The Come Up is Refinery29’s new series featuring rising female artists who are as badass and inspiring as their music is. Check out our first installment.
Hayley Kiyoko has no idea how she earned the nickname “Lesbian Jesus.” Or how the term ended up on Urban Dictionary as “a title given to actress/singer Hayley Kiyoko by her fans.” But she is very proud of the moniker.
“The first thing I saw was someone on social media had posted this hilarious picture of my face photoshopped on Jesus’s body, and then I think it spiraled from there,” she says. “I don’t know what it means, but that’s gotta be, like, the highest honor! I mean, Jesus is the top!”
This was a few weeks after her Refinery29 photoshoot in Manhattan in March. Kiyoko was Facetiming me from the backseat of her road trip from Nashville to Huntsville, Alabama, where she was headed to meet 20 fans at a radio event promoting her debut album, Expectations. Those 20 fans were just a small sampling of Lesbian Jesus’s devotees (there are 766,000 of them on Instagram alone), a rabid following that’s putting Kiyoko on track to become one of her generation’s only openly gay pop stars.
But the 26-year-old has no interest in being the music industry’s token lesbian. The genre has, historically used same sex relationships between women as a shock tactic, from the Madonna-Britney Spears-Christina Aguilera kiss at the 2003 VMAs to Katy Perry’s hit “I Kissed A Girl.” While Kiyoko is anti-gimmick, she does reassure me that she’s more than happy to talk about her identity in interviews.
“I think no matter who you are or what you look like, you just wanna be a person, right?” she says. “Sure, I’d love for people to just like me, and my music. But if I don’t allow labels, there’s no way to normalize them. Over time, my existence alone will help people see that a lesbian singer is just a singer. So while I might not want to constantly be asked about my sexuality and just be me, a big part of me is my love of women. So I guess I’m talking about it until it’s no longer seen as something to talk about.”
Born in Los Angeles, Kiyoko’s mother is a Japanese-Canadian choreographer and figure skater, and her father is an American actor and comedian. Because of her ingrained Cali spirit (and her love of the word like), she jokes that her fans often ask her if she’s high, but it’s “literally just my face! I’m not on drugs, guys! I’m just a chill person.”
At the age of five, she started modeling after she accompanied a friend on a photoshoot and the photographer asked if she could be part of shoot, too. Childhood modeling led to an acting career on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows, but music was always her first love. She began drum lessons at six and knew she wanted to be a performer at eight when she attended *NSYNC’s “No Strings Attached” concert. “I was like, full on performing in the audience like I was on stage,” she remembers. “I just kept thinking I want to do that.”
"I’ve had several music industry execs say ‘You’re doing another music video about girls?’ I was like, um, yea...Taylor Swift sings about men in every single song and video, and no one complains."
As a teenager, Kiyoko became a member the girl group The Stunners, a pop act that went on to open for Justin Bieber’s “My World Tour” but disbanded not long after. When I ask her why she thinks girl bands are often doomed to fail (Fifth Harmony, for one, just recently announced a hiatus), she says: “I think as an artist, you just want to take any opportunity to create something for yourself. It’s the same as any work industry. Even if you work well collaboratively, you’re always going to be hopping from one place to another to get to where you want to be, because you’re most passionate about your own art.”
Her own rise to solo artist didn’t happen overnight, though. After high school, Kiyoko was struggling not just with her sexual identity, but also her sound as an artist. Acting was her main creative outlet until 2015, when she says she finally came into her own with her EP This Side Of Paradise. It was the lead single and video, “Girls Like Girls,” that gained Kiyoko the beginnings of her passionate following, launching her ascent into rising star.
But being unapologetically herself doesn’t come without a fight.
“I’ve had several music industry execs say ‘You’re doing another music video about girls?’ I literally looked at them and was like, um, yea...Taylor Swift sings about men in every single song and video, and no one complains that she’s unoriginal,” Kiyoko says. “I’m not over-sexualizing my music. I make out with women because I love women, not because I’m trying to be sexy. That’s not to turn heads — that’s my life.”
Now, Kiyoko has just released her debut album, Expectations, into the world, and it’s a dreamy, bass-pumping electro pop collection that touches on everything from heartbreak to partying to hookups. (The album's only collaboration is the catchy rock-pop tune "What I Need" with fellow rising queer singer Kehlani.) The artist also directs all of her own music videos, and in the visual for the single “Curious,” she seduces a man’s girlfriend at a party and “totally rocks her world.” While Expectations’ is brimming with shimmering pop tunes, the record also includes a few haunting tracks: One is “Let It Be,” with the lyrics “Every night gets a little tougher/How can I dream about another?/I believe we’re the ones who had it all/I believe we just have to learn to fall.” The song, she says, was inspired by her ex-girlfriend of five years. Though there’s another achingly poignant track, “Wanna Be Missed,” Kiyoko says she’s not looking to be missed by anyone in particular right now.
“That song is about the feeling we all have: we all want to be loved, to be held, to be thought about...but I am very single,” she says. “I mean, kids and marriage is a dream of mine. I would love to find me a nice, cute, smart wife! But that’s far in the future. Work is so important to me right now.”
“I was trying to decide whether I wanted to do it because I would have to be nude, so I called my mom,” says Kiyoko. “And my mom was like, ‘You know honey, if you’re gonna show off your body, now is the time!’ It was a very liberating experience, to say the least. But now fans of Issa’s character side eye me for having a threesome with Lawrence!” And later this year, Kiyoko is starring in a new Facebook Watch series called Five Points, executive produced by Kerry Washington.
With her first official album now released, Kiyoko is hitting the Coachella stage in April, touring for her album this spring, and opening for Panic! At The Disco this summer. And while she’s enjoying every minute of the ride, her fans certainly are, too. A few days after our chat, Kiyoko posts a makeup-free selfie on Instagram with the caption “Bienvenidos a Miami.” Lying on a bed in the background — so far back you could easily miss it — is a woman, with only her topless, bikini bottom-clad silhouette visible. In between proclamations like “WHAT A GAY ICON” and “Thank you for being a role model!” there are dozens of comments that simply say: “All hail Lesbian Jesus!”