"That's how change happens," the star said of her decision to publicly defend herself at the time

By Hanna Flanagan
March 16, 2021 01:33 PM
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When Zendaya wore dreadlocks to the 2015 Academy Awards, then Fashion Police co-host Giuliana Rancic joked on air that the traditional African hairstyle made the actress look like she "smells like patchouli oil or weed." 

At the time, the Disney Channel alum defended herself on Instagram, calling Rancic's racially charged comments "outrageously offensive." And now, in a new cover story for W Magazine, the 24-year-old star is reflecting on the incident and her decision to speak up.

"That's how change happens," Zendaya, who fronts the issue alongside her Malcolm and Marie co-star John Washington, said. "And it made me think, 'How could I always have a lasting impact on what people saw and associated with People of Color?'"

Zendaya, and her Malcolm and Marie co-star, John David Washington for W Magazine
Credit: Nadine Ijewere

In 2015, shortly after the Fashion Police episode aired, Zendaya responded to the television host on Instagram. "There is a fine line between what is funny and disrespectful," she wrote. "Someone said something about my hair at the Oscars that left me in awe. Not because I was relishing in rave outfit reviews, but because I was hit with ignorant slurs and pure disrespect."

Image
Credit: Steve Granitz/Wireimage; Jason Merritt/Getty

Continued Zendaya, "To say that an 18-year-old young woman with locs must smell of patchouli oil or 'weed' is not only a large stereotype but outrageously offensive. I don't usually feel the need to respond to negative things but certain remarks cannot go unchecked."

Zendaya in Valentino at the 26th Critics' Choice Award
Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty

Zendaya went on to name-check successful African Americans such as Ava DuVernay and Terry McMillan, all of whom have "locs" in common – "none of which smell of marijuana."

"I suggest some people should listen to India Arie's 'I Am Not My Hair,' " Zendaya concluded, "and contemplate a little before opening your mouth so quickly to judge."

Rancic apologized for her comments on Twitter, clarifying that she meant her comments as "referring to a bohemian chic look. Had NOTHING to do with race and NEVER would!!!"

Rancic later issued an on-camera statement via E!:

In the years since, Zendaya has emerged as one of Hollywood's most influential activists, and she continues to celebrate Black culture through her work and fashion.

Reflecting on the theme of the W Magazine cover shoot, inspired by Slim Aarons's photographs of socialite C.Z. Guest and her extravagant lifestyle, Zendaya mused, "Two Black actors in this setting, seems like rewriting history in an elegant manner, like kind of an Old Hollywood that we wished existed. It's almost like righting a wrong."

Zendaya, and her Malcolm and Marie co-star, John David Washington for W Magazine
Credit: Nadine Ijewere
Zendaya, and her Malcolm and Marie co-star, John David Washington for W Magazine
Credit: Nadine Ijewere

"The visuals matter," the Euphoria star's longtime stylist and image architect Law Roach said of the '50s-themed shoot. "The way change happens is when people can see wealth and grandeur in a way that they are not used to seeing it."