At 15, Skai Jackson has accomplished a career even the most seasoned actors still dream of. She’s starred in not one but two smash Disney Channel shows. She’s defended a One Direction member against racist trolling on Twitter. And she’s perhaps the only person who’s inspired a viral meme and a Marvel superhero in the same year.
Still, despite her soaring career, Jackson is no stranger to the pitfalls of fame, having faced online bullies, racial typecasting, and the public assumptions that come with being a Disney Channel star. But if you ask Jackson how she’s dealing with Hollywood’s pressures, she’ll likely say she’s doing alright. She’s just a girl living her dream—what’s to complain about?
“My mom would tell me, ‘Well, if you really want to act, never give up and keep pushing no matter what,’” Jackson says. “And that’s exactly what I did.”
Born in Harlem, New York, Jackson began working at 9 months old after a relative suggested that her mom send out her headshots to audition her as a baby model. Jackson was immediately signed to an agency, quickly earning campaigns with big brands like Marriott Hotels.
However, at age 4, Jackson knew she wanted to be more than just mannequin after switching on the television to see Raven-Symoné on Disney Channel. “I was just like, ‘That’s something I really want to do one day,’” Jackson says. “I felt like Raven-Symoné was a young, black actor, and if she could do it, then I could do it too.”
My mom would tell me, ‘Never give up and keep pushing no matter what.’ And that’s exactly what I did.
With her mom’s blessing, Jackson started auditioning for acting roles. However, her early years weren’t easy. After catching wind of her acting aspirations, Jackson’s classmates, who already bullied her for her height (Jackson, who is currently 5-feet-tall, was shorter than most kids in her class), began tormenting her about her career: “They told me, ‘You can’t act. You’re not going to make it. You’re not going to be famous. You’re not going to sing and do all the things that you want to do in life,’” Jackson says. “I let them know you can say these things to me, but it’s not hurting me. Words don’t hurt me.”
Bullying was just one obstacle Jackson faced in her early career. Growing up with a lack of positive representation for black women on screen, Jackson was adamant that she could help change the situation, even after noticing a dearth of acting roles that called specifically for women and girls of color.
“There were very few young black girls on TV making a positive impact,” Jackson says. “Even growing up, there weren’t a lot of roles for young black girls.”
At 8, Jackson got a whole lot closer to her dream, when she was cast as Zuri Ross, the precocious daughter of two New York socialites in Disney Channel’s “Jessie.” The show prompted Jackson to leave public school and move cross-country with her mom to Los Angeles. It also catapulted Jackson into the public eye, something she was initially uncomfortable with.
“I wasn’t used to people stopping me for pictures wherever I went, especially when I was 9,” Jackson says. “I was like, ‘This is really weird. Just because I’m on a TV show and I act, people want my picture?’”
Growing up, there weren’t a lot of roles for young black girls.
Jackson’s newfound fame came with a slew of other pressures, including the expectation that her public image would sour as she got older. “A lot of people think Disney stars will fall off and become something crazy,” Jackson says. “I don’t think it has anything to do with Disney. It’s about who you surround yourself with. I surround myself with people who only want the best for me and are positive to my image.”
One anxiety Jackson wasn’t immune to was the fear of being pigeonholed into a certain type of character as a result of her wholesome Disney role. So when Disney approached her for a “Jessie” spin-off called “Bunk’d,” Jackson nearly turned it down. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to continue with Disney,’” Jackson says. “Nothing against them. I love them. They got me my first TV show. But I was like, “Am I getting too old for this?’”
After discussing it with her mom and manager, Jackson agreed to sign on—and she’s glad she did. A few years later, while guest-starring on Zendaya’s show, “K.C. Undercover,” Jackson finally ran into Symoné. “I remember Raven-Symoné was on the episode and I was like, ‘Oh. My. Gosh,’” Jackson says. “I told her, ‘You have been my role model since I was 4. I’ve always looked up to you.’ She was so sweet.”
