Skip to main content

Home Culture Culture Film & TV

Hayley Kiyoko on overcoming mental health issues, playing with stereotypes, and straight girls

"People say, 'Oh, you’re doing another video about a girl,' and I reply, 'Yes, that’s my life'".

By Will Stroude

Words: Thomas Stichbury

Photography: Amanda Charchian

Madge. Mimi. RiRi. Forget millions of pounds in the bank account, pop stars really know they’ve made it when fans give them a nickname.

While sparing a thought for poor Taylor Swift, saddled with T-Swizzle, we reckon you’ll have to admit that the mightiest moniker, by some stretch, belongs to Hayley Kiyoko — lovingly known as Lesbian Jesus.

I admit that the 27-year-old American, whose mother is of Japanese descent, didn’t immediately give me messianic vibes as she shuffled across the lobby of the hotel where we were due to meet. An outfit of sweatpants, hoodie, socks and sliders hardly screams “saviour.”

However, as we planted ourselves on a sofa and started to chat, it becomes clear why she is worshipped by her growing army of devotees.

Having flown under the radar for some time, LA-based Hayley boiled over into the public consciousness in 2015 with her “coming out” song ‘Girls Like Girls’.

The accompanying video, about a burgeoning lesbian teen romance, has attracted more than 98 million YouTube views. Since then, she has popped up on every “next big-thing” list going and, earlier this year, released dreamy debut album Expectations.

That word, I discover, underpins everything that Hayley puts her mind to as she challenges the expectations of what a queer artist should be, and can achieve, in mainstream pop.

“I’m old in this industry. I wanted to be famous when I was 16. I’m 11 years behind schedule,” she tells me.

Rest assured, Hayley, the wait has been worth it…

You have been described as a ‘pop rebel’. Is that a fitting label?

Some people would call me a rebel because I like girls, but to me that is not rebellion. That’s just normal. I definitely go against the grain and push boundaries, though.

Fans have crowned you ‘Lesbian Jesus.’ When did you first hear that?

That was the beginning of this year, or the end of last. I’d love to find out who the first person [to think of it] was. I didn’t realise how viral and real the nickname was going to become, then I started getting gifts of candles with my face on them [laughs]. I think it’s a play on Jesus in that I allow a community of people to find each other. I don’t want to offend anyone.

So, in terms of merchandising opportunities, we shouldn’t expect any Hayley Kiyoko-branded crucifixes?

No, I would get into a lot of trouble for that. I’m definitely staying away from that.

Your breakthrough came three years ago with the release of ‘Girls Like Girls’. The lyrics, ‘Girls like girls just like boys do,’ is simple and effective. How surprised were you by the reaction to the track?

I was terrified to release it. It was a time when I was only getting a few thousand hits on my music videos. I think I had 9,000 subscribers on YouTube back then, now I’m at 1.5 million or something. I just released it for myself really. I didn’t realise that people were going to relate and connect to it on the level they did. The reaction was very positive. I was expecting the opposite, but it was like: “This is how I feel, this validated my feelings.” Even though I was validating them, they were validating me. They inspired me. I always wanted to be an open book, but I was too scared to be. It really took away that judgment and fear. 

How did you settle on the title for your debut album Expectations?

It was stressful. I almost copped out [with a self-named album]. How do you title your life? Expectations are my biggest strength and weakness — I succeed in life because I create high expectations for myself, but I also crumble, am constantly disappointed and feel [a] failure. 

As an openly queer artist, do you feel a level of expectation to be a figurehead for the community?

I don’t feel pressure from other people to be, say or do a certain thing. Everything you have seen has been 100 per cent me. That’s not going to change. The only pressure or expectation I have is within myself, wanting to be the best, wanting to be an artist you know does good work.

What song are you particularly proud of on the album?

‘Mercy/Gatekeeper’. It encompasses a difficult time in my life, dealing with depression, losing hope before finding it again.

People are much more open about their mental-health battles these days. How did you deal with your depression?

It’s about getting through it day by day. I suffered a head injury three years ago. I fell and double-concussed myself because I went on a rollercoaster the next day. I’ve been dealing with lots of issues since then, getting myself back to where I was. This was all happening during the release of my [2016] Citrine EP, not loving what I do, trying to find myself again, not being able to go to the grocery store without having a panic attack… I’m a lot better and can do my shows, but I went through some dark times where it felt as if a monster had taken over. I sympathise with people struggling with mental illness.

How fortunate do you feel that, as a writer, you get to purge those feelings and put them down on paper?

