Since the 2015 debut of 7 Little Johnstons, the Johnstons have proven to be a little family who makes a big impression. The show follows the everyday exploits of spouses Trent and Amber Johnston and their family, comprised of their two biological kids, Elizabeth and Jonah, and their three adopted children, Anna, Alex, and Emma. What makes this Georgia family truly unique is that each of them has achondroplasia dwarfism — they once described themselves as “the real-life seven dwarfs.”
The Johnstons didn’t set out to become reality TV stars, but it just sort of happened that way. And while the show features plenty of moments that are both light-hearted and heartwarming, there’s an important message they want to bring to viewers: They may look different than most families, but. despite their size, they’re just like anyone else.
In an exclusive interview with The List, mom Amber Johnston gets candid about a wide array of topics, ranging from how growing up in front of the camera has impacted her five children to the important role she feels that 7 Little Johnstons fulfills on television.
How 7 Little Johnstons came to be
How did 7 Little Johnstons come about in the first place?
Well, actually we were guests on the Anderson Cooper talk show, when he had a live daytime talk show. And we were on there because he focused on, I guess, extraordinary families. That first season of his talk show was not really based on celebrities. It was based on everyday families that had different things going on. Literally walking onto [the] stage, my email [blew up] and any way that production companies could contact me, [they] were doing so. And we were actually worse off because at the time Alex, our youngest, was having his cast removed, so I went to the hospital up in Delaware to do that. But in the meantime, I was answering emails from production companies, and basically they all felt that we would be a great family to feature as a reality TV show.
What was the experience like when you first started being filmed? How quickly did everyone become accustomed to having cameras follow them around?
I feel we quickly adjusted. The biggest thing was the production crew adjusting to us. We’re a very large family. We’re a very busy family, active. I think a lot of times they came in with the thought that we would be slow moving, that there would be so many things that we wouldn’t be able to do, and it was the exact opposite. So lots of times we had to wait for them to catch up and realize that we’re quick moving, we’re very active.
But as far as the whole… learning how reality TV really works, it didn’t really take long. The biggest thing was that all seven of us have always felt that we’re true to ourselves in front of the camera as well as off cameras. So it’s not like we’re living two separate lives, so, we don’t have to think about that when the cameras are around. It’s pretty seamless when it comes to what we’re doing front of the camera.
What makes 7 Little Johnstons stand out
There are a lot of different reality shows right now that feature little people. What is it about your show, do you think, that makes it stand out?
All of us would agree that we’re very relatable. We’re raw, and as far as what we share and the fact that I feel like when you watch our show it’s a show about a family that is loaded with adventure and doing things themselves, and they all happen to be little. It’s not a little people show, that they do some stuff. I think we definitely stand out from the two main ones that are going on right now in that we don’t revolve our lives around the fact that we’re little, we just have the mentality that we happen to be in this body, but it doesn’t stop us. It doesn’t slow us. It doesn’t prevent… And then I think our parenting, our lifestyle is very different from what the other shows display.
Well, you know what? When I asked that question, it sort of occurred to me that there are so many shows right now featuring little people, compared to say, 20 years ago, when I don’t think there were actually any. Do you think that’s changed society’s attitudes?
It has changed, but it hasn’t changed enough. We still have a long, long, long ways to go. And the thing is… I had a producer tell me years ago, little people haven’t had their civil rights movement, and that’s exactly right. And we’re such a small group, a lot of people say, “Oh, well, there’s a lot of little people shows.” Really, there’s not. There’s a few, but when you look at it, how many average-size people shows are there? There’s far more average-size people’s shows than there are little people shows. And I hate for them to be titled, average-size or little, because we don’t go around titling, like, “Oh, it’s average-size show.” No, we just say it’s whatever TV show it is.
And like I said, with our show, it’s a reality show based on a family that happened to be little people. And that’s the mindset that we not only have, but we… I don’t want to say we expect our crew to have, but our crew has filmed on other little people shows, they quickly realize on our show, “Yeah. It’s different,” and I think that until society realizes that, “Yeah. They’re human beings that just happened to be in a little person body,” there won’t ever be enough little people shows.
The pandemic made filming the show more complicated than usual
Now there’s also a new element with the pandemic, which has affected TV and film production across the board. How has that impacted the way your show is filmed and what you’ve been doing?
It definitely has made it different for sure, because we… Fortunately we have an awesome crew that we’re very close with. So, upon arrival last August, it’s different. I mean, it’s definitely different just throughout. We can’t be as close. We can’t be as… We used to all eat together and just normal everyday work life together, and we can’t do that anymore. As far as filming goes, I mean, sure. We film a lot more inside and outside the house. It takes a lot more planning as far as, where are we going to go? What are we going to do? Just because of COVID.
