This interview was conducted as part of the interview series, LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
Hayley Kiyoko grew up watching the other girls around her as they'd fawn over pop stars; singers who were always male. Kiyoko resolved to be just like those pop stars one day. "I've always loved the attention of women and I never had the attention of women." She wanted that validation, to experienced the unrestrained enthusiasm that musicians like Justin Timberlake inspire.
And now she's achieved just that. Women throwing their bras on stage are a permanent feature of a Hayley Kiyoko show. The singer, known as "Lesbian Jesus" to her fans — a nickname whose origin is unknown, even to her — sat down with The Advocate's interview podcast, LGBTQ&A, to talk about feeling unwanted as a youth, how the music industry talks about her queerness, and why it was her fans that helped her fully come out of the closet.
Jeffrey Masters: On top of singing about girls, you talk publicly about female sexuality and desire. Hearing you say that you want to perform and have hot girls screaming at you—
Hayley Kiyoko: Am I an asshole?
JM: No, you're just a woman and we're not used to that. I think there's an assumption that it's considered uncouth.
HK: I love women and I've always loved the attention of women and I never had the attention of women. So it is something that I have desired throughout my childhood and my youth, wanting that validation.
When you grow up being gay...I didn't really have girls courting me because most people in school aren't really out, or at my time weren't really open with their sexuality, so nobody was courting me. You know, you feel alone and you feel unwanted. And so, I aspired to be an artist, like Justin Timberlake and all these really awesome male artists, that just everyone wanted to be with.
JM: Growing up, you didn't have the attention of women. When did that change?
HK: Probably just a couple of years ago, honestly. But that's also too, because I was open with my sexuality. It's stupid that I was beating myself up about not having attention when the girls didn't even know I liked them. I would just go to my bedroom and write about them in my journal. People can't read your mind.
JM: Was that a big adjustment now to have this attention?
HK: I think everyone just loves to be flattered. It's really nice to know that people find you attractive as a person, you know?
I cry all the time because I'm just so grateful to get to connect and visually meet and see so many people that feel the way I feel. I am crier. I knew when I cried watching Lilo and Stitch that I just was going to be a basket case forever, you know?
JM: Has there ever been pressure from the music industry to tone down your queerness or not be so overt with it?
HK: No one's ever told me, "Hey, tone down, you know, liking girls." But it's like, Oh, you're going to do a video about a girl again? Oh, you're singing about girls again? Can you do something else? And I'm kind of like, I like girls. So that's not changing. That's part of who I am, part of my narrative.
It's a really interesting thing to say to someone, "Because I like girls, I will always sing about girls." Will my content be different? Of course. And stories change and evolve just like every other person who lives life and falls in love and goes through heartbreak.
JM: And from the outside, it seems like your openness and honesty is the reason you have so many fans.
HK: It's more so that a lot of people feel like it's a concept or a trend, or Cool, you kissed a girl in this video. What are you going to do next? As opposed to it being my truth. That's my truth. That's who I am.
JM: How are your other identities viewed in the industry, as a woman and as an Asian-American?
HK: For me, I started acting to make money for music because music is very difficult. I was doing a little bit of both, and I found it was very difficult being half-Japanese, half-white because I was never Asian enough and I was never white enough. And so I'd go out for roles for acting gigs, and I just never could never find my place.
I do feel like mixed-race people are still trying to find their path and way in the industry, especially in the acting world in Hollywood. We still have a long ways to go with that.
JM: You're trying to find your place in terms of acting. Is that also the case in music?
HK: I don't find that it's the same in music. I feel like music is a little more open and just used to differences in people. I do think that we have a lot to grow in music, but I think that they're two different worlds and they both have their own struggles and challenges for representation and moving the needle and narrative forward.
JM: Your video for"Girls Like Girls" went viral. That changed your life and you’ve described it was one of your most personal videos. Why did you not want to be in the video?
HK: Because I feel like if I was in it, you would be watching Hayley in a video. You wouldn't just be watching two girls in a story. And I really wanted people to just fall in love with the story and listen to the words.
I didn't want to be a distraction in the video because I feel sometimes you can be as an artist, a distraction of the story. Also, I did it because I was afraid and I didn't want to put my face on it because I didn't know what people were going to say about me.
JM: Because you had not made such overtly queer music before, right?
HK: Yeah, it was my first song I wrote about liking girls, ever.
I was always out to my close friends, but I still wasn't comfortable publicly. And I didn't want people to know that I liked girls, even though I had a video called "Girls Like Girls".
JM: And with that, there's no going back.
HK: It was three months after the video came out, and I told the publicist who's my publicist now, I told her, "I don't want my name on any out magazines. I don't want lesbian even close to the name Hayley Kiyoko." I don't want anybody to know.
I just want to be an artist because a lot of the times people just see a word and then they judge you. And then they don't listen to the music or what you have to say. I thought that was going to be a disservice to myself as an artist. So I was like, let me just tell people who I am through my art, you know?
JM: How long did feeling like that last?
HK: I felt like it lasted for about a year and a half, maybe a year. And then I started releasing more videos after that, and they just became gayer and gayer. And then I realized if I'm scared then everyone else will continue to be scared, you know? And I was like, If I don't own who I am, what kind of a role model am I? My fans really encouraged me. Having fans that supported me, that encouraged me to be myself.
Hayley Kiyoko's new headline tour, "I'm Too Sensitive For This Shit" kicks off in January of 2020. Her newest release, "Demons" is available now.
New episodes of the LGBTQ&A podcast come out every Tuesday, only on the Luminary app. Click here to listen.