Japanese pop icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu sat down with Billboard Japan for its Women in Music interview series featuring trailblazing female players in the country’s music industry. Billboard Japan launched its WIM initiative in 2022 in the same spirit as the established example of Billboard’s event that began in 2007, honoring artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to the music industry and empowered women through their work, the highest accolade being Woman of the Year.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is currently in the midst of her world tour that kicked off May 15. Since her debut, the “Fashion Monster” singer has established a one-of-a-kind world with her unconventional style and has grown into an artist with loyal fans in her home country and abroad. While the Harajuku icon recalls that the little girl who eventually made her debut as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu used to be “shy and withdrawn,” she transformed her insecurities into her strengths as she built her career. In this interview, the KRK LAB label founder shares how she has valued taking a step forward without worrying about how other people see her, and encourages others to do the same.
Could you tell us about the women you looked up to growing up?
I think the first person I looked up to was my kindergarten teacher. She must have been in her early twenties, and from my point of view as a little girl, she was a flawless woman who was cheerful and kind, could play the piano and good at making crafts. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized what a great person my mother was. Especially after I started living alone at the age of 18, I came to realize that my mother, who had been there for me all along, had been doing various things to make our family’s life easier.
What were you like as a child?
Originally, I was shy and withdrawn. I was also easily swayed and wasn’t very interested in fashion until I entered high school. Even then I’d tag along with my friends to SHIBUYA 109 (fashion complex), and if someone said, “This dress is cute so let’s get the same one,” I’d be influenced by that and end up buying one.
But after I began hanging out like that, I saw some clothes in a window display in a store in Harajuku one day on my way home and thought, “That’s so cute!” It was really like a bolt of lightning. That’s how I got into Harajuku fashion and became more and more flamboyant. I really enjoyed wearing the clothes I liked and going out on the town, and it felt like I’d found my place in the world.
I imagine it would take a lot of courage for a shy and withdrawn girl to dress in loud fashion. You didn’t feel any hesitation?
I didn’t feel comfortable presenting something in front of everyone at school and drawing attention to myself like that, but I actually felt happy when strangers on the street looked at what I was wearing. I even wore makeup like a clown, and even when people giggled at me, I felt like I could stand proud and say, “This is me!” I was myself in the fashion I liked, and that was when I began thinking that was how I wanted to live my life. That has continued after my debut as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
So Harajuku fashion helped expand your world in a major way. People tend to worry about how others see them, especially around high school age, or are caught up in stereotypes of femininity. Why do you think you were able to free yourself from such stereotypes?
Back in those days [in Japan], we had magazines that everyone read that presented role models that supposedly helped you become more popular [with the opposite sex] in a comprehensible way, so I think I also had a vague idea of how I should dress myself and do my hair to be popular. If that particular style had suited me, I might have gone along with it, but I didn’t think I looked good in it. I think felt insecure about certain aspects of myself and was trying to hide that or was make myself look strong by wearing eccentric clothes and flamboyant colors. Especially after I made my debut, I was complimented because I didn’t fit into that framework and that made me happy.
If you were to give advice to someone who wants to dress the way they want to, like you do, but feel hesitant about doing so, what would you say?
I’ve had people tell me, “I’m interested in your style, Kyary-chan, but I can’t do it myself, so I’m content to just look at you,” and the thing that goes through my mind is, “Please just try it once!” My favorite quote is by [the Japanese author] Mariko Hayashi, who wrote, “Regret about the things you’ve done grows smaller by the day, but regret about the things you didn’t do grows larger by the day.” [from Yashin no susume]. If there’s something you’d like to do, just do it once, it’s OK if it doesn’t work out.
[Hayashi’s] words actually helped me out last year. When I performed at Coachella, three of the four dancers who were supposed to perform with me on the second weekend suffered health problems. My team was concerned and suggested maybe I should cancel the show, but I decided to go ahead with it by myself. Until then, I didn’t think it was possible [to do alone] but when I gave it a try, I managed to pull though like Mario in superstar mode. And I thought, “Why didn’t I try it before?” I realized that I had been limiting my own possibilities. There may be a lot of things you can do when you actually try them, even if you don’t think you can, so I encourage everyone to give whatever a try.
You got married in March and began new stage in your personal life. I’d like to ask how this might affect your work as an artist, but first of all, congratulations on your marriage!
Thank you so much. I think this industry is a world where there’s a gap between the glamorous side and everything else. There are times I find myself eating fast food alone in a corner of a room after performing on a big stage. [Laughs] I think it’s important for people to support each other precisely because it’s such a world, so it’s reassuring to have someone I can support who will also do the same for me.
While I’m not sure what will happen yet, I’ve thought about having children. I often hear of [female] colleagues who fear the gap [in their career] brought about by childbirth, since women do need a period of rest. They’re afraid they won’t be able to return to their place in the industry after taking a break. Now that I’m married, I feel I need to face these issues properly by accepting that they happen.
Having one’s career interrupted due to motherhood is a major issue for many women. Has being a woman affected your choices in any other ways?
Around the time when I was in high school, I think there were even fewer female politicians than there are now, and I don’t think there were many women in decision-making positions in schools as well, like principals or year-head teachers. Things have changed now compared to those times, and I feel that the world is becoming easier to live in. Having said that, I still sometimes find myself being the only female artist in the lineup at music festivals and other events where multiple artists perform, and have always wondered why.
Also, I faced a lot of frustrating moments when I first started out. In addition to being a young woman, people wanted to treat me as some kind of ditzy character, perhaps because of my eccentric stage name and fashion. My comments in interviews would be rewritten as being overly friendly or rude in tone, or the writer would add something like, “Kyary threw candy at us the moment she walked in.” [Laughs] Then there were times when I would greet clients on site and they wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Because of these experiences, I’ll always remember the people who were kind to me back then, and I want to make sure that I treat everyone equally in the workplace.
That’t unacceptable, to be treated without respect because of one’s gender or fashion. What do you think is necessary for women to thrive in the Japanese music and entertainment industry?
I think [Japanese] society is in the process of shifting into an era of new values from that of the old. For example, when a politician comes under fire for making a derogatory remark about women, they say things like it was meant to be a joke. I find it hard to believe that someone who said something derogatory as a joke would realize that “times are different now, so I should change the way I live.” It makes me think that people’s values don’t change that easily. If more people of the younger generation with new values are given decision-making powers, that would make it easier for women to work.
—This article by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan