Music by VICE

King Princess Is Making Queer Pop Anthems for the Next Generation

The Brooklyn-born artist talks to VICE about her debut album, 'Cheap Queen': "This is my gay sob."

by Avery Stone; photos by Hobbes Ginsberg
Oct 23 2019, 4:11pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's 2019 Profiles Issue. This edition looks to the future by zeroing in on the underrecognized writers, scientists, musicians, critics, and more that will shape our world next year. They are "the Other 2020" to watch. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

Mikaela Straus, a sneakerhead, is gushing about her Nikes. Peering over the frames of her black rectangular Gucci shades—the first time I've seen her eyes since we've started talking over coffee in Venice Beach, California—she informs me that they're Air More Uptempo NYC Qs. For the uninitiated, this means light gray basketball shoes with the letters NYC, a nod to her home city, emblazoned on the sides in large, white block letters.

She straightens her leg to give me a closer look. Her blue jeans, a pair of Marithé + François Girbauds, have a gargantuan rip at the left knee. When she moves, her knee juts out, revealing skin so pale it almost reflects the sunlight.

"I've always wanted a pair of these since I was in high school," she says. Her unruly, chin-length brown hair threatens to fall in her eyes but doesn't. "Now, I've made my own money and I can do things like that."

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Straus, who performs on stage as the pop singer-songwriter King Princess will be 21 in December. But in the last year and a half, her life has changed drastically—and making her own money is the least of it. It all began with her debut single, "1950." Based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt, which also inspired the film Carol, the song is an ode to queer love in a world that still tries to suppress it. Harry Styles tweeted a lyric; Kourtney Kardashian showed it love on Instagram. Taylor Swift is also a fan. To date, it's been streamed on Spotify more than 280 million times.

In today's world, going viral as an artist can feel as terrifying as it is exciting—the pressure to keep up the momentum is daunting. But Straus, at least from the outside, was as prepared as one could be for such a moment. She spent her childhood at Mission Sound—the Brooklyn recording studio owned by her father, Oliver Straus—hanging with high-profile indie artists and even singing backup for some of them. When she was 11, she turned down a deal with Virgin Records, and at 17, she moved cross-country to study music at the University of Southern California. After one year, she dropped out, signed with Zelig Records, Mark Ronson's imprint at Columbia, and released "1950." Her debut EP, Make The Bed, soon followed, and this week, she'll release her first full-length album, Cheap Queen. In what's already been a transformative year for queer pop artists—with impressive releases from Clairo, MUNA, and Shura, to name a few—Straus' debut feels like an exclamation point.

"I'm a pop girl and I'm going to continue to write pop songs," she says, "but this specific record isn't about that. This record is about me having my gay sob."

"I feel like I went through labor with [Cheap Queen]," she says. "I feel like it's very reflective of the moment I was in, and this year that I've had—because what the fuck happened?" She answers her own rhetorical question: "I put out ["1950"], and it popped off, and I had to play catch-up with my own ability set for a year. I didn't know how to do all this shit. I didn't know how to tour. I didn't know how to do photoshoots… [I felt] like I'm just going to fake it 'til I make it—doing everything to the best of my ability, figuring out if I'm any good at this shit. Turns out, I am."

By the numbers alone, this rings true. At the first show she headlined in New York, at Elsewhere’s Zone One in June 2018, she played to a room of 200. The Cheap Queen tour's upcoming two-night November run at Terminal 5, which has a capacity of 3,000, sold out weeks ago. Although Straus seems to handle herself with ease, she acknowledges that putting out a debut record like Cheap Queen has been viewed by some as a bit of a risk: "You're told by a million people what's a fucking hit and what's not, and what your music should sound like," she says. "And even on my team—I love my team and everything—but I'm signed to a major label… it's just very challenging to shut out all opinions and just be like, 'I'm going to put out my fucking record.'" Or, in other words: "I'm a pop girl and I'm going to continue to write pop songs," she says, "but this specific record isn't about that. This record is about me having my gay sob."

