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One day, the honeyed voice of Jillian “JJ” Simmons was bouncing off towers and into radio speakers across Houston tuned into 97.9 The Box KBXX. The next day, on the eve of Super Bowl weekend, it was gone—and never returned. Simmons, a seasoned pro and longtime host of the station’s popular JJ on the Mic show that aired weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., had turned in her notice, effective immediately.

Half a year later, she still runs into fans across Houston, all of whom have the same question for her: Where did you go? “I’m right here!” she laughs.

And here Simmons is indeed, radiant, sipping a mocha latte at the Whole Foods Market in BLVD Place that’s close to her new office—her new life. If Simmons didn’t already stand out in a crowd for her tall frame and model-good looks, there’s also the glamorous asymmetrical haircut, the smack of crimson lipstick, and the magnetic personality of a woman who’s had an enormous weight unburdened from her soul.

A few days before her dramatic February 2 departure from The Box, Simmons had a panic attack—on air—that left her hospitalized for two days. The incident was the culmination of years of stress. While Simmons had no beef with anyone at the station and felt grateful for the (six-figure) opportunity, she’d started to wonder if the job had an expiration date. Back-to-back Super Bowl events that left her exhausted weren’t helping, either.

“I had to go to this Slim Thug Boss Life Party and the next day be at the Martin Luther King breakfast,” Simmons recalls, “and I had three hours of sleep, and I was so tired, and I just kept thinking, I’m doing what I have to do and not what it is I really want to do.”

Simmons first moved to Houston from Indianapolis in 2011. She hoped to make a fresh start for herself and her young daughter after spending years struggling to escape an abusive relationship at the hands of a man she refers to pseudonymously as “Stacey.” Years of therapy—and a life-altering discussion with her father, a retired cop, who bluntly explained to Simmons that she’d been abused by a sociopath, two words she hadn’t previously allowed herself to contemplate—led Simmons to share her story.

Without Bruises: A Journey to Hope, Help and Healing took two years for Simmons to write. She self-published her tale on Amazon in October 2016, where it quickly became a top seller in its category. The memoir is engrossing and confessional, like a best friend coming clean about her own terrible relationship in hopes of encouraging her friends to recognize similar patterns of abuse and find their own paths out.

“In my last year of therapy,” Simmons explains, “I was starting to really think about other women who were currently in a relationship with [Stacey]. We had broken up; I had already moved away. But I was thinking there’s other women who are gonna repeat the same exact thing, and it just scared me and it made me so sad.”

Writing the warts-and-all account gave Simmons “a sense of freedom,” she says. “Everyone has a story and it needs to be told, because this is how we evolve and mature. We need to see the mistakes that people have made—we need that transparency to grow.”

The book isn’t Simmons’s first effort to help others grow. The year before moving to Houston, she started the JJ’s I’m Me Foundation, which imparts the hard-won wisdom and sisterly knowledge that at-risk middle-school-aged girls desperately need as they wind their way through the wilds of puberty and junior high embarrassments. The idea is to bring together professional women who have the ability to connect with pre-teens to teach afterschool courses in everything from healthy eating and conflict resolution to robotics and résumé writing.

Simmons continued the foundation’s work here in Houston, visiting area middle schools with the JJ’s I’m Me Tour, a seven-week afterschool program. But soon, the rigors of a radio job that often kept her on-air for seven hours at a time and the ceaseless schedule of a single mother meant the project was foundering.

Before she quit The Box, Simmons recalls, she had a conversation with her boss. You really might want to put something to the side, her superior rightly stressed. “And I did,” Simmons says. “But it wasn’t what she expected. I had to put aside what I was least passionate about and what didn’t fully line up with my purpose.”

For a woman who’d wanted to be in radio since her own middle school days, the decision was demarcative. “My identity has always been attached to some radio station,” says Simmons. Quitting was “like finding a new person, like I have a new identity.”

Today, Simmons has redoubled her commitment to her foundation—and to spending time with her 10-year-old daughter, who inspires her work. “No matter how much I pour into her at home, she’s at school for seven hours a day,” says Simmons. “The fact is, whatever other girls are saying to her at school, she’s soaking that in as well. That’s one of the reasons the Tour exists; I need to whip these girls into shape to show them that you’ve gotta be the best version of yourself.”

The JJ’s I’m Me Tour has now traveled to 28 middle schools across Houston in districts from Spring and Cy-Fair to Alief and Fort Bend. Simmons has plans to take it statewide, eventually, then nationwide, bringing motivation, inspiration and education to every classroom she encounters. And though striking out on her own—and writing her own paychecks for a change—makes her “nervous as hell,” Simmons says she hasn’t looked back.

“I feel like I’ve jumped into an ocean with a life jacket on,” she says. “It’s scary and you don’t know what’s out there, but God isn’t gonna let me drown.”

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