JoJo Siwa on being a 'gay icon' and misconceptions about lesbian culture: 'You can be queer and be girly'

Unapologetically is a Yahoo Life series in which women and men from all walks of life get the chance to share how they live their best life — out loud and in living color, without fear or regret — looking back at the past with a smile and embracing the future with excited anticipation.

"A lot of people think I put on a face to the world, or I put on an act to the world" Jojo Siwa says — but, she insists, what you see is what you get — she's authentically, and unapologetically, herself in public and private.

Now 19, Siwa stepped into the spotlight at just 9 on the hit series Dance Moms and has over the past decade parlayed her reality TV success into so much more, releasing movies, music videos, fashion and accessory collaborations and toys, to name just a few of her ventures.

On her journey to becoming a full-blown business mogul before even being able to legally toast her success with a glass of champagne, Siwa tells Yahoo Life that she discovered that the ticket to success was being relatable.

“I will never ever do anything that doesn't feel like me or that I'm not proud of or that I'm not who I am,” she says. “I’ve built my career on being myself. And so, yes, this is the real Jojo.”

Don’t let her age fool you, though. The Omaha, Nebraska native has seen her fair share of disparagement in an industry that is notoriously unkind. But, as she says, she’s found ways to rise above it.

“Criticism, for me, is particularly never-ending,” she says, pointing out that the public often has an opinion about every choice she makes. “One thing I've learned is that no matter what, the criticism isn't gonna go away, so just keep walking forward.”

For Siwa, finding true contentment means accepting herself holistically, which includes nourishing the relationship she has with her body. But growing up in the dance world, she was exposed to toxic practices, recalling that little kids would have competitions to see who could eat the least. "Stuff like that isn't OK because you need food to fuel your body," she states. The healthy perspective comes from her mother. "My mom was always my dance teacher, so I was never afraid of what I looked like. I was never afraid of what I felt like."

The groundwork that her mom helped lay has guided how Siwa views her body today.

“I’m really proud of what my body's looking like right now,” the dancer says. “For me, I’ve always wanted my body to look a certain way since I was a very young age. And, you know, I think all bodies are beautiful. Absolutely. Every time I have this, like, little pooch area in my belly, I always say, ‘That's where my baby's gonna go one day.’ It’s like, we have these bodies and we have these legs and these arms and these faces that are able to do such magical things — and our senses. We need to spend less time shaming them and more time appreciating them.”

Siwa's confidence extends to owning her sexuality as well. After coming out last year, the teen has been called a “gay icon” by many of her adoring queer fans. While she embraces the title with open arms, Siwa acknowledges that she stands on the shoulders of other LGBTQ giants who came before her.

“It’s not about being comfortable with being the face of the LGBTQ young demographic, young age, youngling,” she explains. “It’s about being honored with that. It’s something that I've been appointed by, not myself, by just the world calling me a gay icon, calling me this generation's icon. That is an honor that I do not take lightly.” (Just don't call her a lesbian.) "I don't like the word itself," she jokes. "It's just like a lot. But I mean, at the end of the day, that's what I am. ... It's like the word moist. It's just like ... ugh!"

Siwa, whose relationship with girlfriend Kylie Crew, 18, has been widely covered, says that when it came to coming out publicly, it was all about timing.

“I think my timing of everything was perfect,” she explains. “If the world would've worked out for me to come out sooner, then I totally would've, but I never felt a need to. I never even really, I guess, realized that I was gay until I realized I was gay. ... If I could go back in time and change anything, I don't think I would.”

This extends to her famous bows too, which she says were just stuck on her head by her mom as a baby "and then my joke was, as I got older, my bows got bigger. ... And then it's just like one thing led to another and it just never left my head." And while she continued to wear bows because she just liked them, they took on a larger meaning when she realized that they had become "a symbol of being kind to one another. If I see a kid with a Jojo Bow in, I can go sit with them cuz I know they'll be nice to me."

The bows, while culturally associated with hyper-femininity, had no connection to her sexuality, Siwa notes before addressing some misconceptions about the queer community. “You can be queer and be girly. I think that's a thing, is a lot of times lesbians are taken to be masculine. ‘If you're a lesbian, do you wanna be a boy?’ That's not the case. There are plenty of very feminine lesbians.”

Clearly, the sky is the limit for Siwa, the latest judge on So You Think You Can Dance Season 17. And as far as the future, the star says she is expecting more challenges ahead — but she’s also expecting more blessings, and those are what she’s choosing to focus on.

“I am most unapologetic about who I am, about who I love, about what I think, what I feel,” she says. “I’m just now realizing that, like, I don't need other people's approval to cut my hair; other people's approval to love who I want. I need my approval, and that sometimes is the hardest one to get.”

She adds, “If somebody's gonna underestimate me, the best thing you can do is just prove 'em wrong."

— JoJo Siwa's interview was conducted and produced by Stacy Jackman.

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