By Jamie Lauren Keiles
August 22, 2019

Upstairs at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, little girls were bouncing in like grounders, but JoJo Siwa knew how to field them. She caught their smartphone cameras in her right hand, scooped in their tiny shoulders with her left. The girls cracked smiles. They squinted. They screamed. Siwa bared her own teeth, looked into the front-facing lens and took a photo. “Awesome!” she said, and moved on to the next. At this particular meet and greet, arranged for the children of Viacom executives, she’d average about eight selfies per minute.

Siwa, 16, has spaghetti blond hair and a voice like a wooden roller-coaster track–fun but rough, with unexpected undulations. She began her rise to fame around 2015 as a hammy preteen with a machinating mom on the Lifetime reality-TV series Dance Moms. Since then, a talent deal with Nickelodeon has crowned her America’s most famous children’s entertainer–a singular star with more spunk than Shirley Temple and the merchandizing power of both Olsen twins. Arguably, Siwa’s main career is as a singer, though what sets her apart from the earlier child stars is the relative equanimity of her pursuits and the way they’ve been stitched together to perpetuate one another, using her online presence as a thread. On YouTube, Siwa has 10 million subscribers, mostly grade-school kids and preteen girls who listen to her music, consume her lifestyle content and beg for the hundreds—thousands?—of products featured throughout both. When JoJo Siwa passes through your town—and she might on her JoJo Siwa D.R.E.A.M. the Tour—sales of her signature hair-bow line at Claire’s could spike up to 60%. In an age when more than one-third of kids rank social-media stars as role models, according to market-research firm Mintel, she’s managed to be herself in a way that’s both earnest and lucrative.

The line at that day’s meet and greet showed JoJo Siwa T-shirts in endless permutations: a purple JoJo shirt with a large JoJo head, a gray JoJo shirt with a small JoJo head, a black JoJo shirt with four JoJos in a row.

“I like your dress,” Siwa said, posing with a girl in a rainbow JoJo outfit. That girl was replaced by one more, wearing yet another printed likeness of the star.

JoJo Siwa began her rise to fame around 2015 on the Lifetime reality TV series Dance Moms.
Charlotte Rutherford for TIME

Siwa stooped to meet the smaller image of her face. “Awesome!” she said, and snapped a photo. Nearly every picture of Siwa with a fan was also a picture of Siwa with herself. While other child stars were not girl, not yet woman, Siwa made it clear: She was both girl and brand.

Joelle Joanie Siwa was born in Omaha in 2003, the year Mister Rogers died. Her father Tom was a chiropractor. Her mother Jessalynn, the granddaughter of ballroom owners, operated her own dance school. (Both have since retired and now work for JoJo in different capacities.) Practically speaking, JoJo danced out of the womb. “I just knew from about the time she was like 1 1/2; that she was really special because I’d seen a lot of kids,” Jessalynn says. “She just liked being onstage, and everyone liked to watch her. I just took it and ran.”

Home videos online show JoJo onstage beginning at age 2: pirouetting in a sequined flapper dress, modeling a swimsuit in a pageant, performing a cheesecake routine to Nat King Cole. Her grace is occluded by her preschool motor skills, but the talent for winning a crowd is evident. Jessalynn choreographed JoJo’s solo routines for local dance recitals. She took her to community theater auditions, believing in JoJo’s intrinsic specialness, even throughout a long string of rejections. Looking back, it’s hard to discern what might have underscored such blind faith in her daughter. A stage mom with a dream denied seems too easy. “I mean, everybody thinks their kid is going to be famous,” Jessalynn says. In this case, it just happened to work out.

In 2012, when JoJo was 9, Jessalynn submitted JoJo’s solo dance routine to Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition, a short-lived Lifetime reality show in which children competed for $100,000 and a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet. “I was like, ‘O.K., I’ll just send a tape in,'” Jessalynn says. Producers got in touch the same day, and JoJo joined the cast for Season 2, making a splash as a mouthy microdiva enlivened by the series’ manufactured showbiz drama. “There were ups and downs with doing that show,” Jessalynn says now. “When we were having hard times, I was like, ‘God, I didn’t even ask her really if she wanted to do this show.’ But she loved it so much.”

