In our 'Girl Crush' series, women with mutual admiration for one another get together for conversations that offer illuminating looks into what it's like to be a woman right now.
There aren't many people that can pull off a mononym, but Cher and Zendaya are most certainly two of them. As a platinum-selling singer, the star of the Disney show K.C. Undercover and the newest face of COVERGIRL, Zendaya is following in the multi-talented footsteps of the Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe and Grammy Award-winning icon Cher, who was most recently seen as one of the stars of the Marc Jacobs Fall 2015 campaign. Both possess a knack for risk-taking in their art, fashion, and expression, and both inspire the same kind of excitement from fans, no matter whether they came of age with bell-bottoms or Snapchat. These one-name wonders got together for a chat about everything from the perils of perfectionism to the importance of fighting for your creative vision.
Cher: I have to tell you something -- I know you from Shake it Up.
Zendaya: Oh really? [Laughs]
Cher: I have a friend that was writing on it, and he was saying how great everybody was and how great you were, and so I know you.
Zendaya: Well that's -- that's crazy.
Cher: I also want to tell you that the long red dress that you were wearing with the lace and the layers --
Zendaya: The one that I wore for the Golden Globes?
Cher: Yes, it was really cute.
Zendaya: Thank you!
That's a nice segue into talking about both of your relationships with fashion. Can you each describe the role fashion plays in your career and in your self-expression?
Zendaya: Well, it's crazy being on the phone with you, Cher, because my style has been so inspired by the things you've done in your career and the moments that you've had. There's literally been red carpets where I think, this is my Cher moment. I've dissected and looked at a lot of the things that you've done that I think were pretty groundbreaking, especially for women. So I'm super inspired by you. I think [fashion] is just girl power in a sense, and it's also about being inspired by past things and reinventing things.
Cher: You know, when Sonny and I started, it was like I had these two girlfriends and they were the first hippies I knew, and we were the second. We were creating stuff and people didn't like it. Kids liked it, but we got so much crap from people because we were wearing our vests and huge elephant bell-bottoms and stuff like that, and people were used to seeing singers in dresses. So from the beginning, it was a big part of who we were, because we wore those outfits as our street clothes. But then during the first concerts we did, I wore dresses and Sonny wore a suit, but one time the airlines lost our luggage, so we went on as who we were, and the kids liked it so much that we just decided to do it. So from the beginning, fashion was a huge thing for me. I was lucky enough to meet Bob Mackie, which pretty much changed everything. And I don't know if you find this, but if I do a film and I put on the clothes, I just kind of become the character, and it helps so much.
Zendaya: Absolutely. It's like if you find an accent or you find the way your character walks or the way they interact with people. I also don't know if it's just me, but I kind of embody my own personal character every time I step out on different red carpets. It's a different layer of who you are, you know what I mean?
Cher: Yep, I got it. I've made some big, um, not exactly mistakes, but I was doing things that people didn't like -- like going to the Academy Awards in this beautiful big black feather mohawk and Indian dress...
Zendaya: It was amazing.
Cher: Right? You know, people said that I wasn't serious because of the way I dressed. But it's expression. It's like when you put your makeup on, you're an artist painting a canvas. And when you dress, you're expressing yourself in whatever way you feel like. You should never be inhibited by what people expect you to do.
Zendaya: Just looking at all the things you've done on red carpets – my stylist and I kind of stalk you a little bit – you were creating these moments, and you were breaking down barriers so that pop stars and even people like me could go out on a red carpet [and do something more dramatic], and people understand it and get the individuality of it.
Cher: You want to be accepted, but you don't want to play it so safe that you don't take chances and you don't express yourself. It's not bullshit to express yourself in the way you want to, and it helps girls to not be afraid to express themselves. I think you're a really good role model. Wardrobe is a simple thing, but you have to be free to express yourself. You can't be constricted.
Zendaya: I go out there and I wear what I want to wear, with nobody in mind but how I feel when I leave the house.
Cher: When you think you look beautiful, you come out with a kind of glow and a confidence, so it's a tool. So even though [fashion] is a small thing, and it's kind of a frivolous thing, it helps you feel better about yourself. Life is tough, and to add something that makes you feel better about yourself is only a good thing.
