For Hayley Kiyoko, the last year featured a heady number of firsts: She won a moonman at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards, toured arenas with Panic! at the Disco and guest-starred in a splashy, LGBTQ-positive Taylor Swift music video. But Kiyoko is most excited about her latest first. Just yesterday, she took part in the NYC Pride Parade for the first time. “It was super fun,” she says. “I need bacon today.”
Over eggs (and bacon) near Union Square in New York City, Kiyoko, who’s sporting a lox-colored cargo jacket and a denim miniskirt leans over to share a photo of yesterday’s Pride Parade look. “It’s hard to explain,” she says with a laugh, handing me her iPhone with a photo of her crystal-embellished face in a mesh orange top and denim cutoffs. The event was understandably emotional for her. “Sometimes you do forget how important being who you are is,” she says.
While acting as an ambassador on the W Hotels float during the parade, Kiyoko, 28, couldn’t help but admire all the different faces in the crowd. “I saw this cute little Asian woman waving her flag alone, and then there was another older man just sitting there alone blowing us kisses. It’s so cool they’re watching these next generations being so proud, and pushing the envelope when they, maybe 50 years ago, didn’t get to experience the things that we get to experience.” As an out-and-proud lesbian musician, she too is a part of the change.
Despite putting out EPs since 2013, Kiyoko became a breakout pop star and queer icon in 2018 — or #20GAYTEEN as she and her fans would say — upon releasing her debut album “Expectations.” Mixing her foundational love of ‘90s boy-band pop with the more contemporary club buzz of electro-R&B, she sang both openly queer love songs and songs about dating women who aren’t comfortable with being out. In addition to music, Kiyoko also has a flourishing acting career, notably starring in “CSI: Cyber” and the Facebook Watch series “Five Points,” and provocatively popping up in the HBO series “Insecure” as Miko, whose threesome with Lawrence (Jay Ellis) explored issues of race and sexuality. The role, which involved nudity, was a creative risk for her. And she embraced it.
Because of her music and the fact that she had been so open about her queer identity, Kiyoko has been dubbed “Lesbian Jesus” by fans and, of course, the internet. She remains humble, though. She doesn’t own a house (“I’m not rich, not yet,” she says, laughing), but she did, however, just move into a new Hollywood apartment. “I didn’t have A/C, laundry, a dishwasher or parking, so I was like, ‘I deserve to upgrade a bit,’ ” she says.
Growing up in the suburban town of Agoura, Hollywood was relatively far, but she did start out modeling and acting in print ads and TV spots, respectively. In 2007, a teenage Kiyoko ended up in the girl-group the Stunners and landed her first leading role as Velma Dinkley in two made-for-TV “Scooby Doo” movies. But during that time, she also dreamed of playing West Hollywood venue Whiskey a Go Go, but because of where she lived, it was hard to get a large enough audience out to Los Angeles to meet the crowd minimum. “I ended up playing Whiskey a Go Go my senior year of high school, and I think we had made the cap, like 50 people,” she recalls. “I remember being so nervous, like, ‘I hope people show up because, otherwise, I’m going to have to pay-to-play.’ ”
Today, finding 50 people to attend one of Kiyoko’s shows is a non-issue. Up until last month, she had been playing shows around the world for over a year. The touring took its toll. “I have a lot of empathy for artists that tour all the time because it’s very difficult,” she says. She went from touring two weeks a year to being on tour every other week. “It’s really lonely,” she says of her time on the road. “I was getting sick, I was not sleeping, and then I was getting injured,” she says. There was no manual for how to tour and practice self-care. And it was hard. “I was taking antidepressants, and I gained 30 pounds in, like, six months,” she says. “You’re just trying to stay healthy and be there for yourself so you can be there for other people.”
Kiyoko, who’s been in a relationship for a year now (though she’d prefer to keep it private), found comfort in her partner. Friend and singer Lauren Jauregui, formerly of Fifth Harmony, gave her some sound advice when she was having a hard time. “She was like, ‘Fly out your friends when you have a weekend off,’ and that’s just something I wouldn’t invest in or take time to think about,” she says. It made a huge difference for her.
