The Breakout Issue

JoJo Is Radically Open—and Ready for More

If you weren't paying attention, JoJo's story might strike you as a cautionary tale of childhood stardom. A preternatural young talent. A sudden rise to early fame on the back of an iconic pop hit at age 13. Record label clashes. Substance use. Depression. But to speak to Joanna Levesque—better known to us for the last 17 years as JoJo—is to understand that this is a story of growth, of mental strength, and an openness that feels almost radical in a world where mental health issues are so often stigmatized or kept hidden.

Throughout her career, the GRAMMY Award-winning singer/songwriter won over our hearts with her debut single "Leave (Get Out)," became the youngest artist to be nominated at the Billboard Music Awards, landed some major acting roles, and was runner-up on The Masked Singer. Now she is giving mental health the spotlight with her new R&B capsule project, "Trying Not to Think About It."

JoJo is earnest. Nothing in our conversation feels choreographed or curated. Her openness about her mental health struggles is, in a word, real. Right down to her willingness to admit to vulnerability, especially during the pandemic. "I've just been trying to deal day by day," she says. "To be honest with you, one of the things that I did—I judged myself a little bit for this...but I got back on antidepressants. I wanted to believe that I could clean up my diet, and get out in the sun, and write in my journal, and meditate and do yoga and just be okay. But I needed a little lift. I needed a little help. And I'm not ashamed that I did that. It was an important turning point for me."

Collage of JoJo in brown coat posing in various positions
Dress: Red Valentino; Coat: Jason Wu; Jewelry: Young In the Mountains; Felisha Tolentino.

JoJo was made differently, and it’s clear the last thing she’d ever feel about sharing her struggles is fear of judgment. “I know that in a lot of families, it's very taboo to talk about what you're feeling or thinking, but with my mom and our little family...I saw what she was going through and her mental and emotional struggles. And I think that I was very in tune with conversations around depression.”

In recent years, JoJo—now 30 years old—has taken to social media and other outlets to share many of her own struggles. “I never felt ashamed,” she says, “It was so common, at least in my family and people that I had really close dealings with. It felt like a very natural progression to talk to my fans about it—it wasn't something that I've necessarily wrestled with. It felt more burdensome to hold something like that back than to share it.”

It felt like a very natural progression to talk to my fans about it—it wasn't something that I've necessarily wrestled with. It felt more burdensome to hold something like that back than to share it.

As we approach the 2nd anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more of us seem to agree that it’s time to acknowledge our struggles. The rising demand for mental health services has led to therapist shortages. Workplaces are supporting flexible schedules to support a better work-life balance. In this crisis, we’re more likely than ever to admit that we need help, though few of us will ever share our deepest personal feelings with millions of followers. For JoJo, it’s a blessing to have such vocal and voluminous support. “It's encouraging,” she says, “it just makes you feel like ‘okay, I won't be penalized for telling people my ups and downs.’ Knowing that I'm so not alone is encouraging for sure.”

In essence, JoJo uses social media—under the proud handle “iamjojo”—for its original intended purpose: human connection. “I find that the more that I share what I’m actually going through, the more connected I feel,” she says. “We can bond over a shared experience and then think, ‘wow, even though we might not have been through the same experience, it left us feeling the same way.’”

There may be no better distillation of this idea than in music. For starters, if you begin humming the chorus of JoJo’s 2004 chart-topping “Leave (Get Out),” you’ll find that it still gets Millennials of a certain age singing and dancing like it’s 1 a.m. at the karaoke bar. And between the stay-at-home orders of 2020 and the ongoing crisis in 2021, music has been more important than ever. Many of us have turned to music to help cope with pandemic stress. Whether for relaxation, inspiration, or a boost to our mood, music has a powerful effect on our brains and a rare ability to build connections that can transcend our inclination toward tension and divisiveness.

With her new EP, JoJo seeks to provide that kind of outlet for listeners. “I wanted to make something that reflected how I was feeling at that time,” she says, “and that might help some other people feel less alone.” Borne out of a point in time at the end of last year when she felt “totally lost,” the new EP taps into something deeply personal for JoJo—her own mental health struggles. “I was really struggling to do things that I knew would help me feel better—like going out in the sun and exercising, eating a plant-based diet, or engaging with people. I was so confused, and that’s where the thought of writing through it came from.

Top: Prada; Jeans: stylist's own; WesFilms

The title is instantly relatable; after all, avoidance is a common coping mechanism for stress and anxiety. And there are plenty of recent stressors we’d all like to forget. “I realized that I was trying to push through and not think about the things that were eating me up, thinking about my concerns for my family, my fears, the state of the world, my personal accountability. All these things,” JoJo says, “I try not to think about them. But I realized that was probably making it worse. So then, through writing, not only for the albums but journaling and starting to talk to my therapist again. That’s where all these songs came from.”

