On a muggy Monday night in June, a ginormous rainbow flash mob storms the sidewalks outside Manhattan’s Irving Plaza. It helps that this particular Monday falls during Pride Month – but that’s not the reason why so many female-presenting fans have strung their hair through multi-color beads and scrunchies, holding rainbow flags emblazoned with the hashtag “#20GAYTEEN.”
Inside, 27-year-old Hayley Kiyoko – dubbed “Lesbian Jesus” by her fans – awaits. She poses and talks with the lucky ones who paid for meet-and-greet photo ops with the rising star. They ask for prom poses, Ring Pop proposals and cheek kisses (to which Kiyoko politely declines). It’s typical pop awe and excitement, with many teenage participants screaming and smiling from ear-to-ear as they go back to their friends.
“Thank you for all you do,” say adult members of Kiyoko’s fanbase.
“You inspired me to come out to my parents,” profess some of the younger ones.
Kiyoko spent the majority of Pride Month touring in support of her debut album Expectations, wrapping up her headlining trek with two sold-out shows in New York City – a dream for any artist. On her day off between the shows, she pops into a nail salon in Manhattan’s NoMad neighborhood to get a pedicure and fix her gel manicure.
“I would get my nails done maybe once a year growing up,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Now I look at them and am like ‘What am I? Who have I become?'”
These days, a nail salon visit is a rare moment to relax. She’s spent the last five years hitting the ground running to make a name for herself, independently releasing music (until she got signed to Atlantic in 2015) and supporting her music career through various acting jobs, including a main role on the short-lived television series CSI: Cyber.
Growing up, Kiyoko always embraced her creative side. In Los Angeles’ Westlake neighborhood, she spent her childhood surrounded by entertainers: her dad, Jamie Alcroft, works as an actor and comedian while her mother, Sarah Kawahara, is a figure skater and choreographer (who most recently worked on the film I, Tonya). During the summers, Kiyoko and her two siblings would go to Florida while her mom worked with Disney on Ice and travel to Utah while she trained with Olympians.
“I grew up with one parent always gone,” she recalls, noting her mom and dad’s struggle with balancing family and a strong work ethic. “We grew up learning to adapt wherever we were. Work was always first.”
Even last year, when her dad was sick, he encouraged his wife to continue working. “He didn’t want my mom at the hospital and was like, ‘Take the jobs,'” Kiyoko says. “My mom was literally working while he was really ill because that’s their passion. That’s their love. That’s just what I know.”
It was her parents’ resourcefulness that helped Kiyoko feel like she had limitless opportunity. She became “the queen of lemonade stands” and would collect things like coins, stamps and crystals. After seeing the Disney film Brink!, she wanted to become a skateboarder. She took dance lessons from an early age and developed a passion for drumming — two major elements of her live shows now.
But the most important creative pursuit became songwriting. She wrote her first song when she was only six (“Lord knows I had no idea what I was talking about,” she says) and used the medium to validate her own feelings.
“Then I had to learn how to sing because I wanted to tell stories,” she explains.
As all teens do, Kiyoko was struggling to understand her story the more she began to write it out. She was well-liked in school — a social butterfly who served as class president and was “friends with everyone.” Yet the friendships only lasted during school hours.
“No one knew what I did on the weekends,” she says, sullenly recalling her isolation during middle and high school. “Everyone would always think I was with someone else, but I was alone. I was lonely. I was at home watching movies.”
At age six, Kiyoko realized that she was attracted to girls, and the feelings she kept secret only intensified the isolation. It didn’t help that the peers she surrounded herself with identified as straight. “All the girls would go to the Promenade to hang out with cute boys, and it made me feel very alone,” she details. “It was depressing to watch girls that I liked flirt with guys. So I just stayed home.”
Kiyoko told her parents when she was in the sixth grade, and their reaction was disappointing, to say the least. “They told me it was a phase, and I knew it wasn’t.”
She was further traumatized in high school when she had her heart broken by her best friend.
“This is what’s funny about being gay: I look back and I remember her as a girlfriend,” Kiyoko recalls. “We never kissed. We would tell each other we loved each other and hold hands under the table. She would cuddle me and tell me she missed me. When I went to kiss her, she looked at me like I was crazy and broke my heart.”
She locked herself in her room for days, and the devastation helped her mom realize that her daughter’s sexual orientation wasn’t a phase. Even so, Kiyoko remained semi-closeted, protecting herself from the wider school community knowing. She didn’t fit into the media stereotypes of being gay and felt like she couldn’t relate with the kids who were out at school. Those students also dealt with bullying and judgment from their peers, which she wasn’t ready for. “I was a likable person and I didn’t want to all of a sudden not be [likable],” she says. “I was scared.”
She eventually found a group of close friends during her junior year of high school. Still her friends to this day, they were part of a select few who knew the real Kiyoko. “All of them are straight,” she admits, noting that a community of queer women didn’t arrive until after she began to live out, proud and on her own at age 20. “My first [female-identifying] friend who liked girls really changed my life because she was comfortable with who she was,” Kiyoko says, more relaxed while recalling the beginning of her new life. “It made me want to be comfortable with who I was.”
“I wanted to be in a boy band,” Kiyoko says while dipping her feet in coconut milk and rose petals. She saw *NSYNC in the fourth grade, and as a younger dancer with burgeoning pop star ambitions, it was formative.
“They had money falling during the sky during the song ‘Just Got Paid,'” she says. “And I was like ‘This is my dream! Girls! Money falling from the sky! Dance moves!'”
