June 19, 2021

David-gigliotti

Entertainment

It’s JoJo Siwa’s world, and it’s only getting brighter

“I don’t let myself be nervous,” JoJo Siwa says, as if that magic ability is as simple as an on-off switch. “Because then I miss out on the fun.”

Case in point, when EW talks to the YouTuber-pop star-Dance Moms alum-bow aficionado, she hasn’t turned 18 yet and is already set on going skydiving for the first time at “19 and a half.” After all, she’s already taken more than one big leap in her life. 

“I’m a daredevil,” she adds. On a visit to Las Vegas, “I jumped off the top of the Stratosphere” — Strat Hotel’s SkyJump, the tallest freestanding observation tower in the United States — “and that was the most fun thing I’ve ever done.”

When she arrives for her EW cover shoot, Siwa is counting down the days to becoming a legal adult, but she’s already achieved a dizzying level of success: a nearly sold-out first headlining tour. A double platinum anti-bullying track “Boomerang.” More than 80 million hair bows sold. Twelve editions of JoJo’s Closet, her Target clothing line. Her doll outselling Barbie at Walmart in its first year. Being named to Time‘s 100 most influential people of 2020 list. Oh, and she has an audience of millions online: 12.3 million followers on YouTube, 10.8 on Instagram, and a whopping 33.7 on TikTok. 

Even with all these feathers in her cap, she still might remain a mystery for many outside her primary target demographic of girls age 3 to 10 years old. If you’re not a very young fan (or a parent of one), your impression is probably informed by reality television reruns — she had her breakout moment on the Lifetime shows Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition and Dance Moms — and a handful of memes: Rainbow everything. Boisterousness that would exhaust the Energizer Bunny. And more recently, an out and proud member of the LGBTQ community — which is when many people outside that longstanding fanbase first heard of her, followed by a flurry of enthusiastic celeb support and a very minor amount of right-wing backlash.

In person, the rainbow in human form joke rings true. Siwa arrives at the shoot decked out in neon colors that would make Jim Carrey in The Mask go, “Maybe that’s a bit much.” She nails take after take, with no difference in enthusiasm from the first click of the camera to when we finally wrap five hours later. And she gushes at length about her best friend-turned-girlfriend, Kylie Prew, and the “LGBTQ alphabet mafia legends” she admires: Freddie Mercury, Elton John, and Lady Gaga. 

But the most striking thing about the performer might be just how lowkey and unassuming she is when the cameras aren’t rolling (or as unassuming as she can be at 5-foot-9, outfitted in glitter and size 9 sneakers). Accompanying her to the shoot are just three people, and during the brief tour of the space, the 17-year-old talks little, preferring instead to take in the dreamy, cotton candy-like decor.

When it’s time to get to work, it’s zero to “JoJo Siwa” in 3.5 almost jarring seconds. In the first take of a video segment, she bellows her signature greeting — “HEY EVERYONE, I’M JOJO SIWA” — at such a loud volume the crew has to reset recording levels.

She laughs good-naturedly. “I knew it, I knew it,” she quips.

Siwa has spent half her life in the spotlight, but until recently, a significant part of that fame came with derision and notoriety. “JoJo remains the butt of the joke, the face in the meme, the reason to cringe,” Time wrote in 2019. Commenters mocked her garish ensembles and “giant toddler“-like behavior, and oozed schadenfreude at the prospect of the tightly wrapped signature bows eroding her hairline. 

Then in January, she came out and the world did a 180. Her once-maligned intensity, marked by lightning-fast talking and “aggressive” dancing — as she displayed in a dance-off with Jimmy Fallon — is now being celebrated. Older teens and adults, previously uninterested in her brand, swooned at Siwa’s ardent declaration that her girlfriend of one month was “the most beautiful perfect person in the world.”

“Nothing encapsulates the lesbian experience more than that. NOTHING,” video creator and LGBTQ advocate Steph Frosch tweeted.

