Get to Know Actress & Musician Hayley Kiyoko

Story by Caroline A. Wong
Photo by Vijat

Hayley Kiyoko is the epitome of “multitalented.” The 24-year-old is a quick-witted conversationalist, a fierce advocate of female talent, a dedicated singer-songwriter and a fast-rising actress, as a series regular on CBS’s CSI: Cyber and with roles in two big movies this year. Add to that a recent multicity tour promoting her second EP, This Side of Paradise, and you might expect this fresh talent to be starry-eyed in the wake of her explosive career trajectory. Well, you’d be wrong.

“Hollywood [was] a very normal, organic thing,” Kiyoko says of growing up in Los Angeles’ Westlake Village. “My dad’s a comedian, and my mom’s an ice skating choreographer, so I come from an artistic family. But they never were, like, ‘You need to be in the business.'” She adds, “I like to work. That’s about it. I’m not really into” – and here, her voice takes on an affected, almost mocking tone – “the carpet and the parties at 2 a.m. The Hollywood lifestyle. I’ve never really been into that.”

She fully realizes that many aspiring actors crave the glamour she’s nonchalant about, but for Kiyoko, who’s been acting and playing music since she was a child, it truly is about the work. “Being an actress and being a musician is really freaking hard,” she says. “You’re constantly having to reinvent yourself, and you’re constantly having to create.” And yet, “I feel like my personality really works for this industry and this world of waves and twists and turns because I’m up for the challenge.” Part of that challenge has been playing a wide range of characters in her relatively young career. From rebellious teen wizard on the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place to brainy Velma in the Scooby-Doo! television movies, from boy-crazy Gabi on The Fosters to her latest role as the reliable best friend in Insidious 3, it almost seems as though Kiyoko fought against being typecast. Yet, “I don’t think we plan it,” she says of actors falling into the same types of roles. “You take the opportunities that are given to you. From there, you can start to mold and pick and choose. I’ve been really fortunate that [I’ve] had a nice, wide range of projects.”

Kiyoko’s role in the upcoming film Jem and the Holograms, out October 23, is another departure. Chinese American director Jon M. Chu’s live-action reprisal of the animated ’80s television series follows a band made up of four foster sisters, and Kiyoko plays Aja, the blue-haired Hologram. “She’s a Sassy McSasser!” says Kiyoko of her character, who plays guitar, bass and drums. “With a lot of glitter. There’s so much glitter in the movie. I feel like there are a million glitter pieces in the film.” As a songstress herself, Kiyoko loved the musical aspect of embodying Aja. It was the wardrobe, however, that helped her tap into the nuance of herrole. “It’s a really fashion-forward thing. Aja wears leather and lots of studs. She’s very intense.”

For Kiyoko, interacting with her onscreen Holograms family was made more special by her off-set relationships with her talented co-stars. She appears alongside her Insidious 3 co-star Stefanie Scott, as well as Hollywood legends Juliette Lewis and Molly Ringwald. “They are awesome, girl-power chicks,” she says. “They’re just spectacular people you want to be best friends with.” She calls Ringwald, who plays the Holograms’ foster home caretaker, “a doll, and she’s got an amazing family, and she’s a great person.” Lewis, who plays Erica Raymond (originally villain Eric Raymond on the television series), also had an impact on Kiyoko. She gushes, “Juliette Lewis is this wild-child, free-spirit, loving gal. I feel really lucky to be able to have worked with them.” As for Scott, who plays Jem, the two are friends in real life, so working together again “was kind of a painless situation.”

Not everything about Kiyoko’s career, however, has transitioned so seamlessly. “Acting never came easy to me, and so it was something I wanted to conquer,” she admits. But it wasn’t just the acting – for the biracial Kiyoko, who is of Japanese and Scottish descent, the industry always seemed to tell her she was “not Asian enough or not white enough.” She continues, “If you talk to any mixed actress, it’s always like, ‘We loved you, but [we] decided to go Caucasian.’ That’s like the Bible 101 of mixed-race chicks. I definitely think that Hollywood has stereotypes. There are racial boundaries that [are] hard to break still, to this day.”

For Kiyoko, who as a teen was in the girl group The Stunners, music offers much more freedom. She released her latest EP, This Side of Paradise, in February, along with a video for “Girls Like Girls,” which she co-directed. (The video’s already garnered nearly 3 million views.) She describes her sound as “alternative pop. It’s got heavy bass and electronic, but it’s also still live sounding. I’m really happy sonically with This Side of Paradise. I just want to keep growing from that.

“[In music], it’s all about being an artist and being different,” she continues. “In the acting world, you’re portraying other people; you’re molding yourself. You can’t, you know, shave your head and have green dreadlocks.” Regardless, Kiyoko plans on pursuing both acting and music for as long as she can. “I’m not changing who I am as I do different ventures. I’m walking down different paths, [but] I’m still me,” she says. “I just focus on creating good content. And if you’re a fan of me, I think you’ll be a fan of me across the board.”

One of those divergent paths is her role as hacker-turned-FBI analyst, Raven Ramirez, on CSI: Cyber, the second season of which premieres October 4 on CBS. It’s a job that brings a new set of challenges for Kiyoko. “It’s more of a grown-up world. I feel like I’ve gotten my big-person job where I go to work, work with the pros and go home,” she says, laughing. But it’s also the hightech smarts of her character that keeps Kiyoko on her toes. “I’m really not technical in real life, and so I had to become this professional techie and research what every term means. It was kind of like studying for an English test.” All the studying has paid off, though – in the form of a little accessory. “They gave me this FBI badge,” Kiyoko gushes. “I was like, I am so cool! This is so awesome! Honestly, the fake FBI badge is, like, one of my favorite things in life.”

In regards to what the future holds (other than her next film, the Netflix original XOXO), Kiyoko responds like a true Hollywood insider: “I really want to continue to build my brand, whether it’s music or acting or clothing.” A fashion collection is something that Kiyoko hopes to develop. “It’s what I wanted to do since I was in second grade,” she says. “I’d be drawing my little Kiyoko empire with clothing lines and all that stuff.”

Sure, it may sound like a lot of work, but for Kiyoko, it’s just another day in Hollywood.

Catch up with Hayley Kiyoko at

This story was originally published in our Fall 2015 issue. Get your copy here