And just everybody’s… Whether it’s the business’s protocol, production protocol, our protocol, whatever, it’s just definitely made it more… We have to think it out a lot more, and a lot more planning than we are used to. But, I mean, we’re still moving forward and, hopefully things are going to get better. I don’t want to say back to normal, because I don’t think there’s going to be a back to normal. I think it’s going to be a new normal, so we just all have to adjust.
Amber Johnston's weight-loss journey and TikTok adventures
Now, I also recently read that you lost 44 pounds. So congratulations on that. That’s amazing. How did you do that? What was the secret?
Well, it’s really no secret. I’m in the Optavia plan, but also just a lot of discipline and training myself because I should have never let myself get as big as I did. But due to back injury and then surgery, it became easy and a way of life. So, yeah, I had to change that and fix that, and I’m so thankful that I did, because I literally feel 20 years younger physically. But my goal is probably about another five or six more pounds and then be good to go. Be back down to high school weight, which will be amazing.
I can only dream. I also read that you’re conquering TikTok now. How did that come about?
Ah, yes. Emma, our youngest daughter. She is, I mean, like queen of TikTok. And she started it, of course, doing them herself, and then there would be one that was going viral, that she needed other people in. And so I would start doing it. The whole family would do it. It, of course, had a lot to do with COVID because we were home a lot more, and we had a lot more time to practice this thing.
The thing about it is, Emma would go up in her room and she’ll practice them for a couple hours, then come downstairs, show it to me one time and be like, “All right, do it Mom,” and I can’t get it the first or second or even fifth time. And she’s like, “Aargh.” I said, “Emma, I’ve listened to you upstairs, practicing for hours. You want me to do this on the first try?” “Well, I know, but we just got to do it.” But, yeah. We love it. It’s so fun, they’re funny. It’s always a challenge to get all seven of us doing one.
What kind of response have you been getting from those videos?
I guess pretty good. I’ve got an account and the kids each have their own account, but I also post on Instagram because I’m more… I don’t know, I guess I’m old. I’m more an Instagram person. So, I put them on there as well, but I like watching the different things on TikTok too. So I think we’re doing pretty good. From what I hear from my children, nothing has gone viral and we’re clearly doing everything wrong, and whatever. So, I don’t know.
Fans sometimes think they know the Johnstons better than they actually do
I’ve noticed a phenomenon in reality shows, that when viewers watch someone’s actual life being documented on television, they have sort of an overfamiliarity, where they think they know you more than they probably do. Have you ever encountered that?
Absolutely. And they know how to tell you everything that you’re doing wrong.
So yeah. We get it, probably if we go outside of our bubble, like outside of school, work. We get it daily. That they come up, they use our first names and, you know, how they know this and that that was done and we’re doing. But, clearly, it’s very hard to know somebody watching them 44 minutes a week. I hate to use the word “edit” because a lot of people just want to assume edited means making everything look one way or the other, but editing, meaning that they chose.
Honestly we film hours upon hours of footage and they’re taking the most sensible part out of that to make a storyline. But in 44 minutes, you don’t see the entire picture. I mean, it’s just impossible. We wish we could show everything for sure. But there’s obviously not enough airtime for that. But, yeah, viewers feel like you owe them something as well. If they happen to see you, that you need to stop, take photos, put in time with them, things like that.
I mean, we used to, before we moved to this town, we used to have people come to our house regularly in our driveway, in our backyard, knocking on the doors and getting very upset that we wouldn’t let them in and things like that. I give people the example of… and maybe it has to do with, I grew up in California where there are a lot of celebrities that do go out about their lives. But if Tom Cruise lived across the street from us, we would not show up at his house. His day job is to make movies. That’s what he gets paid for. That’s how he pays his bills. One of our jobs, besides our day employee jobs, one of our jobs is educating the world through our reality TV show. That doesn’t give you the right to want to come into my house.
Why Amber Johnston and her family are happy being on TV
Now, have there also been positive encounters with people who recognize you?
For sure. Yeah. And you know, a lot of times the ones that are positive are shy or bashful to actually come up, but we have received lots and lots and lots of email on how we’ve helped their lives, how we’ve helped their lives, how we’ve helped with certain situations, how we’ve inspired them. But, yeah. I mean, we have had people come up that have just quietly said, “I don’t want to bother you, but I just want you to know that what you’re doing is great.”
We had one, the girls and I had, one or two, like last week or the week before, that the mom… The son, he was too shy, but he was a multiracial child, and he had been facing a lot of troubles at school and he’s also a diabetic and he wanted to play soccer, [he’d been] watching the episodes of Jonah, trying out for soccer and playing and stuff, inspired him to do that. And I looked at her and I said, “That’s exactly why we do what we do, because we want people to see that anything is possible for anybody and everybody.” And you know, it’s great to hear those.
And then it is exactly why we do what we do. Because there’s lot of great… With putting yourself out there and exploiting yourself, but there also is negativity and it’s hard, but when you do have the greatness, you then reflect and go, “You know what? That’s exactly why we do this.” And it doesn’t get rid of the negativity, but it helps balance it out more.
