On a bright, beautiful day, at a mansion in Beverly Hills, Zendaya, the 24-year-old actress and producer, was looking at a photo of an elegant 1950s beauty in classic resortwear standing by a vast, vaguely Grecian swimming pool. The woman in question was C.Z. Guest, a very tan, very blonde socialite who became, in that iconic image by Slim Aarons, the personification of wealth, status, and privilege. Next to Zendaya was Law Roach, her longtime stylist and collaborator, who was wearing a denim Prada trenchcoat and a baseball cap that read respect the sexy. They had studied other well-known images on Roach’s phone—Elvis with a sultry Priscilla Presley sitting on his lap; the French crooner and sex symbol Serge Gainsbourg nuzzling Jane Birkin, his young girlfriend; an elaborately coiffed model in a floral gown surveying the grounds of the Hôtel du Cap on the French Riviera—but they always returned to Aarons’s portrayal of Guest.
“That’s the mood I want,” Zendaya, bundled up in a white terrycloth robe, said definitively. Her goal for this W shoot was to replace the conventional idea of white society in Aarons’s picture with the more modern concept of a Black couple who live in a similarly grand house with an equally alluring swimming pool. “That life, but reimagined for now, with the look of then,” she explained as Roach nodded. “Doing a Slim Aarons shoot, but with Black actors,” Roach said later. “The visuals matter. The way change happens is when people can see wealth and grandeur in a way that they are not used to seeing it.”
To accomplish that goal, Zendaya and Roach scouted a house with a large circular driveway, complete with a gurgling fountain, and a grand entrance flanked by white marble columns. As Zendaya headed to an area that had been designated for her hair and makeup team, John David -Washington, her costar in Malcolm & Marie and her -on-camera husband for the photos, arrived. They greeted each other like family, and Zendaya explained that the plan for the shoot was for his clothes to be color--coordinated with hers: If she had on a lime green scarf, he would wear a polo shirt in the same shade. Washington readily agreed and went to examine his wardrobe.
Zendaya looked very happy—she loves transformation. When the world went into lockdown last year, she was about to start filming the second season of Euphoria, in which she plays a teenage girl struggling with addiction and mental health issues, and she quickly became restless; she missed engaging with alternate universes. To scratch that itch, she would often wear different wigs from her vast collection and create characters inspired by them. A sleek red bob helped her shape-shift into a flighty runway model; a long, black Cher-like curtain of hair transformed her into a goth kid.
In 2015, Zendaya’s hair sparked an uncomfortable conversation that led to positive change, when she wore a slinky, off-the-shoulder Vivienne Westwood gown paired with cascading dreadlocks to the Academy Awards. Zendaya was largely unknown then, except to an avid tween fan base that obsessed over her on Disney Channel shows like Shake It Up. Her striking ensemble had been carefully engineered by Roach, who has been working with Zendaya since she was 14. Like the Aarons-inspired shoot, Zendaya’s look juxtaposed old-school glamour with something unexpected.
Shortly after Zendaya walked down the red carpet, Giuliana Rancic, then an E! news anchor, made a thoughtlessly hostile—and racially loaded—comment. “I feel like she smells like patchouli oil,” Rancic said. “And weed.” Zendaya responded on Instagram with: “There is already a 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.”
Washington wears an Etro top; Frère pants; Bulgari watch; his own necklace (throughout). Zendaya wears an Alaïa top and shorts; Bulgari earrings and rings.
Washington wears a Dior Men’s shirt; Dzojchen pants; Hermès shoes. Zendaya wears a Miu Miu dress; Giorgio Armani earrings; Bulgari rings; Moschino Couture shoes; stylist’s own headband. Lancôme Clarifique Face Essence.
Hello! Immediately, Zendaya’s mix of talent, beauty, and outspokenness made her a person of great interest. After the Oscars uproar, -Mattel swiftly created a Zendaya -Barbie doll, clad in the dress and sporting the hair that had led to Rancic’s remark. “That’s how change happens,” Zendaya told me. “And it made me think, How could I always have a lasting impact on what people saw and associated with people of color?”
