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JoJo knows firsthand the pitfalls that come with growing up in the music industry. The singer shot to stardom at the tender age of 13 when her song “Leave (Get Out)” made her the youngest solo artist in history to top the Billboard Mainstream Top 40 chart in the United States. JoJo, born Joanna Levesque, followed up her debut album with “The High Road” in 2006, before seemingly disappearing from the spotlight.
The singer, now 29, is opening up about the highs and lows she experienced during a decade-long struggle to gain control of her career in a new 25-minute documentary with Uproxx.
In 2004, JoJo signed a seven-album deal with Blackground Records, founded by Barry Hankerson, the uncle of late R&B singer Aaliyah.
At first, things seemed as though they were finally falling into place for the singer and her mother, Diana Blagdon.
“My label got my mom a car, got us an apartment and I had my own room for the first time. They felt like family to us, and I think that's what both my mom and I were really longing for deep down,” she recalled. “Both of us come from very unstable family situations and they really appealed to that within us—that we were creating something that was going to last forever.”
Things began to take a turn between the release of her debut and sophomore album as JoJo began pursuing film and television projects such as “Aquamarine” and the 2006 Robin Williams comedy “RV.”
“People at the label were really not happy about not getting a percentage of that,” JoJo said, adding that the pressure caused her to ultimately fire her mother as her manager. “My mom just outwardly hated the industry and outwardly wanted to pull me out from it...I let go of my mom as my manager because it became very, very unhealthy for her. I was really concerned that it was just going to kill her if she continued on in it anymore.”
JoJo continued making music, but faced pushback from Blackground Records, who refused to release any of her new material. Although the label began losing distribution opportunities, the singer said she became frustrated and believed the label was holding out on releasing new music because of the way she looked.
“When I was 18, I remember being sat down in the Blackground office and the president of the label being like, ‘We just want you to look as healthy as possible.’ And I was like, ‘I'm actually the picture of health. I look like a healthy girl who eats and is active. I don't think this is about my health. I think that you want me to be really skinny.’ He's like, ‘No, I wouldn't say that,’” JoJo said.
Desperate to do anything to have new music released, JoJo agreed to follow the label’s advice, which lead her down a dangerous path that had a lasting impact on her confidence and self worth.
“I ended up working with a nutritionist who had me on a 500-calorie diet a day,” she admitted. “I was taking these injections that make you have no appetite. I was like, ‘Let me see how thin I could become because maybe then they will put out an album. Maybe I'm so disgusting that nobody wants to see me in the video and they can't even look at me.’ That's really what I thought.”
JoJo turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with the fact that she “wasn’t enough” and fell into a deep depression.
“There were definitely nights when I stumbled out of clubs and I blacked out and was just completely reckless and did not care,” she recalled. “I needed to be buzzed to feel OK...I should be dead.”
The singer said she gave up her unhealthy behaviours out of fear that she would become like her father, Joel Levesque, who died of drug-related complications in 2015.
JoJo took action against Blackground, and after a nearly seven-year legal battle, was able to sign a new contract with Atlantic Records.
“I didn't get any money. I didn't get any damages or anything like that,” she said. “I just walked away being able to sign another record contract. I was like, ‘Let's go!' I was free.”
JoJo now has her own label imprint, Clover Records, with Warner Music. Since she didn’t own the masters of her hits, she put up her own money to rerecord her first two albums. In January, she received a Grammy award for Best R&B Song for her song “Say So” with PJ Morton. Her new album “Good to Know” is slated for release this spring.
“This journey has been a journey of learning how to love myself,” she said. “I feel really lucky, really, really grateful for the longevity that I have and for the resilience that I do have. But I work on it every day. I want to create a life for myself and I want to create a legacy.”