Gladys Jose ’12 knows the exact length it is from Will Smith’s name to her own on the cover of the new children’s book, Fresh Princess. She also knows that her name being on the cover of anything involving Will Smith is a pretty phenomenal thing.
“Whenever I’m asked how this Fresh Princess thing happened, it’s just, the stars aligned in such a way,” Gladys says. “It’s an anomaly. I know this isn’t normal!”
Growing up an only child with a single mom, Gladys learned two things early on in her life: how to be very independent and how to fill her time doing something she loved — drawing.
Though, yes, this story ends with her being the illustrator for a hit book backed by a Man In Black, she didn’t necessarily think of her childhood spent drawing as a career possibility. When she started college (first at Valencia, and then Direct Connect to UCF), she selected psychology as a major. It wasn’t until her then-boyfriend-now-husband suggested a design class as a fun elective option that she started considering it.
“He ended up dropping out of the class the first week and I’m sitting there like ‘OK, well, thanks dude,’” Gladys says. “But that is what kind of started all this. I sat in the classroom and realized that design one class was a lot more fun than anything else I was taking.”
As Gladys started preparing for graduation from UCF in 2012, she was hoping to land a full-time job at a design firm. She had a game plan of 20 different design firms she was going to apply to. A month prior to graduation, at a portfolio critique with local design-industry professionals, Gladys was confident that she’d show her portfolio off and get a job offer. She had a feeling it was her moment.
She had four sit-downs with design firms lined up and decided to throw author/illustrator Ethan Long into her extra spot near the end of the day.
“At that point I only had two illustrations in my portfolio,” Gladys says. “I just went for the feedback. He illustrates picture books and I was going to be a designer. He looks at my portfolio and he’s just kind of like ‘Meh’ at it, until he got to the last illustrations and was like, ‘This! This is what you need to be doing! Why don’t you have more of this in here?’”
Gladys explains that she had never considered freelance, illustration or freelance illustration. Yet when she got home that day she typed “how to be an illustrator” into the Google search-bar and a new game plan was set in motion. She would do freelance graphic design and in her spare time work on developing herself as an illustrator.
In her research, Gladys came across the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The international organization offers, in addition to several other benefits, conferences and portfolio critiques for aspiring illustrators, which Gladys now fit into the category of. At an event in February 2015, Gladys met with Chris Tugeau of The CAT Agency and was told that her portfolio was ready and that it was clear she understood who she was as an artist.
This was as much good news as Gladys needed to confidently reach out to Chris a few days later with a thanks-for-the-feedback-also-will-you-represent-me email. In February of 2015, the answer was not now.
A little over a year later, a new burst of confidence set in and Gladys submitted her portfolio to the daughter of The CAT Agency duo, Christy T. Ewers. In August of 2016, the answer was, still, not now.
“I didn’t draw for like three months after that,” Gladys says. “It was too sad. It felt like a big wall. I kept getting the feedback that my work was amazing, and they loved it, but they weren’t taking new people.”
The following January 2018, Gladys caught news that Christy was taking over the agency, and she decided 2018 was going to be her year. She sent a long email to Christy explaining that she had been working on her portfolio and was sending a manuscript of a book she’d illustrated. Gladys signed the email with one more “I’m still holding on to hope that someday there will be a spot for me.”
In January 2018, the answer was an offer of representation and a contract to sign.
Christy sent out an email with Gladys’ work to editors and art directors she had relationships with, letting them know about the new talent she was representing. That same day an editor from HarperCollins Children’s Books reached out to ask if Christy’s new artist had any samples of little girls with flair.
All Gladys had to work with at the time was the word flair. And so she went to Google again to try narrow down the word to something tangible she could represent through illustration. After she sent in 10 different girls with 10 completely different looks, there was silence for months. Gladys felt that sinking feeling again — maybe the timing just wasn’t right.
Then in June of 2018, word came back that she got the project, she’d have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and oh also Will Smith is tied to the project and she’d be illustrating characters inspired by The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“It was like I didn’t have knees anymore, because I just fell to the floor,” Gladys says. “It’s like that Will Smith clip that’s a gif. It’s not that stuff like this doesn’t happen to people like me, but I never thought that something like this could happen to me specifically.”
The story centers around Destiny, a girl with — you guessed it — flair. Her life gets flipped-turned upside down when her family moves to West Philadelphia.
For Gladys, it’s not just the obvious excitement of being hired to do such a big project with such a big celebrity, but that Fresh Princess offers something she had been looking for when she was a child.
“This isn’t just life-changing for me,” Gladys says. “We need more diverse books and books with kids of color that aren’t just telling the story of African American history, but stories that are about just normal kids today. I would look for books with girls who looked like me, but I couldn’t. So being a part of a project that has a little brown girl, and knowing my daughter gets to grow up with this…Will Smith is just kind of the cherry on the cake.”