The first single, “Worst (I Assume),” an ode to self-sabotage, was released in August alongside a one-shot music video. As striking as the video itself is a closing sequence featuring JoJo alone in an empty white space and a message of inspiration delivered directly to the viewer, including the following:

“Be kind to yourself. It’s not always easy to get out of your own way. I know you’re trying. I am too. Keep going.”

It’s a simple message, but when it comes to self-care, simpler can be better—especially if you’ve never really thought about taking action to help your mental health before. We champion the idea of small steps and setting attainable and measurable goals for self-improvement. Mental health, however, often feels more complicated and less measurable than, say, trying to run an extra mile or adding more fruit to your diet. Feelings are hard to measure—we often barely understand them, never mind understand them to the point of knowing how to change them. So—start small, even if it means setting a goal that feels insignificant.

JoJo in blue top, hands clenched under her face
Top: Alexander Wang; Jewelry: Young In the Mountains; Felisha Tolentino.

JoJo emphasizes that while her new music is a snapshot of a point in time laden with depression and anxiety, it’s also a symbol of positivity. “You’re not alone,” she says, echoing the message that has been delivered in her video to over 1 million viewers and counting. “It doesn’t have to be your norm. There are people who have been through it, and you can feel better. That’s what I want to remind people of because that’s what I need to be reminded of. It’s not forever.” It’s a hard lesson to learn, and while JoJo admits she’s no wellness expert, she puts in the work. And no, nothing in her self-care repertoire is unattainable or comes with a hefty price tag attached.

There are people who have been through it, and you can feel better. That’s what I want to remind people of because that’s what I need to be reminded of. It’s not forever.

JoJo loves exercise—especially yoga—and “having that breath linked to movement and the mind-body connection,” she says. “As long as you can breathe, and you have a body, yoga can be for you.” She also journals, meditates, and lights scented candles. Her message is clear—use what you already have at your disposal to find the kind of quiet moments of self-reflection and peace that can put you in a better headspace. She admits to resorting to other methods in the past, like diet pills, drugs, alcohol, or overeating; “Oftentimes, we're self-medicating—I've done that. And that can get in the way of you being able to hear what it is that your body, your mind, your soul needs. Now I need those free drugs that my brain releases.”

Jojo smiling on a chair
Top: Alexander Wang; Shorts: Red Valentino; Jewelry: Bonheur Jewelry, Young In the Mountains; Felisha Tolentino.

Whether it’s exercise, light exposure, or positive visualizations, it may be simpler than you think to boost your mood. Easy? No, but that’s why you don’t try to do it all at once. JoJo has a great starter tip to give to your future self every morning—make your bed. “It makes me feel like I checked off a little thing and followed through,” she says.

Oftentimes, we’re self-medicating—I’ve done that. And that can get in the way of you being able to hear what it is that your body, your mind, your soul needs.

“I didn’t grow up having habits or routines instilled in me,” JoJo says. “As an adult trying to form these habits, it’s cool because we get to decide what type of rituals we want to have, and what’s important to us, and what our values are.” We don’t usually think of self-determination in these terms. It’s often reserved for much grander notions of where we’ll be in five or 10 years—how much money we’ll be making, how big our house will be, and other traditional markers of success. We don’t define ourselves by our mental self-care routines, but maybe we should. “Those things set us up for success and for stability,” she says. “Sure, we’d like spontaneity, but it makes us feel comforted and secure to have things that we know we’re going to do every day. All those little things that you don’t think matter as much, I do think they really contribute.”

Unsurprisingly, topping the Billboard chart at 13 does not lend itself to the kind of stability that JoJo now cherishes. “I don’t think there’s any way to prepare for what fame and access do to you. I don’t think I’ve fully unpacked it, to be honest with you,” she says. But she also feels that she was lucky enough to have been protected from a lot of the potential dangers of being a child in the music industry. Still, it’s clear she faced some burdens no teenager ever should; “It gives you a false sense of your self-worth. You believe that your self-worth is directly related to what you produce and how that performs. I don’t think that’s healthy, particularly to be instilled in a 13-year-old. And it’s taken time to realize that I am more than that and that my value is actually in who I am intrinsically.”

JoJo wearing a denim and nylon bomber jacket, sitting on her couch
Jacket, Skirt: Alexander McQueen; Felisha Tolentino.

