Hollywood Failed Bel-Air’s Coco Jones, But She’s Back For Her Crown

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Photo: courtesy of Jacob Webster.
In January, I tweeted a random thought, inspired by an episode of the cooking variety show T and Coco I’d stumbled upon on YouTube: “Coco Jones got next. Her time is coming!” When I read the tweet back to the 24-year-old actress and singer in a recent Zoom interview, her face instantly spreads into a bright, ear-to-ear grin. 
“Period,” Jones nods in agreement, sealing my pronouncement like an “amen” to a fervent prayer. The former Disney star has been speaking her success into existence for years. And it’s working. After more than a decade of grinding, and even though she’s amassed an army of passionate fans, myself included, Jones is now at the top of her game. This month she’s starring in the original Stan series Bel-Air as Hilary Banks, she co-hosts a viral cooking show with work-husband Terrell Grice, has almost a million followers on Instagram (and counting), and a vault full of new music that the streets are dying to hear. She’s no longer up-and-coming. Coco Jones is the moment.
To really understand the power of Jones’ manifestation abilities (and to take notes for your own life), you’d have to take a step back and consider the long, winding path that brought her here. Sure, the Bel-Air starlet and social media darling is reaping the fruits of her labor, but it hasn’t always been that way. Jones’ origin story is an Odyssean one, a tale of a hero who reached their final destination only after years of emotional hardship. 
“It makes sense why all of this didn’t happen earlier for me,” she tells Unbothered weeks before the Bel-Air premiere. “That’s how life is. In the middle of it, you feel like it’s so unfair, but on the other side of it, you look back like, ‘Oooh, thanks.’
“The growth that I needed in order to do what I was supposed to in this life, I didn’t have when I was 14 and completely caught off-guard by this whole new world,” recalls Jones about the early days of her career. “I was a blank slate who could do anything that anyone wanted me to be, but I didn’t know how to be…me. So I had to figure out who I wasn’t to figure out who I wanted to be. I had to go through some life so that I could actually have something to say.”
And baby, did she go through it. Jones’ career started at the age of nine in 2006, when she caught the eye of Disney executives thirsty for new blood talent to invade the homes of its impressionable audience. The charm of the southern triple threat was undeniable, and a stint on Radio Disney’s The Next Big Thing quickly solidified her as one to watch on the popular kids’ network. Years later, Jones made her official debut in the Disney musical Let It Shine!, in which she played a teen idol stuck in a Cyrano-esque love triangle between Tyler James Williams (Abbott Elementary) and Trevor Jackson (Grown-ish) — a delicious dilemma, if you ask me. She also got signed to Hollywood Records, released an EP, and even went on tour with childhood crushes Mindless Behavior. Jones was winning…until she wasn’t. 
In 2020, Jones went live on YouTube to share the backstory about her meteoric rise to Disney stardom and the devastating fall from fame that she hadn’t seen coming. It’s widely known that child star life can be rough, but Jones’ experience was particularly harrowing because it was fuelled by  the industry’s incessant colourism and anti-Blackness. “What Really Happened” detailed the problematic mindset of executives and the systemic damaging effects on the young actress. Jones told viewers that from the start, she’d been hailed by Disney bigwigs as the second coming of Raven-Symoné, but she quickly realised that they wouldn’t follow through on their promises to her because she didn’t quite look the way they wanted her to. Disney “didn’t know what to do with me,” she said, and they repeatedly failed to secure new opportunities for Jones until finally, she was cut from the roster. Though she was personable and talented, the white people in power just didn’t believe that Jones had the right “look” (read: skintone) to be their next big thing. 

As a dark-skinned actor, you’re pretty much starting from zero every single time. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or what your resume says — a lot of the determining factors for being ‘qualified’ are out of your control, no matter how much time and effort you put into the script.