Still, at her current age, when most teenagers are thinking about college, Jackson has other aspirations. After years on a sitcom, she’d love to do a drama. College is also on the table, though Jackson is leaning toward a fashion major over theater. It makes sense, considering she’s dropping her own collection with Macy’s in October.
It’s really important to embrace natural beauty and it’s okay if you have natural hair.
In April 2016, Jackson reached a whole new level of fame when a picture of her waiting for a morning talk show in New York went viral. The photo, taken by her hairstylist, shows her jet-lagged, sitting on suede chair with her hands and legs crossed. Jackson posted it to Twitter, and two days later, a meme, titled “Petty Skai Jackson,” was born.
“Some of my friends were sending it to me and I was like, ‘Where are you guys getting this picture from?’” Jackson says. “Meme accounts started posting it and I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I didn’t take any offense. I thought they were really funny and I even re-posted some on Twitter and Instagram.”
A month later, Jackson found herself back in the Internet’s good graces when she publicly defended former One Direction member Zayn Malik after rapper Azealia Banks began spewing racist and homophobic remarks toward him. When Banks turned the tables and came at her, Jackson took the high road—but still called her out, tweeting: “I had a career before Disney and I’m sure I will after! And I know I won’t turn out like you bitter and miserable! Fix ur life.”
“Azealia was putting out racial slurs and that wasn’t right,” Jackson says. “We’re all people in the business. We all have things going on with our lives. So we shouldn’t be giving each other hate. I felt the need to say something because it wasn’t OK. But honestly, my position is better than hers. People just look at her as a troll.”
Since entering the spotlight, Jackson has dealt with her share of cyberbulling, getting hate comments on everything from her acting to her hair, a sore subject considering Jackson’s insecurities about her natural hair growing up.
“With my natural hair, it takes so long to do, so for my friends who have straight hair, I was like, Oh my gosh. It’s so much easier.’ It took me so long just to get it into a ponytail because I have such big thick hair,” Jackson says. “I used to think of natural hair and be like, ‘Oh my gosh. It is a mess. How am I going to handle this?’ But I learned to love it.”
You don’t have to look like everyone on Instagram. Everyone’s their own self.
But despite the hate and micro-aggressions from hairstylists who don’t know how to work with her hair, Jackson is now a huge proponent of natural beauty, especially among black women.
“Now, girls on social media are like, ‘Oh my gosh. You make me want to wear my natural hair more and I used to have a perm in my hair but now I don’t because of you,’” Jackson says. “It’s really important to embrace natural beauty and it’s okay if you have natural hair.”
This self-confidence is likely what inspired Marvel artist, Mike Deodato Jr., to model the franchise’s newest Iron Man iteration—Riri Williams, a 15-year-old M.I.T. student—after Jackson herself. She considers the move a huge stride for diversity in media.
“I was very honored someone would actually do that. I still can’t believe it,” Jackson says. “It’s really important because she’s a strong, young black girl, and for her to have such a big role, that’s amazing. It’s amazing how things have changed over the last two or three years and hopefully, one day, I can play Riri Williams. That would be awesome.”
You can’t listen to what anyone has to say. All you need to do is remember you’re beautiful no matter what.
Still, Jackson doesn’t need the Iron Man suit to be seen as a superhero. From tackling racist trolls on Twitter to teaching girls to embrace their natural hair, Jackson is already making an impact, one meme at a time.
“I never would’ve thought I’d be considered a role model, so it’s definitely something I embrace. Putting positivity out and having something to stand for, I think that’s the best way to be a role model,” Jackson says. “People think you need to be a certain way to be beautiful and that’s not what it’s about. You don’t have to look like everyone on Instagram. Everyone’s their own self. There have been times when people send me hate and I think, ‘Am I pretty? Am I this or that?’ But you can’t listen to what anyone has to say. All you need to do is remember you’re beautiful no matter what.”