Before Hayley Kiyoko hits the stage for the second night of her European tour in Dublin, it’s time for the meet and greet. The premium package for fans of the 27-year Californian includes a tote bag, a photo taken by her younger brother Thatcher, the opportunity to ask the singer something in an Q&A session before the main doors open, and a big hug.
It’s not cheap at around EURO100, but of the 40 takers, two girls have flown over from Poland and a fair few of them are “doubles” – people who did the same thing the night before. This group, as well as the line of non-VIPs that leads from the door of the venerable Olympia Theatre, all the way down Sycamore Street and around the corner, are 95 per cent young girls. As a gay artist making mainstream pop music that doesn’t hide it – her songs include Girls Like Girls, Curious and Sleepover – Kiyoko is important to them. Her 1.7 million Instagram followers call her “Lesbian Jesus”.
“You do what you can to make people feel good,” she tells me at her hotel earlier in the day. “The Q&As get very therapeutic. People that come to my shows are allowing themselves to be vulnerable. They come in with an open heart and an open mind, so naturally the conversations tend to get personal and deep. We care about each other and want everyone to be okay and not be struggling.”
One fan asks her to elaborate on a line from Girls Like Girls, the first song that explicitly referenced her sexuality, which appeared on her second EP, This Side of Paradise, in 2015: “I’m real and I don’t feel like boys.”
“It’s pretty self-explanatory,” says the singer.
As a teenager, she acted as well, appearing in a cutesy Disney Channel movie called Lemonade Mouth, and sang in a conventional girl group called The Stunners who supported Justin Bieber on tour. Their debut single from 2009, Bubblegum, goes, “Everybody knows that we like the noise/And we like to go dancing with all the boys/But don’t get us wrong, we ain’t no toy/We just wanna make your bubble pop.”
“I had to persuade myself to release Girls Like Girls,” she says. “I always felt like it wasn’t anyone’s business who I loved. But as an artist you want to be as truthful and honest as possible. I felt like I wasn’t being truthful unless I sang about what has really shaped my life. I was tormented by my feelings about who I was. I struggled throughout my life and that has been a huge part of who I am.”
The song’s video, which depicts a girl leaving her abusive boyfriend for another girl, has now been watched over 100 million times on YouTube. Kiyoko’s debut album, Expectations, reached number 12 in the US charts last March. Now she’s big enough for a European theatre tour, including two nights in London next week, but still some way off the arena status she craves. She performs with a small band and two male dancers with identical haircuts. As far as special effects go, there are no confetti cannons but she does wave a rainbow flag during the final song.
“I’m still very far away from Taylor Swift,” she says, though she did enter the superstar’s world in July last year. They sang Kiyoko’s song Curious together when Swift’s world tour arrived at Boston’s Gillette Stadium. “I’ll never forget it. She’s incredible, so kind. It was really inspiring to see how hard she works and how her team can make something work on that level.”
Kiyoko’s bouncy, catchy pop songs about relationship issues sit perfectly comfortably next to Swift’s. It’s just the genders of the subjects that are different. The bigger star praised her online in April last year, writing: “We should applaud artists who are brave enough to tell their honest romantic narrative through their art, and the fact is that I’ve never encountered homophobia and she has. It’s her right to call out anyone who has double standards about gay vs straight love interests.”
“I grew up listening to lots of great music but I never connected with it. I’d sing along to these songs but they weren’t made for me,” Kiyoko tells me. “I could leave out the pronouns in my music but what would be the point? By being specific, it helps people like me to feel like they’re not alone. Sometimes you have to be bold and keep repeating yourself to normalise things.”
It’s clear that her position creates an expectation for her to be a spokesperson and a leader as well as an entertainer. “You do end up in a leadership role. People feel better when they’re inspired or excited,” she says. I like being able to help people and make them feel good. I think the only pressure I have is trying to be the best version of myself. I’m not playing a role or trying to be anything I’m not, but I do want to be the best I can be.”
She grew up in the Agoura Hills in LA, the daughter of an American stand-up comedian and a Japanese-Canadian ice skating choreographer. A Christmas trip to watch Justin Timberlake’s boyband *NSYNC when she was 10 planted the seed of her ambitions. “It was the best thing ever. I loved everything about it,” she says. “I started to work towards being a star who could perform in an arena, doing 18 hours of dance and music lessons a week. I missed my senior year of high school because I was working. I remember telling my mom, ‘This is my year,’ every year since I was 13.”
She’s getting closer all the time. At the Dublin show the response is rapturous. One female fan turns to kiss another during Girls Like Girls. Rainbow flags are draped across numerous shoulders. It’s moving, looking out at all these kids being given permission to be themselves. No holding hands under the table here.
“No matter what your beliefs are and who you like, we all want the same things: to be liked and loved and accepted,” she says. “That’s what’s so great about music – it helps you feel like you belong somewhere.”
Feb 6-7, O2 Forum Kentish Town, NW5 (o2forumkentishtown.co.uk)