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Hayley Kiyoko on Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill and new album Panorama

Exclusive: You don’t meet ‘Lesbian Jesus’ intending to make her cry. But as she releases sophomore album Panorama, Attitude kneels at the altar of pop princess Hayley Kiyoko for a cleansing, cathartic interview.

By Jamie Tabberer

Words: Jamie Tabberer; Phorography: Jack Alexander; Fashion director: Joseph Kocharian; Styling: Anastasia Busch; Hair: Ross Kwan at A-Frame Agency using Bumble & bumble Makeup: Marla Vazquez; Styling Assistants Lily Hobman and Nadiya Hassan

“Could I wear this to my wedding? It’s very power lesbian. ‘I do!’”

At her Attitude magazine photoshoot in London, Hayley Kiyoko is rocking a corseted ivory ensemble by Balmain that’s part-blushing bride, part-Game of Thrones body armour, part-world-conquering cricketer. ‘Powerful’ doesn’t cut it. She looks suitably celestial for a woman known for preternaturally perfect pop songs like ‘What I Need’ and ‘I Wish’, who’s been nicknamed ‘Lesbian Jesus’ by fans who routinely propose marriage and orchestrate makeshift ceremonies. 

“If they’re legal, I’m married to, like, 18 people!” she laughs.

“I know myself way better than the first go around”

Confidence, it transpires, is an overarching theme of Kiyoko’s new era. “On my debut album [2018’s Expectations], I was sharing my authentic truth, stories I’d never shared before — I was almost catching up,” explains the star, who first addressed same-sex love on her 2015 EP This Side of Paradise, which went viral. “For this album [Panorama], I’m living my authentic truth and sharing my present experiences. I know myself way better than the first go around. That thread is confidence, assurance. This is what I’m saying: ‘I want to be heard.’”

Hayley wears full look by Arakhne; ring by Vitaly

This writer has been listening intently for quite some time. Her best song — the mysterious, intoxicating ‘Wanna Be Missed’, in which she sounds almost depleted with longing — was my most-listened to on Spotify in 2018. (“Thank you for the receipts!” the Los Angeleno laughs when I show her.) She again laments over lovers just out of reach on ‘He’ll Never Love You’ (my 13th most-listened to of 2018) and ‘What I Need’, her duet with fellow queer singer Kehlani (23rd). Kiyoko’s hits, I suggest, are anthems for the chronically single. “I was chronically single, too!” the 31-year-old agrees. “But there’s hope, if you want that…”

Last month, Kiyoko had another coming out of sorts when she went Instagram official with girlfriend of four years Becca Tilley. The Bachelorette star naturally appeared in the dating show-inspired music video for Kiyoko’s comeback single ‘For the Girls’. “It’s funny — she was always joking: ‘I’m not going to share our relationship until I become one of your music video girls!’ This aligned perfectly. And I’m obsessed with reality television…

“It was her journey, her decision to share her authentic truth,” Kiyoko adds of the IG post. “I’m so proud she’s feeling safe and courageous enough to share that about herself. I love our relationship and I’m so happy I get to share a little more about my life! It’s like I’ve told her: being brave and sharing your truth only helps others.” 

Hayley wears outfit by Balmain; ring by Pomellato; crown by Dsquared2

To that end, Kiyoko says she is connected to a number of closeted celebrities. “I’ve had a lot of friends in the industry who have reached out and come out to me directly and privately. I’m honoured to be that safe space for them to feel understood and acknowledged. Coming out is everyone’s own journey. You do it constantly and share it with the people you want to share it with. As a queer person, you go through so much effort to accept and love yourself, to get to that point — but then you have to navigate the rest of the world. How do you want to present? How do you want to dress? Who you are is ever evolving.”

She adds that Becca is “a Christian, raised with a very different background and experience”. But what of ‘Lesbian Jesus’ herself — what’s her relationship with spirituality? “My parents would tell me: ‘God is spelled with two ‘o’s.’ We were allowed to find our own path and beliefs. But I was always focused on: ‘How do I hide my lesbianism?’ That encompassed my whole journey in my youth. Religion on top of that would have been even more challenging!”

As a featherlight celebration of lesbian love, ‘For the Girls’ is certainly a departure from the pining of yore. Is this carefree mood indicative of the album as a whole? “No,” Kiyoko replies. “Every song has its own lane, feeling, expression. I have a song called ‘Sugar at the Bottom’, which is very cheeky, and ‘Underground’, which covers depression. It’s all over the board.” 

Hayley wears full look by Ella Davies; shoes by Christian Louboutin

She says being in a relationship hasn’t changed her perspective on old songs. “They make me feel the same,” she says. “That’s what’s so incredible about music: they’re three-and-a-half-minute time capsules. When I listen to Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’ — no matter where you are, it takes you back to that feeling. Yes, we love to feel happy. But we also love to feel the pain sometimes, and yearn and crave…” 

Kiyoko has form for tackling dark themes, not least in the confronting lyrics of 2020’s ‘Demons’ (“please, forgive me, I’ve got demons in my head / Trying to eat me, trying to feed me lies until I’m dead, (till I’m dead)”), taken from the oh-so-millennially-named EP, I’m Too Sensitive for This Shit. But the transparency of Kiyoko’s emotions is actually a superpower, as I learn when talk turns to Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay, Don’t Say Trans’ bill, which bans discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in state classrooms from kindergarten to grade three. In the shadow of so much bad news this year, I, for one, felt numb to its enactment in March. “It’s devastating — I get emotional just thinking about it,” Kiyoko says, before breaking down in tears. Her tears finally mobilise a few of my own.

