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Whatever you thought you knew about JoJo Siwa is, well, probably correct. That said, it’s probably not the entirety of what you should know about JoJo Siwa. The singer/dancer/actress/personality has always been an open book, sharing her authentic self with the world as a child star, first on the popular Dance Moms series, then as a Nickelodeon staple.

“I feel like I built my brand based off of genuinely who I was at the time,” she tells SoundExchange days before her 21st birthday. “The rainbows and the unicorns and the bows and slime and the sparkles – everything was true. Everything was true to myself. The only thing that wasn’t, was my love for candy. I never really loved candy as much as people thought I did. But that was the only thing that I sold or made myself believe that wasn’t actually true.”

Cut to today, and the iconic children’s performer is showing the world what is true to herself now.

Siwa – who came out in 2021 through a series of TikTok and Instagram posts, including one video of her dancing to Lady Gaga’s LGBTQ+ anthem “Born This Way” – is growing up and embracing everything that means in her life and her career. Earlier this year, she released “Karma,” her debut single not aimed at a children’s audience, which was accompanied by a music video featuring her in a black mesh bodysuit and makeup reminiscent of glam rockers KISS.

“People think that my brand was pink and rainbow and sparkles, and now my brand is bad girl and scary makeup and humping the air,” she says. “But really, my brand has always just been to entertain and to figure out what works, what’s going to sell, and to RUN with it.”

I think that I am just someone that is unafraid of making art and being an artist,” she continues. “And it’s what I’ve always wanted to do, who I’ve always wanted to be.”

But don’t think that Siwa is burning down or rejecting her past. As the release of “Karma” approached, she says she took great pains to ensure that her grown up, edgy content wouldn’t be mixed with her children’s fare.

“It was very, very important to me that ‘Karma’ didn’t go on the same Spotify that ‘Kid in a Candy Store’ was on because there are still little kids that are either listening to my stuff or just discovering my stuff,” she explains. “And I don’t want them to hear what they’re not supposed to yet.”

Illustrating that point, Siwa shares a recent discussion with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, of which she is a longtime supporter, about kids who requested to spend time with her.

“I asked them, ‘Can you tell me what ages these kids are?’ so that way I know if it’s a 16-year-old or a six-year-old. It’s a little bit of a different what their wish is, who their wish is to hang out with, you know?”

“And they were like, ‘All of them are six and younger.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, we are going to put a bow in our hair. We are going to go and we’re going to hang out. And we’re going to go get ice cream, we’re going to make slime together, and we can have a great day.’ Because you know, especially in that situation, like I want those kids to feel extra special and extra good and meet the JoJo that they want to meet. Even though at this point now doing that, I would be playing a character, it’s for kids. Kids are my favorite thing ever.”

As a creator who literally grew up in the entertainment industry, Siwa remarkably avoided pitfalls that have derailed the lives of other child stars. For that, she credits her mother for always looking out for her.

“Looking at my childhood and growing up in the industry, I realized what a damn good mom I have, because she protected me from everything and everyone she needed to,” Siwa says.

My mom was really my ride-or-die, with me every day. Even I don’t mess with that girl. She’s terrifying. And so, no one messed with her.”

To explain, Siwa recalls an incident with a Nickelodeon -related shoot when she was just 13 years old.

“There was an open bar on the set and my mom said, ‘Absolutely not,’ and ripped me off the set,” she says. “And I didn’t understand at the age. I was like, ‘Mom, what the heck? Now that director’s not going to like me.’ And she was like, ‘That director’s drinking and that lighting operator’s drinking. And if that light falls on your head, you know what happens to you?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right.’ Like, my mom had her shit together so much. But yeah, my hardships were nowhere near what other child stars have had to go through.”

With her mom as her guide, Siwa has accumulated more than a decade of entertainment industry experience. More recently, she has been applying what she’s learned and has become comfortable calling the shots for herself.

“The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is at the end of the day, it is my career and my life that a lot of people are working on,” she says. “No matter how many people work on it, no matter how many opinions people have, it is my career.”

After years of super-serving the children’s entertainment market, Siwa’s pivot to adult themes hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The initial reception to “Karma” was mixed and opened her to a fair amount of negative reactions online. But from the outside, the eternally positive performer has seemed, well, eternally positive. When asked how she copes with it, Siwa admits that it’s not always easy to be on the receiving end of such negativity.

“In the Wicked trailer, somebody [asks] Glinda, ‘How does Elphaba not care that people are talking about her and making fun of her?’ And Glinda said, ‘She does. She just doesn’t show it.’ That hit me like a ton of bricks because I was like, ‘That’s what I’ve been feeling,’” Siwa says. “And Gwen Stefani said this quote where she said, ‘Everyone has their shit. Mine’s just really public.’ And I was like, “That. That’s what I’m feeling.”

When it comes to “Karma,” perhaps Siwa has little to be insecure about. Less than two months after its release, “Karma” has racked up more than 40 million views on YouTube, 10 million of which came in the first two days. “That’s crazy,” she admits.  And in the end, her positive persona is more important and more rewarding than any negativity that might get directed her way. 

“I’ve learned that no matter how I’m feeling, I have the power to make others feel a certain way. And I have had a lot of people come to me and say that my ‘confidence is better because of you’ or ‘the way that you aren’t insecure about anything made me not insecure about anything,’” she continues. “And that to me means so much that somehow. I mean, I was gifted the ability to make other people feel that way.”

Since coming out, Siwa has found herself to be something of an LGBTQ+ icon. Throughout June she’ll be appearing at Pride festivals in the U.S. and abroad. “I’m so excited,” she says. “It’s going to be so fun. We’re joking around right now that we’re going on tour [because] we’re going to L.A. Pride, Chicago Pride, Pittsburgh Pride, London Pride. I’m so happy.”

Asked if she has any advice for others who might be struggling with their identity, Siwa is introspective and encouraging.

“Everyone has their own journey,” she says. “But for me personally, coming out was the greatest thing I ever did. You can be happy. You can be open with the people that you love now. And it’s not something to be afraid of because it does it does get better.”