hayley kiyoko: your own personal lesbian jesus
She's the voice of a generation and your new favourite pop icon.
This article originally appeared in i-D's The Superstar Issue, no. 354, Winter 2018
On 1 January 2018, LA popstar and actress Hayley Kiyoko – aka Lesbian Jesus to her fans – released a mission statement that resonated with her millions of followers across the world: “It’s our year. It’s our time. To let your souls feel alive. #20GAYTEEN”.
As predicted, 2018 was the gayest on record for the music industry. The world was blessed with the ode to bottoming that is Troye Sivan’s Bloom, Janelle Monáe’s pansexual revolution on Dirty Computer and Hayley’s anthemic debut album Expectations. Packed full of beautiful girl-loving pop bangers, the release was a celebration of learning to fall hard and fast in love with yourself. It came complete with a series of cinematic self-directed music videos, peaking with veritable short film What I Need, starring guest vocalist, bff and fellow queer artist Kehlani. Now about to embark on her first ever European tour, 27-year-old Hayley continues to move through the world with validity and realness – a Very Good Role Model not just for the next generation but every single one of us.
Hayley Kiyoko was raised in California on a healthy diet of Fiona Apple, Tegan and Sara and Avril Lavigne, under the watchful eyes of her voice actor father Jamie Alcroft and Emmy award-winning figure skating choreographer mother, Sarah Kawahara (who coached Margot Robbie in I, Tonya no less). Hayley’s teens saw her fall into a role on Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place alongside Selena Gomez, and teen dream TV movies like Lemonade Mouth, Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins (jinkies – best Velma ever!) and Jem and the Holograms. In recent years, she graduated to a regular role on CSI: Cyber, a sexy guest spot on Issa Rae’s Insecure and a lead in high school drama Five Points, exec produced by Kerry Washington.
Acting aside, it’s been a big six months for Hayley. Having finished her own headline tour of the US, she joined Panic! At The Disco on theirs – her first arena tour – and popped up in Massachusetts to join Taylor Swift on stage for a banging collaborative rendition of her huge single Curious – her first time playing a stadium. “DO NOT KNOW HOW TO COMPREHEND WHAT JUST HAPPENED,” she shared on Instagram post-show. “I felt like a popstar!” (Should we tell her, or will you?) As though these milestones weren’t quite enough, she went on to win an MTV VMA award for Push Artist of the Year – voted for by her legions of fans. “This validates any queer women of colour that you can follow your dreams,” she said, clutching her silver spaceman, eyes welling up, during her acceptance speech.
When I call, Hayley is sitting backstage on tour, waiting for soundcheck. An Aries, she’s open and easy to chat with, identifying with her sign wholeheartedly. “Oh, I’m definitely a fire sign,” she exclaims. “For sure. I’m stubborn and passionate but also really sensitive. Chill and goofy, but with all of the intense emotions at once.” That abundance of feelings is referenced throughout her music. On the aptly titled Feelings, for example, lyrics divulge that: “I over-communicate and feel too much / I just complicate it when I say too much.”
“I cry like four times a day!” she confirms. “I cried yesterday but I forget why. I cried when I got nominated for the VMA. And sometimes I cry just to release emotion if I’m nervous for something. I have to have a big cry and then I’m good.”
She’s about 10 years deep in the music industry now, having entered it with a brief stint in a girl band called The Stunners alongside Tinashe, followed by handful of mostly pop-by-numbers solo EPs while she found both her sound and herself. Having just about broached the acting world by then, what were her expectations when switching lanes? “Honestly, my expectation was that it was gonna be really fucking hard, that no one was going to make things easy and that I’d have to do everything myself,” Hayley says. “And it definitely met those expectations, but I wouldn’t ask for it to be any other way. I’m proud of every single music video I’ve done and I’m proud of every song that I’ve written and recorded. It’s 100% me and my journey.”
For Hayley that means writing lyrics littered with female pronouns and making her love of women very clear; normalising same-sex relationships for a new generation of kids who she’s determined to not let come of age feeling alienated. “Jeez, I wish I had known that there were more people like me out there. I wish I had known that it was normal to like girls,” she says. “It’s a very simple thing but hard to process when you’re 16.” Hayley has made it her mission to change the narrative, fully engaging queer people of colour while simultaneously growing her fandom in all directions. “I don’t think that it should make a difference — that’s what we’re working towards.”
But being the representation she wants to see in the world hasn’t always felt so achievable to Hayley, who recalls being encouraged to “tone down” her sexuality early on in her career. “Girls Like Girls was too violent and too sexual for a lot of people to premiere,” she remembers. The single, which came out in 2015, was considered by many as her coming out, and served as a reminder that, well, “girls like girls like boys do / nothing new”. Three years on and we’re undoubtedly experiencing a shift. “When you’re in the LGBTQ community and you’re open about your sexuality, it’s not common for you to hear your music played on the radio. It’s more common to be underground and left of centre with a selective core that listens to that music. That’s why this is an exciting time to really break those barriers of... I wouldn’t say judgement, but to break out of that box.”
Hayley now makes a point of pushing the boundaries with every move she makes. “I don’t like to play it safe. I like to make a statement.” For example, on her album cover Hayley sits perched on a leopard print chair in the centre of a beautiful room watching a naked woman reclining in front of her, framing the scene perfectly with her body. It’s simple but feels revolutionary. “My sexuality, loving myself and expressing my love for others is not something that’s negotiable. There’s no toning that down because this is who I am and this is what I experience. I can’t change that.” Waiting on soundcheck, Hayley reflects on being hailed an LGBTQ icon and considers where she wants to take it in 2019. “I still have a lot of room to grow as a person and think that anyone being brave, bold and willing enough to stand up for what they believe in and protest is really inspiring,” she says. “It inspires me to put just as much energy into not only putting out art, but putting out art that can help move people forward.” The past few months might have seen Hayley’s career level up, and she’s certainly feeling momentum, but she doesn’t feel like she’s made it just yet. So what’s the plan? “For my dream life or reality?” she asks, jokingly but dead serious. “I would like to be nominated for a Grammy and I would like, in the next year, to have a number one single. These are like, my goals. I don’t think I’m gonna get all of them, but I feel like maybe a couple could be within reach?” Too right they are.
Photography Chad Moore
Styling Amy Mach
Hair Daven Mayeda at Honey Artists. Make-up Marla Vazquez using Kevyn Aucoin and Dior Makeup.