At a 2015 studio session, a songwriter asked Hayley Kiyoko what she was scared to write about. Her answer? That she liked girls. “I was afraid people in the industry wouldn’t give me a chance or be able to connect to my music,” recalls the 27-year-old pop artist. Kiyoko got over her fear. That session produced her breakthrough hit, “Girls Like Girls,” and now the California native boldly owns her identity: She coined the viral #20gayteen, and her fans call her “Lesbian Jesus.” Her debut album, Expectations, hit No. 12 on the Billboard 200 in April, and since then, Kiyoko has performed her song “Curious” onstage with Taylor Swift and opened for Panic! at the Disco on its arena tour. “I’m half Japanese, and gay, and a woman,” says this year’s Rising Star. “I definitely want to prove that anything is possible.”
What has fueled your confidence this year?
A combination of maturing and seeing that being myself is OK. It’s very liberating for me to be able to share that with other people. When I was growing up, I felt really ashamed of who I was. I was always hiding. To be able to be publicly normal is really important.
Is there an artist who has made you realize you can accomplish more?
I love Donald Glover. He likes to act, to direct — he just likes to create. And that’s what I’ve always wanted: I love directing my own music videos, I want to direct movies, and I’m just very hands-on. I like connecting all of those dots.
What did it feel like when Taylor Swift brought you onstage?
For her to take that leap when we didn’t know each other, it was amazing. I was talking to Danielle from HAIM [at Swift’s American Music Awards afterparty], and she was giving me tour advice. It was really cool to meet people who understood the growing pains that I’ve been going through.
Is there a recent fan interaction that stands out in your mind?
I remember meeting an 11-year-old whose mom and brother and sister came to the concert. Not because they liked my music, but because they wanted to support her and who she was — she had just come out to them. It’s always so beautiful to be able to see families showing that unconditional love. A lot of people don’t have that, and everyone deserves that.