“Be strong, be fearless, be beautiful. And believe that anything is possible when you have the right people there to support you.” ~Misty Copeland
We talk a lot about visibility and community — all things that are vital to us as LGBTQ+ people — but we don’t always talk about those allies and friends who are willing to go on the journey with us. One of those allies is Jenna Johnson from “Dancing With the Stars.” The first couple to break gender barriers was our girl Johnson and her partner — teen and media sensation JoJo Siwa.
Johnson is a powerhouse in the field of dance and is a five-time U.S. National Latin Champion, U.S. National Youth 10 Dance Champion, and a three-time National Contemporary Winner. In 2012, she represented the United States at the World Latin Dance Champions. She first gained attention in 2013 after finishing as the ladies’ third runner-up on “So You Think You Can Dance” season 10. Since being on “Dancing with the Stars,” she’s captured hearts and trophies, winning her second season with her partner, Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon (who describes her as “an angel on earth” to Us Weekly) and coming in second place with Jojo. She also captured the heart of fellow “DWTS” pro Val Chmerkovskiy. The two wed in 2019 and gave birth to a beautiful baby boy last year. I caught up with Johnson as she and Val embarked on the road for the “Dancing with the Stars” tour. On Jan. 19, they’ll be at the Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J. but they have several dates within driving distance — from New Brunswick, N.J. to Lancaster, PA — before the month is out.
I read that you were born in California, but grew up in Provo, Utah. Tell me a little about growing up there.
Yes. I come from a close-knit family and it was important to us to spend time together. Part of the reason I fell in love with dance was because my two older sisters were dancers. I never saw them as little ballerinas. I felt like they were athletes. They were powerful and strong and that’s one of the reasons I love dance as well. I loved everything about growing up in Utah. I think the beauty there is hard to compete with — the mountains, the smell, you get all four seasons there. It’s just the best. Beyond amazing. From a young age, I knew that I was going to be a dancer, so that took up a lot of my time. I never had any other serious interests. I had a few hobbies but from a young age, I was so passionate and so determined to make dance a career that it was my main focus.
What’s the worst snow incident you faced?
One time, Val and I were driving to Utah from LA and we got caught in the craziest storm. We were driving through the canyon and there were semi-trucks sliding off the road, and crashes happening all around us. And my car of course was a California car so it didn’t have all-wheel drive and we just started sliding all over the road. [Laughing] I thought Val was going to die, he was like, “I’m never doing this again! No more driving in the snow ever again!” That was the worst.
You mentioned that your sisters were dancers. Where do you think you got that creative side? What did your parents do?
My mom was a gymnast.
Yeah, but she also was a singer, and she was in a rock band. So she’s not a dancer, but she always had a huge passion for performance and performing. It’s funny, because she didn’t dance. She wasn’t the typical dance mom. She couldn’t correct me on technique or anything, but she knew how to give me advice on how to engage with an audience and how to captivate people. That was something that I appreciated growing up and informed how I perform. As kids, our parents always took us to musicals and were very encouraging when it came to music and performance. I think that’s what inspired all of us to pursue the arts.
It makes such a difference to have that support. So I’m going to jump ahead to “Dancing With the Stars” questions. You won first place and the coveted Mirrorball with Olympic Skater Adam Rippon, a darling of the LGBTQ+ community. He has such a wickedly funny sense of humor. What’s something that Adam did or said that made you laugh the hardest?
Oh my goodness. Every day with Adam was hilarious. He is, I think, the wittiest person I’ve ever met. Something that… OK, this was hysterical. Something that we both loved and could relate to were spray tans which come with the territory in ballroom dance. I remember it was about the first or second week that we met and we were going to an event in Washington, D.C. Adam was being honored by one of the Clintons or something and I was like, “Adam, I don’t have a spray tan on. You’re going to have to tan me!” So there we were having just recently met and I’m butt naked while he’s spraying me and he was saying positive things like, “Yes queen! Look at your body! Let’s get you all tanned up.” He was just so encouraging. He’s the absolute best. It was one of my favorite memories with him.
That is funny. And then you went on to break new ground with JoJo Siwa as your partner. What’s something that you learned from JoJo?
Oh man, I think just in general before I met Jojo or had that experience of being the first same-sex pairing on Dancing with the Stars, I lived pretty much in my comfort zone. I was always worried about pleasing people, constantly, and living by the norm. I was someone who was afraid to be out of the box, if you will. That experience really helped me blossom, and not be so afraid, because I looked at my partner, JoJo, who was this 18-year-old girl with the whole world’s eyes on her and she had no fear being who she was and no remorse about it and that insanely inspired me. It’s why I took that season head on and was so excited to break boundaries and go past what people expected or wanted. I wanted to show them that we were going to serve you some really gorgeous dancing and it was going to be a wonderful thing to watch. There was no room for hate or discouragement because we were dancing with our hearts and it was beautiful. It was one of my absolute favorite seasons that I’ve ever done.
