Two weeks ago, Kenzie Ziegler shared a video with her 18 million TikTok followers.
Like a lot of the site’s most popular clips, it saw the teenager lip-syncing to a song she’d discovered on the “For You” tab.
In this case, the track was Doja Cat’s Cyber Sex – except the rapper’s vocals had been replaced by a soundbite of a young child saying, “I just cry sometimes, it’s no big deal”.
“If you all didn’t know,” wrote Ziegler in the video caption, “this is my voice, lmao.”
The sample was lifted from an episode of the US reality series Dance Moms, which luridly documented the tantrums and triumphs of a group of pre-teen dancers in Pennsylvania.
Ziegler was just six when she started filming the show with her elder sister Maddie (who went on to star in Sia’s videos for Chandelier and Cheap Thrills).
In an early episode, she broke down in tears while rehearsing a routine, telling her mum, “I can’t do it, mom, I’m not ready”.
Dance instructor Abby Lee Miller pulled the youngster out of the studio and delivered a harsh lecture on professionalism.
“Listen to me, you cannot act like this and cry,” she scolded. “People don’t want to work with kids who are difficult.”
Ziegler recovered her composure after being given a new dance partner and, after pulling off the routine flawlessly, she addressed the camera with a shrug and created a meme.
“I just cry sometimes, it’s no big deal”.
The phrase has been printed on t-shirts and circulated as a Gif for years – but its resurgence on TikTok took Ziegler by surprise.
“It’s so crazy,” she tells the BBC on a Zoom call from her family home in Pittsburgh. “I mean my whole childhood was filmed, and my whole life is on screen. It’s definitely been a learning experience.”
‘I was over it’
Looking back, she realises that Abby Lee’s speech (which was ultimately more about protecting her own reputation than her pupil’s) was not an appropriate way to speak to a six-year-old.
“Definitely not,” says Ziegler. “But dance teachers are always very strict on kids, so I just learned to take it.
“But in the last few years I was on it [Dance Moms], I just didn’t take crap from anyone. I was so bossy and I would talk back and I would get in so much trouble… but I wasn’t very competitive.
“I wanted to dance for fun, and everyone else wanted to compete, so I was just over it. I was like, ‘I’m just gonna dance and have fun and you can yell at me if you want.'”
Her elder sister emerged as Dance Moms’ breakout star, but Kenzie hasn’t exactly been short of opportunities herself. At the age of 16, her CV is already longer than most adults.
She acts in the teen drama series Total Eclipse, on which she’s also an executive producer; starred in a stage production of Wizard of Oz; been the runner-up in the US version of Strictly Come Dancing; written a best-selling self-help book and launched a cosmetics line. But the teenager’s “first love and main focus” is music.
Her first album came out when she was nine under the pseudonym Mack Z. It is not a classic debut, by any means. Songs like It’s A Girl Party and I Gotta Dance have the subtlety and charm of being shot in the face by a glitter cannon; and Ziegler’s voice is forced through an effects box marked “erase all traces of humanity”.
“I was so auto-tuned it sounds nothing like me,” laughs the singer.
“I didn’t really want to do that record… I wasn’t writing my music at all. It was just like, I don’t know, something to do.”
But as she got older, she “started to learn to love music and find my voice”. A second album, Phases, released in 2018, ventured into more mature territory, with the single Breathe racking up 37 million streams on YouTube.
Last year’s single Motives was bolder still – a sassy and stormy takedown of the “clout chasers” who’ve used her to gain some notoriety of their own.
“It’s actually about a friend I used to have that did not have good intentions whatsoever,” says the singer. “They were just using me because I had followers.
“I was so angry about it and I wrote it into a song because I feel like a lot of people can relate to that thing of being used to get to a friend or to be popular.”
So far, so savage – but when it came to confronting her duplicitous friend, Ziegler chickened out.
“The person actually texted me and asked me if it was about them, and I was so nervous I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!'” she admits. “But I think they know anyway.”
They bombard her with messages on social media asking for advice on everything from boys and fashion to bullying on social media or dealing with parents.
“The question I get the most is, ‘What advice can you give to someone that’s insecure?'” she says. “I get nervous because I don’t want to say the wrong thing – because, yes, I deal with insecurities and anxiety but it’s super hard to give advice for being so young.”
Despite her nerves, Ziegler’s responses are always thoughtful and supportive. In a recent YouTube Q&A, she even shared the story of her first period, reassuring fans who were worried about the experience.
“Thank you so much for not being embarrassed,” wrote one person in the comments. “[It’s] something that every girl has to go through.”
Ziegler’s conscientiousness also extends outside her career. When she turned 16 earlier this month, the singer declined her parents’ gifts and instead donated $1,000 to the George Floyd Memorial Fund.
“I couldn’t go to the protest because of Corona[virus] but I wanted to get involved somehow,” she says. “All of my friends donated for my birthday in my name as well, so it was really awesome.”
Ziegler is incredibly well-grounded for someone who has been in the public eye almost all her life. There are no traces of the bratty behaviour or spoiled self-entitlement you might expect from someone with 36m social media followers and an estimated net worth of $3m (£2.4m), or the resentment of someone who admits: “I grew up not really having a childhood.”
Instead, she chats nervously about her upcoming driver’s permit exam, and how she’s kept herself busy during the lockdown by tie-dying t-shirts; and making a slip and slide in the back garden with her sister.
The siblings have also spent a few days filming the music video for Ziegler’s newest song, Exhale, on their iPhones.
Capitalising on the singer’s down-to-earth persona, it sees her performing the song in her bedroom, surrounded by Blu-tacked photos of her best friends, and dancing self-consciously outside the front door.
The song itself is a pure blast of pneumatic pop, which Ziegler calls “my favourite song I’ve ever written or recorded”.
It also features guest vocals from pop superstar Sia who, since the success of Chandelier, has become a firm family friend and godmother to Maddie.
“I was actually a little iffy about the song and I didn’t know if people would like it,” says Ziegler. “But I sent it to Sia, and she was like, ‘I love this, and if you don’t want it, I’ll take it.'”
Eventually, they decided to record it as a collaboration, “and I was like ‘wow, it actually sounds way better,'” Ziegler recalls. “She brings something new to the song.”
It certainly can’t hurt to have one of pop’s most successful writers as a creative consultant – but Ziegler says Sia’s most valuable feedback is actually the simplest.
“I send her all of my demos – and my sister says she sings some of them around the house. So that’s when I know she likes the song, and it makes me super happy.”
Sia’s services are going to be in high demand this year, as Ziegler works out whether she can translate her TikTok following into a full-blown pop career.
“I’ve been changing up my sound a little bit, but I’m still trying to find it so we’ll see how it goes,” she says.
“I just want my music to speak to people in a good way and, you know, it’s not about blowing up or anything. I just want to release music because I love it.”