Chappell Roan: Midwest Princess In Her Element

By Chris Azzopardi

Photos: Ryan Clemens, Lucienne Nghiem

Ahead of bringing easily one of the queerest pop shows to a sold-out crowd in Detroit, rising performer Chappell Roan made a request to Michigan fans on her Instagram — wear something rainbow.

At the October St. Andrews Hall show, Roan explained that she wanted to give everyone a chance to go full-on gay; openly queer herself, she acknowledged an understanding that things aren’t great for LGBTQ+ people right now, and so to her queer fans, she conveyed a heart-filled message: “You are safe here.”

That night, there were so many rainbows that you would be spotted for not sporting one. Pride colors were bedazzled on shirts, printed on socks and painted on glitter-speckled faces. October felt like June as Roan turned the Detroit venue into an average day on the streets of West Hollywood. (She’ll hit the road next year too, playing to arena crowds when she opens for pop megastar Olivia Rodrigo.)

Both through her defiant music and her less assured stage banter, which emphasized her completely uncaged pop persona, Roan made affirming statements that a mostly Gen Z crowd ate up. Some of it was about her own journey to self-discovery, some about kissing whoever you want to kiss. The song “Kaleidoscope” was dedicated directly to the queer community. “This is your song,” she said about the achingly beautiful slow piece, on which she describes love as multidimensional — “never just a shape alone.”

Watching Roan perform for the first time in a small club, I was reminded of Lady Gaga’s debut show in Michigan at the Royal Oak Music Theatre in 2009 during The Fame Ball tour. Gaga, at the time, was just a couple more singles away from meat-dress-wearing pop stardom, and her show then was also a love letter to the queer community. Roan and Gaga share space in a parallel pop universe, and based on how Roan perfectly covered “Bad Romance” at her recent show, Gaga’s sandbox is one Roan is happy to play in. But the Gaganess of Roan’s own pop music — the theatrics, the camp, the unserious messiness of it all — can be heard throughout her promising debut album, “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess.”

Like so many queer pop artists who set their eyes on shinier sights, Roan, whose real name is Kayleigh Rose, outgrew her Midwest roots. Her own small-town queer experience will resonate with anyone who grew up without the kind of visibility that makes it easier to be who you are. But Roan, who has known she was queer since seventh grade and is now being called the “queer pop moment” by Vogue, didn’t know any queer girls in Willard, Missouri, where “gay boys in my school who were out got terrorized, slurred, threatened.” 

“It was horrible,” she tells me during a Zoom call before her Detroit stop. “I saw what would happen if you came out, and I knew that it was a sin at the time, and I think that to grow into the queer girl that I am today, I obviously had to stop dating men who were not it. I had to stop settling for losers and start dating women and getting rid of that shame. I have a girlfriend now, and I just struggle with it still, but it’s taken baby steps to get to the confident drag queen version of myself.”

At 18, she left the Midwest and moved to West Hollywood, where she turned the volume up on all things queer. It was there she experienced drag queens, the outwardly queer kind, for the first time, even though the Disney princesses she met as a kid at Disney World was her first “drag” inspiration. It’s her earliest memory of being in “such awe of the makeup, the hair, the outfits, the dancing, the songs.”

“I think what this project is honoring is that inner child of mine and proving to her that she deserves to be that version and that she does exist.”

With drag performance as an entry-point into queerdom, “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess,” then, was destined to be proudly rooted in the art form. Roan describes the album as “super obnoxious and very tongue in cheek, and I think that’s exactly what drag queens do.”

One song, “Casual,” features a “mermaid drag girly” in the video; in another, for “My Kink Is Karma,” Roan appears as “literally a drag clown devil situation.” For the video, she learned how to do drag brows by watching makeup tutorials on YouTube by beauty expert Patrick Starrr, who appeared as a guest judge on “Drag Race Philippines.”

“I think the songs themselves have drag elements,” she says, “but more so in the visual aspects of how I do my makeup. All the songs are very camp, and I think if you’re taking it seriously, you see it as tasteless, but the reality is that’s just drag; it’s supposed to be tacky.”

