Ryan Noble Jennifer Smestad
Jennifer Smestad was just 10 years old when her world began to fall apart.
Instinctively, the little girl who would eventually grow up to be an accomplished singer/songwriter in Nashville knew something was wrong. Despite her wide smile and friendly personality, Smestad was doing her best to hide every tick and every uncontrollable motion. But it wasn't until that doctor's appointment in the fifth grade that the Arizona native and her close-knit family were told what they were dealing with.
It was Tourette syndrome.
"I could hardly function as a human," Smestad, 28, admits to PEOPLE about the life-altering diagnosis. "I was so embarrassed, so I tried to hide it from everyone. Living that sort of double life obviously made everything harder. I would hold in as much as I could, because I was fearful of anyone in school making fun of me. I would go home and completely explode with all the ticks and such."
And if that wasn't enough, Smestad was also diagnosed at the same time with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and social anxiety, leaving the little girl with the wide smile with a lot to carry both physically and emotionally.
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"Tourette syndrome is weird," says Smestad, who made the move to Nashville to begin her country music career in 2016 after a lifetime of listening to the likes of country legends such as Garth Brooks, Faith Hill and Shania Twain. "You can't control it, but to a point, you can. It's like an itch. You can make the decision not to scratch it, but you will go crazy, and it will just get worse."
Despite the challenges she was faced with, Smestad persevered, eventually serving as Miss Arizona and competing in the Miss America Competition in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 2013. And it was there that she began to open up about all that she had gone through.
"I was very fearful, because of my social anxiety, to speak in front of people, but I knew that the only thing to get me better with that was just actually to start doing it," says the singer/songwriter whose breakthrough debut single "Half the Man" has already racked up nearly 20 million streams. "I was born with a ton of determination. I like to make myself feel uncomfortable with the things that scare me the most because I know that's the only way I'm going to get better at it. But yes, it was hard to start sharing that story."
Today, Smestad finds herself primarily on the other side of the battle she fought for so long, breaking free from some of the chains of Tourette syndrome thanks to a mix of Chinese acupuncture and herbs that she says, "changed my life."
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"You might never know that I have struggled with any of this stuff unless you spend 24 hours with me," admits Smestad.
Indeed, the woman one sees now is strong and confident and eager to spread her message of empowerment. And it's this empowerment that country music fans are increasingly starting to notice, as it permeates not only through Smestad herself, but also through her music.
Take, for example, her fresh new single "Can't Have Mine."
"When you relate to a song so much, it's a lot easier to say what you have to say," Smestad says of the song that she co-wrote alongside Shelby Darrall and Noby Sidez. "I could remember exactly how it felt from personal experience."
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Indeed, the song stems from those days in which Smestad found herself in a bevy of relationships, knowing darn well that she deserved better.
"I now know the difference between someone who values me and someone who doesn't," laughs Smestad, whose authentic nature and impressive nature has helped her to establish a strong social media following, including over 265,000 TikTok followers.
Today, Smestad says she "is on the other side of the song now," and is enjoying life alongside "a guy who's wonderful and treats me well." It's also a man who welcomes the chance to be by her side not only through a fast-rising country music career, but some of the ongoing personal challenges that she continues to face.
"There is no cure for Tourette syndrome, but as you get older, you do grow out of the severity of the symptoms," she says. "But I still struggle with anxiety and I've gone through very scary depression spells."
Despite this, Smestad remains focused on her faith and her family…and her music.
"When I lose sight of those things, that's when everything gets scary," she says quietly. "All I can do is show up. The rest really isn't up to me."