The stars of 7 Little Johnstons are "normal, regular people"
To follow on that a bit, what have been some of your own personal highlights from your experience with the show, things that you’ve been able to do because of the show?
Well, obviously the show has definitely brought tangible things that we’ve been able to experience, like traveling to Puerto Rico. That was an amazing experience. And the fact that our production company and the network listened to us on what we wanted to do in that trip. We didn’t want just some lounge vacation. Obviously, we wanted a trip that our kids could experience culture, but could also experience… They have an orphanage, and just different things like that, and we were able to do that.
The show has definitely allowed us… We don’t work for free. We’re obviously making some money. It definitely isn’t what Google says, but it’s allowed us to help put our kids through college, buy these vehicles that they’re driving. It’s allowed us to just be able to do things. I mean, we work even when the show’s not here. So, obviously, my husband works a full-time job. I work a full-time job. Three of our kids work full-time jobs, and we work on the show. So it’s not like when the show’s not here, we’re just out gallivanting and traveling. We’re still just normal, regular people.
But, I think too, it’s allowed [us to have another] family, a crew family that we wouldn’t have, if we didn’t have the show. And it’s pretty amazing, because basically, we see these people more than we see our own family. But it’s just, there’s been so much experience. I mean, I definitely think that whenever the time does come that our show road is coming to an end, there will not be any looking back as far as, “Oh, I wish I wouldn’t have done that.” There’ve been times where people have made super cruel and negative comments, but as far as what we have actually put on TV, and the stories we have shared, as raw as they may have been, or continue to be, there’s no regrets at all.
Viewers don't see everything that takes place in the Johnstons' world
Has there been anything that the cameras haven’t shown viewers that maybe you wish they did get to see?
Ah, we’ve been doing them so long… Yeah. I know there’s times where things don’t make the edit or the cut, and we’re kind of like, “Oh, bummer.” But, it’s either a reason that there wasn’t enough time or, or there were better stories, other things… I mean, we do have this happen quite often where we may have a plan as far as following our life and what’s going on. And of course, having five kids, things pop up and, and situations arise. And so we capture those and those may trump the other things that we thought.
So, I mean, sure. There’s times that things don’t make the cut, but I’ve never… I don’t think any of us have ever watched it and then like, “Oh. It should have been something else. Another scene that we filmed should have been in there.” I mean, ultimately there’s just not enough time, of course, to be able to air everything. But, the more we go digital too, I think the more things are able to be shared that way as well. So currently viewers have so many different platforms to be able to see different parts of the show.
How growing up in front of the camera has affected the Johnston family
Now, in terms of your family life, do you think that having your children grow up in front of the camera has affected them at all?
I’d be crazy to say that, no, it hasn’t. Because, obviously they’re out there and they’re… Our kids’ lives, [their] privacy is a little bit exposed, but I don’t think that it has had a negative impact. I think, if anything, it’s taught them value, it’s taught them work ethic. When we started this journey, we started it with, “This is a job. It’s a family job in a sense of family business, and we’re all seven in it. And when we no longer all seven want to be in it, then it’s not going to work, but we must all work together.”
And it has literally taught since, Emma and Alex were 8 years old, the value of working hard. And they obviously see when we do, and we produce a product and obviously monetarily are paid for it, what it allows us to do. At the same time, we have kept life very normal to the extent of, the kids remained in public school, they were expected to get full-time jobs. Our little kids, they run a full-time online shop of their own. Our biggest mission was that we started as the Johnstons and we will finish as the Johnstons. We’re not going to become some high-end Kardashians. And our kids, the values and the expectations that we have of our kids before we started the show are going to be the same when we finish the show.
Do you think that growing up in front of the camera, and being on television may have given them more confidence than they would have had otherwise?
I don’t think so. I mean, I think as far as answering [questions in] interviews and stuff, absolutely. Because my kids are very… Especially working with children now, even as a third grader… Maybe not Emma, but Alex for sure. Being interviewed, I mean, he knows how to answer questions and restating the question and things like that. But there’s a lot that they have to deal with that we’ve had to manage, with social media mainly, that has [taught] them a lot. So, yeah. I don’t know, be confident maybe in one area as far as, speaking with interviews and things like that. But I don’t know, overall, just because it does kind of have a downfall.
Now that the new season is airing, what kind of things can viewers expect to see in upcoming episodes?
Well, we are continuing with Elizabeth possibly learning how to drive and getting a car. I know that we do… So us taking a trip to Asheville and, Jonah’s girlfriend, which is throughout this season, you’ll see becoming very serious. Let’s see, what else? Jonah, he is obviously going to be turning 21, and so the ultimatum of him needing to get it together and work on moving out is a big, big storyline. Because he’s not taking the college route. He is working, but we can’t just keep staying on cruise control at mom and dad’s house. We’ve got to plan together and put it in place and work on moving out and finding our own place.
7 Little Johnstons airs on TLC.
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