Inside YouTube Superstar JoJo Siwa's Glitter-Covered Empire - Rolling Stone
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SPARKLES, BOWS AND MILLIONS OF DOLLARS Inside JoJo Siwa's Glitter-Covered Empire

At 16 years old, the Nickelodeon star has turned reality-TV and YouTube fame into a global brand. Will she be the traditional teen idol machine's saving grace?

On a nondescript, cactus-lined street in Sherman Oaks, California, it’s hard to miss the only house with a unicorn-drawn-carriage and a custom BMW painted like a rainbow race car on its curb.

Inside the house, singer, actress, and YouTube superstar JoJo Siwa is covered in flour, sprinkles, and eggs, filming a scene for JoJo’s Dream Birthday, a one-hour special celebrating her 16th birthday. When it airs six weeks later in May on Nickelodeon, her network home of more than two years, it will be right after the first show of her 81-date headlining D.R.E.A.M. Tour and will rake in over 800,000 viewers across all platforms.

Like Siwa herself, the house is colorful and chaotic. The main room looks like a museum’s special exhibit with her sequined outfits preserved within glass cases. Her kitchen features a wall of candy and a nacho machine. The bannisters are wrapped in rainbow garland leading up to a second floor accented with gummy bear balloons and a giant Siwa-shaped pillow. If you were one of the 17 million people who watched her YouTube vlog about babysitting KimYe’s firstborn North West at Siwa’s home, you’ve seen it before. To confirm the truth for all the suspicious Twitter commenters: This isn’t for show; this is how the Siwa family lives.

Over the last four years, Siwa has built an entire empire off this Gen Z Rainbow Brite aesthetic. Her trademark hair bows, handmade by her mom Jessalyn when JoJo was a budding young dancer, became a fixture on reality television, positioning Siwa as a fierce competitor on Lifetime’s Dance Moms spinoff Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition and later as a scene-stealing diva on the more popular Dance Moms. The bows, sparkles, and showmanship spread to her YouTube channel and were soon marketed globally for the accessories retailer Claire’s.

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It didn’t take long for Nickelodeon to see the potential, and Siwa has quickly become not only their biggest star of all time, but the world’s biggest network-based teen idol since Disney turned Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and the Jonas Brothers into household names. Instead of doing so with just a show, Siwa has become a personality-based brand: She’s peppered across the network, appearing on TV specials, movies, and series while helming her own music career and the animated online series about her and her dog’s fictional adventures, The JoJo & BowBow Show Show.

All the while, she’s racked up 9.7 million YouTube subscribers, high-level brand partnerships with retailers like Target and Michael’s, Tonight Show appearances, and a nearly sold-out first-ever headlining tour. Siwa’s secret to success has been the malleable, elementary school-ready fans — called Siwanatorz — who make up her core fanbase and want to look, dance, and act like her. Earlier this year, Siwa revealed that over 40 million bows had been sold in 2018 alone — Siwanatorz can choose from 7,000 different bows — translating to hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

JoJo Siwa has had one of the weirder fame trajectories of the 21st century: She was built from the brand up and, by design, has reversed decades of teen idol career ascensions where network-assisted fandom manufactured careers. Instead, she herself has become the teen idol influencer for post-Generation Z youth, with toddler-age kids turning her flamboyant fashion sense and unceasingly optimistic outlook into a one-girl, multimillion-dollar industry. Her songs, YouTube vlogs and animated series feel more like carefully executed bonuses rather than her raison d’etre.

“Like That’s So Raven, I can see into the future,” Siwa says, sitting upstairs with the egg and sprinkles already washed out of her ponytail. Specks of flour are still in her nostrils. “It’s nothing weird,” Siwa says about the white powder on her nose. “I just really have the most flour and sugar everywhere, and it’s very itchy.”

“People think that I’m forced to promote things that I promote. It’s a whole load of cupcakes and unicorns.”

