Hayley Kiyoko hasn’t spent much time on earth lately.
In the last four months, the unapologetically queer pop star’s career has reached stratospheric heights thanks to the release of her debut album, “Expectations,” in March, sold-out tour dates across America and Europe, two MTV Video Music Award nominations and an invitation to perform her hit “Curious” with Taylor Swift when the singer’s massive Reputation stadium tour pulled into Boston just under two weeks ago.
But Kikoyo, who recently described herself as a “total space geek” to HuffPost, also spent a few hours making her astronaut dreams come true on a trip earlier this month to Houston’s Johnson Space Center during a day off from opening for Panic At The Disco.
“I was going off,” she told HuffPost during a phone call late last week. “And then I watched ‘Apollo 13’ ― now I feel like I know everything about space.”
Thankfully, Kiyoko came back down from her cosmic high just long enough to explain how that Taylor Swift duet came to be, why it was such an important moment and what’s happening with her love life (spoiler alert: things appear to be on the upswing there, too).
Last week, you appeared to be practically catatonic after you performed with Taylor Swift. Have you recovered yet?
I’ve been on an IV drip ever since [laughs]. No, just kidding. I think I’ve processed it now. I think I now know what happened. I feel like a giddy kid ― it was just so cool to get that validation.
How did that even happen?
Long story short, I had a day off [from my tour with Panic At The Disco] in Boston the same day she had her Boston show, so our teams were talking ― because I originally was going to go and see her show. And then she was just like, “Oh! Would Hayley want to perform ‘Curious’ with me?”
I was at a Cuban restaurant just eating plantains ― just like “doot da doo” ― and my team called me and I was freaking out. And then I met her the day of the show. It was so cool to see the magnitude of her success. It gave me something to focus on and shoot for. Getting a taste of what it’s like for her and for her to share that with me was such a wonderful opportunity.
It came across as completely effortless ― like you’d been performing together for months. How many times did you rehearse it?
I just went to sound check and we blocked it there. That was it. We had great chemistry ― we got along so well ― and she’s a total pro. We both got offstage and we were just screaming at each other about how much fun it was.
This wasn’t your first encounter with Taylor this year. In March, she defended you after you called out the homophobic double standard that you faced when music executives complained about you “doing another music video about girls.” You responded that Taylor always has men in her songs and videos and no one says anything about that, and she backed you up on social media.
But I was also interested in something else you said in that same interview: “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.”
I think what I mean is that a lot of times, the way lesbians are portrayed ends up being something created for the male eye. So that’s why I was saying this isn’t something I’m doing to be sexy ― this is who I am. But at the same time, I’m not saying that I can’t be sexy. I’m a woman and I love myself and I love other women, and some of those women are really good-looking! [Laughs.] I should be able to feel sexy as well. I think that’s what’s been cool about performing this past year ― really feeling sexy and really feeling confident in myself.
I’d argue that there’s something radical ― and political ― about it too, though, because we’ve gotten to this place where, at least for some people, it’s easier to come out, and queer people finally have some visibility and some rights. But a lot of times, mainstream culture is only comfortable with queer people if we present ourselves as nonsexual. We’re allowed to say “love is love,” but if we show a sexual side, that’s really threatening to nonqueer people. So for you to be doing what you’re doing ― especially when you have fans who are 11, 12, 15 years old ― that’s a really important statement that you’re making.
It’s definitely something that’s in the back of my mind. When I use the word “normalize,” that’s what I mean: to normalize seeing two women making out and that being OK. It’s “normal” to see a guy and a girl make out ― so what I’m doing is really riding the line of people being able to see [queer people being sexual] and understanding that that is OK. I always tend to push the boundaries a little bit in my videos because I am trying to make a statement and I am trying to say something with my art and my music, so that doesn’t go unnoticed.
When I was watching the clip of you and Taylor performing, there’s a moment when you’re grinding up on each other...
[Gasps audibly and laughs.]
And I was just thinking, you’re doing that in front of 50,000 people ― many of them young people who maybe haven’t seen two women, much less two famous women, doing that before ― and maybe that sparked some conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.
[Laughing] Did we grind? Did we really grind, Noah?
You did! However briefly, there was totally grindage happening. I will send you a screen grab!
[Laughing] Send me that screen grab! I need to see this!
I think that’s why that Taylor moment was so important. It was beyond just bringing me out, it was saying to the community, “Hey! She’s dope. She likes girls and I don’t care ― and we’re allies.” And I think for her demographic and for what she does, that was a very important moment.