Photo by Billy Farrell/BFA.com
Did the confidence to take risks –- whether in your style, work or opinions –- come naturally for each of you? Or did it develop over time?
Zendaya: I think I've learned so much from the women in my life, like my mom and my older sisters. My mom's always been the person that never thinks of herself, and now that I'm an adult, she can, in a sense, do her own thing, and she's getting into her own and just finding her inner beauty. It just shows you that a metamorphosis can happen at any age for any woman at any time. And all my sisters are grown, and they have kids and are working women, so I'm very inspired by all of them. They're strong and powerful, and I look up to them a lot.
Cher: I remember my mom, she was pretty outlandish for her time. She was a model and she was beautiful and she was on the cutting edge. I did a movie where I took all the costumes from pictures of my mom. She expressed herself in a time that was rigid. And she was a single mom and her friends were also single moms, and they all worked and took care of the kids by themselves. They took chances in a time when it was hard for women. So I think that all these women that went before me gave me the courage to try things. But I also have to say that I'm not a woman with a lot of confidence unless I'm doing my work. I was just so unbelievably shy when I was young, and even still, I'm really outgoing when I work, but I'm kind of introverted when I don't. And so the stage and film and TV were perfect places for me to get to expose my other side. I'm also dyslexic, so school was a terrible time for me, and my mom used to say, "It doesn't make any difference. This is not what you're gonna do. You don't have to add, you don't have to spell. You're going to do something else." So my mom always gave me this extra confidence that I didn't have.
Zendaya: As a young person in this industry, I wanted to ask you, how do you balance everything and remain level-headed and a whole person?
Cher: Well, first of all, if you ask the question about being a level-headed person, you're a level-headed person, because people who don't think to ask the question are the ones who are in trouble. But my mom gave me some words of wisdom that I have used my entire life: You can't sweat the small stuff. You might be really lucky and your trajectory might be up and up and up, but I've been doing this for 50 years, and I've had high highs and low lows, and you've just gotta keep going. I always think of myself as a bumper car, and if you hit a wall, you go, "OK, what am I gonna do?" And you back up and you go in another direction. There are endless possibilities.
But sometimes I'll be going so fast in one direction -- one time my sister said, "You know what? I just don't like you. You better look at yourself and chill out." And I realized that I was losing relationships because I'd been forced on the road for such a long time. It wasn't like I didn't want to have these relationships, it was just like, "Oh my god, the road is the road and the tour is the tour, and I've gotta do this." But then when I got home, I had to make sure I repaired everything. And so it's difficult. Balancing everything is difficult, and one thing is going to be predominant and then another thing is going to be predominant. My mom told me a golden rule that if it doesn't matter in five years, it doesn't matter. And so, I've always asked myself, does this matter so much? Am I going to be worrying about this in five years? And if I think I'm not, then I go, "OK, whatever." Also, one thing I know for sure is that no matter how much you sweat it, no matter how upset and dramatic you get and how much you punish yourself, it's not going to help. You have to keep reminding yourself that, because artists have the temperament to be perfect, because that's what people expect.
Zendaya: I like that because I'm a perfectionist. I overthink everything I do.
Cher: So do I. And I don't know many artists that don't do that, because as an artist you're trying to create your ideal. You have to strive for perfection, but you can't make it kill you.
One theme that's come up a lot in this issue is the importance of being able to show your vulnerabilities, which can be very hard for artists in general and female artists in particular. Is there anything that still makes you feel vulnerable or still stresses you out?
Zendaya: I doubt myself a lot. I hold myself to such a high standard, and I always doubt if I can reach what I want for myself. And when a whole bunch of people are looking at you and want you to do great -– and other people want you to fail – you want to reach all of these expectations, and you start to doubt whether or not you're good enough. I have to try to let go and not think about it, but it's much easier said than done. My name is Zendaya and I'm a very "zen" person I'm super mellow, I'm chill and people feel like I don't worry about anything, but I think I try to help other people not [realize] how often I feel doubt or worry or feel nervous. But it's just about knowing that you're good enough.