“I can see where I wanna be,” she adds. “And I’m working so hard right now so I can get there when I’m older and I can achieve that.” Siwa speaks about herself with the absolute certainty and self-awareness of a star decades older; she lacks the feigned “surprise face” modesty of a teenage Taylor Swift, jumping ahead to the self-referential boldness of a more-established superstar.

What Siwa wants is more fame: She wants the partnerships, the views, the type of pop-star omnipresence that’s almost impossible to achieve nowadays in the absence of a monoculture. She also wants respect. Siwa sees the way people her age and older react to her image; they think she’s younger than she actually is or too old to be covered in rainbows, sequins, and unicorns all the time. Twitter users have a tough time dealing with the tightness of her ponytail and the loud, raspy sound of her voice. Justin Bieber thinks she should burn her custom, face-emblazoned “Dreamer” Beamer car, a Christmas present from her parents. (He later apologized.) Bhad Bhabie thinks she should “suck my dick.” What the “haterz,” as she would spell it, don’t know is that the JoJo Siwa we see is the JoJo Siwa she wants to be.

“A lot of people think that I’m forced into wearing a hair bow, and forced to dress how I dress, and forced to talk how I talk, and forced to promote things that I promote,” she says, clutching her shaky teacup Yorkshire terrier BowBow. To all of that, she eye-rolls with Shirley Temple-like sass: “It’s a whole load of cupcakes and unicorns.”

***

“Picture, like, land for miles and miles and miles,” Siwa says, arms outstretched and voice at typical warp speed. “Green land, very beautiful, but just land. That’s Omaha. That’s Nebraska in general.”

Amidst the “miles and miles” of land, Joelle Joanie Siwa was born in 2003 to Tom, a chiropractor, and Jessalyn, a dance-studio owner. Jessalyn, a dancer herself since age three, says she knew her daughter would be a dancer immediately.

“When my husband would come pick her up at the [dance] studio, she would not want to leave at night,” Jessalyn remembers. “She was two years old; couldn’t even dance or do anything. She was like, ‘I just want to stay with you.’”

When JoJo was one-and-a-half, she began to show off her entertainer side, doing a movement Jessalyn called the “hottie dance” while her mom sprinkled glitter on her. She performed her first solo dance competition at two years old while still wearing a diaper. The song: “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” from Hairspray.

“From then, I literally ran with it,” Jessalyn says, beaming. “We had a CD player in our kitchen, so I would always be making mac and cheese, and [say], ‘Oh, let’s do a dance.’ And she would just do her dance.” Her dancing became so beloved that guests would request to see it. “I would literally wake her up [at night] and she would do her dance,” Jessalyn recalls.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 19: JoJo Siwa and mother Jessalynn Siwa pose as JoJo Siwa hosts a screening of her new Nickelodeon movie "Blurt" at Planet Hollywood Times Square on February 19, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/Getty Images)

JoJo Siwa and mother Jessalynn Siwa in 2018. Photo credit: Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

As JoJo nurtured her talent onstage, Jessalyn sought roads out of Omaha. At an audition for a local community theater production of Annie, JoJo, then five, was too young for any role, but Jessalyn had a pivotal interaction in the waiting room. One of the moms mentioned that another mother had taken her daughter to California to try to become the next Hannah Montana. Jessalyn was livid. ”JoJo’s gonna be the next Hannah Montana,” she remembered thinking. “Why are you telling me this?”

Instead of causing reality-show-level drama, Jessalyn let that anger morph into productivity. “I couldn’t say it out loud, because here I am, this mom in Omaha, Nebraska, trying to maintain my composure, but that was the first moment I was really thinking that,” she says. “To this day, [JoJo and I] joke about it, and I’m like, ‘I really thought you were gonna be Hannah Montana when you were five, and here we are.’”

Jessalyn also primed JoJo outside of the dance studio. Around the same time JoJo performed her first solo, Jessalyn began bleaching her daughter’s hair and wrapping it up in homemade bows. She also home-schooled JoJo, though it was more a product of her daughter’s advanced reading level than preparation for their soon-to-be jet-set lifestyle. JoJo returned to public school briefly, attending third grade for a semester, and it was just enough time for her to figure out the basis of her entire brand: #PeaceOutHaterz.