I will! But seriously ― I think it’s cool to have someone at Taylor’s level of fame and success essentially saying, “I’m not afraid to bring a queer artist out on stage and support them” ― and yes, maybe even grind with them. And not only is it cool, it’s meaningful. That kind of visibility matters.
I think it’s really cool, too. I think that’s why that Taylor moment was so important. It was beyond just bringing me out, it was saying to the community, “Hey! She’s dope. She likes girls and I don’t care ― and we’re allies.” And I think for her demographic and for what she does, that was a very important moment. That’s why I feel like that was just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Earlier, you mentioned how that performance gave you something to aspire to for your own career. At the same time, once you reach that level, you’re forced to give up most of your privacy, and something as simple as going to the grocery store becomes impossible. Is there anything about reaching that level of fame ― and everything that comes with it ― that gives you pause?
As artists, we just go for it, and whatever comes our way, no matter what level you are, big or small, there’s always going to be battles. There’s always going to be struggles. There’s always going to be health issues. I think it’s about taking it one day at a time, and for me, my goal is to meet as many people as possible and to reach as many people as possible and to really become global. So, I’ll have to deal with my life as it comes.
Do you get recognized when you’re out and about?
I’ve definitely felt a shift this year. People know my name, and every time I go out, I do get recognized a couple of times. I’m obviously still growing, so it’s not like I’m on the level of getting surrounded, but I’m like, “Oh, people know who I am!” People know my music. They know my name. Just people knowing your name ― there’s a level of respect where it’s like, “Oh, that’s cool.“
You’re touring at what is currently a really unprecedented and incredibly tumultuous time for our country. What is it like traveling across America right now as a queer woman of color? Is there anything or anyone that you’ve encountered that’s surprised you?
When I’m on tour, obviously, I’m only getting to see a very small portion of whatever city I’m in and the people who are showing up to the show. But for me, it’s a very hopeful thing. I see the news, I’m seeing all of these issues and these problems in the world, but I get to see this cluster of incredibly beautiful people who are searching for love and joy and escape. I get to really see this rainbow belt throughout the country. It gives me hope. It’s really wonderful to see eye-to-eye as opposed to being like, “I know there are good people out there somewhere” ― I get to actually see them. That drives me. That excites me. I think, What if we could just multiply this?
And then I meet a lot of kids. You said earlier that, in some ways, it’s easier to come out now, but for a lot of the kids that I’m meeting, it’s still really hard for them. At almost all of my meet-and-greets, I’m meeting kids who have been disowned by their parents, who don’t have a community that loves them, and it’s devastating that there are people out there who are willing to sacrifice their love for their child because of who they are. So, what motivates me is being able to be there for them and introduce them to other people at the shows who are like-minded, and hopefully help them to find other people like themselves in each city so they don’t feel so alone. Because we’ve progressed, but there are still so many people that have such a hard time accepting their kids.
You’re also registering fans to vote at your shows.
We need to register every single 18-year-old out there and get them to realize that voting in the midterms and voting every single time after that is absolutely crucial ― because those are their rights that are essentially up for a vote, and that’s all we can do. We have to be loud. We have to vote. And we have to show up. That’s where we’re at now ― stop talking about it and show up.
You’re nominated for two MTV Video Music Awards. Does the fact that you conceptualize and write and direct your videos make these nominations and the possibility of winning mean more to you?
First of all, I’m just beyond honored to be nominated, because it’s like being invited to the cool table with the popular kids. So that right there is a win. But, yeah, if I were to win, it would represent all of my music videos and all of these stories and other people’s stories, and I feel like that’s a really important message.
So if I were to win, somebody at home on their couch could be like, “Wow, look at her. She’s gay, she’s Asian-American, she’s a woman, she wasn’t signed [to a record label] and she funded her own videos and she directs her own videos and she did that ― I can do that, too.” That’s the win. Seeing is believing, and that’s something that I really think applies to what I’m doing.
When I asked you about your love life during our last chat four months ago, you told me to catch up with you in six months to get an update.
We’re a little ahead of schedule, but since I’ve got you on the phone, how are things going?
[Slyly] I mean ... my love life is ... good. [Laughs.]
Really? Congratulations. That’s awesome ― and definitely not what you told me last time.
What did I tell you last time? That I was miserable? [Laughs.]
You said that dating is “difficult” but that you were trying to “put yourself out there.”
I’ve definitely been trying, but it’s been hard over the last couple of years. But where I’m at right now? Things are ... good. [Laughing.]
Oh my God! You’re so coy!
[Laughs] I know. I know. But you’ve got to keep ’em on the edge of their seats, you know?