Noah Centineo: Defining “Zaddyhood”
A few days before I interview breakout actor Noah Centineo, I watch him document a sunset hike to Griffith Park’s epochal Wisdom Tree in a series of goofy Instagram stories.
On the summit of Burbank Peak where the whimsical lone pine sits, he gallivants shirtless and barefoot among tourists and daydreamers who snap photos of the Hollywood Sign and write their wishes on little notes before littering them beneath rock cairns.
Centineo’s friend (and renowned lifestyle photographer) Josh Heller joins him on the excursion. Heller tells me later on over the phone that this exploring, hiking, wisdom- seeking Noah, is the 22-year-old in his “most natural habitat.”
“He’s honestly just a lighthearted guy who likes to have fun and be present with his friends or in whatever he’s doing,” Heller says.
Behind the grinning Centineo, winking 1,200 feet below in the San Fernando Valley, is the Walt Disney Company—the studio that gave him his first big gig in Austin & Ally in 2011— and to the southeast, The Netflix corporate office on Sunset Boulevard, the latest studio to help catalyze his heart-throbbing stardom as the male lead in two of summer 2018’s most buzzed about romantic comedies: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Sierra Burgess is a Loser.
But of the two, To All the Boys’ Peter Kavinsky is the role that ascended him to heights he wasn’t used to hiking. Kavinsky is a lovable, sensitive, and critically dubbed “woke” lacrosse player—a loner not afraid to be vulnerable.
After stacking his own cairns, Centineo begins to climb the Wisdom Tree itself as his friend Heller takes a few candid photos of him in the branches. Soon, he reaches the narrow top of the Italian stone pine where its clustered, sappy needles tickle the polluted and pinkening haze.
When Heller’s photos are posted a few days later on Centineo’s ‘gram, I scroll through the comments to get a sense of the actor’s fanbase. Keep in mind, he bares his smooth, toned torso in the photos, so a thirsty comment thread is expected. But Centineo’s 14.6+ million followers’ comments range from cutesy compliments to aggressively lustful requests—many of them marking him paternal.
A few public comments below the photo series: “Papi (two cat-with-heart-eyes emojis)”, “FATHER,” “DADDY (smoochy face emoji),” “My dad,” and a superabundance of the word “zaddy”
It’s here, we encounter the internet’s word of the day.
A word Merriam-Webster is “watching.”
It’s like daddy but with a fucking “z.”
As in, “Zamn, that Marlon Brando-looking motherfucker Peter Kavinsky in that new Netflix movie could be my zaddy, anyday.”
While the term is clearly a lot of fun to use and more or less easy to understand in context, what in the fuck does it actually mean? Like, how does a zaddy differ from a daddy? Are they synonymous? What’s with the “z”? And what about zamn?!
In my research, it seems everyone and their grandzaddy have their own definition of the ridiculous word—and like beauty, it appears to all be in the eye of the beholder. Though the word is said to have been buzzing about since 2016, perhaps even sooner—don’t @ me—no official definition exists.
Not until I meet with Noah Centineo, that is.
The South Florida native sits across from me a few days after his Wisdom Tree hike at the new Tocaya in Hollywood (like a Chipotle, but... elevated). Centineo is stretched on the large white couch across from me and is all smiles.
He’s in calf-hugging sweatpants that loosen in the thighs, a long-sleeve shirt with a fire department emblem over his heart, and he’s got this tangled, bird’s- nest hairdo that falls over his forehead and eyes like a fluffy Newfoundland’s. It’s a contrast to the clean-cut, high-and-tight look that’s been trimming the rest of this town impervious.
He begins to laugh as I read and ask him about his fan’s comments.
“Okay, I have to step outside of myself to speculate on the “zaddy,” because I really don’t know the answer,” he says earnestly.
Damnit, I think.
Centineo, the man dubbed the “internet’s boyfriend” by W Magazine, the man who escalated from a role on The Fosters and an appearance in Camila Cabello’s “Havana” music video with a few hundred thousands followers to a superstar with over 14 million followers in the arc of a single summer, the man adored by fans as the zad of all zads—doesn’t even know what the term means.
“Ok, bear with me,” he says.
“When I think of my father, I think of someone who is funny, strong, a person who is rooted in a foundation, confident, courageous, supportive, and protective. Someone who makes me want to be a better person, who is there for me when I’m in a really, really, really dark place, and can help me find my way out.”
Here, the root of zaddy is extracted. The father. In Latin, pater. The actual dad. A man in relation to his natural child or children. Centineo tells me he looks up to his, just as much as he looks up to his mother.
“There is just so much I admire about both of my parents. I couldn’t just tell you one single trait or experience about each of them. We didn’t have a lot growing up, but me and my sister had no idea. We thought we had everything you could possibly need. And we had no idea that we had 67 cents in the bank account at the end of every month.”
