Hayley Kiyoko is one of Hollywood’s most radical pop stars. Since the release of her groundbreaking single ‘Girls Like Girls’ in 2015, the multi-faceted music artist, director, actor and dancer has won a legion of fans that hail her as ‘Lesbian Jesus’. It’s a big mantle to wear, but for Kiyoko, 28, challenging the heteronormative voice of pop music has become a calling.
“I think for me and my journey, it’s always been about normalising love and what that looks like,” she tells me down the line from her home in Hollywood. “It’s been a really amazing emotional journey, where now I know my purpose is not only to make music, but to help inspire hope among other people.”
Coat, JACQUELINE LOEKITO
The igniting moment in the story of her life came when she attended an NSYNC concert aged 10, and decided she wanted to be a musician. “I saw all of these girls screaming at them and dancing at the STAPLES Center, and I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ she says, laughing. Back then her motive was purely self-servicing: “I shallowly was like, ‘Cool, I’ll be on stage – I want to have attention from girls, and I want to dance and sing and perform and give it my all.’
“I didn’t know that my authentic self and sharing my sexuality was going to be such a huge part of my journey as an artist.” After the release of ‘Girls Like Girls’, she says, “it shifted everything because all of a sudden, I was more open and more creative.”
Before that, she was playing the game like every other ex- Disney star. LA born and bred, the daughter of showbiz parents, her mother a Japanese-Canadian ice-skating choreographer and father an American actor and stand-up comedian, Kiyoko was scouted aged just five years old. She trained as a dancer, drummer, and worked tirelessly in commercials and TV in the entertainment industry, alongside her high school prefect duties. She admits she is a “workaholic”, a quality she learnt from her parents.
“Once you own your truth, and you embrace your truth, you become free.”
In acting roles she was typically cast as the ‘edgy’ one, whether as the rock ’n’ roll rebel in teen movie Lemonade Mouth, or as a troublemaking new student in The Wizards of Waverly Place. In 2007, she joined bubblegum pop girl group The Stunners (literally, their debut single in 2009 was called ‘Bubblegum’), and early signs of chart success culminated in the band supporting Justin Bieber on tour before they disbanded in 2007. The group’s hypersexual dance routines and provocative outfits couldn’t be further from Kiyoko’s current aesthetic.
Her latest dream-pop infused single ‘I Wish’ takes the schoolgirl narrative and turns it on its head. The video opens with a group of friends helping Kiyoko get over the object of her unrequited love using witchcraft. It bears the hallmarks of 90s occult classic The Craft, and the dance choreography borders on the creepiness of The Exorcist.
The song is a story about female solidarity. “I wanted to showcase friendship – being there for one another when you don’t get love, you get denied by someone that you love, or maybe you don’t have that love for yourself. Showing that support system to help you get through the hard times. “The song is obviously something that’s relatable. We all just kind of want love, and sometimes we force love upon ourselves that isn’t meant to be. We just really crave validation and affection and love from others,” she says presciently.
There’s a neat twist in ‘I Wish’, in that her love interest in the music video is a plus-size model. “She’s a gorgeous girl, and I wanted to showcase that. A lot of times, there’s a certain vision of what a love interest looks like in videos, and a lot of the times that stereotype isn’t broken. I just wanted to remind people that there are so many different levels to what beauty is.”
Kiyoko has been directing her own videos for several years now, taking ownership of the entire creative process, from casting to camera angles. She focuses on the message: “What am I trying to say? What am I trying to get out there? What does it look like? And how do I tell that story in an entertaining way? In, you know, five minutes,” she explains in her laconic drawl. ‘I Wish’ is Kiyoko’s first new release since her debut full-length album, Expectations, dropped early in 2018, and saw social media get behind her snappy hashtag #20GAYTEEN, marking 2018 as the year of LGBTQ visibility. Highlights from her album included the upbeat, questioning track ‘Curious’, and anthemic duet ‘What I Need’ with Kehlani – complete with a cinematic love story music video featuring the two stars.
While people don’t berate straight artists such as Taylor Swift for her endless dissection of her love life, they seem to with Kiyoko. “People are always like, ‘You’re gonna do a video about loving a girl again?’ And it’s just like, ‘Yeah, I love girls, and that doesn’t change.’ There are so many different stories that haven’t been told.”
Her personal journey of coming out had its ups and downs. “Like most people,” she reflects. “I was able to confide in a couple of friends that made me feel safe, and then there were times where a lot of the judgment came from myself, you know? Being afraid of what people would think.” She says she experiences homophobia “all the time”, for example people calling her a “dyke” and heckling her for kissing her girlfriend in public.
She advocates self-awareness as a weapon to fight discrimination. “Once you own your truth, and you embrace your truth, you become free. You become free of judgment from yourself, and you don’t allow the judgment of others to define you.”
There have been other battles, too. On her 25th birthday Kiyoko fell and hit her head, suffering a serious concussion, which led to depression. At the time she discovered crystals for healing, using citrine for clarity, which inspired the title of her first EP. Her next music “project” (not a full album) circles back and features the current single ‘Demons’ that is “about battling depression”. She likens it to “a monster that comes in and out and you can’t control it. I think that people can really relate to that feeling of wanting to feel better. Trying to get a hold of their mental health and control that. Everyone has their own demons that they battle. I feel like it’ll be really relatable.”
For Kiyoko, empathy is crucial to understanding life and relationships. “We’re all human beings, we’re all different shades of colours, but we all love and we all go through heartbreak. Those feelings are the same.”
Amen to that.