How King Princess on Her Drag Persona and Titanic Lineage - Rolling Stone
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King Princess on Her Drag Persona and Titanic Lineage

The pop star talks about her debut album and why her great-grandparents went down with the ship

King Princess photographed for Rolling Stone on September 17th 2019

Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone. Robe by Marilyn Monroy

For the cover of her debut album, Cheap Queen, Mikaela Straus embraced a “drag persona,” with hyper-stylized makeup. “[It’s] this feminized version of myself,” says the 20-year-old, who performs under the name King Princess. “And I love that, because that’s something I was terrified of until, maybe, last year.”

Inventing that persona was a way for Straus to get through the dissolution of a romantic relationship. “Encapsulating your feelings into a three minute song can be truly cathartic,” Straus says. The product of post-breakup sadness is Cheap Queen, which combines sparse, R&B-inflected production with sharp, openhearted lyrics. “And your clothes are still in my drawers/Like you’re haunting my home,” she booms over striking piano chords on “Isabel’s Moment.” The tracks were arranged chronologically, from the onset of heartbreak to her healing process. “It starts in a very different place than it ends emotionally and that’s what I wanted,” she says. “I wanted to take everyone through the journey.”

The LP is the culmination of nearly two years of anticipation that began with 2017’s “1950,” a song that was at once a parody of pop nostalgia and a genuine plea for romantic salvation (“I hate it when dudes try to chase me/But I love it when you try to save me”).

Straus has been around the music business her entire life; she grew up in Brooklyn, and her dad owns Mission Sound, a studio where Arctic Monkeys and Animal Collective have recorded. “My dad’s really picky,” she says. “He’d be like, ‘This band sucks,’ and I’d be like, 10. I think developing that kind of rhetoric about music and sonics was all because of him.” For Straus, her pursuit of music was always clear: “Since I was so young, it’s just always felt like this was it. I don’t think there was any other option or me. This is my thing.”

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Mark Ronson signed Straus to his label Zelig in 2018, and recruited her to sing on his album Late Night Feelings. When a couple of Cheap Queen tracks were cut at Mission Sound, Ronson came along. “I was just like, ‘This is trippy,'” Straus says. “My biological father and my work father are together and we’re all working on music? It’s very weird.”

Straus’ great-great grandparents, Isodor and Ida Straus, were among the 1,500 passengers to die when the Titanic sunk in 1912. When Ida learned her husband — the co-owner of Macy’s — would not be able to join her in the lifeboat due to the “women and children first” policy, she refused to leave him and stayed onboard the doomed ship. Over a hundred years later, the couple’s romantic tragedy has become one of the most famously told passenger accounts. (Yes, they’re portrayed in James Cameron’s 1997 film.)

Their conviction influences Straus. “They were like, ‘We’re going to die together now,'” Straus says. “That’s a crazy thing to say; a crunch time decision, and very my vibe. They were very rich and Jewish, [but] I didn’t inherit any of this money. It was a little frustrating, but whatever.” (When I tell Straus that, as a Titanic buff, I recently visited her great-grandparents’ grave, she says approvingly, “That’s hot.”)

Though she identifies as a genderqueer and a lesbian, Straus has mixed feelings about her music being defined as “queer pop.” “I think I represent the ability to get here,” she says. “People are realizing that we’re bored of heteronormative narrative. Because the reality is that there’s not a lot of gay people who are in my position. It’s changing, but it’s only become profitable and trendy to be gay in the last couple of years. Now it’s time for people to be out and gay and make music.”

“‘Queer pop’ is literally saying sexuality is a genre,” she continues. “I don’t want to be grouped in with only gay people. That’s ridiculous. I want to battle everyone. If you’re going to compare me, compare me to straight people, too.” However, she also acknowledges what Cheap Queen means to her queer fans. “It’s really for the gays,” she says. “It is for everybody, but I feel especially the gays will be like, ‘Damn, the emotions are there and I love that!'”

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