Though Siwa has known she wasn’t straight since she was a little girl, and her family and close friends were also aware before she told the world, she intended to wait until she had a partner to publicly come out. Still, she says her announcements were “so unplanned.” 

It began with a soft launch, if you will, via TikTok lip-syncs to Paramore’s “Ain’t It Fun” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” followed days after by the Twitter debut of a photo of herself wearing a T-shirt reading “Best Gay Cousin.” Collectively, those posts garnered 10.6 million likes and many carefully-worded headlines trying to parse whether it was, in fact, a coming out. Three days after sharing her TikToks, Siwa confirmed on Instagram that she is part of the LGBTQ community, later clarifying that she is “technically” pansexual but also comfortable identifying as gay.

Fans embraced Siwa, showering her on social with titles like “gay icon” and “lesbian icon.” Kim Kardashian, Iggy Azalea, Lil Uzi Vert, and Lil Nas X were among the many celebrities who personally reached out in support, she reveals to EW. 

Given her own celebrity status, Siwa says there are only a handful of people in her life who “treat me like [a] human,” including her girlfriend. “Everybody” views her as different, she says. But Prew can handle her being “the JoJo Siwa” while loving the real JoJo underneath. “She obviously knows what I do. There’ll be times where I’ll be like, ‘I hate talking about myself like this.’ But I am famous and I am a celebrity. I am high profile. She’ll be like, ‘You have every right to say that. That’s what you do.'” 

And when she doubts her singing abilities, Prew acts as her biggest cheerleader. “She’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah? How many arenas did you sell out last year?’ And I was like, ’97,'” she says, reenacting her sheepish expression. “And she’ll be like, ‘And you can’t sing?'”

Currently long distance, the couple FaceTime every single day, and Siwa keeps her phone on mute only to go to sleep. Siwa gets up at 4 a.m. California time and stays on the phone for 30 minutes with Prew, who lives in Florida, before the latter has to go to school. Then Siwa goes back to sleep until 9 a.m. And then does it all over again the next day.

“It’s a lot,” she admits of the Tetris-like process of coordinating their schedules. “It’s worth it though.”

They even have three monthly anniversaries: the 8th is their only public one, to mark when Prew asked Siwa to be her girlfriend; the 14th is to commemorate when Siwa returned the favor; and the 29th is for when they had their first kiss. 

Before Prew, Siwa had a boyfriend, a fellow TikToker whom fans got to meet on her social media. “I had the world convinced. I really did. I think I even had myself convinced, honestly,” she says. “I gave it a shot and I was like, ‘This isn’t for me.'”

Reflecting back, however, Siwa sees “so many signs” that she wasn’t straight that people missed. “I mean, I wore a rainbow on the top of my head almost every day of my life,” she says. “And any time I could have anything rainbow, I would get rainbow. June’s my favorite month to shop because of all the Pride clothes.”

And, before you ask — yes, Siwa has seen the memes about her coming out. Nearly all have been positive, with some commenters even advocating for her to take over Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime TV reign. She’s over the moon that so many have reacted positively, and she plans on giving them a little something in return. 

“Being called a gay icon, honestly, I think is the biggest honor,” she says. “About a year ago, I started having all these music meetings just for fun, just getting my head where I want to go. And I told the producers, ‘I want to create gay pop, and I want to have a concert for the girls and for the gays.’ Turns out a year later, I am very much so gay.”

Though it’s easy to scoff at bestowing the “icon” title on such a young person, her mom, Jessalynn Siwa, says we can’t underestimate the impact of her daughter’s coming out on countless families.

“I was like, ‘You’re really, really lucky that the world embraced you and you’re helping other people, you’re on that side of it,'” she says. “And that was a big reality check for us, to really try to make it easier for people and easier for kids, easier for parents to be more accepting.”

It’s full speed ahead for Siwa for the rest of 2021 and beyond. On the docket is returning to the studio to write and record an album, releasing her Nickelodeon and Awesomeness movie musical The J Team in late summer, appearing in her mom’s new Peacock series The Siwa Dance Pop Revolution, filming her other movie Bounce, and going back on tour in 2022.