Nonstop touring has helped Kiyoko join LGBTQ artists such as Troye Sivan, Halsey and Jauregui in their mainstream success. The space for queer artists in the music industry is widening, due in part to an endless stream of pop singers advocating for and catering to the queer community, including Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa and, most recently, Taylor Swift. As Kiyoko’s profile has grown, she even joined Swift onstage to perform “Curious” on the Reputation tour in Foxborough, Mass., last July, and then, during Jack Antonoff’s annual Ally Coalition benefit in New York in December 2018, Swift made a surprise appearance with Kiyoko, performing Swift’s hit “Delicate.”
“Hayley is an extremely important artist because of her resolve to be an authentic creator of her music and her message,” Swift told The Times. “She’s serving as an example of a female artist who not only writes her songs, but also directs every music video. Her ability to educate people on what she’s been through as a member of the LGBTQ community and her refusal to tolerate any sexist or homophobic slants placed on her art is what we need. I just feel like she’s the perfect pop star.”
In Swift’s music video for her latest single “You Need to Calm Down,” Kiyoko is featured alongside a gamut of famed members of the LGBTQ community. Her role? Shooting an arrow at a target with the number five on it. Kiyoko can’t tell me anything about the meaning or non-meaning behind the shot, but she does emphasize that she was extremely grateful to even be included. “There were a lot of important people in the [LGBTQ] community involved...I don’t think there’s ever been a video with that many people in it,” she says.
The video, which featured everyone from RuPaul to the cast of “Queer Eye,” received a mixed response. Some people loved the fact that Swift was being so vocal with her advocacy, while others thought the video felt performative and wondered why Swift had waited so long to show her support for the queer community. Kiyoko, not surprisingly, would rather focus on the positive impact of “You Need To Calm Down.” “There’s always going to be people criticizing. You have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I try to,” she says. Kiyoko remembers she used to be asked about the effect of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” all the time. “I was like, ‘that helped move things forward.’” She has the same perspective about “You Need To Calm Down.” “Anyone willing to invest and bring people together on such a large level, to millions of viewers, to continue a conversation, is worth listening to,” she says.
Despite Kiyoko’s devoted fandom and solid commercial success (“Expectations” reached No. 12 on the Billboard 200 album chart), she wrestles with feeling like an outsider in the music industry. “I know a good amount of artists, but I wouldn’t say I’m best friends with a bunch of artists in the industry,” Kiyoko says. “I’ve struggled [with] wanting to just be a part of the circle,” she says. It’s been a challenge. Along the way, Swift has consistently been there to offer support and counsel. “Taylor reminds me, ‘Just keep focusing on you and doing your thing, and people will realize how great you are.’ ”
“I just feel like she’s the perfect pop star.”
Kiyoko has heeded Swift’s advice. This week, Kiyoko released “I Wish,” a hazy ‘90s R&B-tinged pop track about finding love. Alongside it, she also shared a music video she directed and stars in that is a G-rated version of “The Craft,” the ‘90s cult film about high-school witches. Directing her own music videos is a creative risk, and this one, in particular, posed a challenge for her. “I didn’t want it to get too creepy, where people are like, ‘She’s a Lesbian Jesus who’s also a witch and the devil!’ ” she says. “It was a fine line.”
Aside from “I Wish,” Kiyoko has been working on her sophomore record at Joshua Tree. “It’s definitely heavier,” she says of her new music. Kiyoko has written around 10 songs with Pat Morrissey, who’s a co-producer on “I Wish,” with plans to write more.
But directing her own music videos has inspired her to dream bigger too: She wants to produce shows and direct a feature film. She’s even created an immersive pop-up experience based around her “I Wish” video, to be held in downtown L.A. on July 19-20, featuring a potion bar, a limited merch drop and a way to request wishes. Her choreographer of two years, Anze Skrube, remains in awe of Kiyoko’s creative ambition. “Hayley’s the kind of an artist that knows what she wants. She always sees the [big] picture.”
Regardless of the outlet, the heart of all of her work will always be advocacy. She wants to continue seeing straight allies and members of the LGBTQ community fighting for equality, just like she did yesterday at Pride when she saw her best friend, her publicist and her manager, who are all straight, literally out in the streets supporting her. “Sometimes that means more because I’m like, ‘Wow, this is not your fight, and you’re still fighting with me,’ ” she says. This idea correlates to her own fan base: she wants them to look like that too. “I want to see a straight, sexy man walking down the street being like ‘I [mess] with Hayley Kiyoko. She’s cool.’ ”