What’s cool is that you get to listen to a song and teleport to that feeling. It reminds me how far I’ve come. It’s a great way of being able to reflect on challenges.

That word ‘challenges’ leads nicely to my next question: have you faced many obstacles as a queer artist in the music industry, ones maybe that you wouldn’t have had if you were straight?

Everyone has challenges, even if they are straight. My personal challenges have been [around] breaking stereotypes, normalising feelings and changing the expectations of what the norm of mainstream pop is. I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, you’re doing another video about a girl,’ and I reply, ‘Yes, that’s my life, that’s not a concept, that’s who I am.’ I do a lot of shoots as well where it’s like, ‘You’re gay, you should be wearing a rainbow,’ but I’m also just a person.

Can you elaborate on that?

I’ve had to learn that being bold is important to normalise things. I’ll wear the rainbow, be the leader so that then I can be on a magazine wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and have it just be ‘Hayley Kiyoko’ without having to wear a label. I think that is what everyone wants in the community — they want their feelings and who they are, to be respected. But they don’t want to carry that in every-day life. It is important for people to see representation, but it’s a fine line. I just wanted to be myself and I didn’t want that to be at the forefront. Now look at me, it’s the whole thing [laughs]. But you have to make a difference.

What stereotypes do you think you’ve broken, or are in the process of breaking?

I like to play with my femininity and masculinity because, for the majority of the world, there are certain expectations of what gay and straight look like. The spectrum is so wide, though. I hope I’m breaking the stereotype where, if I’m gay and like girls, it doesn’t always look like that. I can wear a dress and high heels, and be the most beautiful person, but I can also be beautiful if I’m wearing sweats and sneakers.

Can you be as unfiltered as you like, or are there compromises that have to be made?

I don’t compromise on [my] vision, but I do have to compromise when it comes to my means and resources. It’s not as if I can have an idea and do whatever I want because I’m not a millionaire. One day I will be!

When did you realise you fancied girls?

I’ve liked girls ever since I was in kindergarten.

And when did you come out?

Releasing the video for ‘Girls Like Girls’ was my coming out in a low-key way. I never wanted to have a ‘moment.’ I wanted to come out through my art. But I was out to my family and friends way before then. Publicly, though, it was in 2015.

How did your family and friends take the news?

It was pretty obvious to most people. It’s exciting that my parents have come such a long way as far as understanding it. That is what’s important about music and what I do, and what other people do in the community. The more people are truthful about who they are, the more it helps those who don’t understand.

You’ve previously said that you always end up having crushes on straight girls. What is it about them that does it for you?

I love the challenge. I love when I meet a girl, I know they’re interested, but they don’t know that they’re interested. That’s my favourite thing.

So in your song is the guy normally positioned as an opponent?

It’s more about the women who are afraid of being who they are. I’ve been involved with girls who date men because they’re ‘supposed’ to but who actually like me. That’s normally why there ends up being this triangle. I have nothing against guys. 

Earlier this year, Rita Ora released ‘Girls’, containing the lyrics ‘Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls’, about being bisexual. You and fellow queer artist Kehlani criticised the track for not doing the queer community any favours. What was so problematic?

I have nothing against Rita or any of the artists. I love Rita, Charli, Bebe and Cardi. I was just saying that, in my experience, I felt the lyrics could have been better thought out. It is coming from a place of love and caring about people. I understand that those are Rita’s experiences, and that’s fine.

It’s not the same situation, but Katy Perry has said that she would rewrite her 2008 hit ‘I Kissed A Girl’ if she could.

I love that song. I remember at the time it really inspired me and I thought: ‘Wow, she is singing about the thought of being with a girl.’ That was a big deal for them to be playing [with] on mainstream pop all over the world. That to me was like, ‘I have hope so that when I sing about girls then maybe they’ll accept me, too.’

You’re fairly outspoken on social media and recently called out Donald Trump for trying to take away trans rights. How important is it that artists use their platforms to speak out?

He is terrifying. The plus side of the situation is seeing both political parties banding together because it’s not about Republicans [and]Democrats, it’s about human rights and that is being tested right now. It’s fucked up, and people with a following need to speak out.

Except for Kanye West…

Eurgh! Eye roll.

You’re returning to the UK — or, to borrow your words, ‘UGay’ – next year for a couple of shows. How do you get pumped up for a performance?

We [my band and I] love Shania Twain so we listen to her before we go [on stage].

Have your thoughts turned to another album yet?

Not much. I want to write one, but I’ve been touring the whole year and I want to do more music videos for this album. I know what it’s going to be though. 

Hayley Kiyoko kicks off her European tour in Dublin on 29 January.