The J Team, on which Siwa says she worked tirelessly for 50-some days in Canada, concluded filming in March. It’s her first live-action feature film and features Siwa playing a version of herself. Her world is turned upside down when she meets sparkle-hating dance instructor Poppy (Tisha Campbell-Martin) and eventually realizes she can’t hide her sparkle or bow anymore. 

As an executive producer on J Team, Siwa had a say in everything, from what colors she wears to entire story lines. Initially told she’d be playing “the spirit animal of JoJo,” she rejected the notion. “I said, ‘JoJo is JoJo. JoJo’s not a character. JoJo’s not a guinea pig. JoJo’s a human, and it’s me.'”

Even though Siwa’s dream of movie stardom is far from assured, she seems blithely uninterested in feigning humility. “I do love acting, and it’s really easy,” she says. 

She also doesn’t waste time agonizing over decisions. “What I’m about is just so real and so natural and nothing is made up that it’s like, I don’t have to think about it,” she says. “Things are just very clear to me. If someone’s not being hung out with, let’s go hang out with them. Somebody isn’t being [included], let’s include them. We’re ordering pizza and somebody likes cheese and somebody likes pepperoni? Let’s get both.”

Like many young stars, Siwa has a team working with her, including her mom and her manager, Caryn Sterling. What’s unique about Siwa, Sterling says, is that the adults “follow her lead” and not the other way around. The first time Nickelodeon reps wanted to meet about Siwa’s brand, around the time the mother-daughter duo left Dance Moms, they asked Jessalynn to attend — but without JoJo. Jessalynn shot down the idea.

“I was like, ‘Well, that’s not how we work, so I won’t be there,'” she recalls, adding that Nick quickly capitulated. “They were leery to speak freely in front of her, but then once they realized the type of relationship we had and how wise JoJo was, it was perfectly fine.”

Fast forward about five years later: Pam Kaufman, president of global consumer products at ViacomCBS, extols Siwa’s precocious wisdom. “She is one of the most hardworking, talented, smart, intuitive, and strategic people I’ve ever met. And I’m not talking stars — I’m talking people,” Kaufman says.

She remembers how at age 14, Siwa came to her office to reassure Kaufman over a YouTube skit she had posted that the exec found questionable. “She sat there and explained to me how the platform works, why she made the decision she made and why it was good for her fans, and, with all due respect, [why] she thinks this is the right move. And I was like, ‘Okay, got it. Thank you for that.'”

Some of Siwa’s swift expansion from on screen to product queen was boosted by lucky timing: Claire’s Accessories faced a downtrend in sales from established licenses like Frozen and One Direction, and Nickelodeon was lacking breakout stars for its tween girl audience. Enter Siwa, at once a TV personality and a social star with strong Instagram and YouTube followings, one who was able to translate these numbers into sales for both companies.  

Siwa was also adept at and willing to pivot as needed. On Dance Moms, she and Jessalynn were seen as conniving and combative personalities, leaving them with a need for reinvention after departing the reality series in 2016. They flipped her persona to be all things rainbow and sunshine and released uplifting songs like “Boomerang” in that same year. Its music video has since racked up nearly a billion views. 

In the few public missteps she’s made, Siwa promptly addressed blowback on her own platforms. This year, when some parents noticed inappropriate questions on JoJo’s Juice playing cards, which are geared toward kids 6 and up, it was Siwa’s idea to post a video to respond, Kaufman says. And even before she turned 18, she didn’t need approval from Sterling or Kaufman to post tweets or TikToks. 

Once described by her music producer as “12 going on 30,” Siwa seems like she’s learned to absorb the harshness of the spotlight. Especially since coming out, she doesn’t bother dealing with naysayers. “If you’re weirded out by it, just don’t come hang out with me,” she says. 

