LOS ANGELES - It must happen every day: Thousands - maybe millions - of young girls switch on the TV and let their imaginations go crazy. They see the show-biz dreams of teen sensations such as Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez play out before their eyes and wonder what it would be like to be them.
One lucky Oakland, Calif., girl no longer has to wonder. Beneath the bright lights of a downtown Los Angeles soundstage, 14-year-old Zendaya is living the dream and loving every OMG minute of it.
"It really does kind of blow your mind," says the lanky teen during a break from shooting the Disney Channel's new dance-driven buddy comedy "Shake It Up." "Sometimes I ask, 'Do I have to pinch myself and wake up?'"
In the cable network's only new fall series, which premiered Nov. 7, Zendaya and co-star Bella Thorne play best pals, Raquel "Rocky" Blue and CeCe Jones, who are thrilled when they land roles as background dancers on a popular teen show called "Shake It Up, Chicago!" Their adventures play out in typical Disney Channel style with uncomplicated story lines, broad humor and moral uplift.
"Rocky is extremely passionate about dancing, just like I am," says Zendaya, who uses only her first name as her stage name. "She's really generous and wears her heart on her sleeve."
She also wears lots of quirky clothes. Clad in a denim jacket, floral-print micro-mini skirt, turquoise leggings and suede combat boots, Zendaya stands out as much in front of the cameras as she did in her auditions, where she prevailed over 200-plus girls for the role. In between takes, she and Bella bounce about and squeal and giggle as they burn off nervous energy. When they're introduced to the studio audience, mainly made up of tweens, they flash megawatt smiles and wave wildly.
"We're pretty juiced right now," Zendaya exclaims. "This is amazing."
And impressive. Here she is working at the same cozy L.A. Center Studios lot where "Mad Men" is shot and doing what she loves as a newly minted member of a Disney star machine that, in recent years, has churned out, among others, Hilary Duff, Raven-Symone, Zac Efron, Ashley Tisdale, Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers. If "Shake It Up" can produce the synergistic magic of past Disney Channel successes, Zendaya and Bella could be looking at a future that includes movies, CDs, live appearances and more.
It's all enough to put "butterflies" in her stomach and water in her daddy's eyes.
"I just sat there with my mouth open," Kazembe Ajamu, says, recalling the night his daughter shot the pilot episode. "I tried to hold back the tears. But then I said, 'The hell with it. Let them flow.' If your baby girl can't break you down, there's something wrong with you."
But sports, not show biz, originally dominated the life plans of this bubbly straight-A student, whose name, Ajamu says, means "to give thanks." After all, Dad coached basketball at Emeryville High School, and later St. Mary's (in Berkeley). And her mother, 6-foot-4 Claire Stoermer, played hoops at Santa Clara University. As a tiny tyke, Zendaya was a gym rat who specialized in "some pretty nice swishes."
But then she found something else to shoot for. Around the age of 5, Zendaya got hooked on Disney fare such as "That's So Raven" and often found herself thinking, "Wow, that could be me."
At 6, she and Ajamu combined on a duet during a winter concert at Oakland's Redwood Day School, where he worked at the time. Zendaya brought down the house.
"Her little teeny voice just cut through that big giant room and, right then, I knew she had it," he says.
Meanwhile, Stoermer, the longtime house manager for the California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda, routinely let her daughter tag along at work. Zendaya passed out programs and sold raffle tickets, but mostly she sat agog at the shows and rehearsals.
Says Stoermer, "Technical rehearsals can be pretty boring, but Zendaya would watch them for hours. She really got into the whole process."
While attending Oakland School for the Arts, Zendaya became part of a hip-hop troupe called Future Shock and later learned the hula. Then the focus switched to television. She and her father spent long hours traversing Interstate 5 between Oakland and Los Angeles to participate in auditions for commercials and other projects.
Eventually, she caught the eye of Judy Taylor, vice president of casting and talent relations for the Disney Channel. After several auditions, Zendaya won the part in "Shake It Up," despite having no previous TV series experience.
"She's stunning," marvels Taylor. "She's someone who walks into a room and makes you do a double-take. You never tire of watching her."
Bella, who has become tight friends with her co-star, is equally smitten.
"When we first met, there was this energy," she says. "It was like we were meant to be together."
Done with the commuting for now, Ajamu and Zendaya have moved into an apartment near the studio. Clearly, she's having a blast, but she misses shopping with her friends at Bay Street, and her pet Schnauzer, Midnight. But mostly, she misses her mom, who teaches at Fruitvale Elementary School and is holding down the fort at home.
"I see my daughter more on TV (in ads for the show) than in person," says Stoermer, who makes occasional visits to Los Angeles. "I keep the Disney Channel on all the time just to have her in the house."
Stoermer has lost count of the number of times people have come up and said her daughter could be the next Miley Cyrus (Zendaya has the same agent who discovered Cyrus). But she's trying valiantly to keep the whole family grounded.
"That stuff does play around in your head at times," she says. "On the other hand, I hold down a job, and I pay a mortgage, so I'm a realist. You just take things one day at a time."
Meanwhile, Zendaya insists she's not about to go all diva.
"My motto is to stay humble and to realize that you're just a human being," she says. "You have to keep your feet on the ground."
8:30 tonight on Disney Channel