The show was not renewed for Season 3, but soon both mother and daughter were recruited for roles on the network’s flagship franchise, Dance Moms. A minor Siwa diaspora ensued: Tom stayed in Omaha with JoJo’s brother Jayden, while Jessalynn and JoJo transplanted to L.A. In Jessalynn’s eyes, this was the first big “level up.” They took the chance without hesitation. “I think we kind of made a conscious decision when we were doing Dance Moms. I was like, ‘Let’s just make it fun.'”

On Dance Moms, the Siwas carved out roles as tacky arrivistes with way too much ambition. Sure, the other dancers were capable onstage, but offstage, JoJo couldn’t seem to turn it off. The word obnoxious got thrown around a lot. Host Abby Lee Miller called her a “greedy little monster” but still gave her the show’s rotating participation honor—a place at the top of the Dance Moms pyramid. Jessalynn leaned into the stage-mom archetype, dressing her daughter in foofy handmade bows, partly to drum up some narrative tension. “Abby would say, ‘She can’t wear a bow tomorrow,’ and I’d be like, ‘Abby, you can’t tell us what to wear,'” she says. “Then I would come home, and I would be like, ‘JoJo, Abby doesn’t want you to wear a bow tomorrow,’ and she’d go, ‘That’s it. I’m wearing a bigger bow.'”

On Dance Moms, the Siwas were fun to hate, but also fun to root for. They lasted two seasons, departing on good terms to “pursue other opportunities.” The first was the self-released single “Boomerang”—a “Hey Mickey”-esque address to the haters, imbued with more raw attitude than vocal talent. “I don’t really care about what they say,” rapped 13-year-old JoJo. “I’mma come back like a boomerang.”

This post-Dance Moms JoJo was a victim, not a villain. She projected a new, unflappable ethos with an amped-up look: more glitter, more Lycra, more rainbows, more sequins and a side ponytail choked back so tight that her adolescent hairline seemed to grimace. She crowned each ensemble with her now signature bow—the kind of personal touch that branding types call “ownable.” She signed her first merchandising deal in 2016 with the tween retailer Claire’s. Since then, JoJo has sold more than 35 million hair bows, or just over three per YouTube subscriber.

After Claire’s came Nickelodeon, and the overall talent deal that launched JoJo from merely notable to famous. Her singular talent is hard to pin down. The Nick contract alone involves numerous vocations: She dances. She sings. She posts videos and photos. Her likeness appears, in animated form, on The JoJo & BowBow Show Show, a cartoon series. It also appears, in buyable form, on her JoJo’s Closet consumer products line, available at Walmart and Target. Amazon has more than six pages of official JoJo products.

The JoJo aesthetic is Midwestern Bob Mackie: rainbow sequin separates, machine-washable tulle, hearts and stars and unicorns. There are JoJo Siwa sneakers, JoJo Siwa pillows, JoJo Siwa fruit snacks and JoJo Siwa dolls. There are life-size JoJo Siwa wall decals and JoJo Siwa training bras. In Siwa’s California home—where the whole family now lives—there’s a JoJo Siwa “merch room” containing all these products. A tour of the trove can be easily found on the JoJo Siwa YouTube channel. Beyond this room, the rest of the house is also festooned with JoJo Siwa merchandise.

Considering the scope of her career, it is hard to find the line where children’s entertainer segues into intellectual property. The closest parallel might be Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, whose conglomerate Dualstar exceeded a billion dollars in retail sales in 2011. But as the Olsens graduated from Full House, their empire matured to include tween entertainment and, later, their understated adult fashion line the Row. At 16, JoJo is still rainbows and sparkles. Watching from afar, it’s hard to believe that the star will not soon outgrow her brand.