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Cheap Queen is exceedingly personal for Straus. She's credited with both production and songwriting on each of the album's 13 tracks; she's the sole writer of four of them. Altogether, she says the songs tell a cohesive story about the rise and fall of one real-life relationship. Straus politely declines to name names, though the briefest of Internet searches would yield that it's likely based on her relationship with her ex-girlfriend, the actress Amandla Stenberg from The Hate U Give. (Stenberg does, however, appear on the album in one concrete way: she co-wrote the title track. With Nick Long, she and Straus also co-wrote the 2018 standalone single—and certified bop—"Pussy is God."

Although Cheap Queen centers on a queer relationship, Straus' queerness is less of a focal point and more the lens through which she sees the world. "It's not about being gay," she says. "It's about being a person who makes good music, and then also happens to be gay—and that's the extra special treat."

A prime example of how Straus' queerness informs her songwriting is on "Homegirl," a standout track off Cheap Queen that she wrote with frequent collaborator Nick Long and Romy Croft of The XX. Over hazy acoustic guitar, Straus grapples with feeling objectified while she and a love interest are out at a party—a romantic waltz squirming under the male gaze. "You don't have to say it / We're friends at the party," she concedes at end of the chorus, then promises, "I'll give you my body at home."

"People's perception of you and someone else [when you're in] a gay or queer relationship can be really traumatic," Straus says of the inspiration for the song, "especially with men—when they're lurking, lingering, commenting. It's that feeling of being objectified, of your partner being objectified. Especially when I was young, I felt that so much. People were so disrespectful of queer relationships—[men] being like, ‘Oh, what's up, you want to fuck?' Like, ‘That's my girlfriend. Don't fucking talk to her. Fuck you.'"

Straus speaks like someone who's been confident in her queerness for many years, which is true—she first came out, as gay, in middle school. However, one part of her identity that has evolved, and continues to evolve, is her relationship with her gender expression. (Straus is genderqueer but uses she/her pronouns.) A big moment of self-discovery, she says, arrived during high school, when she found herself wanting to present as stereotypically feminine for the first time in her life. When asked if she felt pressured to do so to try and pass as straight, she says no—it had more to do with exploring her own relationship with femininity: "I didn't realize that the way that I could be feminine—and the way I found myself feeling most comfortable being feminine," she explains, "is through performance."

"Growing up, I thought it was much more simple," Straus says of her own identity. "I was just like, ‘I'm gay.' But now that I have the words to describe how I've always felt, it makes it complicated. But I like that complication, because we are all walking dichotomies of some sort. We are all just walking contradictions. I don't think any of these identities are mutually exclusive. That's what makes somebody interesting and beautiful and intersectional."

We all perform our gender in different ways, but Straus does so with a real joie de vivre. In both her onstage style and in her visuals, she combines stereotypically masculine and feminine imagery with a big wink—that the whole construct is an inside joke that anyone can understand if they just let themselves.

For example, the video for her recent single, "Prophet," begins with Straus dressed as a high school football player and ends with her laying on a table, her body a literal cake—frosted with virginal white clothing and surrounded by roses à la American Beauty—that, as the clip finishes, a horde of business-clothed men and women eat with enthusiasm. (When asked what clothing makes her feel most like herself, generally, Straus points to how she's dressed when we meet: in her kicks, jeans, and a Hanes white tank top. However, it's not until following her through an alleyway in the Venice Canal District during the photoshoot for this story do I realize that her tank top is, in fact, inside-out.)

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"Growing up, I thought it was much more simple," Straus says of her own identity. "I was just like, ‘I'm gay.' But now that I have the words to describe how I've always felt, it makes it complicated. But I like that complication, because we are all walking dichotomies of some sort. We are all just walking contradictions. I don't think any of these identities are mutually exclusive. That's what makes somebody interesting and beautiful and intersectional."

Straus' music spans identities, too. On Cheap Queen, she carries the clubby come-on "Hit the Back" as comfortably as the contemplative "Do You Wanna See Me Crying?" On the latter, almost as if she's repeating an affirmation to herself, she sings: "I think I'm working through the stress now / I want to put a million songs out."

I ask her about this line—if, despite just releasing her debut album, she'll drop more music soon. "Fuck yeah," she says. "You stop [releasing music], you die. I'm kidding." She laughs, then meets my eyes once more.

"But if I said it in my song," she says, "I meant it."

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