Out trailblazer, Hayley Kiyoko talks life, liberty and the pursuit of unabashed queer pop
Even lesbian Jesuses get swept up by the grandeur of the Statue of Liberty.
“I’ve never seen it before! It’s huge! Oh my god, it’s huge,” enthuses a giddy-as-ever Hayley Kiyoko, proclaimed “the lesbian Jesus” by her adoring disciples. The unapologetic pop fixture checks out of our conversation to soak up the moment while cruising over a bridge in NYC. “It’s on my left. I had to, like, gasp. Oh my god, it’s so cool.”
The 26-year-old singer is doing a string of press calls to tout her debut album, Expectations, and though I understandably lost her to a colossal Neoclassical monument, Kiyoko eventually remembers why she’s on the phone in the first place.
Kiyoko’s DIY music career launched in 2013, when her partial crowdfunded debut EP A Belle to Remember was released. This Side of Paradise followed in 2015 and featured “Girls Like Girls.” The single’s video, which has amassed more than 82 million views on YouTube (collectively, her self-directed videos have eclipsed 170 million views), took a hard, unflinching look at the challenges of facing same-sex desire. Kiyoko released her third EP, CITRINE, in 2016, which included single “Gravel to Tempo”; in the video, she leaves a group of mean girls speechless with her seductive dance moves. “Curious,” a single from her first full-length, is as brazenly sensual as any straight pop star’s lustfulness — and the world is better for it.
Your 94-year-old grandma recently discovered you’re lesbian thanks to one of your videos.
(Laughs) It’s funny: I’ve been gently sending her videos, but I don’t know if she’s been watching them or not, because that was the first time she responded directly to my music. I still don’t know which video she watched, but with every video, it’s obvious that I like girls, so I feel like the cat’s out of the bag finally.
Which videos of yours would be a good gay conversation-starter for grandmas to watch?
(Laughs) I feel like “Girls Like Girls” is a good introduction.
Tell me how you came to be so open about your sexuality as a pop musician.
It’s been baby steps. I did the “Girls Like Girls” video, which was the introduction; even, still, people didn’t know where I was at. Then, I released “Gravel to Tempo.”
It’s like, what song do I want to release next? Okay, great. What do I want the story to be? Okay, great, and then I release it. [With] every video I want to challenge myself and tell a different story and perspective on a situation that I’ve experienced. Now, looking back at all these videos, it tells a solidified story, and I like girls — as you know, it’s difficult to want to be open about it because it’s a personal thing and it’s something you don’t feel like you need to share. It’s a situation where I’ve connected with so many people through it.
I’ve had to own it really and feel confident about it because I realize that there aren’t a lot of people who do that. So, you have to lead by example, and that’s the best way to help normalize those feelings, and that’s always been my goal: to normalize things and not have it be a conversation. I always told my manager: “I don’t want to come out. I want people to watch my art and take it for what it is.”
Talk about the queer themes on this album and how life inspired those songs?
I have a song “He’ll Never Love You (HNLY),” and I love that song because it talks about a situation I was in where this girl wanted to be with me but was too afraid to own her sexuality. So, it was one of those situations where I had to let that person go. It was always a frustrating situation because I knew how she felt, but you can’t encourage anyone to love themselves. That’s a journey of their own.
When, as a public figure, did you first feel 100 percent comfortable being open about your sexuality?
I would say probably the music video after “Girls Like Girls,” so “Cliff’s Edge.” That was obviously a bold music video, and you can’t argue with what’s going on in it (laughs). So, that was a moment when I was like, “I’m gonna own this, and I’m gonna own who I am.” To be honest, I’ve always known who I was since I was younger; sharing that with the world is another level of pressure, I would say.
Could you compare how you felt about your sexuality during “Girls Like Girls” versus “Cliff’s Edge”?
I almost didn’t put “Girls Like Girls” on my EP. It was a last-minute decision, and then I also wasn’t sure what I was doing because I saw the reactions and didn’t know my next step. I didn’t know where I was going with my career and what my message was, and it was just kind of up in the air, because I made “Girls Like Girls” in an honest place, just like every video I do. But after you do something, it’s like, what do I do now?
How did you gauge what was next in your queer music narrative? Do you have a team guiding you?
No, I don’t think that’s a reality (laughs). I mean, I don’t know. I’m myself, and I don’t consult anyone. I just put it out.
A lot of pop acts have a team working with them.
Oh yeah. No, no, no. My team is my manager and my day-to-day. I have my team, but they’re all straight (laughs), and they can’t relate. So I go, “This is what I’m doing,” and then we do it. There’s nothing contrived or manipulated. It’s really: write a song; Okay, I want to shoot a music video; we create a music video; I do whatever I want with it, and then I decide when I want to release it, and then I put it out on YouTube. That’s the process. I’m sure it’s different for other artists, but I’ve always been extremely controlling with my art.
That control has probably been one of the reasons you’ve connected with all the fans who call you their “lesbian Jesus.” Could you describe the connection?
I think the connection is gentle, vulnerable, and emotional because a lot of times, it’s interesting: sometimes kids will say things to me that they’ve never said to anyone else. It’s an open space, and I think they know I’m accepting of them. I’m always encountering emotional experiences, and I’m sensitive, aware, and connected to that, so that’s something we share.
What’s it like to think you’re the lesbian pop star you wished for when you were a struggling queer teen?
I don’t know. I guess I don’t think about it that much. I feel like I’m not looking at myself all the time in the sense of look who I am. I’m like everyone else, trying to get through life day to day. I want to get to a certain point in my career where people are listening to my music and giving me an opportunity and a platform.
As a young person, you were pretty hungry for representation, though.
Oh yeah, 100 percent. And there were some great acts that I loved, like Tegan and Sara. I love them. But yeah, it’s interesting: I didn’t have a person where I was like, “She knows what I’m going through, and we are connected.” Icons and idols were close but not really connected.
I had read that Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” influenced you.
Did it? I mean I don’t think I said it was an influence. They had asked me what I thought about it and, because a lot of people were saying negative things, I had nothing negative to say. I was reminded, Katy Perry is singing about experimenting and kissing a girl, and I support that; I’m going to be someone who likes girls and sing about it. It was a positive thing because it was a step toward what I was going to do down the line.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).
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