Had you told Claire Stoermer early on during Season 16 of "Dancing With the Stars" that her teen daughter, Zendaya, would land in the show's finale, she might have had a good laugh. The kid's heart just didn't seem to be in it.
"She was so nonchalant, like she was just there for the fun of it," Stoermer recalled. "But by Week 3, or so, her competitive drive and killer instinct kicked in and never relented."
Or, as Zendaya's father, Kazembe Ajamu, put it, she became "like a Transformer."
On Monday, Zendaya, an Oakland native, and her pro partner, Val Chmerkovskiy, will be among the final four couples vying for the sparkly "DWTS" mirror-ball trophy. And even after weeks of exhaustive, marathon rehearsals and pressure-packed performances, her steely resolve hasn't wavered.
"We very much want to win it," she said. "That has to be your mindset."
Win or lose, Zendaya, a star of the Disney Channel sitcom "Shake It Up," has already made her mark on the popular reality series. She's the youngest celebrity to compete on "DWTS." She and Chmerkovskiy were the first couple this season to post a perfect score of "10" and the first to achieve an overall perfect score of "30."
It's a level of excellence that Chmerkovskiy never expected he and his partner would reach.
"When a kid is a big success story at 16, it often means trouble," he said. "Usually at that age, they throw tantrums. They think they know it all. A lot of them are driven by ego. But she's exactly the opposite of all that. Her poise and maturity level, her drive and her focus, have blown me away."
Those qualities could pay future dividends in Hollywood. Already a Disney darling and star among the tween set, Zendaya has expanded her audience, thanks to her breakout performances on "DWTS."
"We used to go to the mall during the morning when the kids are in school so Zendaya can have a little privacy. But now the old ladies are coming after her!" Ajamu says. "They want their pictures taken with her. They adore her."
It's yet another exciting chapter in her brief but remarkable career. Just a few years ago, Zendaya, whose name is derived from an African term meaning "to give thanks," was attending Oakland School for the Arts and spending her free time at the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda, where Mom worked as the house manager.
Then, in 2010, she beat out 200 other hopefuls to land a co-lead role in "Shake It Up," a show about two girls living their dreams as TV show dancers. She has gone on to make movies ("Frenemies"), sign a recording contract with Hollywood Records, and shoot music videos.
"It's been an amazing ride," Zendaya says. "I don't always stop to think a lot about it because I'm so in the moment. I'm proud of what I've accomplished, but there's so much more to do."
There's no question in Chmerkovskiy's mind that she can get it done.
"I don't want to jinx anything, but she could turn out to be a megastar," he says. "Not just because she wants it, but because she'll put in the hard work to attain it."
Kim Sims-Battiste, an Oakland-based dance instructor and choreographer, agrees with that assessment. She has known Zendaya since the Disney star was 7 and is no longer surprised by anything she accomplishes.
"She's a very, very hard worker who's always going to try to be the best, or at least be better than anyone expects," says Sims-Battiste, who does the choreography for Zendaya's dance videos and live performances. "You just look into her eyes, and you can see the focus and the commitment."
And the competitive desire. During her "DWTS" run, Zendaya has channeled NBA superstar Kobe Bryant's "beast mode" to spur her on. Bryant's two daughters are huge "Shake It Up" fans, and Zendaya has communicated with the Los Angeles Lakers' standout in person and via Twitter.
"He inspires her," Stoermer said. "They've developed a kind of cool connection."
Another source of inspiration has been Zendaya's grandmother, Daphne Stoermer, a 74-year-old Danville resident and longtime fan of "DWTS." In early April, Zendaya and Chmerkovskiy devoted a dance to Daphne, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and has since had a successful lumpectomy.
"It couldn't have come at a better time for me," says Daphne, who hosts weekly "DWTS" viewing parties in her home. "It was amazingly healing for me. It calmed me down and diverted my attention."
After Tuesday's "DWTS" finale, Zendaya will take a breath and then set her sights on other projects. Her debut album is slated for a September release, and she even has a tween advice book due in August.
But there's still one goal that has eluded her.
"She hasn't had any time to get her driver's license," her mother says. "And she's very disappointed about that."
'Dancing with the Stars'
When: 8 p.m. Monday; 9 p.m. Tuesday