What It’s Really Like To Be A Famous Z-Lister’s Mom

Photographed by Joie and Alex La Cruz.
Kiya Cole is the mother of Skai Jackson, a 15-year-old actress who's featured on Refinery29's Z-list. Here, she talks about what it's like to raise a famous member of Generation Z.
"Skai got started when she was 9 months old. I was told by a couple of people that she was a cute baby. I had a job at the post office at the time. I decided to give it a shot, and I sent her pictures into two modeling agencies that took babies. Two weeks later, they both called on the same day. I had to choose one, and she’s been working ever since. I never wavered about her going into the industry. At the time, the only thing I could think of is, ‘Well, hopefully she can make enough money to go to college.’
Skai was working pretty steadily in New York, where I’m from, up until the age of about 8 1/2. She auditioned for the Disney show Jessie in New York. She booked it, and we had to move. We’ve been in Los Angeles since she was nine, so it’s been six years. I part-time manage Skai. She still has someone that covers a lot for us on the East Coast, who’s been with us since Skai was three-and-a-half. She’s never the final decision; I am. She’ll call me to ask if something is okay, and then I basically make all the decisions.
Now that Skai’s a teen, I have a little bit more freedom, whereas before, I felt like I was more tied down to stay at home and watch her. I get a lot of stuff done. I’m also in the works of starting something of my own now because she is older, and I have a little bit more flexibility, business-wise. So usually for me, my days consist of errands, answering emails, talking on the phone — it usually has to do with Skai and her career. But my schedule’s pretty flexible for the most part.
Adjusting to fame was a big transition. Even though she was working a lot in New York, it’s a whole other world when you hit the L.A. scene, and you’re on Disney Channel, where every kid recognizes you. In the beginning, it was a little difficult for Skai because it kind of seemed like overnight where she would be out at the movie theater, and it was hard for her just to go to the bathroom. She wasn’t used to that.
Skai loves her job, and she loves what she does. She loves to act, and she’ll tell anyone that — that this is what she wants to continue to do for a long time, but she kind of shies away from the fame part of it. She knows it’s important to keep herself relevant and hit red carpets every once in awhile. She’s into fashion so she likes to get dressed and hit the carpets, but although she is gracious and nice to her fans, she sometimes has a difficult time just dealing with the overwhelming sensation of people coming at her all the time. I tell her, ‘Just put yourself in their shoes, because you were once there.’ And there are still people that she looks up to, like Rihanna. She sees them, and she wants to run up and get the picture. I just always tell her to remember, ‘They are you, and you are them.’
When it comes to fame, I basically told Skai not to take it too seriously. Yes, it’s her job, but for the most part, just to have fun with it, because you have to love what you do. Also, I try to keep her as grounded as possible, which I’m pretty good at. Everyone kind of compliments me on that the most. Always to be nice to everyone, because that’s what’s really important. People remember that; they remember the meeting: ‘Was she nice, was she not so nice?’ I try to keep her humble.
Even though Skai’s 15; she’s a kid, and she sees herself as the average kid, where everyone else doesn’t. That’s what sticks out to me as something to be nervous about, in terms of security. Right now, most of her friends are not in the business, and they get to Uber places. For me, it’s all about protection. She wants to be doing normal things… but people that look at Skai’s life don’t think she has a normal life, whereas for her, this is her norm. It’s always the security that worries me. Her getting recognized, and me not being there. I try to give her a lot more space now that she is a teenager. I don’t feel like I have to go with her and hang with her friends. She wants that privacy.
There are fan sites devoted to Skai, like Skai’s World. I know a young lady who runs that and handles it, and we’ve had some back and forth. [We haven’t spoken] lately, but she’s pretty good at what she puts out. Sometimes, she’ll put something out, and I may reach out to her and say, ‘I’m not comfortable with that,’ and she’ll say, ‘Sorry, Miss Cole. I’ll take it down.’ But it’s hard for me to keep up with all of it. I do, every once in awhile, glance. I try not to make it too much of a habit, because for me as a parent, if I see something that’s not positive, I’m still a human, and I’m still her mom, and I go into protection mode. I don’t want to come off as mean mom, so I look at some of those things, and for the most part, everyone’s pretty respectful in how they do it…. I don’t have a problem with it, as long as it’s tasteful, which most of them are.
Skai is fairly outspoken on Twitter, so I make sure that I’m connected. I don’t care to have Twitter for myself, but I do have Twitter just so I can monitor her. I can quickly access her page; same thing with her Instagram. She makes mistakes just like every other kid, and there were times in the past when I had to tell her, ‘Take that down.’ I do monitor that stuff.
We were on our way to an audition the day she got into a Twitter fight with Azealia Banks. The comment that Skai made was, ‘Azealia Banks needs to simmer down.’ She didn’t tag her, but she said her name. I was driving, and Skai said, ‘Mom, I said something on Twitter.’ And I said, ‘Okay, what did you say?’ Because I could tell by her face that she knew that there was going to be some backlash. She told me right away.
I was angry, to be honest. I told her, ‘You should have never done that,’ because I heard of the girl, and I was very aware of how this girl responded to others on Twitter, which was really ugly. So I said to her, ‘I know this is going to come back at you, and hard.’ Within five minutes of me saying that, Skai looked, and the next thing we know, Azealia Banks responded with disgusting things. At first, I told Skai not to respond. I said, ‘Don’t respond at all.’ But then when I saw the stuff she was saying, and then when she brought me into it, I gave Skai free range to respond. I felt like, at that point, Skai had to stick up for herself, because Azealia Banks had put some falsified things on there, so Skai felt like she wanted to clear a couple of things up. So I did give her permission to respond when I saw some of the things that Azealia had said.
[Afterwards], I told her, ‘Never again.’ Let that be a learning lesson. Thankfully, it worked out better in Skai’s favor than it did for Azealia, but that’s few and far between that a situation that works out like that. So I just told her, ‘It could have went the wrong way for you, so let that be a lesson learned to never respond. It’s not your fight.’ Skai basically explained her case in saying, ‘Well, mom, she made a racist comment.’ At the time, she was very much into One Direction, so when she read the racist comment, I think Skai felt the need to speak up because she felt Azealia was a bully. I told her, ‘Come to me first, but don’t ever just respond on your own, or respond to anyone else like that again.’
[Five years from now], I see Skai as a successful, young, African-American/Black (however you want to say it) entrepreneur slash still [a] role model. I see her making me even more proud than I am today. She’ll be over the age of 18, so I know she’ll be a very respectful young adult. I don’t see anything less than successful for Skai. I think she’ll be fine. She has a good head on her shoulders right now for such a young age, for a young teenager. I’m not worried about her career at all. I think she has a good career ahead of her. It’s up to her what she wants to do — we talk about this all the time. If you ever want to stop, you just let me know. But after the age of 18, it’s up to you. It’s all on you. I’ll still be there to guide her, but I’m giving her the tools and the steps now to make sure she’s able to handle her career on her own by the time she’s 20. I feel really good about where I see Skai in five years."
As told to Lauren Le Vine
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