At 14, JoJo Siwa Was Crushing On Zendaya

The performer reflects on her life in her early teens — including the time she spent her birthday in a tornado shelter.

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Jojo Siwa at age 14.
Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle; Monica Schipper/Getty Images

As JoJo Siwa puts it, her 14th birthday started off “with a bang.” She was visiting the Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas — to launch a new “JoJo doll,” naturally — when disaster struck. “A tornado started, so we had to go into a shelter,” Siwa, now 20, tells Bustle. “It was definitely a way to start [being 14], that’s for sure.”

Natural disaster aside, Siwa was still able to make the most of her big day. Siwa’s fans would expect nothing less: Ever since she made a name for herself on Dance Moms at age 12, she has always been known for her preternaturally positive demeanor. It’s been a through line from her YouTube channel, to her cheery original songs like “Boomerang” and “I Can Make U Dance,” to her many Nickelodeon appearances, and these days, her JoJo Siwa NOW podcast on iHeartMedia's Outspoken Podcast Network.

“I mean, [fame] came with its struggles, but overall, I was just always really happy,” Siwa says. “No matter what went on, I was able to just always see the bright side in things.” At 14, Siwa was so hell-bent on radiating this brightness that she even began dressing fully “rainbow bright”: wearing technicolor clothing, oversized bows, and bedazzled accessories aplenty. And while she’s since traded in her neon aesthetic, she hasn’t abandoned her demeanor. Just take her recent turn on FOX’s reality competition, Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test, where she’s frequently criticized for being too jovial. “I was definitely the jokester,” she concedes of her time on the show.

Though Siwa says her optimism is far from a crutch, it’s easy to see how it could’ve come in handy in her all-work-and-very-little-play teen years, which were spent attending business meetings and developing her “brand.” Still, Siwa insists it’s the innate trait that drove her to pursue entertaining and continues to propel her even today. “The only thing I want to do in life is keep the people around me happy. If I can do anything to make someone around me laugh, smile, or giggle, I will absolutely do it,” she says. “That really did start when I was little. [Then when it came to] making videos for the internet, I realized I could make millions happy.”

Below, Siwa reflects on her Zendaya crush, Grey’s Anatomy obsession, and cupcake habit.

JoJo Siwa performing at Nickelodeon’s Slimefest.Andrew Benge/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Take me back to 2017, when you were 14. How were you feeling about life?

My mom and I had actually just moved out to LA permanently, and my dad and brother were still in Nebraska. We had our little apartment in Glendale, California, and all I wanted to do was be like Jake and Logan Paul. So I got my mom a blog camera, and I got me a blog camera, and I was like, "I need you to be Logan, and I'm going to be Jake."

You moved out to LA to work, and from the outside, it seems like that’s pretty much all you did. But what did you actually do for fun?

Just typical kid stuff. I remember when I was 14, I went through a cupcake-making phase, so I made cupcakes every single day. I went through a phase where I went to the pool all the time. I was definitely in my Grey's Anatomy era. I didn't have as much free time as kids do, but I always remember having fun and making the most of what I was doing. But I never felt sorry for myself.

Did you have friends your own age?

I had friends, but they were all adults. I had my dancers who were my best friends. My mom, obviously, was my best friend. I had a chance to be friends with people my own age but it never worked. We would hang out, but it was never like, "Oh, these are my people."

You were known for having a very defined aesthetic. How did you first land on all the bows and glitter, and by 14, did that still feel authentic to you?

I think it felt the most authentic when I was 14-17. Eighteen is when I was kind of like, "Oh, this feels weird." But when I was 14, I thought, "How can I look even brighter, even crazier, even more full out?”

Other than Grey’s, what did you like to watch? On TV or YouTube.

Back then, on YouTube, I liked Jake and Logan Paul. I was obsessed with Baby Ariel and Jacob Sartorius. I just thought they were the coolest people ever, which they are the coolest people ever. I liked Hannah Montana music and I also really liked “normal” Miley Cyrus. And Dance Moms I watched every day of my life.

Siwa at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Mark Sagliocco/WireImage/Getty Images

How were you feeling in your body at that point?

I went through puberty super late in life, [because I was] super active and stressed. I remember I didn't get my “lady week” until I was almost 16. Then it didn't become consistent [until] I was 17. Now I’m like, "You lucky rat. You didn't have to deal with that.”

Did you have any celebrity crushes at the time?

I came out when I was 17. When I was 14, I had a crush on Zac Efron, but I think that was a cover for my crush on Zendaya. I think I wanted to have an excuse to say I really liked [The Greatest Showman’s] “Rewrite The Stars.” But it was not for Zac Efron.

Actually, I find myself being able to admire men in a "I think that man's really hot" way. But my women's standards are a lot harder. I think all women are beautiful, but for me to actually have a crush on them takes way more.

What advice would you give to 14-year-old JoJo?

Stretch! Because you're going to lose all your flexibility and then have to get it back instantly for Dancing With The Stars. I would tell 14-year-old JoJo to enjoy those cupcakes because one day you're going to care about eating them, so enjoy them while you don't. And I would tell 14-year-old JoJo to do exactly what she's doing. I wouldn't change a thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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