A few years ago, JoJo Siwa emerged as a child prodigy on the reality show ‘Dance Moms’, known for her copper-colored one-liners, rapid-fire pirouettes and rainbow-colored ensembles with huge hair bows.
Today, 18-year-old Siwa is about to return to dance reality TV – as a budding queer idol. After coming out earlier this year, she will be part of the first same-sex partnership on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Her wardrobe hasn’t changed much.
“When I came out, people were like, ‘How didn’t you see this coming? She’s always literal been a walking Pride flag!’” said Siwa. “It’s the best compliment.”
In many ways, Siwa remains the same playfully outrageous person that fans first encountered on “Dance Moms.” But in the intervening years, she’s built an empire on her glitter-and-rainbows star power.
Siwa now has 36.4 million followers on TikTok, 10.9 million on Instagram and 12.3 million on YouTube, where her song “Boomerang” approaching 1 billion views. She has headlined an arena tour and recently appeared in TV series and movies “The J Team”, a film she also executive produced. She was listed as one of GLAAD’s 20 under 20 for 2021, and one of The most influential people of the time by 2020. She has sold over 80 million of her signature hair bows.
From the start, legions of preteen girls bought into Siwa’s positive messages against bullying. Since coming out, she has started talking more directly with people her age, who had dismissed her as childish things. She’s heading to the 30th season of “Dancing With the Stars,” which premieres Monday, with all those fans — aka Siwanatorz — in tow.
“She’s like a living, breathing Mirrorball Trophy,” said Andrew Llinares, an executive producer of “Dancing With the Stars,” referring to the grand prize. “She’s colorful in the way she looks, but she’s also colorful in her personality and her appearance. She’s just an amazing kind of creature.’
Siwa grew up immersed in dance. Her mother, Jess, ran a dance studio in the Siwas’ hometown, Omaha. Jess had JoJo in competitions when she was just 2, the toddler’s costumes hid her diaper. “She could spin like it was no one’s business, and her presence was unreal,” Jess said. “She would just captivate people.”
Making JoJo a star in the form of Hannah Montana, the Disney Channel character played by Miley Cyrus, quickly became the goal. “I didn’t know Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana were two completely different people,” JoJo said. “Hannah Montana was the only human that existed before me, and she was glitter and sparkle and a rock star, and I just wanted to be that human.”
In 2013, 9-year-old JoJo earned a spot in the “Dance Moms” spin-off “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition.” Soon, JoJo and Jess joined the main cast of “Dance Moms”. While she wasn’t the strongest dancer on the show — she routinely landed at the bottom of its signature pyramid rankings — JoJo’s candor and unabashed confidence made her a natural reality TV.
“Dance Moms” offered JoJo a measure of fame, but limited control over her image. In 2015, she started a YouTube channel, which she described as a way to show her true self. “As a 12-year-old I was editing 10 videos a week, which is wild,” said JoJo. “But it was just my favorite, because I was in charge and I had freedom.”
Millions of followers outside the ‘Dance Moms’ universe started tuning in to her share the contents of her taco print dance bag and making pink slime without using her arms. It was a celebrity rooted in its own eccentricities and enthusiasm, without forming a teen idol-generating venture. “In traditional media, there’s a kind of production of stardom,” said Earnest Pettie, the culture and trends leader at YouTube. “But by coming to social media, JoJo was able to claim her voice for herself, tell her own story.”
As her audience grew, JoJo became a crusader against bullying and encouraged her young fans to be themselves, haters get darn it. That positivity, in its glossy bow-top packaging, proved highly marketable. And JoJo turned out to be a savvy businesswoman, taking a hands-on approach to her lines of bows, dolls, and clothing. (Jess proudly described 13-year-old JoJo holding the court in a room full of Walmart executives.)
But despite earning the adoration of 6- to 10-year-olds, she faced increasingly toxic online bullying from fellow teens. “I’ve never really had childhood friends my own age,” she said. “But teenagers hated me. I mean, literally hated me.” From the perspective of her opponents, she looked like a fake, forced to constantly live in a lucrative character created when she was 9.
She wouldn’t be the only “Dance Moms” cast member to feel trapped in amber. Zackery Lennon Torres, who identified as a boy when she competed in “Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition” and “Dance Moms” as a young teen, came out as a transgender woman this spring. Now 22, she said she “paused” her feelings about gender and sexual identity during her years with the franchise, which had specific ideas about what gender roles Torres would play.
“I didn’t have time to think about where I was growing as a person,” Torres said. “After I left the show and went back to high school, I had to figure out that I wanted a boyfriend. What does it mean to come out? Who am I?”
Siwa, who overlapped a bit with Torres on “Dance Moms,” is quick to express sympathy for her. But Siwa claims that her experience with “Dance Moms” didn’t stifle or change her, nor did her ensuing fame.
“Nothing I’ve ever done is something I didn’t want to do,” she said. “If I wanted to create an alternate identity, I could – it would be easy. Not me. This is me.”
However, since the quarantine, a new sense of vulnerability and transparency has emerged for Siwa’s online presence. On TikTok her messages were winking self-conscious. “I started showing people like, hey, I know you’re kidding me, but guess what? I’m a game!” she said. “They met a human that they might really like. After she turned 18 in May, she started experimenting with lights toned look, giving the hair bows a rest.
Siwa came out and introduced her friend, Kylie Prew An series by messages in January and February – an undeniably honest moment that was overwhelmingly greeted with cheers. (She’s still figuring out how best to describe her sexuality; for now, she said, she’s going for “queer, because it covers, and it’s cute.”) She’s denied her homophobic trolls.
“I want to be a role model for people who love love,” she said. “I don’t want to be a role model for people who think being gay is wrong. I don’t need those people in my corner.”
Although Siwa’s ambitions extend to music, acting and production, her ‘Dancing With the Stars’ turn comes at a particularly dance-oriented moment in her career. Her new movie “The J-Team” revolves around a dance team and she is the choreographer in the upcoming streaming series “Siwa Dance Pop Revolution”, a collaboration with her mother. “Dance has always been my home,” she said.
“Dancing With the Stars” will help bring Siwa the dancer and Siwa the queer role model together in the public imagination. (There’s been some grumbling online about her dancing background, giving her an unfair advantage on the show, but “Dancing” often features trained dancers in the star line-up.) When the “Dancing” team first approached her earlier this year, they asked if she would like to perform with a male or a female pro. “L straight away chose a woman,” she said. “How cool is it that I can be the first, that I can write history and inspire people in this way? That is huge.”
It is enormous. And in some encouraging ways, it isn’t. “Dancing” follows in the footsteps of its BBC cousin “Strictly Come Dancing”, who had his first same-sex partnership last year, and the Danish “Dancing With the Stars”, which has already awarded his Mirrorball Trophy to a man-man duo. Since 2019, the National Dance Council of America, the official governing body of traditional ballroom dancing in the United States, has defined a couple in ballroom as “a leader and follower without regard to the gender or gender of the dancer.”
Once seen as stuck in time, Siwa now helps network TV keep up with the times. And her Siwanatorz? They’re already caught up.
“I think the best part,” Torres said, “will be seeing these young kids dancing with a girl on TV without even sleeping a wink.”