It was May when I met 10-year-old actress Mykal-Michelle (“Mimi”) Harris and her mom, Kimberly Harris, for a cover photo shoot meant to capture the spirit of the holidays.
Photographer Philicia Endelman and I met the mom and daughter at an office building in Hollywood, where floor-to-ceiling windows showed off the almost-summer sun blazing from its crystal-blue sky. Nothing about the scene screamed winter holidays. Until, that is, Mimi and her mom showed me their outfits — the Christmas-red fringe dress that Kimberly donned for the cover shot, her deep-wine evening dress, Mimi’s strawberry drop earrings, green and red hair ties, silvery bubble skirt and even her red Chuck Taylor high-tops, softened by ruffle socks (her favorite).
Someone turned on Donny Hathaway’s rendition of “This Christmas” and the mood was set. Mother and daughter danced, twirling each other between Endelman’s shots, then stopping to pose in a perfect blend of professionalism and mutual adoration.
After the shoot, I sat down with them to chat about family (Mimi is the youngest of four) and breaking into the TV and film industry. I loved her role as sassy Santamonica Johnson in ABC’s sitcom “Mixed-ish,” a spinoff of “Black-ish.” She currently plays Alice on Disney Channel’s “Raven’s Home” and has played roles in “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Big Little Lies” and more.
How did you get started in the industry?
Kimberly: At the time, Chase Manhattan Bank was running this campaign with Serena Williams where Serena was fully dressed, with a full beat (makeup) and in heels, but she was on a tennis court hitting balls. Whenever that commercial would come on, all you would hear was Serena’s grunt and her hitting the balls, and wherever Mimi was in the house, she would run to the television and just stand there in awe of what she saw. She was 2, going on 3, at the time. And we would wonder what’s going through her mind. I now know that it was representation.
She was outside playing tennis with my husband one day, and she came running in, saying, “Mommy, Mommy: Daddy told me I could be like Serena Williams!” And for her hero, her dad, to tell her she could be like another hero that she saw on television who seemed outside of her grasp — that was a big deal. I saw her excitement and I picked up my phone and just recorded her telling me because I knew it was going to be very animated. I put the video on my little Facebook page, where I had about 200 friends. Within an hour, that video had tens of thousands of views.
Within 24 hours, it had over 12 to 15 million views. “Good Morning America” was calling us, Serena’s people were calling us, trying to figure out how to make all of this happen, and then we were on a press junket tour within 24 hours. It was like the perfect storm.
Mykal-Michelle, how do you remember that time?
Basically like that, but in way less detail! I remember my dad saying I could be like Serena Williams. That was mind-blowing to me! Mom told me that agents and managers started to call, and let’s just say: We picked up the phone.
What were the first projects?
Kimberly: Because Mimi was just turning 3, [our manager] in New York said, “She’s too young for television right now. But commercials, we can do. She’s going to pop, and she’s going to do well in this business, but you’re going to have to ride it out.”
Well, I started getting feelings from what I call the Holy Spirit. Other people call it fate, the universe — whatever. We took the manager meeting, and she ended up with a global commercial with IBM Watson and Sesame Street. They rewrote the commercial on the spot. She was supposed to be one of the kids. They ended up dismissing all of the other kids and allowed her to be the kid. She ended up doing all of the print work for that commercial and then also did print work for Burlington Coat Factory, and then it ended up being a national campaign. So people were just starting to become familiar with what they still call “the Serena Williams girl.” Then Steve Harvey’s “Little Big Shots” called, and once that happened while we were in L.A. filming, all of the top kid agencies somehow got in contact with our representation and asked us to take meetings.
Five months after that, we moved [from New Jersey] to L.A. with nothing in hand, but knowing that something big was about to happen, and she got the L.O.L. Surprise contract. She ended up with a four-year contract with them and became the face of L.O.L, so that gave her more exposure. The first show that she got on was a pilot on Amazon…only one episode was shot. She had one line.
Mykal-Michelle: No, I had two lines: “I’m a banana. No, heeee’s a banana.”
Kimberly: That’s right! Well, it made it to Amazon, but they didn’t pick it up. Little did we know that that would be the casting team that would — three, four years later — put her on “Mixed-ish” because they remembered “I’m a banana.” They told us then that they could see how talented she was, they’d watched her commercials. She’d already appeared on “Big Little Lies” and “The Affair” on Showtime.
I guess that’s what they say is true, “Casting is paying attention.” Once you book that room — which is what we try to tell young people all the time — it’s not about booking the job. It’s about booking the room, because they will remember you. All those years later, they cast her in her first regular series role, “Mixed-ish.” That was the beginning of a really phenomenal career that only God could shoot us in this direction.
How was your experience working on “Mixed-ish”?
Mykal-Michelle: It was incredible. It was really my first TV family. Whenever you go onto a new series, you get a new family, and your TV set family keeps growing and growing and growing. And it felt so incredible to just have people I could talk to, people I could hang out with no matter what.
What are you working on now?
Mykal-Michelle: We are still actively filming “Raven’s Home,” and so we’re in the middle of that right now. “Cheaper by the Dozen” has been out for [several] months, and I’m working on my clothing line.
Auntie Ray [Raven-Symoné] is directing the last couple of episodes of “Raven’s Home,” so I am shadowing her directing because I want to become a director, producer, writer, creator… And so, I’m shadowing her, taking my notes. I also registered three pieces in the Writer’s Guild.
Tell me more about the clothing line.
Well…it’s high fashion, if I do say so myself. We have suits coming out, dresses, jumpsuits… . Some of the VIP line will be in higher-end stores, but we also really want it to be accessible for all. This whole thing came about because I love ruffle socks. I’m a sock addict, but we weren’t finding a lot of cute socks or accessories that we needed, so I went to my mom one day and said, “If we can’t find it, let’s just make it. So, we are making a lot of things that are hard to find these days.
Do you have any advice for other children pursuing acting?
Kimberly: I was a K-12 educator and I still have a desire to educate, but now it’s in this industry that we call home, because I feel like it feels so magical and mystical to people. It’s really not. It’s about hard work and opportunity just like every other industry.
As a mother who talks to other parents, I tell them that it is important to understand that this business is about hard work, training and knowing your craft, and then understanding the business side of show business.
Mykal-Michelle: A lot of adults will tell me to make sure I enjoy my childhood. This is what I love. Besides playing video games and a few other things, work is what I love.
Visit mykalscorner.com or follow Mykal-Michelle on Instagram @mykalscorner.