“My life changed forever,” Siwa says of that semester, striking an atypically somber tone. After witnessing her peers bully a special-needs student, she didn’t immediately question her classmates’ motives. Seeing the student crying at a party later that year, though, changed her. “I will never forget that day for as long as I live,” she says now, dealing with the Biebers and Bhad Bhabies of the world.

JoJo returned to home-schooling, and soon after, the Siwas relaunched their original mission: stardom. Jessalyn saw an open call for Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, an elimination-style show where kids fight for a spot in Dance Moms leader Abby Lee Miller’s dance company. Unbeknownst to JoJo, Jessalyn submitted tapes of her dancing.

“She was one of those rare personalities that I couldn’t stop thinking about,” executive producer Bryan Stinson tells Rolling Stone. Jessalyn and JoJo relocated to Los Angeles while filming the series, and while JoJo placed fifth, the producers saw “raw and unfiltered” catnip for reality-TV fans.

“During shooting, the crew would gather in the control room to watch JoJo’s interviews live because they were so compelling,” Stinson adds. “Producers nicknamed them ‘The JoJo Show’.”

“The crew would gather in the control room to watch JoJo’s interviews live because they were so compelling” – Dance Moms producer Bryan Stinson

The reality competition gave them a taste of fame, but the Siwa women wanted more. JoJo loved being on set every day, seeing how a television series was made. Jess and JoJo left Los Angeles after AUDC, but were soon asked to appear on Dance Moms in spite of her fifth-place finish. On Dance Moms, the behind-the-scenes drama between the imperious stage parents was the center of the series, and like her daughter, Jessalyn became a controversial figure for her cocksure, competitive nature.

On TV, she declared the type of ruthless, fame-hungry thoughts typically left unsaid in Omaha audition waiting rooms, bluntly telling the other moms and dancers when JoJo had bested them during competitions. Miller chided both mother and daughter for their lack of professionalism and line-crossing comments made toward her, the moms, and the other young dancers; JoJo would talk back to Miller, and, during a presumably scripted moment, Jessalyn stole an audition script from one of the other child dancers’ belongings.

The attention given to their villainous onscreen roles, however, led to a need for redemption, with JoJo’s YouTube channel becoming the perfect way to enact that arc. She let viewers into her life as a touring competitive dancer, answering fan questions with total openness and embracing viral food challenges like other kids her age. Simultaneously, JoJo and Jessalyn grew even closer. While filming both series, they shared a one-bedroom apartment in Glendale while Tom stayed in Omaha with JoJo’s older brother, Jayden. (The family reunited in 2017 after Jayden finished high school to live in the colorful Sherman Oaks home.)

“I knew, obviously, that I wanted to be onstage, but I’m from Omaha, Nebraska. That doesn’t really happen out there,” Siwa says. The move out west and early reality-TV fame were always meant to be a springboard for bigger and better things. “When I got the opportunity to be on my first TV show, I ran with it.”

***

While Siwa dominated the stage and reality television, Caryn Sterling, her current manager, was building what she saw as the unique skill set needed to make the dancer into what she is now.

“I’ve often thought about how the stars need to be aligned for all these pieces to come together,” Sterling says. Jessalyn and JoJo met Sterling in spring 2015. At the time, Sterling was selling jewelry created by her daughter. The product was strong, but “the social media wasn’t hitting,” she says. Sterling reached out to a few dancers, including JoJo, for help promoting the jewelry, and she soon listened to JoJo explain her vision of being “the [next] Hannah Montana.”

“I said, ‘Be careful with the choices you make through your teenage years because you’re gonna be famous,’” Sterling recalls.

“She wanted JoJo to be a brand,” Jessalyn adds. “And I’m like, ‘I’m in. Let’s do it.’”

Sterling signed a management contract with Siwa a week after meeting her and quickly made moves for Siwa’s career outside of reality television and dance. JoJo’s YouTube and Instagram followings were thriving thanks to Dance Moms. She also had a signature look: the bows and the Lisa Frank-esque color-vomit fashion sense. Sterling’s history with accessory licensing came in handy for Siwa’s first big business move: a partnership with accessories chain and beloved mall staple Claire’s.

