“I think in life you have a choice to sink or swim, and I had a lot of challenges where I had to choose to either thrive or not,” Hayley Kiyoko says with confidence. “So I chose to thrive.”
That sink or swim metaphor is apt for the day’s activity: racing remote-control model sailboats in Central Park. “I used to race cars. Like, you know those little ones,” Kiyoko jokes. “And crash ‘em.”
As it turns out, racing miniature sailboats is very distracting when you’re trying to discuss the triumphs of directing a music video, or the deep, existential pangs that sometimes come with the territory of being a global pop star with an ever-growing sphere of influence. But Kiyoko is focused. It’s not long before she puts her remote down, and lets the sailboat do its thing on the water without her control.
It’s the day after the New York City Pride parade, and Kiyoko is tired. It wasn’t her first time attending Pride, but it was her first time actually getting on a float. “The parade was so emotional and passionate and it was such an experience that I can’t quite explain,” Kiyoko ponders. “I’ve never really had the, like, need to be in a parade. ‘Cause I’m like, ‘Oh I’m gay, like, whatever,’ you know. But I think everyone needs to experience it because it’s like a different level of pride that you feel. It’s not only pride of yourself but of all these people that show up and are proud. It’s a totally different experience than just celebrating.”
Kiyoko’s cool nonchalance about her sexuality may strike a chord now, but it wasn’t always this way for the musician. She remembers the first time she attended a Pride parade was in Vancouver, and her friend had to drag here there. “I was like 17, and I was like, if people see me with gay people, they will think I’m gay,” she recalls. “Not that it wasn’t already obvious.”
Now, at 28 years old, she’s fully embraced the label. Known by some of her loyal followers as “Lesbian Jesus,” it’s safe to say that Kiyoko has established herself as a gay icon, but years ago, before achieving global success from singing songs about crushing on girls, Kiyoko had some simple goals for her art. “I just wanted to be a musician and perform at the Staples Center. That was the goal. It wasn’t like, oh I’m going to sing about women and express myself,” she admits. “It was very narrow minded almost, kind of, what I was going to do. And now I just have a whole different perspective on life and what’s important to me. It’s a really cool surprise in life.”
In the music video for her new single, “I Wish,” Kiyoko stars as a lovesick teen who asks her friends to cast a forgetting spell on her. While she wasn’t aiming to make something exactly like the 1996 supernatural thriller The Craft, there’s no denying that the video “definitely has The Craft vibes,” according to Kiyoko, who also says she was inspired by the concept of friends in an attic. “The main focus was like, when you’re not getting attention from the person that you want or even able to love yourself, like, having people there for you, they can’t fix it, but they can keep you going and hold your hand through it,” she says. “It’s really important for me with all my music videos to have this broad stroke of emotion that everyone can relate to. It’s very specific, because it’s my point of view, but then it’s also something that people can really connect to and relate to, because we all are humans and we all feel, and we have different upbringings and different opportunities and privileges, but we all feel the same emotions.”
It should not come as a surprise that Kiyoko’s music videos turn out more like short films. As a teen, she starred in Disney’s Lemonade Mouth, appeared on Freeform’s The Fosters with Maia Mitchell (who appears alongside Kiyoko in the music video for “I Wish”), had a recurring role on CSI: Cyber, and an unforgettable cameo on season two of Insecure. And as much as Kiyoko succeeds with songwriting, acting, and singing, she’s got a clear track record showing her passion for working behind the camera. Kiyoko not only stars in the music video for “I Wish,” but she directed it as well. Last year, she directed the short film-slash-music video for “What I Need,” her upbeat pop duet with Bay Area R&B superstar Kehlani, about needing a partner to quit playing games and fully embrace the relationship. Before that, she directed the music video for six of her other singles: “Curious,” “Feelings,” “Sleepover,” “Gravel to Tempo,” “Cliff’s Edge,” and “Girls Like Girls,” the 2015 single that marks the first time she explicitly referenced her sexuality in her music.
“My dreams have definitely shifted to leaning more towards directing,” Kiyoko admits. “I think I’ll always do a little bit of everything, but I just love storytelling. That’s what’s so cool about being a musician is you are a storyteller. You write a song, and you create the video, and you put it into a live version and go on tour. So I would love to direct a feature and produce shows, and do on a bigger level what I’ve been doing, which is telling stories people want to see and need to see.”
Kiyoko's music touches on typical relationship woes, but the over-arching theme across her body of work tends to be a lesson in learning to love the self. “Who I am as an artist is the struggles that I’ve been through and the heartbreak that I’ve experienced and finding self love, discovering self love,” Kiyoko continues. “It’ll always organically be a part of the conversation and the platform.”
