Why Hayley Kiyoko Thinks Her 'Celebrity Drag Race' Transformation Changed Her For Good

Hayley Kiyoko RuPaul
Courtesy of VH1

Hayley Kiyoko on RuPaul’s Secret Celebrity Drag Race.

Throughout her time living in lockdown, pop singer-songwriter Hayley Kiyoko has patiently waited for one date to finally arrive — May 15, 2020. "This has been a long time coming," she tells Billboard, laughing. "I've been checking my quarantine calendar waiting for this episode to air."

Fans now know why the singer has been anxious with anticipation — on Friday (May 15), Kiyoko sashayed into the work room as one of three contestants on RuPaul's Secret Celebrity Drag Race. Alongside comedian Phoebe Robinson and fellow pop singer Madison Beer, Kiyoko learned all about what it means to be a drag queen, from makeup, to heels, to performance and to lip syncing (all of which she was helped with by her Queen Supreme mentor, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo).

Thus, the Lesbian Jesus fans know and love transformed into Queen Eleza Beth, the high-energy campy drag queen who stole the show in the "Dragzilla" girl group challenge and stormed the runway as a cotton candy princess. She did so well, in fact, that RuPaul crowned her the winner of the final episode's lip sync, earning Kiyoko a $30,000 prize for the charity of her choice, Planned Parenthood.

But what threw Kiyoko off wasn't those external factors of drag, or competitive feelings in the work room — it was that in order to become Queen Eleza Beth, she had to learn more about who Hayley was. "It's honestly hard to explain it without experiencing it," she says. "Because of this, I'm able to own all of my masculinity and femininity so much more, and I'm able to walk with my head held higher." 

Kiyoko chatted with Billboard about her star-making turn on Celebrity Drag Race, how she fostered a real time friendship with Miss Vanjie and why she thinks everyone ought to try drag.

Before we get into all things Drag Race, how are you holding up in this pandemic?

I've been doing okay. I would say the first month was really hard — because of my personality, I need interaction, and I need to be able to go places. So the controlling side of me was going nuts [laughs]. But I have gotten into a routine, and this abnormal circumstance is starting to get a little more normal as we've kept going. So yes, I'm doing okay, I could be a lot worse — I'm healthy, my fans are healthy, and we're trying to keep it that way. It's nice to do things like this, because it reminds me of the non-pandemic times and makes this situation feel normal. 

I guess we can now call you Hayley Kiyoko, Drag Race contestant! Fans have been very vocal about wanting Lesbian Jesus to appear on the show, and now they've gotten to see you actually compete on the show. What led to you getting on Secret Celebrity Drag Race?

I mean, the opportunity came to me, and I jumped at it! It sounded amazing, I love the community around Drag Race. But it also sounded really terrifying, because it's not an easy thing to do! It's not just, "Oh, you put some cool makeup on!" No, it is truly a full transformation. 

You now have an insight that very few people have about what it means to compete on the show. Do you think that you could have done a full season competition of Drag Race?

Listen, I would like to think that I could have done it, but it is a lot of work. People don't really understand that the work room is work [laughs]. Like, you are putting in the work! I felt like I was in the Olympics — I was practicing my movements like never before, I was totally encompassing a persona that is a part of me that I was afraid to unveil, and it's just really ... it's an emotional experience! 

I love the fact that you were mentored by Vanessa Vanjie Mateo — what was she like to work with?

It's funny because her personality is so bold and wild and free, but she is so focused on what she does. We really connected on such a deep level, she made me feel so confident in who I was, where I wasn't trying to be anything but myself. She was really enhancing that part of me, and she was so vulnerable with me! She was such an incredible mentor. Now we're Instagram friends, and we'll be friends for life. 

Not only did you compete — you won the lip sync at the end of the episode! How did that feel for you to snatch that title?

As you watch the episode, you can see that I really went through an emotional journey and process through it all. It felt like a win for myself. In the beginning of entering the work room, you want to win because you're not only winning money for the charity of your choice -- in my case, Planned Parenthood -- but everyone loves to be a winner. You forget about that all, honestly, because you're really wanting to win for yourself, and prove to yourself that this part of yourself that you haven't always embraced is valuable.

For me, my challenge was balancing my femininity and masculinity, and being able to embrace that. It felt so incredible, I felt like as much of a rockstar as the challenge showed. I felt so incredibly ... I think "safe" is the right word, because I felt so secure and safe. It is no wonder everyone wants to be a part of Drag Race, because no matter what your experience is, whether it's four episodes or twelve episodes, you are being able to experience this safe place, and you're able to unveil so many different demons that you battle, and that you work through. 

Before coming on Secret Celebrity Drag Race, did you ever find yourself looking to drag artists for inspiration?

To be honest, not necessarily — before I went on Drag Race, I didn't really understand how powerful the transformation was on a personal level. I've always been supportive of these incredible artists and what they've done for our community, but I never really understood the emotional side of drag. It's honestly hard to explain it without experiencing it. It's something that I am so grateful to be a part of, I am so thankful to have had this experience. Because of this, I'm able to own all of my masculinity and femininity so much more, and I'm able to walk with my head held higher. I've allowed myself this confidence that's always been there at the surface, and that's helped me expand and grow. Obviously, touring is down, and things are kind of changing right now, but I'm so excited to get back on stage and utilize that experience that I got to share with the world.

There is something that I've heard RuPaul and a lot of other queens from the show say, which is that everyone should do drag at least once, because it teaches you a lot about yourself. What did you learn about yourself from doing drag?

Absolutely, that is spot on. It was so crazy — all of these insecurities that I've battled since as far back as my adolescence just rose right up to the surface, because I was transforming those things into drag. It was actually incredible, so yeah, I recommend drag to everyone, because it helps you understand and learn so much more about yourself. We live in a world where we constantly compare ourselves to one another, and drag is an artform where you are able to just totally be your own person and be in your own lane.