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Alexandra Shipp replaces Zendaya in Aaliyah movie; Wendy Williams a producer

Alexandra Shipp (pictured at left) and Aaliyah (pictured at right)
Alexandra Shipp (pictured at left) and Aaliyah (pictured at right)
Photo at left: Lifetime. Photo at right: FilmMagic.

On July 18 2014, Wendy Williams announced on her TV talk show and on social media that Alexandra Shipp has replaced Zendaya in the starring role of Lifetime's Aaliyah biopic that has the working title "Aaliyah: Princess of R&B." In addition, Williams announced that her Wendy Williams Productions company has signed on to produce the movie with executive producer Debra Martin Chase.

Williams said on her self-titled talk show, "You can count on us to get this movie right. I want to know the things you want to know: What happened with R. Kelly? What was going on with Damon Dash? What was Aaliyah's personal life really like? How did her parents react to R. Kelly?"

There is no word yet on which actors have been cast as two of the loves in Aaliyah's life: R. Kelly (who married Aaliyah when she was 15; the marriage was later annulled) and Damon Dash, who was her boyfriend at the time of her death.

Shipp (who is 23) is best-known for her role as KT Rush in the Nickelodeon series "House of Anubis." She has also made guest appearances on Showtime's "Ray Donovan," Nickelodeon's "Victorious" and MTV's "Awkward." Her movie credits include 2009's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" and the 2014 TV-movie "Drumline 2: A New Beat."

As previously reported, Zendaya dropped out of the movie after considerable controversy over her landing the starring role. On June 29, 2014, Lifetime's publicity department made this announcement on its official Twitter account: "We are sad Zendaya will no longer portray Aaliyah. Production is currently on hold." The Aaliyah biopic was supposed to begin filming in the summer of 2014 and premiere sometime in the autumn of 2014.

Aaliyah (whose last name was Haughton) died in a plane crash in 2001 at the age of 22. She was one of the more successful female R&B singers of the late 1990s/early 2000s. Her hits included "Back and Forth" and "Are You That Somebody?" She also had a promising acting career in movies, with starring roles in 2000's "Romeo Must Die" and 2002's "Queen of the Damned."

At the 2014 BET Awards (held in Los Angeles on June 29), Zendaya (who is 17) commented to E! News about her exit from the Aaliyah biopic: "I just made a decision not to be a part of it, because I feel like it wasn't all the way there as a project. I feel like it was being rushed. There were pieces that were missing. I feel like if I'm going to honor someone that I care about so much and respect so much, I can't do anything less than 120 percent. I felt like it wasn't the right thing for me."

Before Zendaya dropped out of the movie, she did an interview with the Associated Press (AP) shortly after it was announced that she was starring in the movie. In her AP interview, Zendaya had this to say about taking on the role of Aaliyah: "I really want it to be perfect for her and show young people what she was able to do and what she accomplished. I can't please everybody ... what I can do is work really hard and you know, just continue to show her legacy. I feel like she grew up so young and she grew up in the industry ... and she just had to deal with so much. I connect with that."

For the Lifetime movie, Zendaya was going to re-record some of Aaliyah's songs. The movie is based on the book "Aaliyah: More Than a Woman" by Christopher Farley. "Aaliyah: Princess of R&B" will be produced by Aaliyah Productions and Wendy Williams Productions. Howard Braunstein, Williams and Debra Martin Chase will serve as executive producers. Bradley Walsh will direct from a script written by Michael Elliot.

Zendaya (whose last name is Coleman) rose to fame as a star of the Disney Channel series "Shake It Up!" She stars in two more Disney Channel projects: the series "K.C. Undercover" and the movie "Zapped. She starred as Raquel “Rocky” Blue on the hit D, as well as Shake It Up: Made In Japan, the record breaking song and dance–filled special that featured her single and video “Fashion is My Kryptonite.” Zendaya came in second place on Season 16 of "Dancing with the Stars." Zendaya's self-titled first album (which was released in 2013) includes the single "Replay."

The news that Zendaya would be portraying Aaliyah in a Lifetime movie resulted in considerable controversy. Some people complained that Zendaya (who is biracial) is too light-skinned to portray Aaliyah. Other people said a bigger star or a more experienced entertainer should have been cast in the role. Members of Aaliyah's family also objected because they said Lifetime did not consult them about the movie until after Zendaya was cast. The family also wants an Aaliyah biopic to be a major studio movie that is released in cinemas.

Jomo Hankerson, one of Aaliyah's cousins, was the president of her label Blackground Records. He told the New York Daily News in an interview published on June 24, 2014: “We want a major studio release along the lines of ‘What's Love Got to Do with It,’ the Tina Turner movie. This needs A-list actors, A-list talent that can breathe life into what we think is a phenomenal story.

“They have people they can talk to, people who can provide lots of color. But if you don’t talk to us, it’s not in the story. They didn’t reach out. I don’t know why they didn’t reach out.”

Lifetime's Aaliyah biopic will include her controversial marriage to Kelly. Hankerson commented, “It’s not my favorite part. But we have no problem with basing the movie on Chris Farley’s book.”

As for casting Zendaya as Aaliyah, Hankerson said, “I don’t have a problem with her. It’s never been about the actress. The problem that we have is that Aaliyah was an icon and she deserves an iconic tribute, not a Lifetime movie.”

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