Near the end of Hayley Kiyoko’s new video for the single “Curious,” a woman leads the 26-year-old pop star into the bathroom at a house party and the two begin to make out furiously.
The camera doesn’t pan away from the action, nor does the scene play as fuel for some cheap male masturbatory fantasy. Kiyoko, who also directed the video, is completely in control both on- and off-screen ― and that’s exactly how she wants it.
Kiyoko has spent her career challenging our culture’s notion of how a pop star should sound and look, and ― perhaps most notably ― whom she should love and lust after. In 2015, she released her ode to queer female love, “Girls Like Girls.” Since then, she’s racked up over 170 million views on YouTube and a legion of ardent fans who dub her “the lesbian Jesus.”
With her debut album, “Expectations,” just days away from release, HuffPost chatted with the singer about her queer agenda, the album’s stunning cover photo, and why dating has been so difficult for her.
The first song I heard by you was “Girls Like Girls.” As a queer person, it was such a revelation to hear someone singing so publicly and unapologetically about queer attraction and love ― and I can only imagine the effect it has had on young queer women. Did you realize how radical that song was when you were writing it?
“Girls Like Girls” was my first time really vocalizing the fact that I liked girls. I had no intentions behind it — to be honest, I didn’t even put it on my [first EP] because I was so concerned about being put in a box as an artist and being judged in a negative way. So it was a very sensitive moment for me.
That’s why, when I did the music video, I really didn’t want it to be specifically about me. I wanted it to be more of an overall statement that girls love girls and it’s not a joke. It’s not supposed to be oversexualized. It’s something that should be respected like any other relationship.
The tracks and videos you’ve put out since “Girls Like Girls” have been just as unabashedly queer. Do you feel like what you’re doing is a big deal, or does it seem like this is just where we’re at in 2018? How do you approach making this kind of work now?
The way I’d put it is that it’s really important. Even though it’s 2018, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still really difficult to love yourself and to be open about who you love and what you love and why you feel a certain way.
So I don’t think it’s not a big deal and it’s like, “Oh it’s 2018 and everything is just evolving.” I think we have so much more to grow and so much more to educate each other about to normalize these things that are happening.
When I approach my music and my music videos, obviously all of the subjects and stories that I tell come from an honest, truthful place and the experiences that I’ve had. But with that, I hope it all helps normalize these feelings for other people, and I hope it helps them to find comfort and validation within what I’m putting out.
Sometimes, to change things and to challenge stereotypes and break boundaries, you have to own a label.
Do you ever wish that you could just put a song out about macking on a girl without it being seen as some kind of statement?
Totally. My goal has always been to just be a person who makes great art.
I was very gentle at first about using labels and being vocal about being in the community because I just wanted to be respected as an artist. Then I realized that sometimes, to change things and to challenge stereotypes and break boundaries, you have to own a label.
That’s something I’ve really accepted and that I own. But once I break this debut-album wall and introduce myself to world ― obviously loving girls is a big part of who I am ― but I hope people will just listen to the radio and be like, “Oh, I love that song. It’s by Hayley — she’s dope,” and that the rest can just be normal.
Have you gotten any heat for being as honest and open as you are?
I don’t go looking for negative responses, because, for me, anything I’m doing isn’t negative. Everything I do, I believe in 100 percent and I believe it’s important.
I love the stories I’m telling because they’re from my life. I don’t think there’s anything negative about that. I don’t think there’s anything negative about sharing what’s going on in my life. I shouldn’t feel any shame for that.
I tell these stories like “Curious,” but it’s not like I’m trying to break the mold — I’m literally telling you facts from my life. It’s like, “Hey, this was a situation I was in and it was effed up. Here you go. Have you been in that same situation? Let’s start a dialogue about it.”
I’ve also realized that if you release something and it makes 1 out of 10 or 2 out of 10 people uncomfortable, it’s probably something that needs to be talked about.
I think the cover art for “Expectations” is brilliant. For me, it visually explores the idea of being objectified while simultaneously objectifying, and the tension and power that exists between those two modes. How did the photo come about?
My album cover was very difficult to accomplish. I did four photo shoots. It’s really hard to, in one image, try and tell a story of who you are and what you stand for and what you want to say. At first I thought the album cover should just be my face because no one knows who I am, but I kept struggling with the thought, “I want a girl on that cover because it’s a huge part of who I am and how I landed where I am.”
We decided to play with this idea of really idolizing and respecting and appreciating women in their truest form — which is nude. I thought that would be a really powerful moment because you should always feel comfortable in your skin and with who you are, as well as appreciating women and women appreciating each other. That’s why I’m looking at her and she’s looking at me.
It’s also as if there’s this form of power behind the photo, because women are powerful and they can do whatever they want to do. It’s a cover that I’m really proud of, and I’m glad that it’s my first cover, but, man, was it a journey to figure it out. [Laughs.]
