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How a Stolen Purse Convinced Porsha From 'Empire' To Try Out for Fox's Hit

By Josh McGhee | March 30, 2015 8:01am
 Ta'Rhonda Jones grew up in Auburn-Gresham and now stars in Fox's "Empire."
Ta'Rhonda Jones
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CHICAGO — How did Chicago's very own Ta'Rhonda Jones become a scene-stealing star on Fox's runaway hit "Empire?"

The way the 26-year-old South Side native tells it, if it were not for a family tragedy and a purse snatcher, it wouldn't have happened.

Last year was a terrible one for Jones. Her beloved cousin, Darius Kelly, was shot dead in April while walking on 83rd Street in Auburn Gresham.

"That was my brother," she said.

Later that year she found herself in trouble at work after someone stole a purse containing all her money, and she had a meltdown. She was suspended for two weeks from her nursing home job because of her outburst.

"Had the situation never happened, I would have never auditioned," she said. "I loved my job. I wouldn't have rather worked anywhere [else]. I was too happy, too content. But I felt so violated. I give people my last dollar — that's how I was raised — and they took my last. Literally, it was all that I had."

So when her brother called in the middle of the night and heard they were looking for female rappers for a new Terrence Howard TV show, it made her think.

"I'm not about to call this number," she thought at first. But, "I thought long and hard and said this might be my big break. I need to see at least what's going on."

By the time the audtions were over, she'd nailed the role of Porsha, the right-hand woman of "Empire" lead diva Cookie Lyon, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson.

The "Empire" pilot had already been filmed before Jones' character came aboard. Her role — considered a scene-stealing, breakout one — has helped the Fox hip-hop drama become a record-breaking hit.

Before Lee Daniels, executive producer of "Empire," met Jones there was no carefree, back-talking Porsha.

"Lee Daniels just took to her. We were casting, then we created that role. She came in with that hair, a lot of those clothes are hers. She is Porsha," said a top executive on the show.

The character is the TV embodiment of Jones, a hard-working black woman who knows the struggles of her neighborhood — from street violence to poverty — all too personally. And like her character, she is unabashedly who she is.

"'Empire' was meant for me. Not Terrence. Not Taraji. It was meant for me. It's my time," she said.

Josh McGhee says Jones is humble despite her success:

Ta'Rhonda Jones and Lee Daniels on the set of Fox's "Empire." (Photo Courtesy of Ta'Rhonda Jones)

So, Who Is Ta'Rhonda Jones?

Jones was raised by her grandmother in Auburn Gresham along with eight other children, six girls and two boys. She went to Gresham Middle School, 8524 S. Green St., before graduating from Simeon Career Academy in 2006, a year before Derrick Rose, she's quick to note.

"I had a pretty simple, average, normal teenage life. I was very active when it came to sports. I played them all," Jones said.

"I was pretty much exactly the way I am now. They would say 'What's wrong with this girl? She's kind of crazy and weird.' I had to tone it down because people couldn't accept what I was," Jones said.

"Now, I'm able to be myself, and it's so rewarding," Jones said.

After high school, she worked at Jewel-Osco in Chicago Lawn for six years while designing clothes, working as a personal stylist and rapping as Lady Heroin, a name she picked up from Eddie Murphy's film "Harlem Nights."

Soon she realized "I needed to find me something more fulfilling. I wanted a career."

Jones turned her love of cooking into a career and began working at the Renaissance at Park South, 10935 S. Halsted St. She worked her way from a prep cook to head cook to assistant director, she said.

Ta'Rhonda Jones at her old elementary school, Gresham Elementary School, 8524 S. Green St. (Photo Courtesy of Ta'Rhonda Jones)

Tragedy to Triumph

Growing up in Auburn Gresham, Jones was no stranger to violence. But last April 24, her family found themselves face-to-face with it when her 23-year-old cousin was killed.

"We grew up together. We took baths together. That was my brother, and they took him away from me. It was horrible," Jones said.

Around 6:25 p.m. the day Kelly was killed, he was walking in the 900 block of West 83rd Street when several men began shooting from a van. He was hit and died at the scene, police said.

"It was the first death we experienced to gun violence. I don't think his mother has coped yet. I don't think any mother possibly could cope. I never tell anyone that story, but it brought our family together," she said.

But by August the family had again drifted apart. That is, until Jones received that call from her brother in the middle of the night.

Before making the decision to call for the audition, she prayed for a sign. That sign came from her murdered cousin, she said.

"I have this watch of his that I always wear, and it went off, I kid you not. Whenever I'm indecisive, every time I ask for a sign, the watch goes off," she said.

She called about the "Empire" casting the next day. Claire Simon Casting told her they were looking for beautiful, talented women, she said.

"I told her 'I think I'm cute or whatever, I can do that,'"  Jones said, with the same flair and confidence that she now brings to every scene she's in.

Still, Jones wasn't as confident after reading the lines meant for the role of Tiana Brown, which eventually went to Sereyah McNeill. Despite her frustration, Claire Simon told her she would be receiving an email about her audition.

"I thought, 'This is her way of kicking me out.'"

But they asked her to come back and read again. After the second reading, which was on a Friday, they asked her to return on Monday, she said.

"I caught a little attitude. I said 'Look, I got a job, I can't keep coming here,'" Jones said, before changing her mind again. "Why not? There's something they like about me."

Monday's reading had a very special guest dressed as if he had just rolled out of bed.

"Who is this man in pajamas in the middle of the day?" she thought. "I was very familiar with Lee Daniels, but not his face. When I walked in he just blurted out 'Yes ... Yes ...' No one ever gave me that reaction."

She was given the character breakdown for Porsha, which read "ghetto bunny in her 20s" and it immediately clicked, she said.

"This is me all day. Well, minus ghetto. She's so outspoken. I loved it, and I took it and ran with it," she said.

After the reading, she was told she was "on hold." When she wouldn't take "on hold" for an answer, they explained "Lee loves you."

"So I'm guessing that was the guy in the room. I Googled his name and passed out for three seconds," she said.

"I quit [my job] as soon as they told me I got the role."

Ta'Rhonda Jones at her old elementary school, Gresham Elementary School, 8524 S. Green St. (Photo Courtesy of Ta'Rhonda Jones)

A big portion of the first season of "Empire" was filmed in Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on the West Side. It also spilled into neighborhood taverns and Cook County Jail, showing various portions of the city cleverly disguised as New York.

"It's really rejuvenating. It gives people that feeling of pride that this is my hometown," Jones said, admitting she had barely seen the locations before filming.

"It's embarrassing. I don't really know my way around Downtown. I was always working and never left the South Side. I tried to play it as cool as possible all the time. But this is something I never had time to do. I got to explore my city like I never thought I'd be able to do," she said.

But just because her map has expanded, doesn't mean she's lost her love for the South Side, where she still lives. Before the show, she was "that voice for the kids," helping the older folks who were trying to do something to bring the children together and keep them out of trouble, she said.

She doesn't expect to vacate that role anytime soon, she said.

Jones recently was signed for season two of "Empire" and will appear on an episode of "Chicago PD." She's also in talks with music producer and rapper Timbaland about expanding her career, she said.

"I'm still that voice [for the kids]. I can't count how many schools I've been to. Now, it's even better because I give them hope. I'm Chicago's daughter. You wouldn't believe the feedback I get, people crying, and it's just little old me. I can't explain it," she said.

"[Empire] is giving these kids a chance. This is all they talk about, 'Empire.' Now everyone wants to act. This is good. It's giving people hope, and it's rejuvenating," she said.

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