Kiyoko has also made a splash by appearing in other videos for her friends and collaborators, most recently in Taylor Swift’s attempt at an anti-bullying anthem, “You Need to Calm Down.” At the mention of the Pride parade and Swift, who has publicly proved herself to be an ally of the LGBTQ community, the question of the necessity of allies comes up, too. “Yesterday was very emotional for me because not only was it emotional to see the community really be there for one another, but to see the allies and my best friend and my manager and my publicist who are straight, very straight,” Kiyoko said. “But they are out there getting emotional, fighting for my rights, my beliefs, and everyone else’s. That means just as much. Because they don’t have to do that. We have to do that, I have to do that. I have no choice, that’s who I am. And I want a fair chance at life, we all do.”
When she’s on tour, Kiyoko meets 100 new people every night. She talks to them, takes pictures, and answers their questions, night after night. But this is not at all a burden for Kiyoko, who sees these meet-and-greets as an opportunity to not only connect with fans, but to introduce fans to one another. “You definitely get to get a nice broad scope of the community and the people out there. It’s incredible, I’ve done shows in Kentucky and you have kids that are from Alabama which is very conservative and they’re coming to Kentucky to see me perform and driving long distances. And then you’re in Oslo, Norway. The common thread is that we all just want to be loved. It’s so simple and yet so complicated. And so many people feel like outcasts. The majority of people are outcasts,” she says. “So, it’s like, start the conversation. We all go through depression, we all go through being lonely, we all go through loss on various levels. It’s about being there for one another. But it’s really cool that at my concerts it is a community because you’re getting to see hundreds or thousands of people just like you that live in your same city, so you could go with no friends and leave with friends, or go knowing that you’re not alone. I feel like that is so powerful and that can help you get through, like, suicidal thoughts, right? Just, like, knowing you’re not alone.”
While Kiyoko’s songs about love harp on relatable and universal themes, no matter the sexuality of the listener, to hear a young queer woman singing about her sexuality so openly is still rare. And even though Kiyoko doesn’t consider herself a celebrity, her global impact is undeniable. She has nearly two million followers on Instagram, and she’s known to be outspoken on social media. In 2018, her #20GAYTEEN hashtag went viral, and in the past year her peers—King Princess, Lauren Jauregui, Kehlani, to name a few— have risen to prominence alongside her as unapologetically queer artists who are seemingly everywhere, on your feeds and on the festival circuit. It’s clear that Kiyoko knows what she wants, and she has a plan for how to get it. “My goal, I just want all the mainstream stuff. I want everything that everyone else always gets,” she said. “That’s what I want.”
When the conversation turns existential, Kiyoko remains balanced and collects her thoughts on why she does what she does, why she sings about who she sings about, and why she keeps meeting 100 new people every night. “I focus on hope. I think hope is a big thing. Not feeling alone, but feeling hopeful. Because sometimes you get in your brain and you’re like, what’s the point of life, what am I doing on this earth, what am I leaving on this earth, who am I affecting on this earth? And you get in your brain and you’re like, what’s the point? And the point is hope,” she says. “The point is to dream and believe and it’s important to keep that fire going and burning. Cause that’s where you create awesome things and get to experience awesome things.”
“I’ve always known I needed hope. ‘Cause growing up as a kid and knowing I was gay and feeling alone, I needed that. I felt like, Oh I’m gay, I’m gonna commit suicide at some point and die alone. That’s just what was taught to me. Through films, through word of mouth. That’s just what it was,” Kiyoko continues. “I didn’t want it to be like that.”
Kiyoko has known what she wanted since she was young, and although she embraces the “Lesbian Jesus” nickname now, performs across the globe singing about relationships with women, and has continued along a steady path towards mainstream pop superstardom, she still never would have predicted that she would be where she is today. “I never in my wildest, wildest dreams did I think I would be open with my sexuality. Not only that, but lead people to also feel comfortable with their sexuality. That was just not a part of the equation. At all. So, it’s been a surprise in life, and a blessing. Looking back at my life, now it all makes sense. That’s kind of like, where life led me and is kind of my purpose, to just continue to share stories and connect with people on a different level, and have those conversations. But I never thought that I was ever going to have that impact or influence on anyone, really. It was so not even a thought,” she says. It’s a surprise to hear such a statement from someone who is so open on stage, and so willing to talk about her relatable “what’s the point” existential crises during a casual activity like racing miniature sailboats in the middle of Central Park as ducks are quacking and hundreds of tourists and families shuffle by every few minutes.
“If I were to sit down my 14 or 15 year old self, I would be like, ‘You are out of your goddamned mind. You’re gonna do what? You’re gonna be called who? You’re gonna be saying what?’ I literally avoided the girls’ locker rooms because I didn’t want people to know I was gay, just in case. Basic stuff like that,” Kiyoko remembers. “So I’ve come a long way, but I guess the moral of the story is that no matter where you are in life, you can come a long way, and you can grow immensely within a short amount of time or a long amount of time and to never give up because if I had given up, I wouldn’t be here.”