It was an unusual risk: Dance Moms, even in its prime, was still a niche, cable series whose one previous star, Maddie Ziegler, only became famous because of her appearances in Sia’s music videos. Even Siwa’s YouTube channel at the time was relatively small compared to friends she was making like comedian Colleen Ballinger (known for her messy, egotistical character Miranda Sings) and Vine-turned-YouTube superstar menaces Jake and Logan Paul. Siwa just happened to be pitched right when brands, networks, and record labels were learning that the young audiences they were hungry to attract were looking more and more toward social media. She was just beginning to make her mark.

“I never forget where I came from with YouTube,” Siwa says. Along with dancing, it has remained a constant in her career. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.”

Claire’s senior global license buyer Julie Splendoria met with Sterling and the Siwas in November 2015, just a few days after her first call with a persistent Sterling. Splendoria was immediately impressed with the then-13-year-old’s style and personality. She asked H.E.R. Accessories to sign a deal with the Siwas to produce a bow and Claire’s ran a “bow test” in May 2016 to see how they would sell in-store. “The test took off immediately,” Splendoria explains. The runaway success of Siwa’s budding line was near-cosmic timing for the retail chain, as they were beginning to see a downtrend in their typically popular licenses with major motion pictures (Minions, Frozen), characters (Hello Kitty), and entertainers (Justin Bieber, One Direction).

“JoJo came at such a critical moment in time, knowing that kids were so influenced by their phones,” Splendoria continues. According to Splendoria, revenue from the JoJo partnership has exceeded all historical bestselling bands and artists for Claire’s. “I think it really did set the stage for retailers to get behind social media stars in a major way,” Splendoria adds.

Nickelodeon was noticing a similar trend during its consumer products research. “It’s always been that kids admire their parents, admire politicians, best friends, athletes, celebrities,” says Pam Kaufman, president of consumer products at Viacom/Nickelodeon. “All of a sudden, the latest research that came into our room said that next to parents, the most important and influential people in kids’ lives were influencers.”

As Bieber and One Direction grew up, there was “no one serving the tween girl audience,” Kaufman notes, and Nickelodeon and Disney weren’t producing the type of stars they had in the past. At Disney, near-hits like Zendaya and Bella Thorne became better known outside of their work with the once-vital teen star machine. Nickelodeon began trafficking in nostalgia, acquiring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and turning the hit film School of Rock into a television series.

Enter Sterling, who reached out to Nickelodeon around the same time she connected with Splendoria at Claire’s. After the bows took off with Claire’s, Siwa signed a consumer products deal with Nickelodeon that helped her launch a doll, a beverage (JoJo’s Juice, inspired by her weekly Q&A YouTube series of the same name), a clothing line (JoJo’s Closet at Target), her own line of slime, and the continuation of her direct-to-retail accessories deal with Claire’s.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller for Rolling Stone

The products, like JoJo herself, are flamboyantly ostentatious and every little kid’s dream: jackets covered in sequins, bright pinks, unicorns, rainbows, and giant accessories. Like any good influencer in this age, the wearable items are mass-produced versions of what she wears onscreen and onstage. She lives, breathes, and literally drinks her own brand.

“I’m learning so much at a young age that college students don’t know,” Siwa says. She’s in every meeting and has helped develop all of her products, comparing her brand to a kid, much like herself, growing up and maturing. “I watch everything with hawk eyes.”

“I’m learning so much at a young age that college students don’t know. I watch everything with hawk eyes.”

As the JoJo Siwa brand took off, Siwa’s own performing career was still budding. (Her first independently released single, “Boomerang,” has more than 700 million views.) Even with her Nickelodeon product deal, Siwa was technically a free agent and appeared on shows across both Nick and Disney until March 2017, when she finally signed an overall talent deal with Nickelodeon.

