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In 2021, influential K-pop cover dancer Isabel Jones (@_isabae_) was chosen out of thousands of video submissions to compete on television for a chance to become one of pop superstar Lizzo’s backup dancers—the iconic Big Grrrls. In 2022, the reality competition show aired on Amazon Prime, racking up six Emmy Award nominations and winning three. Now, almost a year after Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrls rocked viewers and critics alike, we catch up with Jones to reflect on the process of working under Miss Lizzo, bringing her authentic mixed self to the competition, and crafting her own identity as a dancer.
Erica Ito: It’s so nice to meet you. Will you walk us through your journey from young dancer and K-Pop fan to Emmy Award-Winning reality TV star?
Isabel Jones: A whole 26 years!
EI: Yeah, just in 20 seconds. No pressure.
IJ: Okay. So I grew up with a Korean mom and white American dad in a town that’s very racially diverse, but no Korean people. So I have a lot of memories as a kid of going to my local Korean grocery store and getting videotapes with Korean music shows that were recorded over the week. I’d watch Inkigayo, Music Bank, and—eventually when YouTube was introduced—I started liking groups like Baby Vox, S.E.S., Big Bang. But that was always like a hidden love ’cause no one around me was listening to it.
I started doing hip-hop dance when I was about 5 or 6, moved into color guard (which is more like modern, jazz, ballet) throughout middle school and high school, and once I got to college, I found a cohort of club members who also really loved K-Pop dance. Eventually I applied for Lizzo’s Watch Out For the Big Grrrls. I got picked, flew out to Los Angeles, recorded the show, and then we eventually got an Emmy!
EI: Three Emmys!
IJ: Three Emmys. It's been crazy.
EI: Watch Out For the Big Grrrls is truly not like any other reality TV show. That much becomes clear at the end of the first episode when one contestant immediately leaves and wins what is basically the grand prize—dancing on tour with Miss Lizzo. Was there a moment where you were like, “Oh, this is no ordinary thing. This is going to have an impact and change people’s lives?”
IJ: Oh, literally from the get go. I would not have applied for this show if it wasn’t what it was. I am not a reality TV watcher. I hate trash TV. Like, if I’m gonna watch a reality TV show, it’s gonna be calmer, like Terrace House.
So when this was introduced to me, I was like, “Okay, I’d be down for that.” It actually fell right in between me graduating with my master’s in college and applying for jobs, like right in the middle. I was just like, “Ooh, I really don’t wanna work on this job resume and apply for these jobs.” I opened my TikTok, and there was Lizzo’s application video. I threw away that resume! Like, let me work on this. And it all kind of fell into place.
EI: It’s amazing that this was a true open call, because so often these days that kind of open call is really a facade. You were chosen from thousands and thousands of entries.
IJ: I think bigger women dancers were just waiting for this opportunity to finally shine, because we’re never given the opportunity anywhere else. We can’t go to a normal call like everybody else. So when this type of opportunity shows up, you kind of have to drop everything and, and go for it.
EI: Absolutely. You know, I think I cried watching every single episode. Especially yours.
IJ: Yeah, ’cause I was crying!
EI: Once you saw one girl start to cry, they all started crying, then Lizzo started to cry, and then I was crying.
IJ: I cried every single day. I’m not like a big crier either, but when I got there, whew.
EI: Because you mentioned your higher education journey, I think it’s episode five, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” where one of the exercises on this show was participating in a nude photo shoot. You were highlighted in particular because you said like, “This is abnormal for Asian women to show a lot of skin, let alone be nude in a photograph that will be on the Internet.”
Not only is that an emotional and a personal hurdle, you were like, “I have plans for careers and this working in South Korea.” In the end, you did participate in the photo shoot in your own way, which was awesome. I tried to put myself in that situation and I was like, I would have an absolute breakdown with the cameras and everything.
IJ: And I did! Yeah, I think it was a lot of internal struggle. The situation itself—I think it was fine. There was a lot of support from everybody. They were like, “You don’t have to do this. No one is forcing you.” But in my mind, I’m like, “Well, if I don’t do this, how will I be perceived by my boss, Lizzo? And the dancing director?” Even though they say, “Oh yeah, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” I’m like, “You’re gonna see me as this not taking a challenge, or not going out of my comfort zone,” which is kind of what the show is about. So it’s kind of like, it’s okay, but it’s not.
All I was thinking about was calling my parents back home and telling them what I did. I knew that’s what they were afraid of in the first place, of sending me to Hollywood, because I’m an only child in a somewhat strict Asian household. But I don’t think I would’ve done it any different way. I like the way I made it work, and I think I still have my career ahead of me—later on in my life! Not at this exact point, since I’m working on content creation.
