm, too, and probably put it on every 20 minutes. How often do you apply?

ZC: Oh, well not every 20 minutes — you are next level. Me? Whenever. Apply when necessary — when my lips are dry or feeling a little chapped. Definitely multiple times a day.

PS: Do you have a favorite one right now?

ZC: I have two good go-tos. If your lips are jacked up, Aquaphor is always a good go-to. You can put it on baby rashes and baby diapers. I've used it literally since I've been in diapers for my butt and now I use it for my lips. If you want a little color, try the CoverGirl Oh Super lip balms. I really like them, because you can moisturize and also have a little tint. Not too much, just a little dab.

Getty | Frazer Harrison

PS: What's your advice for biracial women when it comes to finding makeup shades?

ZC: One shade is not enough and that's with every face, honestly. Sometimes you have to mix colors. Everyone has different parts of their face with different tones and shades. Experiment using lighter in the middle and darker around the edges.

Also, really think about your undertones, because I've seen a lot of women use things on their faces that turn ashy or gray. I know that sounds ridiculous and weird, but definitely take the time to look at your skin and be like, "Yo, what's under there?" You'd be surprised — the colors from a distance look pretty much the same. But when you get up close and put them on your hand, it's like, "Whoa, that's definitely more yellow and that's definitely more ashy. That's not going to work on my skin." You have to work that out.

PS: How do you take care of your skin when you travel?

ZC: When I travel, it's all about moisture. When you're on an airplane, you definitely have to have some type of moisturizer with you at all times. And something you can pack on at night and just sleep in. Whatever works best for you.

PS: Do you have a favorite right now?

ZC: Not really. I'm kind of in a transitional period. I've been trying to find a new moisturizer, because if I stay with one for too long my skin gets used to it and it doesn't work as well.

Getty | Rich Polk

PS: Back to being a role model. Why do you think so many millennial women are so inspired by you?

ZC: In this social media age, you can tell real and fake [posting] very quickly. It's just very obvious. Because I'm very real, honest, and vocal, they can connect with it and appreciate it. We're in a new era of young people who are speaking up, being open, and having dialogues about important issues. Because of that, I have been able to connect with other young people who are vocal, and who are trying to break out of their shells. They might ask me questions about my journey.

PS: What is one social media trend that you wish would go away?

ZC: First of all, what is this "Damn, Daniel" thing? Have you been seeing that? It's literally of this kid coming up to this kid Daniel everyday and saying, "Damn, Daniel." He has white Vans, and he's like, "Back at it with the white Vans." I don't get what's so funny or so interesting about it. I was sitting there, thinking, is he going to fall or say something funny? Literally he just says "Damn, Daniel," like 80,000 times on a video. I do not get the humor. With that [part of] my generation, I don't know what's going on with us. Why is this a trending topic? I just feel bad for Daniel. Daniel is just trying to live! Poor Daniel.

Getty | Astrid Stawiarz

PS: What's the one piece of advice you'd like to tell your fans right now?

ZC: I would say my number one tip is to know that it's OK to be in love with yourself. That's not a bad thing. People might think it's cocky, or arrogant, or selfish — no, that's not what that means. Being in love with yourself is OK. You're allowed to love yourself first. You're allowed to put yourself first. You're allowed to be in love with yourself. It's OK to be like, "Dang, I look good," or "My hair is popping today," or "I love the way my legs look." It's OK to love yourself! There's nothing wrong with that. That's who you're supposed to love.

PS: That's the best answer. Who do you think the most inspiring person in beauty is right now?

ZC: Oh my gosh, that's a big question. I'm going to make it a little more broad. I'm going to give it up to the young people in my age range who are making the steps to be themselves. There are definitely people who still cling onto the trends. But seeing how creative we are, how we are using social media to educate, and how we are bringing up conversations — that's what is inspiring to me.

Of course, it's sad sometimes when you see certain negative comments on Instagram — people being ignorant. Some are still in the shadows and not quite understanding . . . we are getting there. But there is also a lot of positivity coming from young people, from this new wave. We have some really smart individuals. We're going to be the future. So we have got to continue to do that.

Getty | Jon Kopaloff

PS: What went through your head when you heard Mattel was making a Barbie after you?

ZC: That was awesome. It was incredible. First of all, my first initial reaction of working with Barbie was, "I don't know if that makes a lot of sense for me because I like to celebrate different types of beauty and Barbie has just only been very one-tiered." I never had a Barbie when I grew up. It was not something I could connect to. And they were like, "We know, we understand. That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to diversify. We're trying to break those barriers down."

Then they came to me with the whole idea of making my Oscars look — that was their idea, not even mine. They were so cool about it.

When I went to a Barbie store, I was like, "Look at the signage, it's just the same old Barbie. If I were younger, I wouldn't see myself up there. I don't see anything that makes sense for me." They were like, "You know what? Send us everything. We want you to give us all your feedback. We love hearing about that."

They actually made those changes. I literally went to the airport to come here, and I was like "Dad, look. The sign — it's changed." There are different Barbies now. You've got the blonde, the black, and the Asian. And they're all Barbie! That's very cool.

Getty | Barry King

PS: Now that you've conquered the doll industry in addition to singing, dancing, and acting, what else would you want to add to your résumé that you haven't yet done?

ZC: I love being in front of the camera, but I'm really interested in things behind the camera and developing things. It doesn't have to be shows, it could be anything — I just like being behind the scenes. I'm very creative in that sense. I have a shoe line coming out that I've been able to really be creative on. Doing stuff like that is exciting to me. You know, in the future I want to go to school for something different. I want to go for child psychology or something like that.

PS: Going to college would be an amazing accomplishment.

ZC: Both of my parents are teachers so I am really into that. At some point, I want to go to school because I want to do it. I don't want to go because I feel forced or pushed. I don't want to go for anything that has to do with the industry, really. I want to go for something else and I want to go because I want to learn. So, get my career on, do what I need to do to support myself and my family, and then go to the college of my choice and not worry about debt or the problems of college life. Just be able to go and enjoy the experience of learning, and then do something else.