by Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter 11/2002 and the Boston City Paper 7/2007
Before she achieved well-deserved fame as, “JoJo,” Joanna Levesque grew up here in Foxboro. This is an interview I conducted with Jo Jo in 2002.
It’s early August and today I’m heading to my favorite Foxboro café with that rare taste of excellence for a meeting/interview with Joanna Levesque, Foxboro’s 11-year-old singing sensation, and her mother, Diana. My wife Sue keeps the pastries and goodies coming. I pull up a chair, and take a moment to talk to this remarkable young lady whose credits include television, radio, theatre, concerts, commercials and film.
Joanna is a paradox. On the one hand, she’s a professional singer who gets paid for her gigs, she conducts herself in a very mature fashion, is direct and intelligent.
On the other hand, she’s still an 11 year old cute little girl with freckles, who is silly like a kid, uses words like, “Fantabulous,” is loving and kind and sweet, and worries about the same things most 11 year olds worry about. She’s impressive, polite, and talented; genuinely a good kid with a great gift.
That gift has been a double edge sword — she’s met celebrities and done things most eleven year olds dream about — but she’s also felt isolation from her peers, who have trouble identifying with her.
Joanna Noelle Levesque moved to Foxboro from Keene New Hampshire when she was five, but the interest in signing predates the move by years.
“Mom noticed me singing on key when I was 2,” she explains. “I would just belt out songs in the middle of nowhere … I just want to sing anywhere, any time, any place.”
Her mother, Diana, whose beautiful music often graced Saint Mary’s Church, nods as Joanna continues, “My first public singing was Big Daddy and the Accelerators in a restaurant when I was 5. It was great, I loved it.”
The young rising star been busy ever since. She’s been a guest performer on local radio shows, and has done commercials for Hood milk and Media One.
At age six, she performed at the Orpheum Theatre in The Who’s “Tommy” and was critically acclaimed for her performance. She has performed with Cissy Houston, Melba Moore and Hezekiah Walker at the McDonald’s Gospel fest in New York City, and performed at Manhattan Town Hall, and at the Old Whaling Church, where she sang with Carly Simon.
Closer to home, many Foxborians will remember her stunning performances at the Orpheum Theater benefit James Montgomery and Rebecca Parris last Spring.
Joanna sang at the 2002 Massachusetts Republican Convention and has even sung our national anthem for the Boston Breaker’s Women’s Soccer Team, Boston Celtics, and the New England Revolution.
She’s been a performer on Oprah, the Maury Povich show (who said of Joanna, “her singing is on par with some of the best well known divas, and trust me, she doesn’t lack in the personality department either”). She has sang on the Rosie O’Donnell Show (Most Memorable Amazingly Talented Kids), the VH1 “I Wanna Be a Diva” Special (where she was a Finalist — the only child chosen of the 7 finalists) and was a returning champion on Destination Stardom, and rubbed elbows with Bill Cosby on “best of Kids say the darndest things.”
She recently sang for recording executives in Florida. She’s released her first CD, “Joanna Levesque,” which can be purchased at Puffins and at Joanna’s web site, www.joannalevesque.com.
And she’s eleven years old.
Interviewing Joanna is fun — she is bubbly, often silly, laughs a lot, jokes, and is in many ways a typical 11 year old who adores her little schnauzer, a thirteen pound ball of energy named Sugar Pie. She likes horseback riding and drawing. She pierced her own ear over the summer. She’s always learning new songs. She is very proud of her Indian heritage and attends Native America Festivals.
She has a remarkable chemistry with her mother. Diana is always quick to add that Joanna is her best friend, and is well known as “Joanna’s biggest fan.”
At the time of the interview, they told me they were heading to California. Joanna explained that she’d received several offers, and that there would be a deal by the end of the year.
And that meant finding a new school. And leaving Foxboro.
Diana had lived in Foxboro most of her life, and the transition would not be an easy one. But Diana is determined to do what’s best for Joanna, even if it means uprooting to the west coast.