EI: Absolutely. So as a content creator, you are of course susceptible to bullying and haters. Some of that is addressed on the show. Lizzo says you’ve gotta let people see your tears, because otherwise they won’t believe your smile. Do you have any techniques to deal with online negativity?
IJ: Hmm, well, I’ve always been a chubby Asian girl. So I’ve heard everything from everyone. I think I’ve always had a somewhat deep, thick skin. So getting the occasional, “You’re fat.” comment online was like, okay, whatever, that’s you.
I’m also someone that reads every single comment. I know it’s awful for me. One of my therapists asked me, “Why don’t you just not look at the comments?” I’m like, “I can’t not look at the comments. That’s my job.” Before I was like, “Mmm I ain’t so mad about this, I’m sad.” But the block button looks a lot more beautiful these days.
IJ: I’ve been using it a lot more. Delete, block. But occasionally (I mentioned it on the show) I was put on a Twitter feed of people who regularly fat shame people and put these people on blast. And when you get 200, 300 retweets at a time at 2 a.m. and you’re alone in your room and it’s dark, like those deep thought times, it’s awful. Those are the times I still haven’t been able to fully get over. But because I have experienced it once, I know how to deal with it. I usually text my friends. They’ve always supported me from the get go. I’ll send them an awful comment I’ve gotten in the group chat and they’ll respond like, “YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL!”
EI: I would love to ask you…it’s no secret, I should just name it. K-Pop has set very unrealistic beauty standards, especially for girls, and as an industry and culture has received a lot of criticism. I’m curious how you love and embrace the genre while also maybe being critical of some aspects.
IJ: Being critical of K-Pop…I think for me it’s literally just existing on the platform and doing what I do. I don’t specifically state that I’m a plus-size creator, body positivity, this and that. Not because it’s a bad thing, because I love creators that are able to do that. But I’ve never been able to get out of that Korean societal standard bubble that has been created for me and how I view bodies. I consider myself to be more body neutral. I don’t think I can get to the body positive side quite yet, maybe in the future. But I’m comfortable here.
I think K-Pop actually is a very good representation of how Korean culture and Korean society views bodies. Like K-Pop is slightly more extremist, but I think it’s pretty mirrored of what your Korean grandma, your mom, aunties, your uncles will say about your body quietly over your shoulder while you’re eating something. Like, “You should be a little less.” Or, “You should work out, this and that.” The ajumma telling you from the get-go that you can’t fit any size in the store, those kinds of things. It’s very exclusive. Just existing on the Internet and getting somewhat of a following, we’re battling what K-Pop usually stands for, which is fatphobia.
EI: Do you have interest now in commercial dancing?
IJ: Unfortunately, I don’t live in L.A. so it’s quite difficult for me to attend in-person auditions. But I do have an agent, which is exciting. I am really interested in commercial dance, and I’m also very interested in modeling. But at the moment, working from home is my comfort, and being near my parents.
EI: Something the show demonstrated is that there’s more than one way to live your life as a dancer, and to have a career as a dancer.
IJ: Thank you Instagram and TikTok for allowing me to do this as a job. I would’ve never imagined becoming a dancer ’cause I was told no from when I was a little kid, unless I lost weight.
EI: Just existing as someone who is different is monumental and makes such a huge difference. Thank you for doing that, you know? I’m sure a lot of other people are dancing because you dance.
IJ: I get quite a lot of DMs from young girls that say, “Wow, I can go to my, like, school recital and do this K-Pop cover.” And I’m like, “Just do it!” I used to be so afraid to even dance in my room. Now I’m like, it’s okay, just do what you want. Life is so short. If you spend all this time thinking, “When am I gonna lose weight? I’m gonna make this list of things I wanna do…” you’re wasting all this time. I think I’ve had that click in my mind somewhere throughout college. Why am I just sitting around waiting for something that's happening and I'm not even doing an active part in changing that? Like, why do I have to wait?
Act now, and do some dreaming on the side.
Published on March 20, 2023
Words by Erica Ito
Born and raised on the east side of O’ahu, Erica learned about improv comedy in seventh grade, and has been a public menace ever since. She holds a BFA in musical theater from the University of Michigan and can be found yelling about coming-of-age love stories, pop culture, and mythology with her genius co-host/best friend on their podcast Seaweed Brain. Check her out @SeaweedBrainPodcast and www.ericaito.com.