Even as she forges ahead with new music, JoJo is prioritizing the why and how, and focusing on herself when she needs to. “I have a much better life-work balance than I ever have. I’m making time for things that enrich my life outside of just pursuing my career. I'm realizing that life is about relationships, and pouring into those interactions and being of help to other people.” And even though she admits it can be difficult to trust others, she prefers to see the best in people. “I like to see potential—that just feels better,” she says.

You’d forgive JoJo if she felt differently as a musician who came of age in the early 2000s, a witness to the good and bad of the peak of pop mania. Adoring fans, intense media pressure, unhealthy standards of beauty and appearance. Like the rest of us, she has watched the developments of the Free Britney movement with interest. But unlike us, she has firsthand insights into the reality of being a celebrity under that kind of media scrutiny. “It’s appropriate that we’re having this reckoning as a culture,” she says, “to realize the damage that was done to human beings who were put on a pedestal and then scrutinized. Britney’s an incredibly talented and intelligent woman, and she’s an icon—I love her. It’s encouraging to see the way she’s reclaiming her narrative.”

As for her own story, JoJo self-reckoning didn’t happen overnight either. “It takes time,” she says, “and it’s gradual.” She says her growth and valuation of herself would not have been possible without belief. She talks about reclaiming her power through her relationship to fitness, and her commitment to feeling stronger rather than adhering to some external idea that she should look a particular way. She listens to her body now, and feels better able to provide for it, whether it be through intuitive eating, CrossFit, or even a pole dancing class. “Trust that you know what it is you need,” she says. Another small step that has changed JoJo’s perspective on wellness? Stepping off the scale. “I actually don’t weigh myself. I just like to feel good in my clothes, to feel strong, and I wanted to take the obsession away from it.”

JoJo in a white top with hands above her head
Top: Alexander Wang; Jewelry: Bonheur Jewelry, Young In the Mountains; Felisha Tolentino.

People aren’t used to thinking so carefully about the link between physical and mental health, but JoJo’s adherence to a full mind-and-body approach to mental health can be a guide to those who are looking for help but don’t know where to start. In many cases, you may already possess the tools to improve your mental self-care routine. If you like to exercise, or get outside whenever you can, or spend time with friends and family, you’re already doing it, even if you didn’t realize it.

What shines through in the way JoJo talks about her mental health are the ideas of self-love, self-respect, and self-assurance. As another track on “Trying Not to Think About It” makes clear, she hasn’t always had the best relationship with herself. “Anxiety (Burlinda’s Theme)” describes someone who always comes around at the worst times and with the worst intentions. It sounds like a letter to an ex-partner, an epilogue to a toxic relationship. Burlinda, however, is not a partner but rather the personification of JoJo’s own feelings of depression and anxiety, named as a way to remind herself that those feelings are a part of her, but only a part. “A few years ago, I began to realize how powerful the words ‘I am’ are. ‘I am depressed’ or ‘I am broken,’ and when you start saying ‘I am’ those things, you embody it a little bit more.” Instead, she may say she’s feeling or experiencing those things. (As someone who talks to himself, I’m thankful for the tip on how to be a little bit nicer.)

A few years ago, I began to realize how powerful the words ‘I am’ are. ‘I am depressed’ or ‘I am broken,’ and when you start saying ‘I am’ those things, you embody it a little bit more.

Whether or not you do seek professional help for a mental health issue, it’s important to maintain whatever routine is working for you. For JoJo, sometimes that means medication, sometimes it means therapy, and sometimes it means doing what you can to help yourself. “I think having a holistic approach is always a good idea,” she says, “to not just rely on one thing or always look outside yourself, but to see, OK, what can I do?”

Antidepressants. Therapy. For those who don’t like to admit that anything is wrong, these can almost feel like dirty words—something we might think about or even do but never talk about. And it’s OK to be private, as there are few things more personal than what’s going on in your own head and heart. Not everyone shares JoJo’s comfort with talking about these things. The key is not necessarily in talking about it, though, but in coming to terms with what help you might need, being OK with asking for it, and accepting yourself even if you’re afraid of outside stigma.

And what’s next for JoJo? An intimate tour of six dates at smaller venues, her first time performing in front of an audience since the beginning of the pandemic, her first chance to get on stage and proudly declare I am JoJo. “The truth,” she says, “is that as much as everybody was connected via social media, there is nothing as healing and as special as human beings coming together, singing together, just physically being together.”


By Nick Ingalls, MA
Nick Ingalls, MA is the associate editorial director at Verywell Mind, managing new content production and editorial processes. He has been with Verywell since its inception in 2016.