Rachel Murray/Getty Images
Rachel Murray/Getty Images
Never heard of JoJo Siwa? You may need more youth in your life.
Ask most card-carrying members of Generation Z about JoJo, she of the ever-present bow bow (she has more than 1,000 of her trademark accessories, even sleeping with one at night), and they’ll tick off her accomplishments: nine singles, including the platinum hit, “Boomerang,” a YouTube channel that boasts more than 9 million subscribers, an exclusive licensing deal with Nickelodeon and enough branded merchandise with retailers such as Claire’s, Walmart, Target, Payless and Amazon to place her net worth close to $12 million.
Not to mention her new role as Kim Kardashian‘s bestie. When the Nebraska native discovered the reality doyenne’s 5-year-old daughter North West was a fan, she sent over a caseload of bows and other branded products, sparking a dialogue that led to them filming a video for Siwa’s popular YouTube channel in which she “pretend” babysat the elementary schooler, helping her make glittery slime, playing hide-and-seek and hosting a dance party. And if Siwa has her way it’ll be the start of a long relationship with the Keeping Up With the Kardashians star.
North and 6-year-old cousin Penelope Disick were among the guests at Siwa’s 16th birthday bash, captured by Nickelodeon’s cameras for Saturday night’s special, JoJo’s Dream Birthday. Not to mention, the multi-hyphenate has already met Kanye West, when she found herself rehearsing next to his stage, and she basically has his wife on speed dial.
“You don’t understand, me and Kim, we probably text, like, five times a day,” she told E! News before picking up her Favorite Social Music Star trophy at Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards in March. “Kim is so sweet, so nice, so normal, so down-to-earth.” After Siwa agreed to FaceTime with North, “She was like, ‘Thank you so much. I know people ask you for things all the time,'” the YouTube personality shared. “I was like, you’re just so sweet and so normal. It was crazy. They’re just, they’re awesome people.”
When Kim Kardashian is thanking you for taking time out of your busy schedule, well, you’ve definitely made it.
But Siwa insists she’s nowhere near her peak. She’s determined to expand her lines even further, eager to brand a trampoline (“Jumping on my face would be really fun,” she told Kidscreen last summer) and ink a deal with Kraft Mac & Cheese “because I want to eat my face. I want them to be JoJo shaped.” Beyond that, she told the site, “I’ve done a Nickelodeon movie [last February’s Blurt], but I want to do a big-screen movie. And a full album.”
Lofty ambitions for someone who just earned the right to drive today, but the homeschooled star (“I was too smart for school. When I was in kindergarten, I got tested and I was smart enough to be in third grade,” she told Justine Magazine) is already more than a decade deep into her career. “It’s taken me since I was two-years-old,” she shared during a 2017 appearance on Live With Kelly and Ryan. “I’ve been doing this for a million years.”
That’s right around when mom Jessalyn Siwa, owner of Just Dance Co. in Omaha, began bleaching the toddler’s locks and stocking up on bedazzled lycra and hair extensions, determined to do what it took to achieve her end goal for her little girl.
“I would say it’s my mission in life to make JoJo a star,” she declared on the second season of Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, the vehicle that served as the mother-daughter duo’s big break. The series’ youngest contestant at only 9-years-old, Siwa has since admitted the 2013 experience performing for notoriously hard-nosed dance instructor Abby Lee Miller was a struggle.
Courtesy of Hallmark Channel
“The dances were hard, by the way,” she shared in her 2017 book, JoJo’s Guide to the Sweet Life. “We had only two days to learn each one—and only two hours with the choreographer each day.”
She ultimately placed fifth, but emerged a big winner, her impressive moves (“I am pretty good in rehearsal and then, like, fabulous on stage,” she declared on the show) and overall state of being extra earning her a guest spot on Miller’s flagship show Dance Moms. She was only supposed to stick around one week, but, as Jessalyn has said, “It’s not her fault she’s a star.”
Seven days turned into two seasons and by the time mother and daughter exited stage left—purportedly annoyed that Siwa was being asked to perform a ballet number—the tiny diva was primed for stardom.
