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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Cheer Star Jada Wooten Is a Role Model, Despite What Anyone Says

The breakout star of the Netflix show's second season speaks on her terminated contract with Rebel Athletic and the uphill battle Black cheerleaders face.

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Image for article titled Cheer Star Jada Wooten Is a Role Model, Despite What Anyone Says
Photo: Netflix

Jada Wooten is not a blend-into-the-background sort of athlete. The 20-year-old former Trinity Valley Community College veteran cheerleader, who became a newly minted star of Netflix’s sophomore season of Cheer and one of the few Black women on the show, doesn’t half-ass her skills. She says exactly what she means, and never apologizes for being authentically herself.

That’s why two days before the start of Black history month, Wooten, in signature Jada “fuck the judges” fashion, put her own voice in the foreground, front and center. Wooten signed a contract with Rebel Athletic Cheer and Dance, a cheer apparel brand that also represents Cheer alum Gabi Butler, as a sponsored athlete after signing on to appear in the popular docuseries. On Tuesday, however, she spoke out in an Instagram post saying Rebel had uninvited her from a scheduled meet-and-greet at Stone Briar Mall, as well as scheduled appearances at a National Cheer Association (NCA) event and Cheersport because she “didn’t fit” their brand. Wooten says the company told her during a phone call that “moms won’t want their daughters taking pictures with you,” in part because she used “too much foul language” on the show. Wooten then announced that she had decided to terminate her contract with Rebel indefinitely.

“Truth is I don’t fit the Rebel or the tour brand. I’m too much and there’s no room for all of me there. I won’t ‘clean up my language’ to appease them in order to fit in. Because you know what? It never stops there. There will always be one more ‘too much,’” she wrote.

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Wooten also noted that she was “not invited” to the Cheer Live Tour, sponsored by Rebel Athletic and co-created by Navarro coach Monica Aldama. Notably, other Navarro and TVCC cheerleaders were cast in the tour, including Gabi Butler, Maddy Brum, Angel Rice, Dee Joseph, Morgan Simianer, James Thomas, Jeron Hazelwood, Gillian Rupert, and Cassadee Dunlap.

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Fellow Cheer fan favorite La’Darius Marshall also posted on Instagram in Wooten’s defense, calling her a “Black Queen” and commenting on Wooten’s post that “Rebel has been fake.”

“As black people we don’t always get a second chance or time to be ourselves only what others want us to be. We remained ourselves whether the camera was there or not. We didn’t do it for the game, we didn’t do it for the following, we did it because this is our stories and who we are,” Marshall wrote.

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In response to Wooten’s claims, a spokesperson from Rebel confirmed to Jezebel in a statement that Wooten’s “choice of words in Cheer Season 2" didn’t bode well for their median audience, which is between “8 to 10 years old.”

“We asked her to sit out 3 meet and greet events that would attract a younger audience. We offered other opportunities and asked Jada to appear in our lookbooks. Jada chose to decline those offers, and instead she asked to terminate her relationship with Rebel in its entirety,” the statement reads.

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Wooten told Jezebel in a phone call Tuesday afternoon that she had zero interest in the fame that joining the cast of Cheer offered, nor did she ask to be on the show. Just like Rebel, the show’s producers came to her. Due to her natural intensity and focus, she suspected that viewers would either love her or hate her. Though, she never could’ve anticipated the restrictive expectations that would be placed on her as a role model for young cheerleaders—a position she didn’t ask for in the first place.

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“There was a double standard… [white athletes] can act almost the same as I did, and they aren’t being ridiculed,” she said. “They don’t have to deal with what I’m dealing with, and for what? I don’t know.”

As far as losing a brand deal, Wooten said she’s “not upset about that, at all.” She did say that Rebel had presented alternative options, but at that point, she no longer wanted to be affiliated with the brand. The same company that was so eager to exploit and profit off of Wooten’s success had also banished her to the sidelines, tossing her a few breadcrumbs to keep her happy. She also confirmed that she had never heard about the Cheer tour before the announcement, although she suspects that wasn’t exclusively a decision by Rebel.