This crisis of maturity breeds hate more than concern, at least among those adults who even know who JoJo Siwa is. The comments on her YouTube channel are disabled according to the platform’s policy on minors, but elsewhere online, she receives a barrage of criticism. “Why does JoJo Siwa have the voice of an old white gym teacher?” wonders one Twitter user. Another scoffs that she acts “like a 5-year-old on acid.” “Can we pray for JoJo Siwa’s hairline?” asks a third. Last year, when JoJo debuted her Christmas present—a BMW 4 Series convertible, wrapped in a giant image of her face—25-year-old Justin Bieber commented on Instagram, “Burn it.” (He later apologized.)

Children’s entertainment is frequently inane, but JoJo rams a rod through a cultural nerve center. Her clothing is gauche. Her excitement is annoying. She’s aggressively confident. In a world overwhelmed by so much irony and pain, she comes across, at best, as a blithe anachronism. At worst, she is part of the problem itself: the crass co-optation of empowerment for cash, resulting in an endless stream of plastic toward the landfill.

Because JoJo’s image is so often reproduced—and reproduced with such pizzazz—it seems to recommend her as an object, not a person. In an industry prone to sexualizing teen girls, her childlike demeanor feels uncanny or coerced. (It comes across as doubly strange once you learn she’s 5 ft. 9 in.) While other female stars her age enjoy at least some uplift from third-wave pop feminism, JoJo remains the butt of the joke, the face in the meme, the reason to cringe. Underlying all this hate, there appears to persist a kind of lurid disbelief: Can someone really be this way? Can a girl with her face on a fruit snack ever grow?

JoJo performs in Anaheim, Calif., on Aug. 13, one of 89 stops on JoJo Siwa D.R.E.A.M. the Tour.
Michael Tullberg—Getty Images

The morning of her New York City performance on June 18, Siwa arrived at the theater in stage makeup—a silver glitter star over one eye, inscribed in her heart-shaped JoJo Siwa logo. She does her own makeup first thing when she wakes up, to leave more time to run around backstage. In just one month of being on the road, she’d already traveled to 14 states, visiting 21 venues. In total, her show will make 89 stops. “But this is the day that I’ve been most looking forward to,” she said. “This is the only venue that I cross Freddie Mercury.”

Queen is Siwa’s “favorite thing ever,” even more since seeing Bohemian Rhapsody last year. Off to the side, on the dressing-room floor, a shadow box from her manager showed Queen keepsakes and their JoJo analogs—the Queen Q crest and the JoJo Siwa heart, Mercury’s marque and her own.

The rest of the dressing room was arrayed with the temporary comforts of the road. A can of drugstore hair spray on the vanity stood tall. A box of Lucky Charms, relieved of its marshmallows, waited for an adult to come and refold its flaps.

In the corner, a redundant publicist scrutinized the conversation without speaking. Siwa has an innate media savvy that calls up questions of nature vs. nurture. She speaks with the kind of naive self-possession that comes with never having had to doubt yourself. “Be yourself” is the ethos of her brand. Self-acceptance, Siwa said, is part of what fuels her respect for Mercury.

“He was unapologetically himself … He looked different than everyone,” she said. “I’ve always been like that, and I’ve never really known someone who pretty much does what I do.” She sped through the thought, then doubled back again. “But obviously Queen is on a much different level.”

In person, Siwa is easy to like. What sounds onscreen like boilerplate comes across in life as a coherent value system. “Be yourself” may be a platitude for children, but the teen, unbelievably, remains a true believer. Siwa likes herself, likes being herself and wants people to know that she likes being herself. A small, but significant, part of her life involves asking people to take her at face value.

“The third time I met with Pam”—Kaufman, president of Viacom Nickelodeon global consumer products—”she said, ‘You know, you don’t have to come to these meetings all JoJo. You can just come normal.’ And I said, ‘Pam, we have to have a talk, because I need you to know that this is my normal. This is my life. There is no other secret. There is no other person. I literally am JoJo. I wear the bright clothes every day. I wear the sparkly hair bows. I wear the high-top shoes. I sing the fun music. I talk really loud. I talk fast, and I talk a lot. This is who I am.'”

