Her hardcore fans may have dubbed her “lesbian Jesus,” but singer Hayley Kiyoko is so much more. Still riding high on the success of her debut album, Expectations, Kiyoko is up for two MTV Video Music Awards, including the coveted Best New Artist Category and Push Artist Of The Year.
While it’s a love of music that draws Kiyoko, she tells The Advocate, that she’s also thrilled to be succeeding in the industry as an Asian-American queer woman because as a kid, “I never saw anyone like me. I thought I couldn’t be on TV or be a [pop star] because of it.” Now, she's being the role model she once missed.
Of course, the actress and singer is exactly the kind of musician that girls and women — a large part of her fan base — are looking for in 2018. And it’s not just because her self-directed music videos are supremely visual, unabashedly fun, and generally queer AF. It’s also because she’s a young, out woman who seems to need no validation from the rest of the world.
At a recent concert, Taylor Swift, the queen of pop music, brought Kiyoko out as a surprise guest on her Reputation World Tour stop near Boston. The two performed a duet — of Kiyoko’s song, "Curious," about her crush on another woman.
The crowd went wild. Kiyoko says the moment was both amazing (“I was in shock,” she demurs) and surreal, in part because of the audience, fans, and social media reaction. Though there’s a lot of overlap in the two young women’s fan bases, the validation of a huge artist like Swift (and the figurative anointment of Kiyoko as the next big thing) means the queer artist’s fan base just got wider overnight.
Her current single “What I Need,” featuring Kehlani, is out now (and it’s cute video will evoke a knowing smile) and Kiyoko is currently on a nationwide arena tour with Panic! At The Disco. It’s been a year of successes for Kiyoko though, including a Coachella debut, sold-out shows, and her late-night TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (in which she sang "Curious" again). Both Nylon and Paper have featured her on covers and, so far, 160 million people have watched one of Kiyoko’s videos.
The new leader of the out, proud, queer youth pop movement, Kiyoko has become a force to be reckoned with. And with it, comes responsibility. Because of her visibility, she’s approached by teenage fans struggling with issues around coming out, being safe, battling mental health concerns, and more. It’s a heady responsibility, she says, because she’s not much older than many of them.
“I don’t always know what to say,” she admits, especially when dealing with very serious issues. But so far, fans seem happy to hear her listen, to share, and be heard. And when she’s on stage or off, often she’s draped in a rainbow flag like a cape, like a queer superhero of color. She’s reclaiming the rainbow, she says, after once being told not to wear it because it was too gay. She hopes to embolden her fans to do the same around sexuality, race, and gender.
If Kiyoko wins best new artist at the VMAs later this month, she may be the first out queer woman to do so. Either way, she says just being on the #RoadToVMGAYs is a great journey. The validation she’ll get from a win will be a great topper to a year that’s only half over.
(Anyone can vote in MTV’s Video Music Awards. Voting ends Friday, August 10.)