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“At the end of the day, as big as companies are, and as many connections as they have, I don’t care how much power that they hold,” she said. “I was on Netflix and this still happened to me. If you’re doing something like that not only to me, but to other people on a daily basis in all spectrums of cheerleading… I can’t let them. I have more of a drive to make sure that they know that they messed up rather than me being scared of them and keeping my mouth shut.”

Wooten says she was most hurt by Rebel’s insinuation that mothers wouldn’t want their children to take photos with her, especially given that moms from across the country had reached out to her on social media to let her know how much her presence on the show meant to their kids. Of course, this begs the question of Which mothers? and Which kids? It seems as though Rebel, whose list of All Star account managers are nearly all white women, was marketing to just one segment of cheerleaders: those who didn’t look like Wooten.

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“A lot of women who are moms to Black daughters and even sons are frustrated … as they should be,” Wooten told us.

While all of this, supposedly, was over a few cuss words, Wooten wouldn’t take back a single word she uttered on the show, which she points out was never for a young audience. Competitive collegiate cheerleaders are elite athletes and world class tumblers, after all. The rivalries are intense, and so are the tensions; therefore, locker room language, the kind which has previously been reserved for football players, their veins bulging with toxic machismo, should be expected in a room with a bunch of adrenaline-pumped twenty-somethings. Wooten is not here to “appease your mother.”

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“You don’t see anybody making this a big deal in other sports, especially male dominated sports,” she said. “Just because I’m a cheerleader does not mean I need to act like the pageant girl who just walks around looking pretty. We’re going through a lot mentally and physically, and we need to make sure our brains and our bodies are on point… if this comes with a little bit of cussing, then so be it.”

Wooten’s frustration with Rebel isn’t surprising, as it’s reflective of the way Black women and girls are often treated in the industry at large. Wooten doesn’t fit neatly into the perfectly packaged mold the cheerleading industry is eager to promote— a white, upper middle class, valedictorian, pretty princess sort of mold. Rather than making space or breaking that mold altogether, cheerleading allows women who look like Wooten to fail over and over again. Meanwhile, Navarro’s coach Aldama, who was unnecessarily tough on her cheerleaders, generally disregarded their mental health, and flouted concussion protocols, was often heralded by viewers as “mom,” and Navarro cheerleader Lexi Brumback, who regularly talked about her past violent behavior and time served in juvenile detention, became a favorite of Aldama’s and was often featured in many of the show’s press appearances.

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The enduring hypocrisy that befalls Black women athletes is present in nearly every corner of the sporting world. Sports federation FINA refused to support swim caps made specifically for Black women’s natural hair. Sha’Carri Richardson was disqualified from the Olympics after testing positive for cannabis. Two Namibian women sprinters were deemed ineligible for the Olympics for naturally high testosterone levels, and Naomi Osaka was criticized and fined for taking a break for her own mental health, while the Tennis Federation President said he respected Roger Federer’s decision to withdraw from the French open.

Black athletes, and disproportionately Black women athletes at that, are oft pushed atop this impossibly small pedestal that leaves no room for any other interpretation of what it means to be a stellar athlete or role model. There is no falling gracefully from a pedestal like that, erected by people who do not look like you—just another model minority myth successfully perpetuated. Rebel’s decision not to rebel against the stereotypes that cause irreparable harm to Black girls in sport is made worse by the fact that the weight of this battle for racial equality falls heavily on the shoulders of Black athletes themselves, as though the entire Black community’s values in a space dominated by white girls must be upheld by a small handful of athletes.

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“Black women can only do so much from where we stand as athletes and being a part of a program that makes large amounts of money,” she cautioned. “But we can start by vocalizing and being honest about whatever it is that these women and even men are dealing with, on a daily basis. People need to speak up because closed mouths don’t get fed.”

Wooten has already morphed into exactly the sort of role model the TVCC Cheer Team needed. She mentored rookies and pushed her teammates to their limits. She refused to let them give up. So, really, she doesn’t need Rebel Athletic to tell her what kind of role model she’s supposed to be. She already knows. She knows she’s not “too Black” or “too much.” Rather, it’s simply that those frightened by how brightly she shines are clearly just too little.