Go back even earlier to her biggest single to date, “Pink Pony Club,” released in 2020 but still finding new audiences even now, and you’ll hear Roan envisioning how her mother might react to seeing her dress entirely different. Roan can picture what her mom — melodramatically shocked — would say while she’s dancing at a strip club: “God, what have you done?” The song, which references a club just outside of Willard, was inspired by Roan’s obviously transformative visit to the gay bar The Abbey in West Hollywood. “I can’t ignore the crazy visions of me in L.A.,” she sings, “and I heard there’s a special place where boys and girls can be queens every single day.”

In the video, she prances around on stage in a rhinestone encrusted cowboy hat at a biker bar — you can imagine some of those grizzled guys batting an eyelash at what’s about to come — and then, suddenly, Roan lets loose with drag queens Porkchop and Meatball and a posse of harness-clad leather daddies. Midwest princess reborn!

“I think what this project is honoring is that inner child of mine and proving to her that she deserves to be that version and that she does exist,” Roan says.

Outside of immersing herself in the freewheeling L.A. life, it was opening up for U.K. pop-rock artist Declan McKenna, whose spectrum of queer sexuality is ever-changing, in 2018.

“I was so jealous of them, because they had glitter on their faces every night, and they threw balloons in the audiences and they were jumping off amps and speakers and everyone was screaming,” she says. “There’s no reason to be doing this job if it doesn’t feel like that.”

“I love seeing other queer artists, of course, and I love talking to them,” she adds. “I feel like there’s a little alliance with all the queer girlies. I was literally talking to Reneé Rapp this morning, and then Hayley Kiyoko and I are friends.”

In regards to her own musical journey, Roan attributes attending summer camp at Interlochen in Michigan, a place that “literally changed my life,” to a pivotal professional breakthrough.

“I’ve never met creative kids before that camp, and it changed my trajectory forever,” she says. “I’d never been with other songwriters before in my life that were my age. Everyone was a fucking hippie, and I’m from Trump country. I’m from a heavily church background, and this is not that. There were kids from all over the world there. It was just so inspiring.”

The song she wrote at Interlochen, “Die Young,” ended up being the most significant in her professional career as a recording artist, when “a few months later, I was sought out by record labels and six months later got signed for five years.” She was only 17 and already picked up by a major label (after Atlantic Records dropped her in 2020, she released her full-length debut on Island Records).

“Die Young” was released as the first single from her 2018 EP, “School Nights,” an era in her career that she describes as “dark alt-pop girl vibe.”

“That was really just not fun. Gay clubs are much more fun than straight clubs,” she says.

The stage isn’t just her playground, though. Even now at 25, just a few years into her career, Roan knows the power of her platform, and she knows how to use it as a queer artist.

“I know for my project, I am very adamant about giving back to the queer community,” she says, “and I think that is what I encourage to other artists, whether they’re queer or not, just giving back to the community that supports them so much, whether that be by lowering ticket prices to what they can, or lowering merch prices to what they can, or donating a portion of every ticket or doing charity events. I think that’s the most important part, because no one’s going to stand up for queer people. It’s got to be us. We have to support each other. We have to do mutual aid funding and mutual safe spaces.”

Proceeds from every ticket sold on her tour are going to For The Gworls, a Black- and trans-led charity based in New York. As for her openers, she’s sharing the stage with those who have inspired her — drag queens. Three Detroit queens, ANTI, Perry Dox and Aphrodite, opened for her at St. Andrews. At the show, Roan pointed people to their Venmos so they could tip them.

Whether that’s the drag queens onstage or queer pop peers like Kiyoko and Fletcher, Roan is one with the “little pop girlies” now — a phrase it’s hard to imagine her even thinking about using when “Die Young” came out.

But in Detroit, freer to be herself in all her aspirational queer glory, a different artist emerged. It was clear that night Roan hadn’t just accomplished what she was inspired by McKenna to do — “I feel like I was put on this earth to throw fun parties” — but she made that party seem like a homecoming for anyone who also knows the feeling of wanting to break free.

“I feel really at peace, which is something that I didn’t really know I would feel,” Roan says. “But I just feel gratitude and peace. I’m proud that I kept going through all of the part-time jobs, through being dropped by a label, through all the breakups, through all the times my bank account was nearly empty. I think as long as I’m literally putting on shows that make people happy, or playing music that makes people feel seen and heard, I can’t ask for anything else.”

Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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