They call her Japan's Lady Gaga. And they're right – although more cute than grotesque, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is every bit as compelling as her American counterpart. Which probably explains why she has been one of the few Japanese artists to break into the international market.
Famed for her kawaii-cum-kooky dress sense and weirdo facial expressions, Kyary started off as a model and blogger before releasing her first single 'PonPonPon' in 2011. She has since brought out three albums, been featured on the cover of 'Dazed and Confused', and completed two world tours. And she's only just getting started...
You’re known for your outlandish costumes, but what do you wear on your days off?
I really like clothes, but I get tired of always wearing bright, pop-style clothes, so on my days off I often wear darker colours. Like black dresses and sporty looks. I think it’s a little different from the public image of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
Of all the phrases that have been used to describe you in overseas media, which one resonated with you the most?
Oh, I wonder… Maybe when they say ‘Japanese pop icon Kyary’. That is something I always wanted to achieve, so when people from other countries say it, it makes me happy.
Do you come across misleading clichés about Japan in the Western media?
Yes, I get asked a lot of strange questions during interviews. In terms of fashion, they always ask me about designers, which is something that hardly ever comes up in Japan.
Any surprises in the overseas reports on you?
When I was introduced on TV as part of Cool Japan, I was really surprised. My image of Cool Japan was mainly anime, food or culture, promoted politically, and so I didn’t imagine music or artists would be considered part of that.
I would think that including you actually improved the image of Cool Japan. What do you personally think is cool about Japan?
I think traditional Japanese culture is cool. Like with today’s shoot, I was shown pictures of Children’s Day dolls as inspiration, and I thought those gallant young boys in dignified poses were really beautiful. And there’s the Girls’ Festival (Hinamatsuri) too. So depending on the occasion there are parts of tradition that are beautiful and have elements of fashion. I want to incorporate these things into my outfits. I want to display my identity as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, while mixing in traditional culture.
You’re performing at Roundhouse in London in October 2015. Previously you played at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and 02 Academy Brixton. What’s it like to perform at such historic venues that are unlike anything found in Japan?
It’s absolutely nothing like in Japan. It feels almost like being in a church and since the atmosphere is so different at each venue, you truly get to experience what it’s like to perform in another country. I was surprised to see that a lot of the London fans were very punk-ish. Quite a few people had long hair and were wearing punk T-shirts. It was interesting to realise how many of them aren’t the type of people who are into cute things.
What do you always do before a show?
I practise greetings in each country’s language. The Asian languages are especially hard, because if you change the intonation even a little, it can change the meaning. I’m not very good at English either, so I want to work on that.
You’re known for your poses and facial expressions. What are you feeling when you make these?
I sometimes make a cute pose when I’m wearing cute outfits, but to really show off my personality, I also make funny or mischievous faces. I don’t always know if those bits will get used, though [laughs].
Your music videos also contain some darker elements. What are these inspired by?
My apartment has a lot of pink, cute things in it, but the manga I have on my shelves are things like ‘Himizu’ and ‘Ushijima the Loan Shark’. I like dark stories [laughs]. It’s the same for movies; I like things with heartless relationships, stalkers, that kind of thing. I try to put some of that darkness into my music videos and concerts, too.
Are you influenced by any Western musicians or pop stars?
I’ve always been a huge fan of Katy Perry. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Meghan Trainor. Most of her songs are about being true to yourself. I also like how the tunes have a retro feel. Her music videos are also super cute.
Are you interested in Japanese idols from the ’80s and ’90s?
Kyoko Koizumi is super enchanting. I met her once and she mentioned how she was sick of the logic that idols had to be cute and fluffy all the time, so she chopped her hair into a boyish look – that ushered in a new craze and the ‘Kyoko Koizumi look’ became a thing. I like the idea that something that starts out from your frustration can turn into a success.
You also have this aspect of seeming like a cute pop idol at first, but in fact you’ve carved out a unique aesthetic. Do you plan to develop a different persona going forward?
I’ll be 23 soon, and up to now most of my work has focused on the cute aspect of things, so I want to explore something more edgy. I definitely want to develop a new side.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is featured on the cover of the autumn 2015 issue of Time Out Tokyo magazine, available here. Watch our behind-the-scenes video:
ART DIRECTOR STEVE NAKAMURA
PHOTOGRAPHER YASUNARI KIKUMA
STYLING KUMIKO IIJIMA
HAIR AND MAKE-UP, MASK PAINT MINAKO SUZUKI