“Society makes it so hard to navigate even existing as a queer person,” she weeps. “To have those laws put in place and to have people talk about threatening those rights — they shouldn’t be a privilege, they should be a given. You should be equal. It’s so hard as a queer person to discover who you are and navigate survival, and life. When I think that there are kids growing up in a world that’s preaching hate, I just cry.”

Hayley wears dress by Juana Martin; shoes by Dsquared2; earrings by Tasaki

The intensity of her reaction is understandable: this is a woman who spent time in the Sunshine State as a child, who knew she was queer at the tender age of five. “I didn’t know the term ‘gay’ — I just knew I liked women,” she explains with absolute certainty, adding of her school experience: “I was very fortunate that I wasn’t physically bullied or anything. I stayed in the closet because that’s where I felt most safe. I’m grateful in a way for the hardships, the loneliness, because that’s how I became an artist. I wrote to myself, sang for myself. Music became my friend.” Many of her classmates have since come out; a few have transitioned gender. “There were so many of us, but we didn’t know. We didn’t tell each other. Tens of years after, I’ll run into somebody, and they’ll say: ‘So and so is queer.’ I’m like: ‘Why didn’t we just help each other out?!’ We were all hiding.”

Formal education leaves behind a lot of blanks, which get filled out, in part, by the media. Which explains the high rate of certified pop culture nerds in the LGBTQ+ community. I thus warn Kiyoko of a gear change (“don’t worry, we just sobbed together!”) as the pop music aficionado in me tackles her forgotten past as a girl band member. From 2007 to 2011, Kiyoko was in a Spice Girls-lite five-piece called The Stunners, who achieved virtually no success. (Although the single ‘Bubblegum’, minus the grotesque, nonsensical lyrics, is trashily addictive.) It’s still fascinating to put the project under the music microscope: for starters, they supported a teenage Justin Bieber on an arena tour. When I ask if Biebs offered any advice, Kiyoko giggles: “He was very young at that time; you know that, right?” 

Kiyoko herself was only 16 when the band formed, and 20 when they disbanded. I ask if she looks back on those days with fondness. “That was a hard time for me in my career,” she says, unsurprisingly. “I was navigating being the ‘gay one’ of the group, but not talking about my queerness… that was hard, because I presented differently than the rest, but wasn’t open. I felt like, being in a girl group, I can’t be a lesbian.” 

Hayley wears full look by Arakhne; shoes by Lanvin; ring by Vitaly

She was out to “a couple of the girls — eventually all of them. But it was a hard thing to navigate. When you think of a girl group, you think of five straight girls. I was grateful for the opportunity. But I dealt with a lot of hate with going to labels and not presenting… going to a meeting, singing for a guy, and them not looking at me, but acknowledging everyone else. Not attracting men, so I wasn’t getting X, Y and Z. There was a lot of trauma that continued to be fed in [from] that experience. Especially in the music industry. I experienced some terrible things outside of the group. When I went solo, I knew the kind of people I wanted to surround myself with.”

Is she in contact with any of the girls? “Yes, I’m in touch with all of them,” she answers. “We don’t speak all the time, but we care about each other. We know what we’re all up to. Lauren [Hudson] has a beautiful girl. Everyone’s doing their thing and living their best lives.”

It turns out The Stunners contained at least two members not marching to the heteronormativity drum: one of Kiyoko’s ex-bandmates is none other than solo star Tinashe, who she now sees “a lot in passing and on social media”. In 2016, the ‘2 On’ singer told Huffington Post of her own sexuality: “I feel, like, nowadays, people are a little bit more understanding of the fact that other people don’t necessarily want to assign themselves one particular thing or another. That’s all a part of how we’re growing and progressing as a society. I think it’s exciting that we don’t have to be so black and white.”

“A win for one is a win for all — it’s incredible,” says Kiyoko when I point out the wave of LGBTQ+ female singers who have found success in a post-‘I Kissed a Girl’ world. Some of my favourite songs of recent years include Dove Cameron’s seductive ‘Boyfriend’ and Girl in Red’s blistering ‘You Stupid B****’, which address lesbian themes in fabulously direct ways that are reminiscent of Kiyoko’s work. “My goal was just to be mainstream, which was pop, popular, and not just be ‘other’,” she explains. “I’m grateful that our queerness is being normalised. I’m glad they’re getting airtime, support and love. It’s about time!” Amen to that. 

Panorama is out now.

The Attitude September/October issue is available to download and order in print now and will be on newsstands from Thursday 4 August.