Heroines celebrates women across a variety of fields who are breaking barriers and creating change. This is the first profile in a five-part series in celebration of International Women's Day.
Last June, I felt old at a King Princess concert. King Princess, aka Mikaela Straus, is a now 20-year-old gay icon. At the packed Brooklyn show, there were teens everywhere—surreptitiously Juuling, talking about bouncers taking their fake IDs, and checking their phones for the train schedule home. I was embarrassingly touched by this obviously queer gathering of teens, fangirling out to a genderqueer pop star and screaming gay love songs. When the concert was over, we wouldn’t be traveling in a pack back to Penn station. We had clearly been witnesses to a moment, but it was not our moment.
So in honor of #20GAYTEEN, I zeroed in on King Princess and Hayley Kiyoko, lesbian Jesus herself, to ask what these artists mean to the teens and young adults who love them the most.
Like King Princess, Hayley Kiyoko is unapologetically queer. To her fans, she’s the Sapphic second coming. In concert videos, Kiyoko is the typical grinding, grinning, pop heartthrob, bras showering down on her like roses. Her 2015 song and accompanying music video, “Girls Like Girls,” was a viral anthem and, for many, exactly the representation that they needed. Rachel, a college freshman, remembers the music video as a “big moment.” Meredith, now a senior in high school, cried when she watched it for the first time. Cal, who is 21, was repeatedly told to check it out by friends, but assumed it was just going to be “one of those cheesy awful songs.” But when they finally watched it, “I related in many ways to it and I felt ‘normal’ and included, like I wasn’t the only one.”
“I think the actresses [in ‘Girls Like Girls’] did a really good job portraying when you want to be with someone and then finally getting to be with them,” Meredith added. “And I think that’s what made me cry, because they just seemed like they needed each other so much and they finally were together in the end.”
Both Meredith and Rachel credit the internet, specifically Tumblr, for introducing them to queer artists like Kiyoko and King Princess, as well as fellow fans. “It wasn’t like in our school newspaper they were talking about it,” Rachel laughed. “It was like, Twitter.” When she came out as bisexual during her freshman year of high school, she explained, “I didn’t really know any artists that were out.”
“There were not a lot of sources that I felt like represented me, which was just kind of difficult because like, you’re growing up, and you feel so alone in that time, and you want some sort of outlet,” she continued. As a King Princess fan, “It’s been a huge development to have someone who is so open, and it isn’t even something that you have to talk about, you know? Like to have a song called ‘Talia’ and you know that it’s a woman singing about a woman, and there’s no big statement about it—it’s just how it is, it’s just easy. That’s something I wish I would have had four years ago, and I want girls my age and younger than me to have that growing up because I think it’s really, really important.”
Erin, who is 19, runs a King Princess fan account on Twitter. “I discovered King Princess on Instagram,” she recalled. “I thought that she was attractive and posted cool things. After a few weeks, I noticed a link in her bio for a song, ‘Talia.’ I listened to it and that song made me feel like I was floating above the clouds.” Through her King Princess account, Erin says that she’s connected with KP lovers as well as fans of other queer artists like Hayley Kiyoko and Troye Sivan. “Having this online community of queer kids has really affected my life a lot,” she said. “I wish that these people could be a part of my real life, because they are the best support system I have right now.”
“I would say that King Princess was the first main queer representation that I connected with,” Erin continued. “I heard of Hayley Kiyoko a few years ago with ‘Girls Like Girls,’ but I didn’t know I was queer then. But other than these two artists, I cannot recall an earlier, openly queer artist in the media that I knew of. Before recent years, some artists would sing about queer things like Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl,’ but that was more queer-baiting than actual queer music. I think that that’s part of the reason why it took me so long to discover my true identity because of the lack of queer representation in the media—no movies, hardly any shows with queer characters, and no music.”
“Before King Princess, I had viewed queer love as a different thing and not normal,” she concluded. “That’s why I continuously struggled with my sexuality because I felt like it made me weird... but hearing artists like King Princess sing so casually about who they love makes me feel so much more happy and comfortable with myself.”
“Hayley was definitely the sort of representation I needed growing up,” Cal echoed. “I used to be infatuated with my girl friends all throughout school and I thought that was normal. I thought what I was feeling and how I was acting was just friendly. It wasn’t until I watched all her music videos online of her kissing girls in them, reading articles about her being gay and open and happy that I realized that maybe how I felt about women was more than just friendly. After I found all this new information about her I became much more of a fan and I did gravitate towards her and her music as it felt ‘normal,’ and it was great.”
For Meredith, the joy of King Princess and Hayley Kiyoko is as simple as love songs. “A couple of months ago I had a crush on a girl and blah, blah blah…” she laughed. “And as much as I can vibe with a guy singing about a girl, it gives me so much more if it’s King Princess saying I can taste your lipstick and knowing that she’s talking about a girl, and thinking, wow, I know exactly how you feel. Or like, Hayley Kiyoko has this one song called ‘Pretty Girl’ and it’s like, I just want to tell you that you’re really pretty, girl—It means a lot, when you can hear something and feel validated through that music. Just having something to relate to.”
And while not 100 percent foolproof, many of the teens I spoke to agreed that mentioning these artists was a great way of figuring out if someone else was queer. “I remember I went to a movie with this girl that I liked, and she mentioned listening to Hayley Kiyoko and I was like… ‘OMG,’” Meredith offered. “And then she told me later that night that she was bi.”
“Literally the vast majority of my friends are all gay or bi or pan or whatever and we all love King Princess and Hayley Kiyoko,” she continued. “And when you meet someone who listens to King Princess or talks about how much they love Hayley Kiyoko, it’s sort of like ‘Oh.’ Either you’re an ally or you’re part of the community.”
“I feel like everyone who likes King Princess can like, look at someone else who likes King Princess, give them a wink, and they just know.”
And while Erin says she wouldn’t go so far as to not date someone just because they don’t stan King Princess, “If they are a fan of King Princess, that is a huge turn-on for me and makes my feelings a hell of a lot stronger,” she noted, before adding, “I don’t know of any queer person who doesn’t love queer artists so I don’t think that it would be an issue.” Rachel seconded her: “It’s definitely like an agreed upon thing: if she’s like us, then we’re going to support her and talk about it.”
Everyone I spoke to either had seen one of these artists in concert, or was planning to as soon as possible. Cal has seen Hayley Kiyoko in concert four times, and can attest that “all four times were incredible.” They effused, “She puts on a wonderful performance and the way she talks to the crowd is endearing. The crowd itself is always loud, dancing, happy, smiling, there’s a euphoria in the air when it comes to Hayley’s shows. Everyone feels free, safe, happy, loved and included, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
Rachel is going to Governors Ball with her girlfriend, and is “super-hyped” to see King Princess live. Erin went to a King Princess show in Los Angeles last July, and said that, “I would give anything to have an experience like that again.”
“I have never been to an event or to a place where there’s a ton of LGBTQ+ people, and I still wasn’t completely comfortable with my sexuality, so it was a brand-new experience for me,” she explained. “When the show started and she came out, it was like everything changed. I was back in that trance that I was in when I first heard ‘Talia.’ Listening to songs that describe what I felt and being around people just like me, where Mikaela would openly talk about queer things on stage in front of hundreds of people was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before… Seeing how King Princess in between songs kept calling us ‘gays’ and having everyone cheer and be happy made me feel so alive.”
“It was one of the best nights of my life.”