Sacrifice is the quintessence of fatherhood, of motherhood, of parenthood, perhaps even, of zaddyhood. Protective at all costs. Here, I believe we have found the apotheosis of our meaning. Sacrificing the self for another. Unbridled selflessness.
Centineo, alongside his giddy, tree-climbing, and at times youthful bearing, appears to be a man concerned heavily with the feelings and well being of others. After his hike to the tree, Heller tells me he spent his time engaging with a collection of fans that were waiting for him at the trailhead. “He does it everywhere we go in public,” he says. “He’s just naturally very kind and he’s interested in people, which is very refreshing. I’m not saying this to encourage fans to approach him, though—I personally think his privacy is precious.”
“The three words that describe him best are humble, compassionate, and self-aware. I’d definitely throw intelligent and authentic in there too,” Heller says.
Midway through my conversation wth Centineo, the manager of Tocaya comes up to say hello. She remembers Centineo from his past visits and he calls her by name without her re-introducing herself, “Ashley! Of course I remember,” he says. “How have you been?”
This kindness and openness extends to his online persona as well, particularly to his tweets, which he treats like a journal to “whoever’s listening.” His main topics: his feelings, mental health, flirtation, and denouncing injustices.
Most popular to his fanbase are his empathetic, Tumblr-esque tweets, like: “Crying until you fall asleep > never crying until you fall asleep,” and vulnerable video soliloquies he shares on social media for those battling the blues—“If you’re out there, and you’re like ‘my life sucks!’ I GET it,” he says in an iPhone video recorded in his kitchen, “I have those days, we all have those days. I wake up sometimes and just go back to bed until four in the afternoon. Like, what? Why are you doing that? The day’s so beautiful. It’s because we all get depressed guys, we all get fully anxious, we all get panic attacks.”
When he isn’t being serious on Twitter, he uses it like a diary. He flirtswith no-one. He flirts with everyone in ooey-gooey, lovey-dovey tweets that further blur the line between Centineo and his dream-boat teenage role of Peter Kavinsky.
“I can’t help it,” he says with cheesy but earnest unabashedness, “I love love, dude.”
“I guess I am just a firm believer of speaking intentions and objectives into existence, because otherwise, it’s just up here,” he says, pointing to his head. “Because when you say something, it has vibration.”
The zaddy, I muse to Centineo, has been a purely internet phenomenon. Perhaps the term has been thought in our heads when we see someone who fits our own definition, but rarely is it spoken. More likely, it appears to describe someone we don’t know and have never encountered in person. An internet stranger we have a crush on, a celebrity, someone we’re low-key obsessed with.
“I just thought of this earlier today,” Centineo says, “I think most people on this planet are just trying to distract themselves until they die.”
He tweeted the same idea not long before we met.
“I think it is birthed from this obsessive nature of not wanting to focus on who you are and wanting to focus on other people. The adoration, the caring, support, and curiosity of another person are lovely things, but unchecked?” He ventures, “Like on social media, it becomes this obsessive thing that actually takes away from the experience of your own life.”
“Social media can be a drug,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you are ingesting it, smoking it, snorting it, injecting it, or posting it, it’s the same result.”
In many ways, the zaddy may be being loved to death, not unlike the Wisdom Tree of Centineo’s hike. The tree has been climbed, photographed, strung up with ribbons and ropes and laden with love-locks, its bark scratched off, its needles taken as souvenirs— everyone wants a piece of it.
Including, in Centineo’s case, every studio in existence. According to IMDB, he is currently working on five upcoming projects as well as an appearance, he tells me “in the directorial debut of Jackie Chan,” as well as a 2019 reboot of Charlie’s Angels alongside Kristen Stewart, Ella Balinska, and Naomi Scott.
It may be appropriate to say that a zaddy, in the end, is a man so content with his own sense of being that he’s able to dive into the greater wonders of life. To have interests and hobbies outside of himself and his appearance. To be raw and authentic and interested in the world around him, whether it be non-fiction and philosophy and meditation (like Centineo), or something as simple as conversing, genuinely, with someone completely unlike themselves.
And after a beat, Centineo gets us to the meat of his own definition of the word.
“A zaddy is a mother-fucking badass,” he says.
“Someone who like, puts it down,” he says as he enthusiastically smacks back of right hand against his left hand, “you-know-what-I’m-saying?” he asks, excited.
“Like, it’s someone who is going to give you what you want, but also a little, I don’t know, someone who is a little wild and reckless, that’s what I imagine the difference to be.”
And then Centineo goes in for the K.O. and lays it down for all to hear.
“Zaddies can be daddies, but daddies can’t be zaddies. You know?”
I think I do.