Like the former leaders of the tween consumer race that preceded Siwa, her appeal comes down to both relatability and being “mom-approved,” as Splendoria describes. Unlike those before her, she’s not as overtly religious as the Jonas Brothers or as exploitatively hypersexualized as a young Britney Spears or Bieber. Siwa, instead, functions like a saleswoman, proving to the world that the teen dream machine is alive, well and, most importantly, keeping up.

“Now, there’s Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and television. I think that the star-making machine needs to use all of these things hand-in-hand in order to build talent,” Paula Kaplan, Nickelodeon’s head of talent says. “She’s programming her own channel [with YouTube], so to speak. She’s letting people in, which is what the audience wants.”

Programming her own channel also means she can tackle controversies surrounding her business ventures head-on. Eleven days after Claire’s voluntarily recalled a kit from her make-up line following the FDA’s discovery of asbestos in said kit, Siwa posted a minute-long response video on her second YouTube channel, JoJo Siwa TV. She addressed the issue semi-professionally, kicking things off with some ill-advised laughter. Like a real salesperson, however, she was able to further confront criticism of her apology to the controversy with some spin, responding on Twitter: “It does start with a joke because my main audience is kids and I want them to know in life the tough things are easier if you smile.”

 

The first time Nickelodeon wanted to have a meeting, they asked Jessalynn to come without JoJo. The duo have vowed for full business transparency, meaning that no meetings are taken without both mom and daughter present. “We have a policy: There’s no secrets,” Jessalyn says. “I was like, ‘No, we’re not going. That’s not how we do it.’” The booksmart pop star has educated herself on how her brand evolves and where her money goes, taking personal finance classes.

As Kaufman recalls of that first meeting, JoJo sat at the head of the table, taking photos of each slide. The teenager even went to London to meet with Nickelodeon’s trend team, an in-house collective that keeps the network up to date on its audience’s taste, to “refine and define her look.” She actively works with Nickelodeon’s in-house stylist Arturo Chavez on creating each custom outfit, which in turn is translated to the JoJo’s Closet line for Target so that her fans can look like her.

“She’s been in every business conversation since day one” – Pam Kaufman, president of consumer products at Viacom/Nickelodeon

“She’s been in every business conversation since day one,” Kaufman says. It’s been a new way of working with a Nickelodeon star, but the network has also never had a live person achieve this level of consumer-product success. “She’s extremely involved in the design. She wants to understand why one T-shirt sold better than another. She wants to understand how her products are being distributed across retail [and] how it’s being promoted.”

Debra Rathwell, senior vice president at AEG Live, had a similar experience as the team began planning Siwa’s forthcoming tour. “When you’re creating a show, you have a wish list, and you put them all on a sheet and [AEG will] evaluate them financially,” she explains, noting that decisions like that are not typically made with the young stars Rathwell works with. “Like all things, you can’t have them all. She thought this was so important, how these decisions were gonna get made, that she called. We had a conference call with JoJo, the designer and the director, Nickelodeon, and ourselves. We talked through each and every one.”

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 09: (L-R) Ryan Romulus, North West, JoJo Siwa, Penelope Disick and guest attend JoJo Siwa's Sweet 16 Birthday celebration at W Hollywood on April 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

(L-R) Ryan Romulus, North West, JoJo Siwa, Penelope Disick and guest attend JoJo Siwa’s Sweet 16 Birthday celebration in 2019. Photo credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Siwa’s hands-on approach makes her entire team less concerned about her growing up faster than her audience and partnerships would be prepared for. “One of the conversations I had with Caryn [Sterling] is that we can’t get way down the road, then all of sudden she gets up and decides she’s gonna be Britney Spears, because we’re entertaining four- to 11-year-olds,” Rathwell remembers of an initial tour meeting. Sterling was convincingly reassuring, confirming that Siwa’s role as a children’s entertainer is something the 16-year-old loves.

“You can see that with how she interacts with all these kids,” Rathwell continues. “It’s really sincere. And she built that by being herself.”