“One of the biggest things that I ever learned from Dance Moms was either to sink or swim,” she shared with Ripa. “Not, like, physically, actually in a swimming pool. But to really just be able to survive and to want it.”
As a Dance Moms cast member, she shared in JoJo’s Guide to the Sweet Life, most of her week was consumed with rehearsals at the studios in both Pittsburgh and L.A. “We filmed Tuesday through Saturday and each day had a specific purpose,” she wrote. “Tuesday was interview day. Each interview took about two hours. Wednesday was Pyramid. Thursdays we had rehearsal and Friday we had rehearsal in the morning, then traveled to wherever our competition was that weekend. Then Saturday, of course, was competition day!”
With some 40 hours of her week back, she suddenly had time to devote to her other ventures—namely, the YouTube channel she launched in 2015 to share house tours, hair tutorials, dance lessons and her long-held dream of turning her signature bow-adorned side pony into an accessories line.
“My manager literally just called Claire’s and was like, ‘I need to speak with corporate,’ and wiggled her way in,” Siwa recalled to AdAge of how the 2016 release came to pass. “Then she got hold of this girl and asked her the next time she was in California to let us know and she was like, ‘Well, actually, I am flying out tomorrow.’ But then she said her schedule is full so maybe we could do it the next time. And my manager was like, ‘Actually, we’ll just meet you in the lobby of your hotel, where are you staying?'”
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The accessories brand, beloved by middle school-aged girls the world over, agreed to do a test run in 100 stores, eventually upping it to placement in all 3,500 locations. “They took a really, really big chance on me,” admitted Siwa. “And I am so grateful for them because without them it wouldn’t be what it is today.”
Their gamble paid off. And as the star’s devoted Siwanators scooped up her brightly-colored bows—a November Viacom article pegged her sales at 35 million worldwide—Nickelodeon took notice, signing her to an exclusive multi-platform licensing deal that has her performing at network events such as the Kids’ Choice Awards and SlimeFest, producing her own docu-special about her life, JoJo Siwa: My World, starring in an animated series, The JoJo and BowBow Show Show with her dog and hosting two seasons of Lip Sync Battle Shorties with Nick Cannon.
Now she’s balancing work at the network with her burgeoning career as a pop star. She released her debut “Boomerang” in May 2016, following it up with 2017’s “Kid in a Candy Store” and “I Can Make U Dance” and 2018’s “High Top Shoes” and “D.R.E.A.M.”
“I go into the songwriting with all of the songwriters and I sit down and I go, ‘I want to write a song about positivity and finding positives when there’s negatives,'” she told Justine Magazine of the process. “And then we all come up and we’re all thinking of ideas and then someone will go, ‘What about if we did something candy-themed,’ and I go, ‘Oh my gosh, I love candy, that’s perfect.’ So we all work together as a team, which is awesome.”
With nine singles under her hot pink belt, Siwa announced plans to visit 24 North American cities for her D.R.E.A.M. The Tour, starting with Friday’s show in Phoenix, but when the venture sold out in just a few hours, she revealed she’d be adding 28 more dates to the relief of disappointed hair bow-wearing tweens everywhere.
Through it all, she hasn’t forgotten about the YouTube channel that helped her get her start. Eager to hit the coveted 10 million mark, she told Kidscreen, she remains dedicated to creating content, continuing her trend of some nine new videos a week.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
“I think what happens with those YouTubers is not that they think they’re big enough that they need to stop. I think what happens is they grow and get a TV show, and that takes up a lot of time and so does YouTube,” she noted.
“YouTube is a full-time job because you’re filming all day, editing all night, creating thumbnails, keeping content fun and exciting. So it’s not necessarily that YouTubers want to stop doing it, it’s that there’s literally no time. I’ve been in that place before, but I’ve had to keep doing it because I love YouTube. It’s my passion and I want to do it forever, so I always make sure I upload. Even today, I got back to my room at midnight last night and I would have had to edit, and that would have taken until 2 a.m. and I had a 9 a.m. call time, so instead I did a livestream today.”