Cher: You know, I think the exact same thing. You had success earlier, but I was 18. It's strange, because you go from a certain kind of life where you're just a kid and you're just normal, and then all of the sudden you become something different. Somehow, in the process of becoming an artist, you create an image. And it's not like you set out to create it, it's just that if you're a strong personality and if you have a point of view and you're going for something, in the process you create this thing called Zendaya or called Cher. And then that's what you are. And so, yeah, many times before I go onstage, I have to say prayers because I have stage fright. Not enough to keep me from doing it, but enough to make it hard until I get into the first or second song, and then I get caught up in it and I'm having a great time because I really love my work. But it takes something to push me out there, and I feel that way every time I work. I think you doubt yourself because somehow in the process of trying to become the thing you love, you somehow become more than the thing you love. You become this other entity, you know? And our job is to make it look easy. Our job is to have a good time and to remember that if you're not having a good time, nobody else is going to. But you also have to bring yourself down to the ground, and you gotta knock yourself down sometimes; you've got to keep yourself humble because, otherwise, none of it's worth it.
It's a rough business, and it's a rough business for women. But it's better now than it was when I started, because it wasn't good at all. Back then, women did not have the opportunity to be their own masters. People wanted to pat you on the head and tell you to go sit in the corner until it was time to sing.
Photo by Hunter Abrams/BFA.com
As artists who are both in music and in TV/film, do you find any differences between the way each industry treats women?
Cher: Women are held to a different standard than men, I think.
Cher: And it's always been the way and maybe it's always gonna be the way… I don't know. There are different rules for men than there are for women. I've done TV, Broadway, film… I've been [touring] on the road. On the road is where I have the most power, because it's my show and I create it with my girlfriend. And I have a lot of guys [involved], and we get along and they are very respectful. I think that that's the place where you feel like you can be exactly who you are, and if you treat people well, they respect you. That's where I feel free.
Zendaya: For me, TV and movies feel very different than music because you're playing a character, so you have a freedom in a sense to play that character and your own interpretation of that character. But with music, you're yourself. There's no character, there's no script for you – you're the artist. But what I've witnessed is that some people take the TV approach [for music] and want to create this character and give them a script to follow along, but that's not how music works. I think music is for the artist to decide, and I think that that's something I've had to battle with in terms of creating my own sound and what I want to be. What I'm still kind of figuring out and struggling with is there are so many professional puppets out there, like people who are just really great at doing what other people want them to do, and I am not that kind of person.
Cher: But also, you collaborate with people on a film more so than when you're doing your music. I'm pretty strong on what I believe and I know what I need to be good in my work, so I'm less flexible. Sometimes you've gotta fight for what you want, and when men do it people think, "Oh, what a strong character," and when women do it, they think "Oh, she's a bitch." But you have to know that you're not doing it to be a brat or to get your own way, you're doing it because you want to make it better. But you also have to be willing to listen sometimes – it's a hard line to walk to try to be open and flexible, but not let people walk over you when you're sure you're right.
Zendaya: I get so stubborn sometimes.
Cher: I'm real stubborn, too. I'm so typical Taurus, but I have to remind myself to step back. Also, this is a thing that can be a trap too: when you do something for a really, really long time, you have a tendency to think you're right. Sometimes you just have to walk yourself back and look at the big picture and then check out what people think and go, "OK, let's look at this." I was doing something onstage and this guy told me how to sing something and I said, "You know, the last time someone told me how to sing something, it was Sonny, and that just doesn't happen anymore. For better or for worse, this is who I am, this is what I do. If you don't like it, get someone else to do it. This is me. I can't change now." But I did change for "Believe," and I was thrilled and delighted when we used Auto-Tune. I just thought it was the coolest thing ever, because it didn't sound like me and it was so exciting. But, you know, other than that, you kind of have to be who you are. Hope that you can improve yourself, but not walk away from it. You can never walk away from who you are, because that's how you got where you are.
Splash photos: Photo of Cher by Laurie Lynn Stark; photo of Zendaya by Albert Sanchez, styling by Dana Goldenberg at Wilhelmina and hair by Kim Kimball for the Celestine Agency. Zendaya wears a dress by Tatum Jones.