I imagine you got a ton of feedback. What was something that was touching for you?
I think I was expecting the worst going into it. I was like, “Oh man, we’re going to get so much hate” and I was bracing for it. But what happened was that there was a huge mass of support and love that we received, which blew me away. I’d never felt such a sense of community before. And there was so much pride behind our partnership. After our season, “DWTS” was nominated for a GLAAD award and to be there representing the show and something that we’d done and to hear the applause when our name was announced as a nominee was just… it was just amazing. That was the most touching thing for me, to feel so supported by this community.
That’s lovely. I’ve always loved “DWTS” for making it safe for women to take charge and for men or boys to wear sparkly clothes and rhinestones!
For sure, and I think that the people who are willing to embrace the experience do the best.
I had to laugh at one episode when Gleb and Shangela were rehearsing and Darius [former “DWTS” contestant Shangela out of drag] said something like, “Oh, I don’t want to have my man bits up on you!” and Gleb just grabbed him by the waist and pulled him closer. As with you and JoJo, you took something some straight folks might have been uncomfortable doing and just made it normal.
One of the things that’s so awesome about dance is how… I mean I’ve been dancing on a man or with a guy since I was 12. Dance for me is not sexualized. I can be sexy doing it, but when I touch people, it’s about creating energy or magic or expression through my movement. And that’s how I look at it and it’s something that I think ballroom is showing people — that you can feel sexy emotions while watching it, but it’s not sexualized for us. That’s why the experience of having same-sex couples has been so, so great because you can show that. It’s about creating art.
So you’re married to “DWTS” three-time champion Val Chmerkovskiy. How do you think being a dancer makes Val a better husband and father?
We talk about this a lot, he grew up dancing from the age of 8. He grew up in Brooklyn, NY and he tries to explain to me what it was like for him. Trying to tell his school friends that he goes to these ballroom competitions where he’d have a spray tan and slide his hair back and dance with a girl was a hard concept for his friends in the borough to understand. It could be rough.
But to answer your question, I think it makes him a better husband because he’s always had a female teammate. Dance is one of the only sports where you are a team, singularly, with the opposite sex. It’s just the two of you competing and you’re in it together. I think it’s one of the things that’s so wonderful about ballroom dancing.
As a father, he’s passionate about our son being exposed to and loving the arts. He wants him to experience everything and we both just hope he will feel free to express himself however he wants. The other thing that’s nice is that he knows what I do for a living, so there’s no weirdness when I’m out there in a revealing outfit dancing with someone else. He’s like, “Yes! You go show that off!”
And why is your son, Rome, called your “rainbow baby”?
Rome is my rainbow baby because I experienced a miscarriage in 2021. It was a really hard journey for us to get pregnant and when we did and I lost the baby, it put me into a real spiral. So Rome is my rainbow baby. I celebrate every single day and am reminded of the journey it took to get here. Being a mother has exceeded all of my expectations.
He is a cutie! And bravo to you for opening up about your struggles. I watched an interview where I learned from you how we need to check ourselves when talking to people about the subject, how easy it is to ask something seemingly innocuous like, “So are you thinking about having kids?” without realizing that the person may be struggling or in your case had just lost a child but hadn’t shared it yet.
Yes, I never realized how hurtful or painful those words could be until I experienced it for myself. Miscarriages are experienced by 1 in 4 women. But just in general, there are so many ways it can be intrusive and hurtful. Maybe you don’t want to have kids. Who knows? So I think we can all be a little more careful about how we approach that subject. I hope to continue to be an advocate and voice to ask us to be better about what we say to one another.
I’m sure you will be. You’ve become such a trailblazer in so many areas. OK, let me ask a few random questions. What are three pet peeves?
Double parking, or somebody that takes up two spaces, makes my blood boil. Chomping food or chomping ice is just hideous. I have a weird thing with that sound. I just can’t. [Laughing] And Val thinks I’m a different breed because I can smell everything, especially having to do with body odors, stinky feet, stinky armpits. I can smell ‘em a mile away. Hygiene, people!
I feel fiercest when _____.
Hmmm, that’s hard. You know what? I feel fiercest when I’m confident. When I truly have no reservations about myself and can go into something whole-heartedly, confidently without second guessing myself. Whether it’s when performing or being in a room with strangers and I can feel confident in my skin. Not in a conceited way, but just sure of myself. That’s when I feel fiercest.
What can people expect from the tour?
Our amazing director Mandy Moore did such an incredible and artistic job of creating storylines that run throughout the show. I truly think that this is the best tour that I’ve ever been part of. There’s incredible dancing. I can’t wait for you to see it.
That makes two of us!
For tour tickets and more information, visit dwtstour.com.