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Hayley Kiyoko, dubbed 'Lesbian Jesus' by her fans, is resurrecting music with her queerness

"I want to be an artist, and I want people to know about me and know that I'm gay," Kiyoko told TODAY in honor of our 2021 Pride Month series.
This LGBTQ Pride Month, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves.
This LGBTQ Pride Month, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves.TODAY Illustration / Atlantic Records
/ Source: TODAY

Hayley Kiyoko has been in the entertainment industry for well over a decade. From taking on a recurring role in Disney’s “Wizard of Waverly Place" and starring in the 2011 Disney Channel Original Movie “Lemonade Mouth” to playing Aja Leith in the 2015 musical drama “Jem and the Holograms,” Kiyoko was destined to be a performer.

The 30-year-old pop star hailing from Los Angeles was a member of the now-disbanded girl group The Stunners before eventually going solo and releasing her first EP, “A Belle to Remember” in 2013. It wasn’t until two years later that one social media site would become a vehicle for a music video and song from her second EP, “This Side of Paradise,” and would help propel it — and Kiyoko — into viral fame.

The music video for the song “Girls Like Girls,” which was directed by Kiyoko and Austin S. Winchell, depicts a friendship between two girls, played by Stefanie Scott and Kelsey Chow, until one of the friends begins to develop feelings for the other, which is complicated by Chow’s relationship with a boy. The video conveys a rollercoaster of emotions that comes along with young love and ends with both girls kissing as they finally express their own romantic feelings for one another.

Kiyoko recalled being “terrified” to release the video, revealing that she almost didn’t, fearing that nobody would be able to relate to it. Her own hesitancy was met with the refusal of other outlets to premiere or support the song or video, which admittedly threw her. The “Found My Friends” singer eventually bit the bullet and released the video, which AOL premiered, after which she said the “Tumblr gods” were working in her favor and helped put the video in front of so many eyes, increasing viewership by the millions at a time.

“It just continued to go up week after week, so it was shocking,” she told TODAY. “But it also was just such a great reminder that all of those years I felt isolated and alone, I hadn’t been up alone. There have been other people that feel the way I feel, and I think that's what's so amazing about social media and the internet is because my fans were able to be this community that I never felt I had growing up.”

“Often times music stars have the greatest impact and influence on young people and Hayley Kiyoko takes that very seriously," Anthony Ramos, head of talent for LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD, told TODAY via email. "As an openly lesbian Asian-American pop star, her openness in her lyrics and her outspoken activism for queer youth is definitely creating important conversations and change in a more traditional culture.”

Finding her footing

Despite the support she felt from her fans, Kiyoko didn’t have an easy road following the success of “Girls Like Girls.” In fact, she said that for the first handful of videos that she’d done, she struggled with feedback that it was “too much” and “too risqué.”

“(People) would say, it's ‘risqué,’ and I'm like, ‘What’s risqué? Two women are kissing and they love each other,’” she said. “I didn’t understand why everything I did was uncomfortable for people. I had to learn how to accept that with my career and decided that everything I have to do is going to be uncomfortable for people because I'm trying to normalize and make space for stories that need to be told and need to be heard."

While trying to be a voice for the LGBTQ community, Kiyoko was met with numerous challenges. Along with those obstacles came some positives, including finding her fans, community and her purpose. On the opposite end of the spectrum, she explained, “There are also a lot of extreme challenges that you have to face while trying to break the stereotype and normalizing the stories and celebrating these stories.”

Embracing her true self

Growing up, Kiyoko always thought that she would have to wait until she was in her 30s to come out, thinking that she just had to survive until she reached that age. When she first released “Girls Like Girls,” she said that she didn’t even want people to know that she was gay or show her vulnerable side, she just wanted people to listen to and love her music. But the lack of visibility of queer artists to look up to while Kiyoko was growing up became a driving force behind her goal as an artist today.

“I want to be an artist, and I want people to know about me and know that I'm gay,” she said. “I’m sure there were many queer artists growing up, but I wasn't aware of them. They weren't given the platform that they deserved and I think that we're trying to break that.”

2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 3
Hayley Kiyoko performs onstage during the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.Rich Fury / Getty Images for Coachella

Kiyoko took the initiative to begin creating space for fans and other artists to come into their own. After finding her community in her growing fan base, she recalled a moment sitting in her apartment where she came to the realization that she had to be the kind of artist that she didn’t have to look up to during her adolescence so that her fans, and other artists, weren’t in the same position she was.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I just have to really love myself. I think I just have to embrace who I am. Because if I don't do it, who will? If I'm not unapologetically myself, and I don't take this seriously, then who will?" she said. "And so from then on, I just continued to try to challenge myself and be as vulnerable, and sometimes uncomfortable, as possible.”

Creating visibility in the music industry

Kiyoko feels that there have been moments of growth within the music industry, allowing the opportunity for more artists to break through while being able to just be themselves. Even with the strides that have been made, Kiyoko wants visibility and allyship to be a 24/7/365 commitment, not just confined to Pride Month.

“You have brands celebrating you and then a month is over,” she explained. “I think that the challenge and that's the fight — to be able to celebrate and uplift our community throughout the year.”

Kiyoko, affectionately dubbed “Lesbian Jesus” by her fans, still has plenty planned for the month of June to honor Pride Month. She’ll be performing at iHeart Radio’s "Can’t Cancel Pride" event on June 4, and just released her newest video for her single, “Chance.”

The video, starring Alexandra Shipp alongside Kiyoko, shows a biracial women-loving-women relationship that has a happy ending, a depiction that isn’t often found in queer romances in pop culture. The song was inspired by her own missed opportunities in love when she wasn’t brave enough to take a chance on herself because she didn’t believe that she had an opportunity.

“I directed a music video and I wanted to capture what it would have been like if I did take a chance on myself and the honeymoon stages and that love that you feel when you meet that special person and the right person and that love is reciprocated," she said. “I really wanted to create a narrative for that. I'm excited for people to see the video because I'm hoping that it can create space and also representation for other people that deserve to find love.”

Kiyoko says there is some pressure when it comes to representing the LGBTQ community, but only in the sense of putting on individual pressure to be the best version of herself. Still, she's grateful for the pressure, as it challenges her to continue dreaming and making her way through the ups and downs of life, and the music industry.

She strives to continue planting seeds of hope for the generations to come so that they know that they are able to "dream as big as they want" and embrace who they are, even if it doesn't fit into a box where society wants to place them.

“I always tell my fans that the most important form of activism that you can do that requires no work is just existing,” she explained. “Your existence is breaking those stereotypes. Even if you're still not out and you're still discovering your sexuality or your identity, just existing, fighting and navigating through that is the most powerful thing you can do. And one day, you will thrive, and you will feel on top of the world and feel content with who you are.”

This LGBTQ Pride Month 2021, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves. By examining their experiences individually, we see how all of their stories are tied to one another in a timeline of LGBTQ history that takes us from where we were to where we stand today.