The timeless lyrics of the Disney song “When you wish upon a star… anything your heart desires will come to you” notwithstanding, actress Mekia Cox, who plays Princess Tiana on the ABC series Once Upon A Time, believes “You are what you attract.” She explains, “I believe in creating goals and focusing on those goals. You shoot for the moon and you land among the stars. I happened to shoot for the moon and landed among the stars twice.” She believes that it is a less a celestial body and more perhaps a heavenly spirit that brings her good luck.
“I will also say my father passed when I was seventeen, and I do believe I have a guardian angel up there looking out for me. Just because these things are so specific to me, I do think he is working his magic up there and allowing me to get these specific things that I wanted in my life.”
Still, we all know that luck is nothing without preparation and Cox has been working and preparing for literally her entire life. She has been performing since she was three years old, and was working at Disney World at the age of seven.
Born in St. Croix, Cox and her family moved to Orlando, Florida just before Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989. “Apparently, afterward things were pretty bad down there so my family that did live there went back to Barbados and some went to Miami.” Cox’s family was originally from Barbados. Since then, every time I go back to the Caribbean, I go to Barbados.” She has never been back to St. Croix, arguably the most popular vacation destination in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but it remains in her heart. She says, “There’ve been times that I tried to go back but something always comes up and kept me from going. I grew up in Christiansted. I feel like I remember it like the back of my hand. I love that little island.”
In Orlando, Cox began working at Disney as a dancer at age seven. “After I moved from St. Croix, I moved to Orlando, and my very first professional job was dancing at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. For me, of course, being seven years old at that time that was a huge deal. I did that when I was seven then once again when I was nine.”
Not surprisingly, she ached to play a Disney Princess and planned on doing so until an uncomfortable realization hit her. “I had heard that when you were sixteen you could work at Disney as a Disney Princess and so was excited to do that. Then I remembered, ‘Wait a second. I can’t work as a Disney Princess because there is no Disney Princess for me to be.” Though African-American singer and actress Brandy had played Cinderella in the 1997 film, there were no black Disney Princesses at the time Cox worked there.
Even when society became more enlightened, Cox’s dream seemed to still be out of her grasp. She recalls, “Back in 2009 when The Princess and The Frog came out, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, some little girl’s dream of being the princess at Disney World in Orlando can actually come true now.’ I thought I had passed my prime for that to be able to happen.”
Not wishing on just one star though, Cox was also passionate about dancing for the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Incredibly, that happened for her. In 2008, she was chosen out of a field of 500 dancers to go on his This Is It tour. She has said in a previous interview that the experience, “Probably always will be one of the best times in my life and sort of the pinnacle of my dance career.” She then moved on and began acting in shows such as Secrets and Lies, Key and Peele, and Grey’s Anatomy. In 2016, she nabbed a recurring gig on NBC’s Chicago Med as Dr. Robyn Charles. Robyn is the daughter of head psychiatrist at Chicago Med, Dr. Daniel Charles and the love interest of Dr. Connor Rhodes. That episode is worth watching just to see her truly touching, nuanced performance as a young, beautiful, brilliant doctor who grapples with issues of mental illness in her career and personal life. Cox encourages us to tune in to see if she appears after that first episode, which airs November 21.
One of the best parts of working on Chicago Med for Cox was her co-star S. Epatha Merkerson. “She’s awesome I love her so much. She’s Just a joy to work with and funny! You don’t really get to see her be funny very funny, but in person, she is actually a really funny person.”
Cox had tried out for the part of Sabine on Once Upon A Time, having no idea (because showrunners kept it a secret) that Sabine was also Princess Tiana in the fantasy series. Once Upon A Time has dual storylines taking place in a fairytale world and a real world. Cox plays the character Sabine in the real world storyline and Tiana in the alternate storyline. She says, “I was auditioning for Sabine. I had no idea I was auditioning for Princess Tiana. It was only afterward that they let me know it was for Princess Tiana and I was like ‘Oh, that’s really kind of cool.” It seems her guardian angel came through for his little girl once again. “Eventually, we were told that I booked the role and I was extremely excited and turned back into my 7-year-old self.”
Though acting takes up much of her time, when she isn’t doing that, Cox tries to engage in some of her old hobbies. “I just picked up my guitar the other day and realized that I had not picked it up in some years and so I’m getting back to learning guitar.” Painting does double duty as both hobby and reverie. “I was painting for a while and it’s a form of meditation. I can do it and not realize that hours have gone by.” Photography connects her to memories of her father. “My father was actually a photographer and I didn’t know the gene was passed down to me until I picked up a camera and realized that I love being behind the camera.”
So far the actress has gained plenty of fans of her work as Sabine/Princess Tiana. Only seven episodes in, there is already fan art dedicated to her online. Says one fan Jennifer, who has been watching the show since it began seven years ago, “I like Tiana. She has a can-do attitude, even though things are tough for her in both worlds. She’s just interesting to me.”
Cox likes the similarities between herself and the character(s) especially capable yet vulnerable Sabine, which has a surprising payoff. “She’s got similar characteristics to me so it’s easy for me to learn her lines.” Cox hints that there will be a romantic storyline coming up for her character in the near future.
Cox’s Princess Tiana isn’t the only princess of color on the show. Afro-Latinx actress Dania Ramirez plays Cinderella/Jacinda who is Sabine’s best friend. Beyond considerations of diversity, the casting makes a point about freedom in artistic choices.
She says, “You know, I think what can be interesting about these fairy tale characters is they can really be whatever you want them to be. I think that’s what they’re trying to show you. I was happy that there is actually now a black princess that I can play, but it’s not like The Princess and The Frog originated as a black princess. She happened to turn into that in 2009 with Disney. I really love that they’ve also shaped this character in a little bit of a different way and given her a different backstory. It’s great and it has needed to happen for a while now.”
Ironically, though Once Upon A Time is a fantasy rife with characters ripped from fairy tales that are over a century old, the show has a decidedly feminist bent. Much of the action and story are driven by women. The women on Once Upon A Time tend to have strong personalities and well-defined agendas. Says Cox, “To have such strong female characters in one show but also bringing diversity and bring in different minorities from different areas is important because that is a reflection of what we see in America or internationally.”
For most of television history, these roles simply were not an option for actors of color no matter how much skill, experience, or beauty they had. Those jobs were in effect, closed to them. On the flip side, there were fewer aspirational characters for viewers of color. Like many others, Cox also thinks it’s important for young people to see these images on television. “I also think it’s really good for young people to be able to visualize themselves in a different way.” She says, “To see these actors who look like them on screen and think “Oh I could do that. I can be strong, I can be entrepreneurial, I can be nurturing. To be able to actually see someone who looks like you do those things makes an impact on your life.”
Once Upon A Time airs Fridays at 8 p.m. EST on ABC and hits digital platforms at approximately 5 a.m. EST the following day.