Earlier you mentioned trying to get over the “debut-album wall.” I imagine you must be experiencing even more pressure than some other artists do at this moment in their careers because you’ve already had so much attention and success, and therefore some people might think you have even more to prove. Even the album’s title seems like a sly nod to this specific kind of anxiety. How stressed are you right now?
I feel pressure in the sense of I’m really proud of this album and I want to get it out there. I don’t feel pressure as though I have a certain expectation to hit for my fans, because it’s something I’ve worked towards literally my whole life and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I know who I am and what I want to say and what I’m supposed to sound like.
I feel more pressure and nervousness about not getting the opportunity for people to hear me. I really respect and appreciate that you say I’ve done successful things, but to be honest, I feel like I haven’t even started my career and life and journey because of the constant battle I’ve had to fight to be seen and heard and respected and to get people to want to know who I am. So many people don’t know.
That chair that I’m sitting in is usually reserved for a guy. I want to sit in that chair.
So there’s a lot of pressure because I feel I have this great piece of art that I’m proud of that I really feel people will connect to: How do I get it out there? And will I get it out there? So that’s really more of what freaks me out every morning when I wake up. This is something that I’ve dreamt about for 26 years, and it’s something that I’ve believed in for myself for 26 years. So now it’s like, “Cool, what happens next?”
While discussing the video for your song “Feelings” in a BuzzFeed profile published earlier this year, you said you wanted to make a video like the ones male pop stars have made where they’re following a girl down the street and attempting to woo her. So much of what you’ve done or are attempting to do ― from how you approach and present queerness to inserting yourself in situations that have traditionally been reserved for men ― feels groundbreaking. Do you have a checklist of things that you want to accomplish or ceilings you want to break?
I don’t have a notebook with the list written down, but you’re so right — I definitely have a mental checklist. I realized at a young age that I wanted to be a man in the way that men are perceived by women. I wanted to be perceived that same way. So, I have this list.
That’s why, again, I love my album cover so much. That chair that I’m sitting in is usually reserved for a guy. I want to sit in that chair. And I want to follow a girl down the street.
But I also want to do these things in a respectful way, because the fact that I am a woman makes me understand that there are things that men do that can be offensive. So it’s riding that fine line of checking off this dream list. My dream is to be in a boy band, so what am I doing? I’m dancing in a music video with four boys behind me! These are a few of my favorite things. [Laughs.] And I want to be able to do all of those things ― I want to feel feminine and feel beautiful and be myself while doing all of those things.
You have a particularly devoted fan base, and it seems like there’s an unspoken rule that every article written about you must mention that your fans refer to you as “the lesbian Jesus.” So, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, tell me about your relationship with your fans and what they want to talk about when you meet them.
Instead of asking me questions, they normally want to share a personal experience or how they feel. Today, this morning, this girl just wanted to take the time to tell me that my music video helped her to love herself. That makes them emotional and then that makes me emotional and then we’re both just crying. I really appreciate that. It’s really important to them to share that with me, and I feel very honored to have helped take that weight off when they do.
I remember all those intense moments in my life, like that time someone made me feel really insecure or that time I learned to love myself a little more. And there are these key markers in your life that really build who you are and who you become, and so if I can be a small marker or something positive for them, that’s everything.
I sat next to your aunt and your cousin at one of your shows last year.
Oh, my God. You’ve got to be kidding me.
I’m totally serious. They were so proud and so excited ― it was adorable. It has me wondering what your ascent to fame has been like for the people you’re closest to in your life. Has it changed your relationships with them at all?
Things haven’t changed with my family or friends. I think it’s so cool that they’ve known that I’ve dreamt of something bigger my whole life. They’ve been there through literally every day of crying and being frustrated by things that aren’t going the way I want them to go. They’ve held my hand and put me back on my feet. It’s really beautiful to get to share this time with them and to see those things become a reality. I feel lucky to have the support of my family and friends.
I have small circle of friends that I care deeply about, and they’ve always been understanding. They’re all kind of in disbelief because I’m so in disbelief. How is my album coming out next week? How is that possible? [Laughs.] We’re all just kind of in shock and on this ride together.
Last year after playing a show in Brooklyn you tweeted:
Did you ever hear from the now infamous “blonde girl”? And what is it like dating ― or attempting to date ― as a famous person?
I don’t know because I personally don’t feel like I’m famous. [Laughs.] Dating is difficult. It’s always been difficult because I always go for the unavailable ones. And I never found the blonde girl from the Brooklyn show. It felt like love at first sight — it really did! That tweet was me putting myself out there. [Laughs.] I’m a confident person, but I’m also shy. Let’s talk again in six months and you can ask me how my dating life is then.
“Expectations” will be in stores and available for download on Friday, March 30. For more from Hayley, including a full list of tour dates, visit her official website here. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.