Before she could talk, Coco Jones could sing, mimicking near-perfect pitch notes from the Barney theme song. At her first school talent show, Jones sang “Tomorrow,” the signature tune from the musical “Annie.” The girl raised in Lebanon, Tennessee, by a vocalist and a former NFL player always wanted to be on stage — and her parents were supportive — but she initially leaned into sports.
“I thought basketball was going to be my life. But there was this talent competition with my school, and I just remember practicing the song,” Jones, 24, told HuffPost in an interview. “I even have a clip of me and my sister singing it, too, and I’m like, ‘OK, no, babes. Like this. And this. I need you to give more here.’ I was always the kid who was never camera shy; I always wanted to be in the front and center.”
Her musical gift would take her there, front and center to Disney Channel. At 12 years old, Jones won the third season of Radio Disney’s “Next Big Thing” talent competition and, subsequently, she performed her debut single “Stand Up” on the channel’s sketch comedy series “So Random!” Jones then landed roles in the Disney productions we know and love: a cameo in “Good Luck Charlie” and the role of Roxie Andrews in “Let It Shine.”
Now, Coco “And you would do it, too, for a check!” Jones is back on screen. After playing Rita in the 2020 film “Vampires vs. the Bronx,” Jones is stepping into the role of Hilary Banks in the highly anticipated Peacock series, “Bel-Air,” which streams its first three episodes Sunday.
A reboot of ’90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” starring West Philadelphia native Jabari Banks, the story is the one we know and love with a darker twist. (It’s more than “one little fight” that sends Will Smith to live with his bougie Banks cousins in Los Angeles in this new series.)
In “Bel-Air,” Jones plays a modern Hilary Banks. Less vapid but still remarkably stylish, the 2022 Hilary is an entrepreneur using her social media following to launch her career as a professional chef. While her mother alleges that her daughter is merely on a gap year from Berkeley, Hilary knows she isn’t returning — and wants to create a name for herself. There’s more substance to Hilary than meets the eyes.
For Jones, she doesn’t feel that her own personal journey through the entertainment industry as a darker-skinned woman is “drastically different” than that of other darker-skinned women. However, she sees playing the role of Hilary as an opportunity to change the narrative regarding who and what is beautiful.
“I think that it’s a great opportunity to have a role like Hilary, where she’s known for being this beautiful, light-skinned girl. Now it’s just chipping away at the narrative that there’s one way that’s beautiful,” Jones said. “I think representation is so important. For me, I was holding on to ‘That’s So Raven’ for dear life so that I could believe for myself that I could do it, too.” (Raven-Symone’s long-running Disney hit influenced a generation of performers.)
“The roles that I do, I really don’t want them to be stereotypical,” Jones continued. “I really do want them to shake things up, just because I know how much impact that has on the next young Black girl who wants to sing. I’m rooting for her. I want this journey to be easier for her.”
For fans of Jones, it has been eight years since we’ve seen her in a regular series role. When she was on the precipice of Disney stardom, her journey came to an abrupt halt.
In a YouTube video from September 2020, titled “What Really Happened,” Jones shared she was allegedly supposed to star in her own TV show and a “Let It Shine” sequel. Jones said that with every song she wrote, the notion of being “sellable” became prioritized over her growth, which slowed down her continued rise to solo stardom.
She said that it was a fight to release “Holla at the DJ” in 2013. On “The Terrell Show,” hosted by social media personality Terrell Grice, Jones summarized it as “a matter of not the right team as well as not enough people pushing me to success through those barriers.”
“In ways, I felt like I was kind of halted because I didn’t really know who exactly I was. I just knew how to do the assignment really well. I knew how to perform the song, say the lines really well. I didn’t know exactly what I would want to sing about or what I would want to say,” said Jones. “When you’re a kid and you’re on Disney, you don’t talk about anything that isn’t pretty and perfect. It’s a lot of learning curves, but I would rather go this route and have all these people that already are rooting for me than have to start from scratch.”
While her character Hilary walks a tightrope with her mother, Jones leaned on the support of her family in the eight years after Disney and leading up to the role on “Bel-Air.” As she submitted herself for audition after audition, she distinctly remembers when her mother told her to create something that was all her own, that no one could take away from her.
Following her “What Really Happened” viral video, she performed covers and remixes of popular songs on TikTok and launched a YouTube cooking series with Grice called “T and Coco.”
“When I saw all that engagement, when I saw how people loved the truth and me being transparent, when the ‘And you would do it, too, for a check!’ clip went everywhere, it just opened my eyes to a tool that I was not using correctly,” Jones said.
Jones has worked diligently to establish her fan base, home in on her voice and remain a household name while being independent.
“I think I didn’t want the responsibility of having to tell myself what to do. It pushed me past that employee mindset. It forced me to be more creative and helped me with my songwriting. I wanted to keep people entertained, and I had to figure out how to do that. How do I show these people that, because they support me, I want to give them something, too? How can I give them something that doesn’t require somebody else giving me something first?”
Jones has continued to work at her craft, even if we didn’t see her on network television. She said she tries to find balance in guarding her heart as much as possible while still putting her all into a project.
When she began “Bel-Air” auditions in August, Jones was hopeful that she’d get called back for a chemistry read. However, she was told that instead they were going to judge her based upon her last tape, which, of course, would make anyone nervous. In September, she got a call from her acting manager.
“They were like, ‘Congratu—’ I didn’t even need to hear -lations. Once I heard ‘Congrat— ,’ that phone was through to the room!’” laughed Jones. “I remember I just threw the phone, turned around and started screaming. When something happens, I always get shaky and I’m like, ‘I gotta call my family!’ So, I called my family, and my sister was the one that took that screenshot of all of us. A win for me is literally a win for them, because everybody had to sacrifice.”
When stepping into the role of Hilary Banks, Jones said the hardest part was deconstructing the stereotypical idea of what she thought they wanted Hilary to be. Upon speaking with “Bel-Air” creator and director Morgan Cooper, she learned why she was chosen for this specific role.
“Hilary is grounded. She’s a hustler. She’s determined. She has all these ideas of how she wants her life to play out,” Jones said. “Regardless of what people say, regardless of what happens, she’s going to make that happen. I think that mainly Hilary is relatable, and she’s hardworking, she believes in herself and she’s confident. I think people will love that.”
Jones said she feels that this reemergence into people’s minds is better this time around because she’s true to herself. Following the premiere of “Bel-Air,” Jones is releasing a single in February as a newly signed Def Jam Recordings artist. In eight years from now, she hopes her journey reflects creative power and agency. She also wants her path to set an example for creatives.
“I had it described to me as a renaissance moment, and that just really hit for me. I hope to leave them with motivation like, ‘Man, Coco really refused to quit. Let me add that to my life. Let me match that same energy.’ I want to be able to take this love and support that I feel and return it. I feel like y’all know me for real, seeing me as a kid into this grown woman. I just want to continue that journey and continue to tell stories and represent characters that make people feel heard and feel seen as well.”