My father recently asked me, “Who is JoJo Siwa?"
"She is going to be on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ but I’ve never heard of her," he added.
I struggled trying to put her massive fame into words for him, a 75-year-old who just figured out how to text photos. My struggle wasn't because she isn't famous, it's almost because she's too famous. I could start with “Dance Moms,” or maybe her huge social media following, or perhaps her inclusion on Time magazine’s 2020 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
But how would she describe her own celebrity?
“I think that it depends on who I'm telling what I do,” the 18-year-old told TODAY. “Sometimes it's easy to tell people that I work for Nickelodeon, sometimes it's easy to tell people that I do YouTube, sometimes it's easier to tell people that I have a book that's a New York Times bestseller, you know that just relates to them more. And so it's just about who I'm telling what I do, and then I just shorten the list by telling what I don’t do.”
The two titles she’s really proud of? Pop star and TV personality.
“I've done a lot of reality TV shows,” she shared. “I sing, I perform, I go on tour. I have sold out over 97 different shows with — what would it be? — like 80 of them arenas. So I've been around the block with that land.”
Been around the block she has. In anticipation of her new film “The J Team” streaming on Paramount+ this Friday, the multihyphenate pop star and TV personality sat down with TODAY for an interview via Zoom where she opened up about coming out as LGBTQ earlier this year, if characters in her new film were based on anyone in real life and the greatest misconceptions out there about her.
In 2014, Siwa and her mom, Jess Siwa, rose to prominence first on the "Dance Moms" spinoff "Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition" before she snagged a role as a "Dance Moms" regular, where she went toe with toe with the brazen dance coach Abby Lee Miller. In Siwa’s film, “The J Team,” Tisha Campbell plays brassy dance teacher Coach Poppy, who Siwa promises was not based on Miller.
When asked if any of the characters in the film were modeled on anyone in real life, Siwa candidly answered, “Everybody's asking me if Coach Poppy is off of Abby Lee and I know that that's what you're asking, so you might as well just straight out ask it.”
“The answer though is no,” she added. “There was actually the original script, some lines that Abby had originally said, you know, stuff like ‘No, no, no crying children’ or stuff like ‘If you yell at me, I'm gonna cry.’ I actually had those lines taken out because I didn't want people to think that it was a dig to Abby.”
Campbell, who told TODAY that she used her mentor Debbie Allen as a model for the character, doubled down that Miller wasn’t used as inspiration in her process.
“I never really watched her on the show, so for me, there was no comparison,” Campbell said. “I'm not trying to be shady.com. I literally wanted to kind of hone in on this character and make her my own. So I drew from Debbie and exploded her.”
Siwa has had to fight other misconceptions that exist about herself as well. When asked what is the greatest one out there about her, she answered, “That I'm fake.”
“I think a lot of people think that JoJo is a character, and somebody today actually asked me if I was ever gonna put my character to rest,” she said, referring to another interviewer. “I was like, I mean, she's been to rest because she doesn't exist. But I think that a lot of people think that it's not true.”
This comes with the territory of being someone as positive, upbeat and energetic as Siwa. Her world is full of flashy glitter, sparkly sequins, bows, bows and more bows. Some may think this rose-colored approach to life is all put on for show, but Siwa says it’s really who she is at her core.
“I think all the time people think that it’s just not possible,” she said, later adding, “But it is.”
Despite her sunny disposition, Siwa had to overcome some challenges in her career, like being pigeonholed as a dancer when she tried establishing herself as a singer as well.
“The reason why I have so many confidence confusions with singing is mostly because people have told me my whole life that I'm not a singer, that I can't sing, that I'm not a good singer,” she shared. “And that's just engraved in my brain and it's like set in stone in there and so trying to get that out is really, really difficult.”
But sing she does, especially in “The J Team,” which she also executive produced. “Being an executive producer on it gave me a lot more freedom with it, and I think that I really enjoyed that,” she said. “I got to have a say in the creative, saying how it was made and everything, that made me almost love the project more.”
Some seasoned actors might be peeved by an executive producer who's still a teenager, but for Campbell, 50, it was the opposite. The "Martin" star described Siwa as "stoic" and "giving."
“You cross your fingers hoping that the next job that you have, that person doesn't have a big ego and she was nothing like that,” Campbell said of Siwa. “I was so happy when I met her mother and they were so grounded and it really was a wonderful work environment."
Twirling on to new dance floors
On what she’s learned through her coming out journey, she said “how much I love love,” adding, “How much I love feeling it, how much I love just like having that version of love in my life.”
The love of her life right now is her girlfriend, Kylie Prew. The couple began dating earlier this year after being friends for more than a year. Siwa was lauded by activists and advocates for coming out the way she did at only 17 years old, setting an example for other teens and parents in her massive Nickelodeon fan base. This has caused some to already call her a gay icon.
“It’s the coolest thing ever,” she said of her icon status, adding that her own idols are Freddie Mercury and Lady Gaga. “I never thought I'd be called (a gay icon). I mean, I thought it'd be called gay for sure, but I never thought icon would come after. It's a really big honor.”
"I am who I am. But I'm not like, ‘Oh my God. No, I'm not this, you know what I mean?”
Siwa is still coming to terms with exactly how she identifies, as the dictionary of the LGBTQ community becomes longer each day.
“I'm dating a girl; that can make me a lesbian. I've never really been in love with anybody or found attraction to anybody except for Kylie and so therefore it could be demisexual. I've never minded who I would be with, if it would be a girl, a boy, (someone) trans,” she said. “But then I also think, so that could be pansexual… The l-word isn't my favorite word but I like the q-word. I like queer, it's kind of... I am who I am. But I'm not like, ‘Oh my God. No, I'm not this, you know what I mean?”
Many words and phrases can be used to describe how she identifies, and Siwa is fine with keeping it that way. But "trailblazing," above all else, is definitely one term that can be used whenever talking about her in any context, especially right now. Siwa is about to star on the 30th season of “Dancing With the Stars,” becoming the first contestant ever in the American franchise of the reality competition series to be paired with a professional dancer of the same sex.
“At 18, JoJo Siwa is once again using her platform to inspire and uplift the LGBTQ community. As one of today’s most watched and celebrated programs on television, ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and Tyra Banks are making the right decision to feature JoJo Siwa competing alongside a female professional dancer," Anthony Allen Ramos, head of talent at the LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD, said in a statement to TODAY. "The show has such a wide, far-reaching audience and there is a real opportunity here for people to celebrate the same-sex pairing and root for JoJo and all LGBTQ young people.”
For young people who may be struggling with coming out or figuring out their own sexuality, Siwa says that it’s never too late to be yourself, but waiting until you're ready is also totally OK.
“I think that a lot of people are scared of coming out,” she said. “You just have to know when it's right for you and if it doesn't feel right for you, just wait. You know there's no rush. It's you, and you're going to do what you want to do and you get to celebrate being a part of the LGBT community as you wish, but I don't think it's a rush.
“When you're ready to be open about it, you'll know who your people are.”