coco jones
Though a grown-up Jones can understand the “why” behind her delayed successes, she’ll be the first to say it: what happened to her as a kid was wrong. The candid YouTube video, which currently sits at 1.5 million views and almost 10,000 comments, didn't mince words about the colourism and unfair treatment that deferred her dreams. Jones got passed up on roles because of the richness of her skin, and years later, other darker-skinned Black women in Hollywood are unfortunately still being dealt the same bad hand. From whitewashing the Bronx to pretending that dark-skinned Black people don’t also go to school, the industry can be a hellscape for people with a little more melanin.
“I was so scared to be that transparent on the internet about what happened because we’re not supposed to bring that up,” Jones says. “You can get blacklisted for that kind of thing. But I’d been quiet about my experience the whole time and was still struggling, so I thought that I might as well just chat it up, even if it was just so the people who cared about my career would be aware.”
Credit: Jacob Webster
“As a dark-skinned actor, you’re pretty much starting from zero every single time,” she continues. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or what your resume says — a lot of the determining factors for being ‘qualified’ are out of your control, no matter how much time and effort you put into the script.”
You know what they say: twice as hard for half as much. So Jones kept working. Even as more doors closed, she continued to grind quietly, a testament to the work ethic instilled in her from birth. As an independent artist, Jones released original songs and covers that quickly went viral. Countless auditions led to appearances in a number of shows and TV commercials. There was no such thing as a drop in the bucket for Jones; every gig she booked, no matter how minor, was all part of a bigger picture. Greatness was her destiny, but it wouldn’t just be thrust upon her. She knew that she would have to take it by force. 
“Nothing happens if nothing happens,” stresses Jones. “If you’re doing nothing, it’s guaranteed that nothing will come of it. The moment that you throw in the towel, the universe can’t do anything for you. So yeah, there were moments when I questioned why I kept going and felt crazy for still trying, but I just couldn’t walk away.”
Jones’ determination paid off in 2020, a year that she identifies as a game changer in her career. After releasing “What Really Happened” and appearing on Terrell Grice’s The Terrell Show just a month later, the internet quickly became obsessed with Coco Jones. (Of course they did — beyond being beautiful and having a great personality, Jones is really talented.) Fans weren’t the only ones to take note of the Jones’ range. Casting agents did too, and before long, she’d booked roles on the Facebook Watch series Five Points and in Netflix’s Vampires vs. the Bronx before landing the role of a lifetime: Hilary Banks in Bel-Air.
A collaboration between Will Smith and filmmaker Morgan Cooper, Bel-Air whisks fans back to the hallowed Hollywood Hills for a darker, more nuanced take on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It was a project championed by the people — something that Jones herself personally relates to — and was snatched up by Peacock when Smith took notice of Cooper’s viral concept trailer in 2019. Bel-Air’s plot uses Fresh Prince as a foundation, but it takes liberties that the classic TV show didn’t have the opportunity to in the 1990s by fleshing out concepts that might have only been skimmed in scripts of the past; the first slate of released episodes has already touched on gun violence, police brutality, PTSD, and teen drug use. A longer run-time and a TV-MA rating grant Bel-Air more flexibility than its inspiration, particularly in the development of its characters. 
Jones’ take on Hilary Banks is an example of that freedom. In the original’s early seasons, Hilary (played by Karyn Parsons) was a well-meaning but ditsy Beverly Hills diva, uncertain of her path in life and relying on her daddy’s money to keep her afloat while she figured it out. The new Hilary faces some of the same issues, but just a few episodes in, we already know so much more about her personal struggles with adulting. As a social media influencer trying to turn thousands of likes into cold hard cash, she’s in constant conflict with her art professor mother, Vivian (a stylish Cassandra Freeman), because of her life choices. Add that to the pressure of Black excellence that comes with being the firstborn of the Banks’ family and the burden of being a dark-skinned Black woman, and you have the makings of a relatable quarter-life crisis.

Hilary has a lot of moments in Bel-Air where we see her standing up for what she believes in, standing up in her truth, which is ‘I am good enough. I am talented, and I work my ass off’. Morgan wanted me to channel that. The reason he was interested in me playing this role to begin with was the larger-than-life star quality and confidence that he saw in me. All I had to do was be me, and that was so freeing.

coco jones
Playing Hilary, one of the most iconic and fashionable characters in Black TV/film canon, wasn’t something that Jones saw for herself — she actually wanted to audition for the part of Ashley Banks — and her initial approach to the role was admittedly too close to her predecessor’s. It was only when Cooper encouraged her to be herself that Jones stopped trying so hard to be what she thought the character was supposed to be and began embodying a Hilary Banks that she could relate to.
“Hilary has a lot of moments in Bel-Air where we see her standing up for what she believes in, standing up in her truth, which is ‘I am good enough. I am talented, and I work my ass off’,” says Jones. “Morgan wanted me to channel that. The reason he was interested in me playing this role to begin with was the larger-than-life star quality and confidence that he saw in me. All I had to do was be me, and that was so freeing.” 
After years of trying to conform to a certain image or combat stereotypes only to be rejected by the industry, being able to be herself and be rewarded for it is refreshing  for Jones. Hilary is a fictional character, but her struggle between authenticity and success could be taken straight from Jones’ diary. The actress is still understandably hurt from the mistreatment she faced in the past, but acceptance by the right (read: Black) people in Hollywood and by her fans is speeding up the healing process significantly. As the dialogue about colourism and anti-Blackness in entertainment continues, Jones feels not only affirmed but prepared to move the needle forward in terms of representation for dark-skinned Black girls everywhere. The world wasn’t ready for her back then, but nothing and no one can stop Jones now — this is her time. The only difference? Between new acting gigs and the music that will soon be released to the public, Team Coco (yes, she’s still taking suggestions for her fanbase name) is at her back, cheering her along every step of the way. 
Photo: Courtesy of Kwaku Alston/Peacock.
“When you get a lot of nos, you tend to shrink yourself and limit your expectations,” Jones explains. “But the fans have been so supportive and encouraging that I’ve reverted back to the confident Coco I was when I was 15. I’m so much more prepared now to carry the responsibilities that I have as a Black performer and as a dark-skinned Black woman with a platform because there are people who have been watching me. People are encouraged in their own lives just by seeing me make progress.”
“I’m trying to make sure that I don't waste that love,” she says.  “At this point, my fans and I are in this thing together. I don’t want to disappoint them.” But how could she? We’re right there with her. 
“Now, I’m ready to run it up,” Jones concludes, that winning smile beaming once more. “Let’s shake the girls up!”
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