Although her wig-inspired flights of fancy distracted her briefly during lockdown, Zendaya deeply missed acting. She called Sam Levinson, the writer and director of Euphoria, to see if they could, perhaps, shoot a film in her house. Levinson came up with Malcolm & Marie, a story about a clashing—but still loving—couple. Zendaya loved the character of Marie, and Washington was cast as Malcolm. “I didn’t know Zendaya,” Washington told me, “and I hadn’t seen her in anything but Euphoria. When we met, we instantly connected. She was wearing her hoodie and glasses and no makeup. She struck me instantly as a quiet, powerful force.”
Growing up, Washington, who is Denzel’s son, had resisted the impulse to become an actor. He longed to forge his own identity and pursued sports, eventually playing in the NFL. “In football, you had to prove every day that you belonged, which is also true in acting,” Washington explained. “When I snapped my Achilles tendon on a play—when I heard that pop—I thought, This is God’s way of saying that you have to sit down and think about your life. After that, I auditioned for Ballers [an HBO comedy about the world of professional football] and got the part. That was the beginning of this new life.” After Ballers, he was quickly cast in a series of high-profile projects, such as Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
Washington’s background as an athlete complemented Zendaya’s training as a dancer—she started her career when she was just 8 years old, as part of a hip-hop dance crew in her native Oakland, California. Physical grace and a competitive spirit underscore both Zendaya’s and Washington’s personalities. “I knew they’d both go home and think, I’m not going to let him, or her, win,” Levinson told me. “During Malcolm & Marie, that was crucial to the energy and intensity necessary for the film.”
Zendaya and Washington’s chemistry was apparent on set at the Beverly Hills house. When Zendaya changed into a pair of shorts and a matching lace top that resembled C.Z. Guest’s set in the Slim Aarons photo, Washington complimented her look. She playfully hit him on the arm, and they did a kind of impromptu dance. Later, that dance was worked into a series of photos: Zendaya twirling in a sorbet-hued minidress with a large pink bow, while Washington smiled. In one of her favorite setups, they lounged by the pool—Washington in a sleek tuxedo and Zendaya in a long black gown enhanced by major jewels. “Two Black actors in this setting,” Zendaya said after the shoot, “seems like rewriting history in an elegant manner, like kind of an Old Hollywood that we wished existed in these photos. It’s almost like righting a wrong.”
Crucial to that concept was Zendaya’s insistence on being blonde. Much like her experiments during quarantine, this offered her a chance to create a new persona. Her teased bouffant was both a jab at the traditional stereotypes of white women and a way to instantly become a character. “The wig was very important,” Roach told me. “The entire outfit—the jewels, the gorgeous gown, the stilettos—they don’t make the same statement without the blonde hair.”
As Zendaya, in a short yellow dress, eased into the front seat of a sky blue convertible in the mansion’s front driveway, -Washington, in a tight green polo shirt and white pants, looked approvingly at the scene before him. “Black royalty!” he exclaimed. “Looking very, very good.” He walked up to the car and addressed no one in particular. “It’s never too late for the world to change.”
Washington wears a Gucci suit; Dzojchen shirt. Zendaya wears a Chanel long vest and pants; Bulgari earrings and ring. Lancôme Lash Idôle Mascara and Le Crayon Khôl in Black Ebony.
Zendaya wears a Gucci dress; Bulgari earrings, necklace, and ring. Washington wears a Frère suit, shirt, and tie; Falke socks; Dolce & Gabbana shoes.
Zendaya wears a Valentino romper; Clyde headscarf; Bulgari ring. Washington wears a King & Tuckfield top; Brunello Cucinelli pants; Hermès shoes.
Zendaya: Hair by Kim Kimble for Kim Kimble Professional Products at A-Frame; makeup by Sheika Daley for Lancôme at Six K LA; manicure by Chaun Peth for OPI at the Only Agency. Washington: Grooming by Yvette Shelton for Coles Skin Care for Men at iTalent Co. Set design by Heath Mattioli at Frank Reps.
Produced by Alicia Zumback and Patrick Mapel at Camp Productions; production coordinator: Paul Treacy; photo assistants: William Mathieu, Sepher Zamani; retouching: Touch Digital; fashion assistants: John Martin, Justin Ramirez; production assistants: Amanda Kitt, Cal Oaks, Rus Laich; set assistants: Dave Spacone, Tyler Wheeland, Dennis Wornick; tailors: Erica Fromdahl at Tailor Here, Hasmik Kourinian at Susie’s Custom Designs.