Even in Honey Hi — the swanky type of Los Angeles eatery that sells $12 bottles of tiger-nut horchata and attracts millennials looking for an avocado fix — Hayley Kiyoko, with her gold-bleached hair and shock-pink denim jacket, stands out. The 26-year-old is accustomed to being an outlier, in and beyond the Echo Park neighborhood: She’s an openly gay, half-Japanese music star with a Disney Channel pedigree who’s unapologetic about her explicitly queer strain of synth-pop.
“Basically, I’m an extreme minority,” says Kiyoko with a laugh, picking at a grain bowl medley of quinoa, farmers-market cauliflower and a gooey turmeric poached egg. Since her first EP, in 2013, Kiyoko has gradually embraced her outsider status, as have 2.9 million monthly listeners on Spotify and 700,000 Instagram followers who lovingly refer to her as “Lesbian Jesus” on social media, superimposing her face onto images of J.C. And while the name is obviously tongue-in-cheek (“I’d like to thank lesbian jesus for correctly naming this year and blessing it for all of us,” tweeted one fan with Kiyoko’s signature hashtag, #20GAYTEEN), as a lesbian singer who speaks directly to the woke generation, Kiyoko is a rare figure in pop, setting a still-radical example.
“I think she’s going to be spearheading a movement for a lot of young artists coming after her,” says R&B singer Kehlani, who also sings romantically about women and features on album cut “What I Need.” “Age plays a big part in it — I don’t know if there are a lot of young people who are being so openly straightforward. It’s not an agenda, it’s just her being herself. She’s going to open a door.”
“I think it’s just important for people to lead by example,” explains Kiyoko. “My motto is to help people love themselves sooner. I can’t teach them how to do that. They have to figure that out on their own — that’s their journey.”
Kiyoko provides a suitable soundtrack for that experience with her full-length debut, Expectations, arriving March 30 on Atlantic Records. She sings with a remove that makes listeners feel like she’s letting them in on a secret — think the galloping pace of Dua Lipa’s pop anthems tuned to a slinkier frequency — with production from Jono Dorr and Cecil Bernardy (The Neighbourhood), who place her gentle vocals in an electronic-leaning wonderland.
As a teen actor, Kiyoko shared the screen with Selena Gomez on the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place for four episodes in 2010 and appeared in its hit movie musical Lemonade Mouth in 2011. Music was always a hobby; she started on drums at age 6 and penned tracks soon after. “I had a song called ‘Notice,'” she says. “My dad still calls me and is like, ‘Why won’t you release “Notice?”‘ and I’m like, ‘Dad, it’s done. I wrote it when I was 8…'”
Through her teen years, she posted fliers around her neighborhood looking for people to join her garage band Hede and then flirted with girl-group stardom as a member of The Stunners alongside R&B singer Tinashe, opening for Justin Bieber on his My World Tour and signing to Republic Records in 2010 before splitting a year later. Going solo suddenly felt right, but, as Kiyoko knows, finding your voice, in the spotlight or not, can take time.
In an era where openly queer pop stars like Halsey and Troye Sivan are gaining a presence in the mainstream, few have been as forthright on that level as Kiyoko has with being a lesbian, both in her music, which regularly uses female pronouns (2015 single “Girls Like Girls” has over 32 million Spotify spins) and her self-directed music videos, which depict lesbian romance as sensual and, above all, normal.
Kiyoko’s path to self-acceptance began when she was 20, soon after The Stunners broke up. She had always known she was gay, and was out to a few close friends in high school, but was “really intimidated by the stigma and stereotype of the label” until she fell into a relationship that gave her the confidence to come out. At first, she was hesitant to be so open about her sexuality in her music, and her debut EP, A Belle to Remember, plays like an artist testing out different styles in the hope that one sticks. “I didn’t want to lead with [my sexuality] because I didn’t know what people were going to think. I felt like people weren’t going to accept me as a pop artist. Not to make myself sound special, but there’s no one out there. It’s scary.”
It was during a session in 2015 with her songwriting partners, the duo T.Y, when the epiphany came and they wrote “Girls Like Girls,” a flirty breakthrough where she chants, “Girls like girls like boys do, nothing new.” “That was the moment where I was like, ‘Holy shit, I don’t have a choice. This is something that I have to do because no one else is doing it,'” she says. “It forced me to step into my own as an artist. And this is something I’ve always wanted to do — be loud and sing about sexy girls.”
Following 2016’s Citrine EP, which reached No. 4 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart, Expectations is the assured, measured album she hinted at with peppy singles “Curious” and “Feelings,” including songs encouraging a girl to cave into her bi-curious feelings and leave her boyfriend (“He’ll Never Love You [HNLY]”) and about yearning to be desired as the fatigue of loneliness sets in (“Wanna Be Missed”). Sexuality is front and center — even the album cover depicts her in a marigold-hued crop top, gazing at a nude woman with her backside turned to the camera.
“I think [queer artists are] what’s giving people encouragement to really be more comfortable with themselves,” says Kiyoko. “That’s how life is. If you see two girls falling in love and normalizing that, then [people] can go, ‘I can fall in love, too. I can be that person. I can look like that. I can get a girl that looks like that.’ If they see that, then they can believe it. It’s just how we are.”
Views From The Director’s Chair
How Kiyoko makes her music videos, which have a total of over 130 million YouTube views.
1. Prepare: “I start with a mood board and color palette. From there I literally storyboard everything by hand.”
2. Partner: “I share my vision with two to three people and make sure they see it. Because on set, I don’t get to look at the monitor.”
3. Persist: “Success is the only option for these videos, even if I lose the location or actress. I’m going to make a video.”