A recent exception was how she handled parents who bashed her sexuality on Instagram. And even then, she knew that a nonchalant, one-word reply would be much more powerful than penning a manifesto. “I replied to a lot of them, and then I deleted them instantly before anyone could see them,” she explains. “But the one that I left up [was after] this person commented something very mean and hurtful that their kid was never going to watch me again, and I just responded, ‘Okay.'”

Siwa used to work all the time with few breaks, but now her life works in “seasons,” she says. Her 16th birthday included a one-hour special, a televised birthday party, and special sweet 16 product lines. This year, she made the call to not do anything huge with Nick for her 18th. 

Those breaks are likely welcome, because from how she describes it, she’s been running on fumes for a while. She sprained her ankle recently, but admits she didn’t get an X-ray like she should’ve. And her energy level doesn’t convey it, but she “runs on zero sleep” and can’t quiet her racing mind. “My mind doesn’t shut off, and my muscles feel like they’re shaking inside my body. It feels like I’m running, but I’m laying down.”

Siwa also acknowledges that her stubbornness is “a blessing and a curse.” Once she’s set on something, “my mind does not change.” And as she moves from simply playing versions of JoJo Siwa to other scripted characters, that may be tested.

Like The J Team, Bounce — an adaptation of Megan Shull’s young adult novel — is positioned as a movie with a motivational message. Directed by Susan Johnson (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) and produced by Will Smith through his Westbrook Studios, Siwa plays a teenage girl named Franny granted a Christmas wish to trade her difficult family for another, triggering a Groundhog Day-like experience in other girls’ shoes. 

But there’s also a kissing scene, one Siwa desperately hopes won’t make the cut. “I’m madly in love and I do not want to kiss another human,” she says. “Especially because it’s a man.” It’s her own qualms — she says her girlfriend is fine with the scene — and also because she thinks her fans will perceive it as JoJo Siwa kissing someone, not an actress doing her job. “That’s what they look at me as, not some character, not some fictional thing. And so it’s going to be a little weird.”

She sounds completely sure of herself as she states, “I’m not about it. I’m trying to get it pulled so bad. It’ll happen. It’ll get pulled.” 

The entertainer’s been a Nick kid since signing an overall deal in 2017, but unlike Nick Cannon or Ariana Grande, she had already made an impressive name for herself on Dance Moms before she got there. It’s no secret that Siwa’s real goal was to be the next Hannah Montana. Asked if they’ve accomplished that, Jessalynn says with a smile, “I feel like we’re pretty good with that one.”

And we all know how post-Montana, Miley Cyrus took off the shake-and-go wig for the last time and embarked on her post-Disney career, taking on more “adult” looks and projects. Siwa and her team insist that won’t be the case for her. “There will be nothing shocking to the world like, ‘Whoa, JoJo is 18. What happened here?'” manager Sterling says. “JoJo doesn’t take a left turn, it’s not in her DNA.” 

Jessalynn — who also says her daughter’s “image isn’t going to change at all” — has worked hard to make a bubble around JoJo and protect her from the industry’s “crazy” culture. “I don’t want JoJo to be a bad girl. I don’t want JoJo to be a nasty girl,” she says. “She might get a tattoo on her finger or something small, but she’s not going to do anything crazy.” 

Together, mother and daughter have been able to learn from stars who broke out earlier and now want to protect one of their own. Britney Spears’ mother, Lynne Spears, was happy to offer her perspective, bonding with Jessalynn over noticing their daughters’ star qualities early on. So was Gwen Stefani: “She said, ‘Keep your clothes on,'” Jessalynn recalls. “JoJo was probably 14 when that happened, and that was really good advice.”

Siwa says it’s precisely because “everything has been accessible” that she’s not in a rush to drink, smoke, or party. “I’m not some bad kid that’s putting on this front of being a nice, sweet, innocent girl and then I close my door at night and I’m doing things that bad kids would do,” she continues. “I think it’s gross and it’s not who I am. It’s not who I want around me. I have a rule. If somebody puts me in a position to do something bad, they’re out. It’s an automatic ‘You’re out.'”

Because her appeal is not in a character she plays, Siwa’s real life serves as an inspiration to fans. And while other brands and stars entice consumers by honing in on their insecurities, she is repackaging and commodifying her positive platitudes into a clear and identifiable message for her young followers. 

Coming out could have been a risk to that brand if this were five or 10 years earlier. But in 2021, Siwa says, “I don’t think really anyone in the world now is weirded out by it. Some people don’t support it, but I think it’s a very, very, very small percentage of the world that it’s weird or gross to, which is really nice.”

Some of the seemingly positive reactions are still, well, a little weird, like one viral TikTok that dug up an old clip of Siwa gazing adorably at Dance Moms castmate Kalani Hilliker, adding the caption, “How did we not notice?”

Siwa laughs about the video now, and doesn’t seem too bothered. She says Prew even plays it for her multiple times a day, just to annoy her. But she also calls out that it’s projecting an adult gaze onto her innocent childhood friendship.

“First of all, absolutely not. Oh my God. I love Kalani like a sister till the day I would die. I would take a bullet for her. Also, I was 11. One one. Eleven.”

Of course, coming out is still a risk for millions of people across the globe. The U.S. is more accepting than ever before, and it’s not a reach to say the idea of a sunny, Caucasian girl’s coming out story is pretty non-threatening and even palatable to an average consumer. And you can’t underestimate the influence of LGBTQ stars like her heroes Mercury and John, as well as queer activists of color, on setting the stage for Siwa to receive such an outpouring of love. “Seeing Freddie and seeing how he just lived his life, it was his normal. And I realized that it can be my normal,” she says.

Siwa’s new normal isn’t likely to look that different than before, or not anytime soon. She recently announced new products including Strawberry Bop Cereal with General Mills and a Suave hair care line. As we speak, Kaufman and her team are working on ideas and themes for Siwa’s business into the next few years, but she doesn’t want to reveal much before presenting them to the performer in a few weeks.

No corporate partners dropped her for being queer, and recently converted teenage and adult Siwanatorz have embraced her LGBTQ story — and bought JoJo Siwa T-shirts. Kaufman says they’ve seen stronger business for older demos since her coming out, and she believes that trend will continue. Just take a look at comments under Siwa’s announcement about her latest JoJo’s Closet Target line — every other one is a demand for adult sizes.

“Do I think we’re going to have a broader audience going forward now that she’s 18 and obviously talking about her personal life more? Yes.” Kaufman adds.

Sterling puts it another way: “When will the message of empowerment, self-confidence, positivity, and self-love get old?” 

Now that Hannah Montana-level success seems to be ticked off the to-do list, Siwa, ever the dreamer, has aspirations including working with Gaga and performing at the Super Bowl.

It’s a lot to look forward to, but right now, she’s content being where she is. After breathlessly counting down the days to her 18th birthday, Siwa reunited with Prew to celebrate with her family at Universal Studios in Orlando.

“The world right now is in such a great place with me,” she adds. “There was a phase where a lot of the world hated me, like teenagers. They hated me. And I think now we’re homies and we’re cool again.”

Toward the end of our chat, she circles back to her skydiving — and then surprisingly rescinds her daring plan, in deference to how strict her mom is. “Skydiving is never going to happen. As much as I say it’s going to, it’s not going to,” she concedes.

To heck with plans anyways. In all her time sharing her world with us, Siwa holds a special place for one particular, spontaneous highlight. 

“When all the coming out stuff went down, I told my girlfriend, ‘Everything in my life has been online.’ I’ve shared everything with the world. This is the piece of myself that I have been the happiest with.” 

Motion Direction & Photography by Alexandra Gavillet. Wardrobe: Keri Burkett; Hair and Makeup: JoJo Siwa; Set Design: Eamonn McGlynn; Production: Janna Cabello; Location: Sparkl Palace by GSparkl (@gsparkl).