When singer and actress Jordin Sparks was 16 years old, her life was changing, and not in the ordinary way it does for teenage girls. At that age, she auditioned for American Idol‘s sixth season, which she would later win, becoming the youngest winner in the show’s history. It would be a stepping stone for Jordin, who would go on to have hits on the Billboard charts, act on Broadway, and star alongside legends like Whitney Houston on the big screen. Looking back at that time in her life during a conversation with us further put into perspective the brevity of the loss of her stepsister, Bryanna Jackson-Frias. In 2019, Bryanna passed away of complications from sickle cell anemia at 16.
“She would have just had a ball and also she would have touched many people,” the star tells ESSENCE.
Bryanna’s death would inspire her to use her platform to spread awareness about sick cell disease. She recently teamed up with insurance company Aflac, which has a history, more than 26 years worth, of fighting against childhood cancers and blood disorders like sickle cell. They have reportedly contributed more than $154 million to such causes over the years. They are also providing their beloved My Special Aflac Duck, free of charge, to as many children as possible to provide emotional support to those dealing with the disease.
In helping to boost awareness, Grammy-nominated singer is hoping to honor Bryanna’s memory.
“She wanted to have these conversations,” she says. “She wanted to shed a light on sickle cell disease. And I think she would have been one of the most beautiful advocates that they could have had.”
ESSENCE spoke with Sparks about her commitment to this cause, her memories of Bryanna, and how their relationship opened her eyes to the need to use her voice to help those with sickle cell anemia.
ESSENCE: Tell me first about who your stepsister Bryanna was, and what you remember of the relationship that you guys had.
Jordin Sparks: She was the sweetest, most vibrant, beautiful girl. She loved music and fashion and she wanted to be a model. And I did not have her in my life very long. We were only stepsisters for a few years and then unfortunately she passed to sickle cell disease. But she was such a warrior in her fight, not only for herself but for those who also dealt with the disease, or family members that felt unsupported or isolated, because it’s a hard thing to talk about, sometimes. And it was hard but it was also really inspiring, because she sometimes would be in the hospital three weeks out of the month. She would never know how long her stints would be but she always had a smile on her face. That’s…among other things, one of the most vibrant things that I remember about her. She always had a smile and a kind word for everybody. We definitely miss her.
It’s really helped light the fire for me because I realized, when our families blended together, that I really had never had a conversation about sickle cell disease. I didn’t really know, in depth, what it was or what it was about. And when I got to know Bry and her dad and my stepdad, it was really amazing to learn that over 100,000 Americans are affected by it every year. It primarily affects the African-American community. It is a blood disorder that causes blockages in the bloodstream, which causes oxygen not to be able to travel to all the places it needs to go in the body. It’s a disease that…you can’t tell somebody has it just by looking at them. And even within that, that presents its own set of challenges. So there’s a lot of conversation that needs to be had around this disease, understanding it, how to help those that are in it, how to support those that are dealing with it. So I’m really grateful to be sitting here and having this conversation with you, and also to partner with Aflac who really has a heart for this cause. Not only have they talked the talk, but they’ve walked the walk for nearly 26 years. And so it’s been amazing to be able to sit here. It really does honor her legacy.
You briefly mentioned it, but what were her experiences with sickle cell in regards to hospitalization, because that’s a big struggle for a lot of people with this disease. They’re often in the hospital and they’re often in pain and you wonder, “What kind of pain are they going through?” What kind of situations was she finding herself in, physically, that she would detail to you?
You know, when we would have conversations, I tried to not really go into detail about that because it was her life. She dealt with that all the time, and so whenever we talked, we talked about different things, like makeup and fashion and things like that. But what I remember from her experiences was that…it’s individual to each person. So one person with sickle cell is not going to have a flare-up or a crisis the same way another person is going to. Some people, weather can cause a flare-up. In some people, stress can cause a flare-up. In others, it can be both. And there are many other ways. I remember talking to somebody, actually, it wasn’t my sister, but this young woman whom I saw a couple of years ago who had been dealing with the disease herself, said that her crises feel like shattered glass in her veins. I just remember thinking, I don’t think I’ve ever visualized that or visualized how that would feel. When she said that, it struck me so strongly that I just…to have that kind of pain and it could be for…you don’t know how long. The flare-ups can last for a couple of minutes to three weeks, so you just never know with this disease. But I think that’s why these conversations are so important because we need more people who understand it and more people who are able to talk and have these conversations to me. Somebody can come in and say, “I’m in so much pain,” but because you can’t see it, they might not know how best to treat them or where to send them for their pain management. So, there’s just a lot of different things that we need to be able to talk about. But yeah, it’s been incredible to be able to sit here and have this platform to talk about it, because what am I doing if I’m not? What’s the point if I’m not?
Can you tell me about partnering [with Aflac] to spread awareness about sickle cell and the My Special Aflac Duck?
It’s amazing because I was sent one so I could know exactly what the duck was like. And I had no idea what to expect and you know I have my son DJ, and he just lit up when he saw this thing.
There’s a little sensor right on the front and they actually come with these little smiley faces. So there’s one that’s green for feeling nauseated. There’s a red one for anger. And you think of these kids who have been hospitalized and are going through so much in these treatments, and sometimes they can’t express how they feel for a number of different reasons. They’re uncomfortable, they’re scared. They don’t feel like talking or they actually can’t, they might not be able to speak at the moment. So they put the little [face] on and the duck, in its own way, will quack, but it’ll match the emotion that they put on here. It’s a new conduit, another way for them to be able to communicate what they’re feeling. It is really comforting and when I saw the joy on my son’s face… I can only imagine what it’s going to bring to the kids that are going to receive them. So this partnership has really meant a lot to me because any way that I can help children, make them feel better, ease their experience, bring a smile to their face, that’s where I want to be. So this really is the perfect partnership in my mind because it’s a genuine connection. I have a genuine heart for this cause and so does Aflac
Lastly, I did want to ask you, your sister, she passed in 2018 and she was very young. She was 16. And that’s very substantial to think about, what her future could have been. So how do you live your life, moving forward in a way that celebrates her?
Well, being able to share how sweet she was and what a strong, young woman she was. I mean, she was 16 and I remember… 16 was when everything happened for me with American Idol, so knowing that that was almost as old as she was…it’s been almost 15 years since I won. There’s just so many things that have happened for me, and I really wish that she could be here to experience all the things that life has to offer. So I’m trying to honor her memory in that way, and the family as well. And it’s kind of crazy that she passed in 2018 and that’s when the ducks came up. So, you just connected that for me. That’s like a little God wink, though: ‘Yeah, you’re on the right track.’ So I’m on the right track.
Visit Aflac to learn more about their childhood cancer and blood disorders campaign.