Kayla Nicole Jones has been in the public eye since her early teens. She started out documenting her thoughts while living in a small town in Alabama. One of her first widely-watched videos was a riff on hair tutorials that included pats of hair gel and a slicked ponytail pointing upward. Now 20 years old, she’s a mother (she has a 1-year-old, Messiah, and is pregnant with her second child), a wife and the star of her own show, “Meme Mom.”

Jones speaks with a calmness you can’t falsify. Motherhood has changed her, she says. It’s also spilled over into the way she works.

“When I post my work it’s more strategic, and just more organized, because I don’t have a lot of free time,” Jones tells ESSENCE. “I changed the way I do things. I do it more polished now than I used to. I still allow myself to be authentic to my roots, but in a way that is kind of cleaned up a little bit.”

Her revised approach has paid off. Jones’ high-resolution, static posts have hundreds of thousands of likes. Her videos boast millions of views. She’s that girl. But it hasn’t always been easy.

Jones opens up about what 2021, a period marked by profound sadness and mangled attempts at “normalcy” for many was like for her. Though she was checking off life-changing career goals, she was also experiencing postpartum depression.

“When I started to become my most successful, I was actually at my lowest and a lot of people didn’t know,” she shares. “Just as much as I was accomplishing in front of everybody, behind the scenes I was just doing all of this in the midst of just having high-functioning depression, postpartum…Just going through a bunch of trial and error in my personal life. A lot of things and people had to be removed to align me with my purpose and where I was headed.”

Fans don’t always grasp how strenuous fame can be. It’s easy to ignore the work and fixate on the glory of social ascension and luxury brand gifting opportunities. Jones is trying to coast in calm waters, yet there’s always some stress that comes with even a modicum of good fortune.

“You have to remember, it’s just you and a million other people,” she says of the ratio between her and the fans. She has 7.3 million followers on Instagram, 10.5 million on TikTok and 5.4 million YouTube subscribers.

“You are your own brand, so you’re your own job, and you have to control your space. You’ve got to be in control of the good and the bad. It’s a one-person job.” She also credits her team, which she describes as “wonderful.”

One of her biggest branded achievements has been creating content for MAC Cosmetics. “Respect the hustle,” she said of the moment on her Instagram profile. She shot the video while 5 months pregnant, unbeknownst to fans.

As mindful of her online existence as she is, she knows social media users aren’t always kind to celebrities. In turn, celebrities aren’t easy on themselves. Over the past several years, a number of of famous figures, including Normani and Chlöe, have taken breaks from social media to preserve their mental health. With more and more young people becoming victims of “digital stress,” and as a full-fledged mental health crisis threatens generations, Jones supports the idea of cutting back on online activity, also known as “unplugging.” Though she’s open to an extent, privacy has also been a saving grace.

When talking about her current pregnancy, Jones says, “I came out [about the baby] to my family and friends before I did the public. I didn’t really feel obligated to just put that out there, nor was I ready. So I catered to the people around me first, and then I went to my platform the way that I wanted to. They don’t know how far I am, my due date or names.” The internet froths with oversharing, and Jones has risen by being comedically candid her life. Still, she knows what information should stay offline.

“Everything doesn’t need to be said, everything doesn’t need to be shown. Some things are better kept private…I don’t have to feed them everything.”

Photo credit: Ben Cabral

After our talk, Jones sat down for a conversation with Instagram’s Creator Marketing Video Lead for Global MemeCon during a masterclass for sprouting creatives. One of her primary goals was to share nuggets of wisdom.

“I love to just share my perspective and advice for other creators. Not only for creators, but also for other people just looking up at certain creators,” she says.

“Creator” has become the go-to term for people who have a digital-first mindset when it comes to any kind of creative offering. It’s a financially beneficial vocation—Instagram offers payment for those who share Reel videos to the platform. Even people with small followings can get a piece of the pie.

Now that being a creator has been solidified as a viable career option, education is a must. People have wondered how payment for brand deals works, what does filing taxes look like and what to do after their first viral moment. Veterans like Jones know the answers. Active online for nearly a decade, the comedian is also showing people what evolving in real time looks like. She admits it’s arduous.

“It’s always difficult. I feel like when you start to transition your identity into becoming better, growth is more times painful than pleasant,” she says. Supporters can also sometimes struggle with a celebrity’s move from childhood to adulthood, failing to provide grace or respect. Maybe her steady progression, and the fact she’s flat out hilarious, have made it easier to digest—and root for.

In a phenomenon further exemplified by Cardi B and Lil Nas X (big names who used the web to bolster their early career triumphs), Jones helped erase the line between the internet and “real life.” There are tangible, profound online opportunities being taken by everyday people turned superstars. With a brand of comedy embedded in what people are actually thinking, Jones has become a representative for this era’s appetite for honesty. Her work is real enough to be relatable and fun enough to make breathing seem a bit easier.

Jones reflectiveness about her life and work feels like foresight. She’s grateful for her progression and I can tell she’s ready for what’s next. With all she’s given, learned, and accomplished, she’s certain she’s on the right track.

“I would rather have it this way than any other way,” she says.

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