And don’t forget about her merchandise, which fills an entire room in her glitter- and rainbow-filled L.A. mansion with clothing, dolls, party plates, Lava Putty Glitt-a-Goo, nail polish and LUNCH KITZ lining the walls. Her bedroom is a shrine to her bedding line and, in the kitchen, Jo Jo-themed decals cover the white cupboards above her nacho machine and life-size posters hang next to her beloved claw game machine.
From the Payless sequined high tops to the JoJo action figure doll sold at Walmart (which spent several weeks this summer at the number one spot in sales, topping both Barbie and My Little Pony) to her Target clothing, any Siwa-themed items are hard to keep on the shelves. “A normal collection typically stays on the floor for six to eight weeks,” noted Leah Kellenberger, Viacom’s vice president of retail development for Target. “Many styles sold out in the first couple weeks. It completely exceeded expectations.”
Asked to riff on her appeal, the teenager is admittedly a bit at a loss, telling Kidscreen, “I was thinking about this last night: ‘Why me? Why am I so big?’ It’s so crazy. Maybe it’s that I’m relatable, I’m a kid. I think that has to be what it is.”
And if that’s the case, she’s feeling confident in her longevity. “My audience is going to grow with me. As I turn 16, my fans are going to turn 12, etc. So I don’t think that I’ll age out of them. I think that we can all grow up together. I think we can be friends for life.”
It’s pretty much a dream existence for any 15-year-old, but the for the multi-lingual star (she speaks Spanish, Korean and Russian), her goals extend far behind total tween domination. Watching a student get bullied during a semester-long stint in elementary school inspired her to speak out against the haters.
“I remember the first day I went there, the kids were like, ‘Don’t hang out with Lucy we don’t like her, she’s weird,’ and I was like, that’s not okay,” Siwa shared on Live With Kelly and Ryan, using a pseudonym for her fellow third grader. “And then at the end of the year, we had a big ice cream party and it depended on how good you did in math, how much ice cream you got and, you know, she was special needs and she didn’t get anything. She had a bowl of whipped cream. And I am very advanced in school and so I had everything that you could possibly have and it was an unlimited ice cream buffet and so I was like, ‘I don’t want mine. I want to give it to her.’ And so that was really the first time I realized, you know, I want to make a change in this because it’s not okay.”
Jesse Grant for Buca di Beppo
As for those that dare drag her, she’s got enough confidence to let it roll right off. When Justin Bieber commented on a photo of her custom airbrushed red, turquoise and purple BMW convertible, instructing her to “burn it,” she turned his diss into her new catch phrase, and instructed that all would be forgiven should he perform at her 16th birthday party.
And for the keyboard warriors attacking everything from her upbeat persona to her receding hairline (hey, you try scraping your locks into a tight side pony for more than a decade), she meets their insults with a definitive shrug—plus a block for good measure.
“When I look in the mirror, I know that my hairline makes me who I am, it makes me special,” she shared on The Today Show. “We all have something about us that we don’t like. I think we should all end up loving what we don’t like.”
Besides, did you film a hotly anticipated YouTube clip with North West?
After shrewdly sending the pint-sized influencer a package, Siwa was thrilled when she saw Kardashian had posted about her gift on her Instagram story.
“I responded to it and she DM-ed me and she was like, ‘She loves you,'” Siwa told E! News. “And I was like, ‘If she ever wants to do a video or you want me to come surprise her, like, I’d love to do anything fun. Here’s my number, text me.”
The teen awoke to a message from the KKW Beauty founder the next morning informing her North was in and after a quick FaceTime session, everything was planned. “It’s gonna be incredible,” Siwa vowed of the video that she conceptualized herself. “North West hasn’t really been on the Internet before and on one has really met her personality yet, so it’s going to be really, really fun. Kim says she’s super excited, so I’m excited.”
About working with North and everything her career has turned into, really. “It is crazy, crazy, crazy that this is my life,” she remarked to AdAge. “I know this is what I’ve always wanted—I wanted to be Hannah Montana—but it’s crazy that this is my reality. I am a kid from Nebraska, I followed my dreams and these are my dreams I’m living now. It’s just really cool I believed in myself, my family, my friends they all believed in me and now look at what I’m doing.”