It’s been eight years since Hayley Kiyoko’s breakthrough hit “Girls Like Girls” became a modern queer anthem, bolstered by bluntly sung lyrics (“Girls like girls like boys do/Nothing new”) and a touching music video that the singer directed herself. Since then, she’s steadily risen through the pop ranks with two studio albums, a slew of glossy synth-pop singles, and more cinematic, self-directed videos that have only gotten more ambitious in scale. But the impact of “Girls Like Girls” hasn’t diminished a bit, thanks to its intimate, authentic portrayal of a teen friendship-turned-romance: a story so resonant that Kiyoko’s fans responded by lovingly dubbing her “Lesbian Jesus.”
Now, the 32-year-old has expanded her five-minute “Girls Like Girls” video from 2015 into a young adult novel of the same name. For Kiyoko, it presented the opportunity to take the two central characters from the video, Coley and Sonya, and flesh their stories out in a way that mirrors her own life as a once-closeted teen.
“The music video stemmed from this experience I had in high school where I fell in love with my best friend and it didn’t work out,” Kiyoko recently told The Daily Beast over Zoom. “And then as far as writing the novel was concerned, I basically took Coley’s character and had Coley live through everything that I went through as far as my self-discovery, navigating my self-worth, navigating loving myself, and also falling in love with someone.”
The novel follows Coley as she moves to a new town in Oregon in 2006 with her estranged father after the tragic death of her mother. She quickly falls for Sonya, a charismatic dancer from a wealthy family who, unfortunately for Coley, is tied up with a conceited jock named Trenton. The two girls’ relationship is a constant push and pull of conflicting emotions; Coley is much more aware of her sexuality than Sonya, who’s grappling with both internal and external homophobia from herself and her friends and family.
Kiyoko, in her unsurprisingly lyrical prose, peppers hyper-specific details from her own life into the story; for example, Sonya and Coley use the innocuous phrase “olive juice” as a way to dance around saying “I love you.”
“That was all real. It was a pivotal point in my life where I went to kiss this girl, who told me ‘olive juice’ and we had this wonderful experience,” Kiyoko recalls. “But we had never kissed. I went to kiss her and she just looked at me like I was crazy. There’s a lot of scenes in the book that I’ll carry with me forever because I lived it.”
Kiyoko started conceptualizing the novel during the COVID-19 pandemic, around the same time she was making her sophomore album, Panorama, released last summer. But even while she was writing songs more attuned to her present life—including her relationship with former Bachelor contestant Becca Tilley, whom she began dating in 2018—she had no problem putting herself back in a more timid teenage headspace.
“It was unfortunately very easy for me. My adolescence and my teen years were such pivotal moments for me, and I remember everything,” she says. “And it was really therapeutic to go back to 2006, which is when I had fallen in love with this girl, and to relive it through other characters and in a different situation. The real Sonya… I was mad at her, and so it was healing to kind of be able to write from both perspectives.”
Take, for instance, Kiyoko’s inspired decision to write from Sonya’s point of view via both public and private LiveJournal entries. It’s a very period-appropriate (and nostalgia-inducing) narrative device that lets you see how Sonya, an often frustrating character, presents herself to the world (happy and straight) and how she really feels on the inside (anxious and questioning her sexuality).
“I would have an interaction with a girl and then immediately run home and check their LiveJournal and see if they talked about it. I would psychoanalyze everything that they would write,” Kiyoko says about her own LiveJournal obsession in high school, adding that writing from that perspective helped her “understand my real-life Sonya more. I think growing up, beyond Sonya, I had many experiences with women where they just weren’t able to meet me where I needed to be met. I’d be like, ‘I want to be with you, I want this, I want that,’ And they’d be like, ‘I can’t give that to you.’”
“What’s been interesting is in my personal life, like with my girlfriend, Becca, she’s really taught me a lot that I have implemented within Sonya’s character,” Kiyoko continues. “She has taught me that you can love someone and want to be with someone and not be out or be in a certain place with their sexuality. I used to write people off when I was younger—if they weren’t able to show up for me or if they did something shitty, I’d be like, ‘OK, see ya.’ So it was really good for me to get closer to more people that relate to Sonya’s character and empathize with how hard it is.”
The novel ends the same way the music video does, which means it’s more heated and bloody than it is sweet and fluffy. But it ultimately delivers on Kiyoko’s pursuit of telling a hopeful queer love story—one that’s still resonating with young fans, as even one cursory scroll through the video’s YouTube comments will tell you.
“I wanted to create the ending that I’ve always wanted,” Kiyoko says about Coley and Sonya’s summer romance. “I mean, they’re 16 and 17 years old, so if you’re asking me if they got married and had kids, I’m not sure about that. If I end up expanding the story, we’ll see what happens. But you know, it’s young love, and I think it’s really important to showcase joy and happy endings. My career has always been about igniting hope. And so wherever Sonya and Coley end up, they’ve had an amazing, beautiful journey together, and they were able to show up for one another.”
“We don’t have enough women making out with each other on screen. We still need a lot more.”
— Hayley Kiyoko
At the same time, Kiyoko has always had bigger ambitions for the “Girls Like Girls” story: She decided to turn the video into a novel only after years of attempting to make it into a feature-length film. It’s a struggle she discussed with The Daily Beast last year; she said at the time that “it’s challenging to make a queer film and get it greenlit and shot and seen.”
“I now understand why there’s so much queer representation in the book space, but not on TV and in film, because just not a lot of people want it,” Kiyoko says now. “And if they do, they’re not willing to fight for it at the length that they need to. Especially a hopeful queer story. I could write a whole book about trying to get Girls Like Girls on its feet. But that’s for another day.”
“My creativity has always stemmed from no’s, everyone telling me no,” she adds. “And then me going, OK, how do I turn all these no’s into one yes? And so I’ve always created from a place of limitation. Especially with directing music videos, it’s like, OK, I want to do this, but I can’t afford that. I’ve always had limitations upon limitations. And writing this novel, it was limitless. I could throw a dragon in there if I wanted to. I could literally take it anywhere, and it was a cool experience to get to create from a place of yes.”
Kiyoko says she won’t stop trying, though. It’s her dream to keep directing—not just her music videos, but movies and TV—and she hopes the novel will help convince some of the right people that more LGBT representation needs to be seen on screen. It’s a theme she even touches on in the novel: After Coley and Sonya kiss for the first time, Kiyoko, writing from Coley’s perspective, muses, “It’s a fantastical fairytale to suddenly experience it—the thing that everyone’s always talked about, but flipped for me. Princess meets princess.” In another chapter, Coley contemplates, “Girls don’t get to make out with each other in movies.”
“The reality is we’re in 2023 and it is very challenging for a lot of people in the queer community right now,” Kiyoko says. “We don’t have enough women making out with each other on screen. We still need a lot more.”
For now, at least, we can see one such love story unfold in the pages of a gripping summer read (and on the accompanying audiobook, which boasts an all-queer voice cast including actor Brandon Flynn, MUNA singer Katie Gavin, and Kiyoko herself). For a tale eight years in the making, it’s not such a bad ending.
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