Coco Jones Isn't Afraid to Meet Her Heroes — Especially After Beyonce Told Her to 'Keep Going' (Exclusive)

"You're probably going to be in the same circle with them eventually," the actress and singer told PEOPLE on the famed Cannes Festival red carpet

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images Coco Jones
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images Coco Jones

Just before Coco Jones hit the red carpet at her first Cannes Film Festival — "dipped in gold," as she described her Valdrin Sahiti look — she took a moment to reflect on how far she's come.

"When I started out, I was such a little kid in this industry, and I think my perspective has shifted so much," the actress and singer tells PEOPLE. After getting her start in 2012, she stepped back from the limelight, and then returned in 2020, with her song "What Really Happened" and a role on the revamped Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

"It feels like déjà vu a little bit — all of this momentum and performing, being on set, all of these things I've done since I was literally 12. And so to have it all come back in full effect at the same time, music and acting, has been surreal. But I think it's the perfect timing for me personally, just because I'm more myself now. I know how to balance everything; I'm an adult, and I've found myself, which is sometimes the most difficult part of starting in the industry so young."

And while Jones loves being able to represent "beauty and also brains" in the part of Hilary on Bel Air, "singing is definitely my first love, definitely," she says. (Her debut EP hit No. 1 on Apple iTunes charts late last year.)

Acting wasn't really in the plan, until her competitive nature kicked in. "I'm a hard worker. I come from an athletic family, so I always wanted to do more. So when I started at a young age, I was like, 'Mom, I need more opportunities to be on stage. What else can I do?' She was like, 'Here, you want to audition for this broccoli commercial?'"

She landed the commercial, and went on to work with some of the best producers in music, like Rodney Jerkins (who worked with Destiny's Child and Brandy), David Banner and Tony Gad. "They've watched me grow up," says Jones, who got her first record deal at 14. "And they all talk about how they knew I was going to be here eventually, so it's funny to see."

Related:Coco Jones Details Her Journey from 'Defeated' Disney Star to Janet Jackson-Approved R&B Singer

Arnold Jerocki/GC Images Coco Jones
Arnold Jerocki/GC Images Coco Jones

She doesn't ascribe to the adage "don't meet your heroes:" "If you know where you want to go in life, you're destined to meet your heroes because … you're probably going to be in the same circle with them eventually," she says. "Be your own hero."

Jones is on her way to being in that circle with her heroes like Janet Jackson and Beyoncé. Jackson posted a video of one of Jones' performances, a rendition of "I Get Lonely." She remembers seeing the post. "My manager woke me up. We were on a plane, and she woke me up, and she was like, 'Janet Jackson just posted your performance.' It was just like, 'Wow.'"

If that left her speechless, she's been more prepared for other accolades. "Jennifer Hudson — I was on her show, and she spoke so highly of me. Beyoncé [when] I met her was like, 'Oh, you're the girl who'll be singing her ass off.' I was like, 'Yes, I do try to do that. Yes, thank you.' [She said] she was proud of me and to keep going."

Was it a pinch-me moment? "I don't know. I kind of feel like I'm living in a dream, but I also feel like I earned this as well. So one-half of it is like, 'When will I wake up in this reality?' But then on the other half, I'm like, 'Shout out to me for not giving up.'"

Related:Helen Mirren Channels Her Inner Fairy Godmother — and Rocks Blue and Purple Hair! — at Cannes Film Festival

Jacopo Raule/GC Coco Jones
Jacopo Raule/GC Coco Jones

Jones tries to stop and enjoy those career highs, like stepping on the famed Cannes Festival red carpet as a guest of L'Oréal Paris. "Being here in Cannes with L'Oréal Paris is a dream come true. I'm really excited to partner with such an iconic brand that honors all different kinds of beauty," she says. "My therapist taught me this thing and it's like, 'What can you see? What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you feel?' Just to keep you really present, and sometimes I'll stop and do that because this is a dream life. Sometimes I get lost in the fact that this is work and I want to continue to remind myself that this is also my dream."

Her "big and structured" gold dress by Valdrin Sahiti took some work: "Literally, in the airport, it looked like I was carrying another person on my shoulder because of how big and structured the dress is, but I just feel like I would look like I'm dipped in gold."

Her message for the little girl going out for that broccoli commercial? "This journey is going to be long, but that doesn't mean that you're not on the right path," she says. "So have a blast in the midst of the confusion."

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