Mikaela Straus – better known as the pop star King Princess – is sitting on her mom’s porch in Hawaii. It’s 9am and she’s drinking coffee, while her new dog wanders in and out of shot on our Zoom call. “What kind of dog is it?” I ask. “A sexy dog,” she says, mock serious, before explaining that it is the love child of her and her girlfriend, Quinn Whitney Wilson. As well as being Lizzo’s creative director, Wilson is a brilliant filmmaker, and photographed Straus for her PORTER shoot on top of a 10,000ft volcano.
“So, you’ve been in lockdown with your mom and your girlfriend. Had they met before?” I enquire. “They met when I played at Coachella, before Quinn and I were even together,” she explains. “My mom is fabulous and comes to many important things in my life, but I am not one of those people who is like, ‘My mom is my best friend!’ I think that’s really weird.”
For the uninitiated, the name King Princess gives you a fairly accurate idea of what the Brooklynite musician, songwriter and producer is about. The 21-year-old has a seductively confident approach to interviews, live shows and life. A natural swagger, you might say. Her everyday style is androgynous, something she amps up in her visuals and videos, where she tends to theatrically play with gender norms. For the cover of her 2019 debut album, Cheap Queen, for example, she was shot reclining in drag makeup, by the New York photographer Michael Bailey Gates. In the music video for her song Prophet, she’s dressed as an American-football player.
To her army of young LGBTQ+ fans, King Princess is an unapologetic queer hero. She openly writes about same-sex love, something that is becoming more common in pop thanks to the likes of Hayley Kiyoko, Troye Sivan and Janelle Monáe, but is still not quite common enough. Her first single, the beautiful 1950, is an ode to the book (and lesbian love story) The Price of Salt, on which the film Carol is based, and her track Pussy Is God has become a gay anthem. “I honestly didn’t even want to put that song out! My team told me to,” she laughs now. “I was like, ‘This song is vulgar.’ But I see a lot of lesbians staring into one another’s eyes at my shows singing it, so, I’m glad it’s serving its purpose.”
Despite the music press’s insistence on labelling her as a “queer artist”, King Princess has broken out of the confines of that box to achieve critical acclaim and millions of Spotify plays. This is down to the music itself – tender songwriting coupled with catchy hooks – and also the collaborations surrounding it. In 2017, Mark Ronson signed her to his record label, Zelig Recordings, and has since produced a number of her songs, like Pieces of Us, which they performed together at Glastonbury in 2019. She recently collaborated with Fiona Apple on a cover of Apple’s 1999 song I Know, and this spring – before it was postponed due to the pandemic – she was supposed to tour with Harry Styles, a long-standing fan of her work.
Having often expressed frustration at being categorized as a queer artist, Straus tells me that she is now reconsidering. “Ideally, I would like to not be viewed as a queer artist, and rather just a bomb musician. It just shouldn’t preface my art in the same way that it shouldn’t for anyone who is living and existing with an identity that’s other than cis white male. But right now, with everything that is going on in the world, it is important I use that queer identity as a positive, to be like: ‘I’m queer, I’m also in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and I’m not going to be complacent about racism.’ Because I have the ability to speak directly to the queer people who follow me and say: ‘We need to unify. Yes, we are an oppressed group, but it doesn’t justify us being complacent in somebody else’s oppression.’”
“All FASHION houses and all clothing lines are influenced by TRANS culture and BLACK culture”
It is, we agree, a weird moment to be giving an interview, and Straus expresses her discomfort: “This doesn’t feel like the time to be talking about myself.” For the past month, the world has been in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. She asks me to include links to resources for people to donate to, like The Okra Project and Marsha P. Johnson Institute. After our call, she and Wilson will be flying to Los Angeles, partly to partake in the demonstrations happening. “We’ve been going to protests here in Hawaii, but it just feels different, subdued,” she explains. “It doesn’t feel like people are crying out in the way that they are in the cities that me and Quinn are from – she’s from Minneapolis, I’m from New York and we live in LA. We want to be a part of that, on the ground.”
We are also speaking in Pride month, and in the week that two trans women of color have been murdered in America while transgender rights are being systemically rolled back. The day before our call, author J.K. Rowling had just expressed some controversial transgender views online, something that Straus felt so appalled by, she posted her objection to it on Instagram.
