Dancing Fearlessly into the Spotlight
Teen dance sensation JoJo Siwa on coming out, making history on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and being a role model for queer youth
This year, JoJo Siwa made history as the first “Dancing with the Stars” contestant to compete with a same-sex partner. With Jenna Johnson, she performed the Argentine tango to Britney Spears, did the cha-cha to Lady Gaga and busted out her best moves for a sexy queer rumba to Janet Jackson.
And maybe, somehow, you’ve missed all the JoJo buzz, which means you probably also missed her “Grease” foxtrot, but you should know this: JoJo is everywhere right now. That’s great because she’s queer, and we love to see LGBTQ+ visibility on TV, especially on shows like “Dancing with the Stars” where you least expect it.
But JoJo, who made Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2020, has actually been dancing for years –– which is a strange thing to say about someone who’s only 18. JoJo, however, got her start at 9 when she competed on the “Dance Moms” spinoff “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition” during its second season in 2013.
JoJo is as beloved on “Dancing with the Stars” as she is on YouTube, where she has amassed over 12 million followers (that number, she tells me, “exploded” after she came out earlier this year, in January). Now she’s teamed up with her mom, Jessalynn Siwa, who’s also her manager (hence, “momager”), for their own Peacock show, “Siwas Dance Pop Revolution.” Over eight episodes, JoJo mentors and choreographs 11 tweens, some of her biggest fans, as they compete to be a part of XOMG Pop, a new pop group. The crowned group will open for JoJo on her 2022 tour.
Recently, JoJo, alongside Jessalynn, spoke about being fearlessly queer, going through a public romance and breakup with ex-girlfriend Kylie Prew, and what it feels like to inspire other LGBTQ+ youth to come out.
How are you bringing diversity and inclusion to “Siwas Dance Pop Revolution”?
JoJo: You know, we wanted to create a girl group that was for everybody and for everybody in the world to be like, “That one’s like me.” And I think that we have made sure that the kids who are in the girl group, and even the kids on the show, have all been able to have their say and make this exactly what they want it to be.
As a queer person yourself, who was the person that made you say, “I see me in you”?
JoJo: I looked up a lot to Freddie Mercury and Lady Gaga. I like what they stand for. I mean, “Born This Way” is literally a gay anthem for everybody in the world and the most genius song ever and, for me, that song hits so home that it’s literally my life.
Did you ever hear from Gaga after lip-syncing “Born This Way” on TikTok?
JoJo: No. [Whimpers.] Don’t mention it, it makes me sad.
Jessalynn: One day, one day.
As somebody who’s representing the queer community on “Dancing with the Stars,” and now with your own dance show, why do you think LGBTQ+ representation is important in shows like these?
JoJo: I think that something that’s really great about today’s day and age is, being gay or being a part of the LGBTQ community is not only accepted, but it’s also celebrated. And I think that every single day it’s less weird and less not typical. Every day it’s becoming a little bit more normal for everybody, and, I mean, being normal is boring. Nobody wants to be normal; everybody wants to be a little different. So I think that it’s something to be celebrated, not scared of.
Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, which in some people’s mind might be more conservative, was it ever weird for you? What was your experience growing up as a queer person there?
JoJo: Growing up I didn’t know many gay people. I knew a few people on my mom’s side of the family. Her godson is gay, and he was probably one of the first people that I ever knew to be gay. I think being in the dance community, I know of a lot of people there who were gay. It never, ever once for me was wrong. And I think that’s something that you always told me; you were never like, “Oh, that’s weird.”
Jessalynn: No, it’s not.
JoJo: Like, it doesn’t matter. I love the person [who’s like], “If my kid comes out to me as gay, the next thing I’ll do is ask him what he wants for dinner.” I started dating my first girlfriend on January 8th. So what is the difference between January 7th and January 8th for me? There’s none. One, I’m happily in love and dating and have a girlfriend and the other, I’m halfway in love and she’s just not my girlfriend yet. So it’s like, there’s no difference. Nothing changes inside the person that wasn’t already there.
I am so happy to see you live so unabashedly bold as somebody who is in the queer community, but I also wanna shout out to your mom and say it’s equally as important to see a parent be as supportive as you are.
Jessalynn: Thank you. I think kids just wanna feel love from their parents and be accepted and unconditionally able to be themselves no matter what, and that’s what I always tell JoJo: “I love you no matter what.” And I’ve been saying it for 18 years, and I’ll say it for a hundred more.
Jess, what has it been like for you to see her live so boldly, just completely unabashedly out, loud and proud in such a public way?
Jessalynn: You know, I’m so proud of her. I’m so proud of her because she’s so brave. And the world is crazy, and sometimes I’m sure it’s hard to be brave — and it’s hard to be out there and put yourself out there — but she just does it and she loves it, and she’s happy. And it’s really cool, and even as someone that’s older than her, it’s inspiring. To look at somebody so young and so brave… well, we only have one life to live, you know? “Live your best life” is something else we say a lot, and I truly love to see JoJo just living her best life.