While Joanna would miss Foxboro, she makes it clear she would not miss many of the kids at school. It’s a difficult subject for her to speak about, but she has had a great deal of trouble with the kids at Foxboro Schools.
After all, most kids her age love Brittany Spears. Not only has Joanna met Brittany, but also she sang with her and Spears offered her a record deal. Many kids drink Coca-Cola. Joanna recently performed for the senior VP of Marketing at Coke.
She is not a typical 11 year old, and that makes relationships difficult and invites bullying and cruelty.
“They can’t relate to me, and have a hard time understanding what I do,” Joanna begins, suddenly not so bubbly. “They pick on ANYTHING if you’re different. They say I act all high and mighty. It’s painful to come home crying home from school. I walk down a hall and someone will whisper, “Loser.”
I tell Joanna that as a kid who was also bullied, I well understand the pain, the loneliness, and the frustration.
“People make presumptions,” she explains. They think Joanna is a diva, and full of herself. “There’s even a Hate Joanna club,” she adds bleakly.
Diana is also less bubbly now — the teasing and isolation Joanna felt was clearly painful and continuous. It’s not the reason they are leaving — Joanna’s destiny clearly resides out west, but the teasing and bullying made life hell for a very sensitive and loving kid.
What can be done about it?
Diana is empathic. “Parents, teach your kids to be kind. Try to deal with your own insecurities before you tear someone else down.”
Has Joanna thought about suppressing her singing ability to better fit in with her peers? The answer is a firm shake of the head. “I would never deny my singing ability to fit in with kids my age. God gave me this,” she says, and she believes it. “I’d be so unhappy if I didn’t do this. I LOVE singing” She adds that despite the teasing, she does have friends, and a long distance boyfriend (their first date was canceled because he was grounded!)
She has many ideas about her career; she talked about Pepsi sponsor Halley Eisenberg and added that a great marketing campaign for Coke would be to note that Eisenberg lip-synchs her songs, while Joanna could actually sing, because like Coke, she’s “The Real Thing.”
“What is singing doesn’t work out?” I asked.
“Then I want to be a civil rights lawyer, human rights lawyer.”
And I just look at her and think that this kid will succeed no matter what she sets out to do.
Since the interview, a few months have gone by, and the family has relocated to California, and Sugar pie is on vacation with Susan and me. We stay in touch by email and I learn that Joanna was offered a recording contract from Columbia Records, which is owned by Sony Music.
In New York, Joanna sang for Donny Ivers, president of Columbia Records, who ran out of the room after hearing Joanna sing, and when he came back in, he had Tommy Mitola, p
resident of Sony Music with him! (Mitola, who was married to Mariah Carey, and made her and Jennifer Lopez stars.)
“It was so cool to actually meet and talk with him,” Diana relays. “Anyway it will take a few months to negotiate the contract. Joanna is up for a singing part in a Jack Black movie, called “The School of Rock”, and she has a bunch of big auditions; one is a movie directed by Ron Howard, with Tommy Lee Jones and Kate Blanchett, the other is a Disney Pilot, and the other is a Nickelodeon Pilot.” She is also in rehearsal for Nuncrackers, the musical, at the Fremont Center Theatre in S. Pasadena.”
Although Joanna misses home, she has found that the kids out west are much more understanding about what she does because so many of them are in the entertainment field in California. She’s adjusting well to her new school and was student of the month.
Diana concludes, “Joanna greatly misses her family and friends back home, but she realizes that she needs to “give it her best shot” out here in California, where there is more opportunity to pursue her chosen career in entertainment. She is looking forward to coming back to the East Coast to visit soon!”
Speaking for myself, I’m happy that I got to know this impressive youngster. While the kids who teased her should be ashamed of themselves and grow up, they lost an opportunity to be friends with and get to know a terrific kid whose gift of song only makes the world a better place.
UPDATE 2008: I’ve received some emails asking if I have an address or contact information for Joanna (JoJo). I do not. I last saw her a few years ago at a CVS in Foxboro with her Mom when they were visiting. I don’t have any contact info to pass along. Sue and I wish Joanna all the best, she has certainly earned her fame!