At 19, the 6-ft. college freshman was on a basketball scholarship at Colorado State University when a friend secretly entered her in the “Funniest Person on Campus” contest. After winning first place, Jones left school to pursue comedy.
“As soon as I touched the mic I knew that’s what I would do for the rest of my life,” Jones tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue.
But growing up, Jones struggled with insecurities about her height and skin. “People used to call me names so my mom had this beautiful African lady come talk to me. I was like, ‘Oh my God if I’m going to look like you then I don’t care what anyone says about me,'” says Jones.
As for her above-average height, “I never had a problem with it until I discovered boys. Then I really became aware of it. It took me a while, but I’m totally into it now. I wear 6-in. heels.”
For more on Jones’ surprising life before fame, pick up the latest issue of People on newsstands Friday.
In 1987, Jones’ first professional gig as a comedian opening for Jamie Foxx was a total flop.
“Oh I was terrible,” she says. Afterward Foxx gave her some valuable advice. “He told me, ‘You’re like 18. You don’t have anything to talk about. Go get a job, go get fired, go get your heart broken and go break some hearts.'”
Jones did just that and worked a variety of odd jobs including a stint at UPS while still doing stand-up.
After an interview at Blockbuster, she was passed over for the position. “The manager said, ‘I’ve seen you perform and you’re hilarious. I don’t want to hire you and then you quit. You just need to keep trying.'” Jones left mad when she didn’t get the job. “I’m like what the hell? Wait a minute. I haven’t made it yet!”
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Her big break finally came in December 2013 when she auditioned for Saturday Night Live. Jones was hired as a writer and later named a featured player.
Despite her success, she’ll never forget her days as struggling comic, “I thought about quitting everyday,” she recalls. Now with more than 20 years under her belt, all the hard work and determination has paid off.
Jones stars in Ghostbusters alongside Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon out July 15.