JoJo: Thank you.
Jessalynn: You’re welcome.
That’s so sweet. JoJo, what’s your life been like since coming out? You have over 12 million YouTube followers, and I imagine that number surged as soon as you made that statement.
JoJo: Right away it did — it exploded. And I think it’s a thing that a lot of people may’ve been scared of for me, and I was never scared of it myself. I kind of just did [it] and then, if anything, went bad then it went bad and I didn’t care because I was happy, and if I lost everything because of who I love, then so be it.
How aware have you become of the influence that you’re having on LGBTQ+ youth who may not be comfortable with who they are?
JoJo: I think that every kid has a feeling when they’re little and you know how you feel, and you don’t really know how to make what you’re feeling OK. And I think that having somebody to look to, to be like, “Oh, I’m like they are,” is really special, and I love that I get to be that person for a lot of kids.
What advice might you give to a young queer person who’s really struggling with their sexuality?
JoJo: I would say, if you did it a month ago, would you regret it? And depending on the answer, I hope the answer would be no. Because I think sometimes just in the moment it’s scary, but think if you would’ve done it a month ago, would you be OK with it today? And hopefully that answer will be yes. And then I would just say, “So that’s how you’ll feel in one month.”
When it came to coming out publicly, what was the scariest part for you, JoJo, but also for you, Jess?
JoJo: Honestly, there was nothing scary about it for me. I had zero fear of coming out.
Jessalynn: For me, just the unknown. I didn’t ever want to say the wrong thing to JoJo. I don’t mean to say anything wrong or bad; just tell me if I do. And with the pronouns, I’m trying to learn, I’m trying to figure it out.
JoJo: Even somebody like Demi Lovato — there’s somebody who I looked up to since I was a baby, and Demi came out as non-binary this year. Sometimes when we’re talking about Demi, you’ll accidentally say “she.” But Demi actually said, “It’s OK as long as you’re trying.”
This can be personal for a lot of people, but in hopes that maybe this will help other queer youth come out to their parents, would you mind sharing how you came out to your mom?
JoJo: Honestly, I got in the car and my mom said, “You really like her, don’t you?” And this [was] after Ky and I had spent a few nights together. My whole family was there, and it was our last night together, and we kissed. And I said, “Yeah.” And my mom goes, “As a friend or as more than a friend?” And I just said, “As more than a friend.” And my mom then said, “I figured.” [Laughs.]
Jessalynn: [Laughs.] That was like a one-minute conversation.
JoJo: Yeah. It lasted one minute. It was easy. She made it easy on me, and truthfully, I knew my feelings for Ky, but if we didn’t kiss I would’ve just said, “Just as a friend.” Like, it was only because it was so real to me that I was comfortable with fully telling everybody.
What do you remember from that moment, Jess?
Jessalynn: I remember sitting on the Sprinter [Camper] waiting for JoJo to come back and then when she came back and she was crying ’cause she had said goodbye, I knew. And I just remember thinking, “I really need to know.” Like, I just wanted the scoop, but I was afraid. But then before I even knew what I was saying —
JoJo: You were saying it.
Jessalynn: I was saying it. And then it was just simple, and we just carried on. And then you were sad because you were separating and I was like, “Tell her to come to California for the weekend.”
JoJo, you’ve gone through both a public romance and a public breakup. What has that been like for you?
JoJo: Honestly, it’s been a rollercoaster. The good news about it is, I am still best friends with Ky, and she will forever be the first girl that I was ever in love with and the person who made me realize that I was gay and the person who made me so happy, that I was so in love with, that I was head over heels for. And I’m so lucky that even though a romantic relationship ended, our platonic relationship is still there, and our friendship is still there and she’s still one of my best friends.
We talk almost every day still, and she is awesome. So supportive of “Dancing with the Stars” and “Dance Pop.” She loves [the] little kiddos on the show, so they all love her. It’s tricky to navigate because the world always has their own view on things and their own opinion on things, so when the world started speculating [about] things between the two of us, I was checking in with Ky being like, “Hey, you good? You want me to say anything?” So it’s tricky. But one day at a time, and you just keep moving forward.
Dancing with another female partner, Jenna Johnson, on “Dancing with the Stars,” has meant a lot to a lot of queer youth. What has it meant to you?
JoJo: It has meant a lot to me. I think that being paired with another female for the first time ever, first-ever same-sex couple, is such an honor. And I wanna use the word brilliant — it’s so brilliant because love is so accepted and so celebrated that it’s not weird; it’s cool, it’s nice, it’s awesome. And every week Jenna and I are faced with the new challenge of figuring out how to do a new style with two females. But we always get through it, and we always make it out on the other side.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.
Photo by Peacock