Nile Cappello | The Atavist Magazine | January 2023 | 1,867 words (7 minutes)
This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 135, “Crushed.”
Hollywood is the last place you’d expect to meet Johna Kay Ramirez. She doesn’t come across as cutthroat. Thin, with auburn hair and warm eyes, Johna is thoughtful when she speaks and quick to apologize when she goes on a tangent. She’s the kind of person who knows that “bless your heart” is often a veiled insult. Hollywood, with all its glitz, glam, and high drama, became part of Johna’s story because of her children.
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Born and raised in the Great Plains, Johna met Nelson Ramirez at a department store in Enid, Oklahoma; she sold shoes, he worked in menswear. They married, and in 1991, when Nelson got a job as a tech recruiter in Texas, the Ramirezes moved to Austin. Johna did video production for a local news station, then worked for a state agency. In 1998, when the Ramirezes had their first child, a daughter they named Liana, Johna became a stay-at-home mom. A son, Jentzen, came along eight years later.
Liana caught the entertainment bug first. What started as recreational dance classes quickly evolved into a passion for the performing arts. Liana loved being under bright stage lights, and Johna was proud to watch her precocious toddler blossom into a talented young girl. Liana appeared in local dance and theater productions, and by the time she was 13, her ambitions had surpassed the scope of what Austin could offer. She dreamed of being on the Disney Channel, of making it big in Hollywood. If Selena Gomez, a half-Latina teenager from Texas just like her, could become a star, Liana was sure she could, too. She had the talent and she had Johna, her chauffeur, line-reading partner, meal deliverer, videographer, and number one fan. “I knew how much my daughter wanted this, how much it meant to her,” Johna said. “So whatever I could do, whatever skills I had, I would use them to help.”
In September 2011, Johna snapped a photo of Liana at an airport gate. Her smile is all teeth, and a black bow holds back a portion of her curly brown hair. Mother and daughter were on their way to Los Angeles for Liana’s first Hollywood audition. The role was in a production of A Snow White Christmas, a stage musical. If cast, Liana would appear with Neil Patrick Harris, then a fan favorite on TV’s How I Met Your Mother, and with Lindsay Pearce of The Glee Project.
The audition was held at the Westfield Culver City mall on a Saturday morning. Kids and their guardians hustled inside and waited near a stage situated between Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. Liana received her audition number and practiced the dance routine she’d be performing. She breezed through the first cut and kept going. In the final round, she danced to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” At the end of the number, right as the audience began to applaud, Liana looked over at her mom, beaming.
Johna announced the good news on Facebook. “She nailed it and she got a role as a dancer,” Johna wrote. “Can you hear us screaming?” Back in Texas, the Austin American–Statesman ran a piece about Liana. “Teen heads to Hollywood to dance in her dramatic debut,” the headline read.
The Ramirezes decided that Nelson would stay in Texas, where he had recently started his own business, while Johna took Liana and five-year-old Jentzen to California for the duration of the production. They would be joined by Johna’s mother, Martha, who would help with child care and managing Liana’s obligations. Johna drove her kids and mom to Los Angeles, a more than 20-hour trip mostly through dry, flat rattlesnake country. She’d never taken a leap like this—never lived somewhere like Los Angeles, been around serious entertainment people, or parented without Nelson. Johna was leaving her comfort zone in the rearview mirror.
She was surprised by how much she liked Los Angeles. Within a few days of arriving, she and Martha had their first celebrity encounter, an exchange with Kiefer Sutherland over potatoes at a Whole Foods. The city’s traffic was a pain, but they managed to sightsee, visiting the Hard Rock Cafe and Universal Studios, where Jentzen posed with actors dressed up as Dora the Explorer and the donkey from Shrek. Liana stayed busy with the stage production, and Johna spent long hours at the theater, watching as her daughter rehearsed and had costume fittings. Liana would appear in 32 performances over two months, working straight through the holidays.
When the show wrapped, the Ramirezes reunited in Austin. Within a year, however, they decided to resume living as a split family. The musical had led to auditions and bookings for Liana, and she needed to be closer to LA to take advantage of them. Johna relocated to California full-time with her kids and tended to their day-to-day needs, while Nelson provided financial support from afar. Liana made appearances on Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and the prime-time network shows Criminal Minds and The Goldbergs.
As it turned out, Liana wasn’t the only family member who had star potential. With a smattering of freckles and a megawatt smile, Jentzen drew attention from casting directors, talent, and other industry insiders when Johna brought him on set with his sister. “You’ve got to put him in commercials,” stage moms told Johna, pinching Jentzen’s cheeks and ruffling his shaggy brown hair. He was in the sweet spot for child actors: old enough to memorize lines, but still young enough to be considered cute. Soon Jentzen was building out his own IMDb page, appearing in web series, short films, and the Lifetime movie Babysitter’s Black Book.
