A stand-up comedy show isn’t the likeliest place to find a second grader, but Daphne Watson was not about to let her daughter Cece miss the opportunity to meet her idol, Kevin Hart.
“I surprised Cece, and when he came out onstage, she started crying—and then I started crying,” Watson, 31, says in the current issue of PEOPLE of the 2016 performance in Biloxi, Miss.
After the show, Watson brought Cece backstage, only to find Hart had already left the venue. But instead of giving up, Watson took to social media to ask her daughter’s followers to message the star and let him know he had a young fan eager to meet him.
That tactic might not have worked for most 7-year-olds, but Cece, who has more than 1 million followers on Instagram thanks to her comedy sketches and spot-on celebrity impersonations, is not your average elementary student.
“We had a ton of fans message him, and within 20 minutes he wrote, ‘Come see me in the morning at my hotel,’” recalls Watson.
Adds Cece, who turned 8 in April: “I was so happy to see him. That was the best day of my life.”
Cece‘s rise to fame started during President Obama’s 2012 reelection bid.
“She was watching a commercial, and she just said, ‘He’s cute!’ ” says Watson, a former apartment manager. “I turned the camera on, and she just kept going. I told her to say, ‘Welcome to The Cece Show, everybody!’ That was the beginning.”
For more from Cece and her mom, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now
Watson was soon encouraged by her family, including her husband, Aubry, a 33-year-old high school disciplinarian, her parents, Eddie, 64, and Deloris Walker, 56, and Cece‘s two older siblings, all of whom live together in the tiny town of Bogalusa, La.
In late 2013 Watson launched the Cece Show Instagram page, and within a few months they had 50,000 followers.
“I was like, ‘What is going on?’” says Watson. “We were just playing around, not trying to make a career out of it!”
But now, thanks to paid advertisements and branded content Watson posts on Instagram, mother and daughter have more than a career—they have a blossoming social media empire. Watson says the money has been “life-changing,” especially after a series of difficult years for the family.
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In May 2014 Watson sold her car and home and left Cece‘s older sister Cameran, 10 (with whom Cece shares a father, salesman Christopher Price, 34), and brother Jalen, 14 (from a previous relationship), at home to finish their school years while she, Aubry and Cece moved to Las Vegas with the supposed promise of a live stage show at one of the family-friendly casinos.
“I thought I was doing the right thing by taking a chance, but I fell on my face,” Watson says of making the move without a signed contract. (A show never materialized.) “It put me in a bit of a depression mode.”
But instead of returning to her day job full-time back in Louisiana, Watson doubled down on Cece‘s social media presence. Now, other than during the one month each summer Cece spends with her dad in Baton Rouge, Watson typically films two videos a week.
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A local celebrity, Cece says she has “billions of friends” at school, while her mom admits that fame hasn’t always been comfortable.
“When we started, she would ask, ‘Why is everyone trying to hug on me?’ She still doesn’t really understand how many fans she has. It keeps her from thinking she’s all that.”
Watson has her own dreams of becoming a creative force in Hollywood, but her main focus remains being a parent to her three kids, all of whom are once again under the same roof. She says she doesn’t see permanently leaving their Louisiana town again anytime soon.
But Cece, who dreams of being an Olympic gymnast (or singer or actor or police officer), already has other plans: “I want to be on Little Big Shots.”
How does she like working with her mom?
“My mom is kind of all right,” she says with a smile. “We’re having fun.”