Culture

Jewel: From Homelessness And Being Groomed To Multi-Platinum Artist

By Andrea Mew··  7 min read
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Jewel embodies the spirit of a determined woman. Her authentic, poetic musical talents are of course a key component of her essence, but her impact goes far beyond tunes played on radio waves. The pain she endured and the despair that could have held her back instead fueled her fire to live a better life.

Your home life is traumatic and unstable and the immediate world around you is unsafe, so you up and leave town, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and live in your car temporarily while hitchhiking around the country looking for direction. You’ve got your guitar and your voice supporting you as you busk and perform at coffee shops in sunny Southern California and then, out of the blue, you’re the small-town girl who gets discovered. 

The story of singer Jewel’s unorthodox childhood, her self-reliant journey to seek out greener pastures, and the highs and lows of international fame weren’t widely recognized until the release of her autobiography Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half The Story. Since then, the woman behind “You Were Meant for Me,” “Foolish Games,” “Hands,” and many other chart-topping songs that married folk and pop together has caught the media’s attention – and for good reason. Jewel went from homeless to a multi-platinum artist, and became a leading light for the mental health movement.

From Homestead to Homeless to Megastar

Jewel Kilcher, later known just as the poet and singer-songwriter Jewel, grew up 117 miles away from Anchorage, Alaska in a small town called Homer. She, her brothers, and her father lived in a very modest, old-fashioned cabin on a homestead (her mother left the family). She detailed her upbringing in her autobiography, explaining that there wasn’t any heat or running water – yup, she grew up using an outhouse – and her family only had access to food if they could kill it or grow it themselves. 

The homestead wasn’t necessarily all doom and gloom, as she actually grew up around many musicians who inspired her to sing (even learning to yodel at a young age) and bring her musical talent on the road to hotels, cheap joints, and dive bars. 

Jewel once told The Hollywood Reporter that she experienced men hitting on her from a young age while performing, noting that “at 8, I had men putting dimes in my hands saying, ‘Call me. It’d be so great to f— when you’re older.’ And just horrible stuff.”

She also grew up among alcoholics in her immediate family and experienced abuse from a young age. “The anger. The abuse. The isolation. The alcoholism. It didn’t take a genius to see that kids like me became a statistic,” Jewel wrote for Vogue. 

Jewel took a leap of faith and escaped her hometown at just 15, earning a scholarship to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan to study performing arts. After she graduated in 1992, she struggled, living in her van because her boss pressured her for sex, and after she refused, he withheld her paycheck. She drove herself around the country in her van and performed at coffee shops and bars to get by until her van was stolen. She herself then took to stealing clothing to help her anxiety and was on a never-ending job hunt. Luckily, poetry and songwriting led her out of her rut, putting her mental energy into something productive instead of regressive.

Her songwriting could only go as far as the coffee shops and bars she performed in, since she couldn’t afford to record her songs. That is, until she was discovered through mutual connections by Atlantic Records in 1993.

Fame Still Had Its Problems

From her upbringing, Jewel learned about how women use sex to advance their careers, particularly in the entertainment industry. In an interview on the Armchair Expert podcast, she shared that sexual proposition “was so visceral and it was everywhere” in the bars that she sang in. 

Unnecessary comments would be thrown her way, despite her not being nearly of age, but she chose not to take any of it personally. That being said, Jewel has gone on record saying that the unfortunate experiences of sexual harassment at a young age helped her navigate Hollywood record labels and other professional career moves.

Despite having a rocky relationship with her family in the past, Jewel ended up allowing her mom to help her with management. On the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Jewel divulged that, in 2003, she discovered that her money had been mismanaged and that she was $3 million dollars in debt. What’s worse, her mom had actually walked away with Jewel’s money. This led her to cancel her tour for 0304 and added to the mental health struggles she had already been dealing with from her youth.

It would appear that Jewel’s mother manipulated her, banking on the fact that as her mother, Jewel could trust her to be keeping her best interests at the forefront of her decision-making. After her mother took millions of dollars from her, Jewel had to seek legal action in order to move forward. Interestingly enough, her mother now creates YouTube videos touting subjects similar to neuro-linguistic programming, a hypnosis technique infamously used by cults like NXIVM.

Yet, with every potentially devastating hurdle that she faced, Jewel chose to be the bigger person and to exercise forgiveness and compassion. For any young woman facing poor circumstances, Jewel’s story of determination and honing her own survival skills is admirable.

Her appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast opened up the eyes of many people who may have only passively known her music from years ago but could benefit from hearing her story of facing adversity yet deliberately choosing productive behaviors.

“Those of you who can't make your AA meeting today, I have just been advised this podcast counts,” said one Reddit user about her episode being much like a recovery tool for their own troubles.

Beating the Odds

Today, Jewel runs a nonprofit organization called Never Broken where she offers what she considers a roadmap to emotional fitness. To take any emotional battle head-on, Jewel developed mindfulness exercises and resources to “take you from a victim who merely reacts to life, to an architect who creates it.”

From her firsthand experience of trauma, anxiety, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts, Jewel honed coping skills on her own which are actually taught as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. These therapeutic practices are beneficial to people struggling with mental health conditions who don’t want to be stuck using pharmaceuticals that may have adverse side effects for the rest of their lives (and which usually can’t address the root of the issue).

Also while on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Jewel brought up criticisms of the #MeToo movement, having lived out sexual harassment and grooming from a young age. Her perspective was that in certain cases, women have had the ability to say no to men but oftentimes in Hollywood they will go along with sexual favors in the hopes that it could benefit their career path. Joe, having been in the entertainment industry throughout his adult life as well, brought up how many men do abuse their power and stature.

But to Jewel, the #MeToo movement capitalizes on the victimhood mentality. Instead, she has come forward urging people to instead say #NotMe because, as she told USA Today, she never felt like harassment held her back. “I’ve always felt like I was able to go, ‘How about F you? And I’m going to find a way (forward).”

Though she has clarified her position on cases like rape, noting that some mistreatment is impossible to avoid, she instead gives uplifting advice to women experiencing harassment that they are not “weak sheep.”

“No matter what someone throws at you, you are strong enough to do without it, even if it means losing your job. You will find another one, and you will believe in yourself. Your power will grow, your currency will grow, you just become more valuable, more potent. Even if it looks like you have something to lose, you have something bigger to gain,” she said.

Closing Thoughts

When someone like Jewel with an international platform chooses to tell her story, audiences everywhere reap the benefits of hearing a real-life example of triumph despite suffering. We can all learn from Jewel’s tender yet tough disposition, particularly when confronting our own demons and trying to navigate our way forward. As she said to Joe Rogan, “Fear is deflecting your past on your future."

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