“I’m so loyal to all things,” she says, sounding like a teenage Tony Soprano. “I wore the same ponytail for four years straight. I’m loyal to people. I’m loyal to companies. I’m loyal to everyone who has ever helped me out in my life.”

Small changes are already being made to help her grow up as needed; her stylist has started introducing touches of black to her wardrobe. JoJo’s taste is even shifting: she became obsessed with Queen and Freddie Mercury after seeing Bohemian Rhapsody last year. Since her first viewing, she has watched the film nine times.

“The thing with Freddie is that he was unapologetically himself,” she explains. The only non-JoJo Siwa decoration in her whole house is a vinyl copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits, which sits on the mantel above the second-floor fireplace.

“He was a gay immigrant,” she recites from her research. “He did not belong. Kids, when he was in school, called him Bucky because of his teeth. To me, he was perfect, and I would love him, and I would be his best friend if he was still here today. He was just himself, and no one else will ever be him, because he’s just such an icon.”

Since seeing BoRhap, as she refers to it, and meeting Elton John after one of his concerts last year, she’s become infatuated with the legendary artists. On her tour, she now performs a medley of Queen hits, ending at an ostentatious red-, white- and blue-striped piano for “We Are the Champions.” Her fandom has come with backlash: People complained about her vocal skills after she posted a video of herself singing “Radio Ga Ga” with decidedly less range than her hero. Siwa is on a mission to once again prove everyone wrong; her priority at the moment is music.

“Today’s music that is being released is not music. It’s not true music,” she complains. “There’s no instruments that are being played in it. People have phenomenal vocals, but it’s not true music. Music back in the Eighties, Seventies, and Nineties, they didn’t have the technology, so they had to do real music. And they were musicians. They were incredible.”

Not quite getting the irony of her own statement given most of Siwa’s music is candy-coated synth-pop with the sole purpose of being a kid-friendly version of “today’s music,” she adds that she wants to go into the “real music” direction. “I literally sleep with a piano on my bed,” she says, most likely referring to a smaller keyboard she was given for Christmas a couple years ago. “I do see myself going into more musical music that will be timeless.”

***

Siwa announced her tour last November at New York’s Sugar Factory, a candy-centric restaurant known for celebrity endorsements and partnerships with other business-minded stars like the Kardashian-Jenners and Drake. The fans, wearing bright-pink bows, tutus, and sequins and dancing to her then-new single “D.R.E.A.M.,” stood no higher than Siwa’s knees. Backstage, she drank a Red Bull-based mocktail full of gummy worms and dry ice in a comically large Sugar Factory chalice. It’s what Siwa has always dreamed of: being admired by kids the same age she was when Hannah Montana aired on Disney and built the template for her own goals.

Siwa spends one hour a day filming and two hours editing her YouTube videos, practicing the piano in her rare free time. After filming her special, she went straight into rehearsals for her tour, which started out as theaters-only before AEG added amphitheaters and arenas to accommodate growing demand.

At her televised party, Siwa surrounds herself with few people her own age: Kardashian babies North West and Penelope Disick run around with the other influencer toddlers; people pause for photo ops with Abby Lee Miller; drag superstar Alyssa Edwards helps roll out a disturbing cake made to look like the 16-year-old’s head. Siwa spends the candy-filled, bright-pink shoot corralling the kids to dance with her for each take in between breathless rounds of meeting and posing with young fans. On her actual birthday, she performed for a sold-out Los Angeles audience and then celebrated with her best friends, a crew of people from Omaha that she has kept in touch with since she moved to L.A.

Siwa acknowledges what could become of her. “A lot of child stars have their breakout moment because there’s a point where you could feel trapped,” she says. “I don’t, personally, ever. But I can see where there would be.”

For her, it’s the in-between moments she savors. More important, she admires the fact that she’s here, doing this, because, as she emphasizes with no prompting, it’s what she wants. She even made a Notes app promise to the parents of her Siwanatorz to always be a family-friendly role model.

“I love what I do, but I think a lot of people are in it at such a young age, and they didn’t really have the choice, and they don’t genuinely love it,” she says. “I genuinely love it.”

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