The consumer-products line is an extension of this truth. “My hand is in everything, along with a lot of other people’s hands,” Siwa said. “It’s not like I design a hoodie and we release it online, but I have what is called a style guide.” Siwa has the last say on “every image, every picture, every graphic, every color, every font and every word.” For branded-content deals, she’s been known to rework scripts, tweaking the tone to better suit her demographic. Later that day, I’d watch her manage the sound check, delegating tasks, issuing praise and remembering the names of even minor staffers. She views this work as a hands-on education.

“There has never really been someone who has done what I’ve done,” she said. “I’m live-action. I’m the first real-life license—the first human, who is not playing a character, to be licensed as a brand.”

One only needs to look as far as Kim Kardashian to see this isn’t exactly true. But in the entertainment world, as in psychology, it’s hard to say for sure where being yourself gives way to projecting a public persona. In any case, the sentiment remains: Siwa takes pride in her image empire and loves to partake in the work that it entails. She can sound like a workaday Joe married to her job: “I have a [learner’s] permit in California. I could drive by myself if I had a free hour to go get my license.”

California child-entertainment law limits her work to six hours per day and caps the number of consecutive workdays at five during the school year. These laws don’t yet apply to social media, but even if they did, it would be hard to litigate which parts of being JoJo Siwa count as labor. Being a worldwide lifestyle brand is an anomalous take on the human experience. Siwa knows this, though she doesn’t really know what the conventional alternative might look like. To her, it feels normal to work with her mom and to have her best friends be her 30-something dancers. It feels normal to have her own products at big-box stores and to have a tête-à-tête with Elton John.

“This is all I’ve known since I was 9,” she admitted. “For about half my life now, it’s just been what it is.”

All childhoods have their own circular logic. It takes growing up to earn your own reality, and this can be hard for even ordinary people who don’t have a whole industry on their shoulders. Siwa maintains she could walk away tomorrow, though she knows the real question is what happens if she doesn’t. When she turned 16, the 5-year-olds turned 6. The 6-year-olds turned 7, and the 8-year-olds turned 9.

“There will be a time when I age up,” she said. “Everyone does grow up.”

But that day, she couldn’t yet predict what that might look like.

“I think I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it,” she said. “But I mean, what do people want me to do? Wear black every day?”

The world outside was falling apart, but inside the Beacon Theatre, no one knew it. Roughly 2,000 little girls reached new octaves as JoJo Siwa took the stage. She zoomed from the dark on pink custom Heelys and stopped on her mark with a broad, sporty stance. I tried to think of another teen star who moved about with such neutral wholesomeness. This was a girl outside space and time.

A vast sea of bows stretched across the room, tossing and turning with the tempo of the music. “Who loves candy?” Siwa asked. Where we were going, there was no need for irony. The little girls shrieked as she launched into a song—a cover of the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” or a cover of Aaron Carter’s cover of “I Want Candy.” They shrieked as a unicorn pranced across the stage. They shrieked when the screen showed a thousand JoJo faces, emerging from the mouth of a larger JoJo god.

With each next song, Siwa’s energy increased. She sang about drama, and dancing, and parties. She sang “Boomerang” and “Every Girl’s a Super Girl,” and I got chills against my better judgment. A mom sitting next to me received a text: “Wow, I feel so sorry for you.” At 8:30 p.m., the crowd started to flag. Younger kids started rubbing their eyes. A few parents dragged screaming children down the aisles.

“Tonight’s show is really special to me because as you all know I love Freddie Mercury,” Siwa said. Her voice, as she spoke, got faster and faster. Her baseline hype was hard to transcend, but soon she achieved the highest plane of emphasis. “So I just want to say thank you for coming tonight, because it’s a really special night for me, so it’s a really special night for you, and I’m just really happy to be here.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the September 02, 2019 issue of TIME.

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