The hottest days of the year call for a Summer Fling. This week, we're deep-diving into sex, dating, and relationship drama, here.
Hayley Kiyoko
Credit: Photo Illustration: Dearest Creative. Photo: Amanda Charchian

It’s easy to see why Hayley Kiyoko has quickly become a pop sensation. On her hit songs like “What I Need,” “Curious,” and “Girls Like Girls,” the 27-year-old dubbed “Lesbian Jesus” sings emotionally raw lyrics about all manner of romantic blunders, from being strung along by straight women to full-on heartbreak — and she somehow makes it catchy. And while Kiyoko says the songs truly express her innermost desires, it’s their accompanying music videos (they're more like short films, which she also directs) that really tell the love stories at their core.

“My music videos are definitely a good representation of emotions that I feel and experiences that I've had,” Kiyoko tells InStyle. “Each one captures a certain time in my life, and because I write my own music and direct my own videos, it's all going to be very personal. They’re all coming from my own experiences.”

The video for “Curious,” for example, is ripped right from the pages of Kiyoko’s life story. It depicts the singer running into an ex-girlfriend at a house party, only to discover that her former flame is there with a new boyfriend. “That video is very close to my life,” says Kiyoko, who released her first full album, Expectations, in March and is currently on tour with Panic! At the Disco.

“It's a great depiction of the experiences that I’ve had, where you go to a party, and someone who told you they weren’t going to go shows up with a guy, but they're still eyeing you from across the room.” In the video, Kiyoko’s ex steals her away to the bathroom, where things turn hot and heavy. “I’ve had many makeout sessions in the bathroom with girls because they're too afraid to do it in public, so ‘Curious’ is very close to something that I've experienced,” says Kiyoko, who ultimately bails on the behind-closed-doors hookup in the dramatic clip.

Kiyoko is still wrapping her head around the fact that strangers think they know her actual relationship status after watching her videos. “[Fame] has impacted my dating life in the sense that people think I'm very cocky, and they think that I date a lot of people,” she says. “They think that I'm a player and that's not me at all. I'm more of a one-person-at-a-time gal, so I think that's a misconception that people get from my videos.”

For example, a typical date night is "probably getting dinner or staying in and cooking," she says. "Well, I wouldn't cook, because I can't cook, but if they can cook, they can cook me dinner! Any form of eating is great for me. Or we could go to the El Capitan to see a Disney movie. That's really romantic.”

Her videos, of course, do not follow any couples through a relaxing night of Disney flicks. They each touch on Kiyoko’s romantic reality to some extent, but she explains that they are not entirely based on true events. “My initial vision is always to create something that I would want to watch in my spare time, and then I start working backward to put together a story,” she says. “Some videos are almost exact in terms of something that I've experienced, like ‘Gravel to Tempo,’ which covers the part of my life when I was growing up, not fitting in at school, and feeling different from other people. But a lot of times they're metaphors.”

The most obvious example of that, according to Kiyoko, is her video for “Sleepover,” in which she daydreams about falling in love with her best — and presumably straight — female friend. We see the pair slow dance, make out, and take a bath together, but in the end, each of these intimate scenes was a figment of Kiyoko’s imagination. “I know I didn't get a lap dance from this gorgeous girl in an orange room,” she says. “But that music video was a metaphor for how I felt on the inside and making that come to life. That's my job as a director.”

While that sexy scene may not have played out IRL, it’s the tension-fueled video for “Cliff’s Edge” that Kiyoko says is actually furthest from what she has gone through. “‘Cliffs Edge’ covered a tumultuous relationship between two people, and it’s probably the most different from my real life,” she says. “I’m very emotional and shy, and I don’t like fighting. But even though I hadn't personally gone into that extreme place yet, I could see myself getting there. It was a story I created that I felt a lot of people could relate to, so I just ran with the idea and developed that relationship with the characters.”

When brainstorming the visual concept for “What I Need,” her latest single featuring Kehlani, Kiyoko decided to take the characters’ relationship on the road. Playing out like a mini-movie, the will-they-or-won’t-they story follows a pair of BFFs whose relationship turns into something more when they run away together. The escape is complete with dancing, cuddling, an almost car crash, and hitchhiking — and it’s nothing like anything Kiyoko has experienced before.

“I have not gone on a road trip like that, but I’ve always wanted to,” she says. “It's always been a dream of mine. My aunt and her sister went on a road trip across the country in the ‘70s, and [when I heard about it] I thought, ‘Wow that sounds epic and amazing.' The closest I've been is on the tour bus, which is a little less exciting, but still exciting.”

Whether rooted in reality or fantasy, Kiyoko’s onscreen encounters are expressions of where she’s been, emotionally. “I feel like I’m sharing a different stage of my life through each one, both as a person and with my relationships,” she says. “A video like ‘Sleepover’ shows me being very sad and vulnerable, but then you have ‘Feelings,’ which shows my more confident side. Like most people, I have different parts of me and my personality. Some days I feel very confident and I can go up to someone and talk to them and know that if they turn me down, it's their loss. Other times, I can't talk to a pretty girl at all or even form sentences, let alone be charming.” Her utter relatability is probably also central to Kiyoko's recent ascendance.

“You're not always going to be confident. Sometimes you're going to be sad, and sometimes you're going to be shy. There are so many different emotions and feelings that you go through when you're trying to develop a relationship with yourself and other people.”

One thing that Kiyoko is careful to avoid when recreating her past liaisons? Casting women who look too much like her actual exes. “I don't want to put anyone on blast,” she says. “To be honest, I try to be diverse with my casting. I really look for facial attributes that remind me of the person — so for one video, I would want the girl to have sweet eyes and then in another, I would want her to be strong. I'm not trying to match the girls in the videos with the girls I’ve dated.”

There's another reason she casts a wide net with the people she brings into her videos: She wants to reach a wide audience, too. “Even if you don't like girls, you can still relate to these experiences,” she says. “I try to have my videos be direct, but also keep things a little vague so that people can connect with them on multiple levels. I find validation through creating them, and I think others find validation through finding them.”

Recently, that validation has delivered in a pretty major way, as Kiyoko scored VMA nominations for Best New Artist and Push Artist of the Year. “I love creating visuals and videos, so it feels really great to have that recognition,” she says. “It's been a dream of mine to have that recognized as something that people appreciate. There's so much work that goes into it. We're planning for weeks, and every time I finish a video it becomes a piece of me.”

Some of the pieces, we now know, were already there.