“I think the problem right now is people are failing to see beyond themselves,” sighs Straus. “I don’t know why people feel they need to either be something or they can’t possibly relate to it. I will never understand what it’s like to be Black, but I can still support the Black Lives Matter movement and strive to empathize.”
With this in mind, she says, the most important focus for Pride in 2020 should be celebrating and supporting people of color. There would be no Pride without Black trans women, Straus points out, referring to how trans women of color led The Stonewall Riots, the 1969 revolt against police oppression of LGBTQ+ people in New York City, which Pride commemorates. “Let’s find some ways as a community to support Black art. We’ve all been complaining about corporate Pride for years; this is an opportunity to find some really cool outlets to give to or learn about in order to make this Pride about Black and Brown queer people and trans people.” That applies to the fashion industry, too, she adds: “All fashion houses and all clothing lines are influenced by trans culture and Black culture,” she adds. “There would be none of this eleganza without the ball scene.”
“I think I found my STYLE the minute I realized my DESTINY is not dressing like a WOMAN every day”
As for her own relationship with fashion, Straus has been working with Gucci, modeling its new sustainable collection Off The Grid alongside Lil Nas X and Jane Fonda. Whether she is in a suit – “I like the baggy ones, no cinched waist” – or a gown, she explains that, to her, fashion is “full character work”. Do you think you have ‘found’ your style, I ask? “I think I found my style the minute I realized my destiny is not dressing like a woman every day,” she muses. “I spent so long trying desperately to feel the way that other women feel in clothes that are assigned to us, but I now love to dress how I feel. I can be super-flamboyant, but there’s a large element of workwear, too.”
Towards the end of our call, I ask how she feels about coming out of lockdown. “We’ve had our ups and downs,” she says, referring to her and Wilson’s emotional states, rather than their relationship. Creatively, it’s been challenging, too: “I’m so used to being on a tour bus and wishing that I had time to be at my computer and at my guitar, but then when I got it, I was like: ‘What do I do?’ Quinn feels the same. It’s been very much about figuring out how to be artists again for ourselves instead of for a profit.”
She tells me that she has missed performing more than she expected. Not being adored every night has been something of an ego death, she jokes. “Imagine: you’re on tour for three months. You live on a bus with your crew and your interaction with the outside world is so limited; when you go out to a bar, people identify you – because they’re gay bars – and then for 70 minutes every night you’re on stage and it’s all about you. Rinse and repeat. That’s a weird world to exist in. So, when you get off tour, there’s an acclimatization period that is a brutal fighting of the ego.”
The tour with Harry Styles will be rescheduled, but she doesn’t know what exactly that will look like, or how live music will reconfigure itself as the world gradually eases out of the pandemic. “Large gatherings of people for money is probably the last line of business that is going to return. A concert is the closest you could be to someone. I think that it’s going to be really different and that’s good,” she says. “It’s important to recognize that over 100,000 people in our country have died from this. So I support whatever the industry has to do to make sure that people are safe because I don’t want my concerts being a place where people are getting contaminated.”
In the meantime, which could be a while, she will be back in the studio, working on her second album. “Cheap Queen was my sad lesbian album. It was a cathartic experience. I was going through a lot and I needed to put out a biographical piece of work that detailed my feelings. But I’m more about providing for my fans now, more into dancing now. I want to focus a lot of my heart and attention on bangers.” That makes sense, I comment, since she seems like such an upbeat person. “Yes, I think I thrive on the intersection of being a goofball and having really painful art,” she says. “If I didn’t have music, I would be sad in real life.”
Ultimately, everything from her live shows to her music will be radically transformed by this moment. With some hope, the wider world will, too. “It’s an intense time to be 21, how will you remember it?” I ask, before she goes to catch her flight. “That’s a weird question,” she laughs, ribbing me. “I think I will remember being 21 as the most pivotal learning year of my life. I think I’m learning how to be a better teammate, a better girlfriend, a better parent to my dog… I think everyone in my team is in a really good place to make really good art and put it out to the best of our ability. But also to be socially conscious while we’re doing it.”