For Johna, Jentzen’s success further validated her decision to move to Los Angeles. Every parent hopes that a child will find their thing. Other families travel to soccer tournaments, move across the country to train with gymnastics coaches, or spend thousands on STEM camps where kids learn to code and build robots. Liana and Jentzen didn’t just like acting—they were good at it. Plus, their budding careers allowed Johna to spend time with them, whether that was backstage at rehearsals, stuck in gridlock on the 101, or putting together audition tapes at home. “It wasn’t just something they did,” Johna said. “It was something we all did together.”
Without auditioning for it, Johna had been cast in a new role: “momager.” She played it well, surprising even herself with how easily she toggled between cooking meals and attending movie premieres. She learned how to advocate for her kids’ needs and when to say no on their behalf.
As Jentzen approached his teenage years, he began kicking around the idea of getting into YouTube. A child actor’s presence on social media was increasingly important to casting agents and directors. Johna, whose experience with social media was limited largely to updating her Facebook account, wasn’t convinced. “I just didn’t know what we’d post,” she said with a shrug.
Then, eight years after arriving in Hollywood, the Ramirezes saw a promising ad, known as a breakdown, on LA Casting, a website that film, TV, and online productions use to enlist talent. A breakdown typically includes a description of the project, the parts to be cast, and the pay rate, along with information about how to audition. The breakdown the Ramirezes saw was for something called the “Piper Rockeele Show,” which was planning to shoot a YouTube video on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Described as taking inspiration from the movie Grease, the shoot would involve a tween character named Chase brushing off Piper, the show’s eponymous star, to look cool in front of his friends. Chase seemed like a good fit for Jentzen; the listing offered $1,500 for eight hours of work, a very good rate.
The Ramirezes weren’t familiar with Piper Rockelle—her name was spelled wrong in the breakdown—but an internet search led to a tween girl with a YouTube channel boasting hundreds of hours of video content, including original songs, makeup tutorials, and staged pranks and challenges like “24 Hours HANDCUFFED to my ‘BOYFRIEND.’ ” Jentzen showed Johna his iPhone screen. “Mom, she’s got a lot of subscribers,” he said—more than two million.
Johna didn’t have a problem with Jentzen participating in another kid’s social media content. It was easier than striking out on his own in the wilds of YouTube. Jentzen replied to the ad and was asked to come in for an audition.
The day of the tryout, the Ramirezes had another appointment across town and were running late. Johna tracked down a number for the person, a voice coach, who’d posted the breakdown on LA Casting. According to Johna, the coach assured her there wouldn’t be a problem. “They really wanted him at the callback,” he said. “They really liked him.”
It is one of many moments that now haunt Johna. “Can you imagine if we would have missed the callback?” she said, shaking her head. “How maybe life would’ve been different?”
More than three years later, Piper Rockelle’s popularity has exploded. She has more than 25 million followers across Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fan pages dedicated to her. Piper has staged live meet-and-greets and musical performances around the world, and she sells her own line of merchandise. She lives in a pink and purple house worth $2.3 million in Sherman Oaks, previously owned by the actress Bella Thorne.
But all is not well in Piper’s world. Her own momager, Tiffany Smith, is being sued by 11 former members of the Squad, the name given to the circle of child actors who appear in Piper’s videos and ostensibly are her friends. Two of the plaintiffs are cousins of Piper’s. The kids allege that, when they were in the Squad, Smith verbally, physically, and in some cases sexually abused them. They also claim that Smith knowingly produced exploitative content featuring her daughter and other minors. “Smith would often boast to Plaintiffs and others about being the ‘Madam of YouTube’ and a ‘Pimp of YouTube,’ and that she ‘makes kiddie porn,’ ” states the lawsuit, which was filed in January 2022. Smith’s boyfriend, Hunter Hill, and Piper Rockelle Inc. are also defendants in the suit. Hill, who works behind the scenes to produce Piper’s YouTube videos, is accused of conspiring with Smith to “sabotage” the plaintiffs’ careers after they left the Squad.
Johna knows the plaintiffs and their parents personally. She doesn’t doubt their claims. However, she isn’t part of the lawsuit. For the past few years, Johna has been fighting a legal battle of her own. It began after Jentzen auditioned for Piper’s team, and it has pitted her against Smith as well as her own family. Today, according to Johna, all she wants is to have a relationship with her children again.
This story is based on interviews with Johna and Nelson Ramirez; two of the plaintiffs’ mothers, Steevy Areeco and Angela Sharbino; and the plaintiffs’ attorney, Matthew Sarelson. It draws on hundreds of pages of court documents, personal communications shared by sources, and the trove of social media content produced by Piper and the Squad. Smith and Hill did not respond to requests for comment. They have denied the allegations against them.