The dream existed briefly before her anti-pop teen taste set in. She worshipped Fiona Apple and Michelle Branch, two of her songwriting heroes, and listened to drum-heavy music like Sum-41 and System of a Down. Later, she formed the garage band Hede, named after her grandfather, and they won their high school’s Battle of the Bands competition.
Meanwhile, she began exploring both acting and singing professionally; in middle school she secured an agent and would go on to appear on various Nickelodeon and Disney shows. Kiyoko began to come around to pop music around this time, citing Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” as her turning point. So it worked out that her first big break came at the age of 16, in the form of a pop group similar to *NSYNC: The Stunners.
“I did it for experience,” she says bluntly. The group was assembled by Vitamin C and included Tinashe as a member. The Stunners would support Justin Bieber on his first world tour, but fizzled out two years later. “I learned a lot of what to do and what not to do,” she adds. “I wanted to be in control of my art. I wanted to write my own music. I always wanted to be in control and call the shots.”
It took more time than Kiyoko anticipated to kickstart her rise as a solo musician, so in the meantime, acting helped finance studio time and taught her more about working under the pressure of the music industry. She didn’t have a manager or an audience yet, so her early twenties were spent researching and attempting to network. “I’d buy a [copy of] Rolling Stone and would look up who produced my favorite song,” she says. “I’d try to find connections because I didn’t know anyone.”
She was told that she needed to become a YouTube star and record covers, but she opposed the idea. It was an industry party she was dragged to at age 23 that helped catapult Kiyoko into her new life: She befriended a woman who would introduce the singer to Fabienne Leys, the manager she still works with today. They connected shortly after Kiyoko’s EP This Side of Paradise was completed, and the song “Girls Like Girls” became her launching point.
“I was putting out art and no one was watching or hearing,” Kiyoko recalls. Leys encouraged her to put all her energy behind “Girls Like Girls” – the $5,000 independently-produced video ended up getting a million views in a couple weeks, when her channel had only 9,000 views prior.
“All my friends helped me make it,” she says of the video. The song was inspired by the best friend who broke her heart in high school – who, when confronted by Kiyoko in recent years, denied that it ever happened. “There was this vision of what I’d always dreamt of seeing in a relationship between two best friends. I grew up with stories of girls killing themselves, never getting the girl. It’s very disheartening because you’re like, ‘It’s gonna suck to like girls.'”
It was heartening for Kiyoko to find her audience through an honest song about herself, after spending years concerned that she may have to continue hiding her identity. “I never thought I would be shown support from the industry,” she admits. “I remember you’d go into a label and, if you weren’t attractive to the men, you weren’t gonna get any attention. I was concerned there was not a lot of room for someone like me.”
“Girls Like Girls” was only the beginning. Kiyoko needed to keep the momentum and buzz going while supporting herself as an artist. She released a steady stream of music videos that fit into her specific vision and the views would double each time. This Side of Paradise was followed by touring, a major label deal with Atlantic and the EP Citrine. She guest starred on Insecure and appeared in the Netflix EDM film XOXO while recording Expectations, her debut full-length which was originally intended to only have six new songs alongside the previously released six tracks from Citrine. The album covers nearly three years of her life, an especially tough period of time marred by loss and personal health issues. The latter was a particularly terrifying diagnosis of post-concussion syndrome in 2016, brought on after hitting her head at her birthday party that spring.
“I couldn’t think,” she says, noting that she spent four months between the concussion and finally going to the doctor to get the diagnosis feeling trapped in her own mind. “If you told me to go to the grocery store and grab the lettuce, I would panic. I’d start crying. I realized that my main skill was thinking and creating, and that was taken away from me.”
It was also the first time in her life that she dealt with depression and feelings of hopelessness. “I couldn’t create, and I was like ‘If I can’t create, what’s the point? I have no purpose.'”
She dealt with post-concussion syndrome for two years. “I’m still on medication for it,” she says, “but this is my first year [since then] that I can think and multitask and it’s amazing.”
It’s been the best possible timing for Kiyoko to get out from under the dark cloud that hovered over her mental state for the last couple years. Expectations has been widely celebrated by both fans and critics, and it topped off at Number 12 on the Billboard 200. She’s been able to take control of her particular visual desires for the singles, self-directing the videos for songs “Curious” and “What I Need” – the latter serving as an epic road trip love story between her and the song’s featured artist Kehlani. This summer, she’s playing arenas as the opening act on Panic! At the Disco’s North American tour, taking her music to biggest venues she has ever performed in.
On her own tour, she encountered the same crowd response she recognized from her days as a boy-band fan: being chased by hordes of screaming girls, dodging bras being flung onstage, phone numbers scrawled on the cups in Sharpie. “One girl ran after the car the other day in Boston as our Uber was taking off,” Kiyoko says through laughter, while getting her chipped gel manicure fixed. “We had another girl in Orlando try to jump into the car as we were moving. It’s dangerous!”
At her shows, Kiyoko has tried to live up to the “Lesbian Jesus” title bestowed upon her by her fans. She’s even played matchmaker during meet-and-greets. “A fan’s phone wasn’t working and she was shy, and there was a cute girl behind her,” she says. “So I was like ‘Hey could we use your phone? Could you text it to her?’ And the shy girl leans in my ear and goes ‘Thank you so much. She’s so pretty. Thank you.'”
Kiyoko’s own dating life has been on the backburner lately. “Normally I will date women who haven’t dated women before because I like a challenge. I need to stop the madness because here I am single.”
As her nails are almost completed, she wonders if she can sneak in some time during her busy NYC week to possibly go on the prowl. “There are so many cute girls in New York,” she says excitedly. “I love women. I love them. They need to love me back.”