the pop supernova who feels like one of the ‘Drag Race’ girls

Pop connoisseurs are queuing up to worship at the altar of Chappell Roan. The 25-year-old from LA via smalltown Missouri makes fun, flashy, in-your-face party music that has queerness stamped through it like a stick of rock. When people hear her name, she wants their first thought to be “drag queen”.

Roan’s spangly bangers and campy, drag-inspired aesthetic have won her an adoring – and rapidly growing – fanbase. In December, she sold out two headline shows at iconic London LGBTQ+ venue Heaven. “That was so affirming for me because Heaven is famously so joyous,” she says. “And I felt honoured to be playing where Freddie Mercury used to party.”

Chappell Roan on The Cover of NME. Credit: Kristen Jan Wong for NME

Her songs can be witty and quotable – “Get it hot like Papa John!” she chants on the frenetic club gem ‘Femininomenon’ – but also quietly heartbreaking. ‘Naked In Manhattan’, a tender highlight from ‘The Rise And Fall Of A Midwest Princess’, Roan’s wildly entertaining debut album that dropped last September, is a gorgeous queer coming-of-age story set to a shimmering beat.

Touch me, baby, put your lips on mine / Could go to hell but we’ll probably be fine,” Roan sings, pushing the internalised homophobia from her strict Christian upbringing to the back of her mind. “Well, I was dating a man and I’d never even kissed a girl,” she says when NME asks about the song’s origins. “I was just yearning and longing for this feeling, and it was so close I could taste it, but I hadn’t experienced it yet.”

We’re speaking on Zoom at the beginning of a busy day for Roan – later, she has a costume fitting for her plum support slot on Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Guts’ tour, which begins in Thousand Oaks, California on February 23. “I am so excited and very grateful to Olivia – she is an angel,” Roan says right at the start of the interview. “I’m just not really sure how it’s gonna feel to do an arena show!”

Credit: Kristen Jan Wong for NME

Roan has the background of her LA pad blurred out, which could seem guarded, but actually makes her into an even more vivid presence. It feels as though she’s right in front of us as she twists her bright red curls while looking back at ‘Naked In Manhattan’. “It was very apparent that I was not supposed to be dating this guy,” she continues, “but I was so scared [to go there with a woman] that I wrote a song about it instead.”

Fans will know this story has a happy ending. Roan has since fully embraced her queerness and sings about it on the album. On ‘Red Wine Supernova’, a synth-pop starburst named one of NME’s Best Songs of 2023, she winks: “I heard you like magic – I’ve got a wand and a rabbit.” It’s a cleverly suggestive reference to a famous vibrating sex toy. But at the same time, Roan confides today that she still sometimes feels as though she’s “not queer enough”.

Why is that? “It’s kind of an imposter syndrome – that because I’ve dated men in the past, it doesn’t make me as queer as someone who has only dated queer people,” she says. “Sometimes that scares me, but my project only helps affirm who I am.” When NME suggests that no one who’s heard her album could accuse her of being “not queer enough”, she lets out a hearty laugh. The playful sense of humour from her music punctuates this interview, too.

Credit: Kristen Jan Wong for NME

The success of Roan’s project – not just ‘Midwest Princess’, but also the pivot towards big glittery pop that preceded it – must be affirming on several levels. When she was just 17, she signed a major label deal with Atlantic Records [Ed Sheeran, Lizzo]. Her calling card was ‘Die Young’, a moody ballad released a year later that she’s “proud of” but doesn’t “really identify with any more”. At 20, still making darker music than she’s known for now, she swapped her stifling Missouri hometown, Willard, for the bright lights of LA.

Roan, who was born Kayleigh Rose Amstutz, had already given herself the stage name Chappell Roan in tribute to her late grandfather, Dennis K. Chappell. But in the city, she blossomed into the person – and bold pop artist – she is today. As a teenager, she had been bedazzled by the kaleidoscopic hits of Kesha, Katy Perry and ‘Pink Friday’-era Nicki Minaj. She says the vampy spoken word bits in her ‘Midwest Princess’ bops are inspired by “Lady Gaga and drag music”.

Credit: Kristen Jan Wong for NME

She continues: “I was raised on Christian rock, but I never identified with it. I felt such a push and pull because I was so curious about pop music but couldn’t identify why I related to it. It was [talking about] a lifestyle I did not live. I was very sheltered and very prude.”

Shattering the suffocating shell of her staunch Christian upbringing was “a gradual process” that began in LA’s queer heartland. “I was told this city is demonic and Satanists live here,” she says. “But when I got to West Hollywood, it opened my eyes [to the fact] that everything I was afraid of wasn’t always true – especially [what I’d been told] about the queer community. Going to gay clubs for the first time, it felt spiritual.” Was it a huge culture shock? “Yeah, I’d never even seen a drag queen before.”

Roan channelled her LA revelations into ‘Pink Pony Club’, a semi-autobiographical anthem about a Tennessee girl who heads west to become a go-go-dancer. Adorned with a soaring chorus worthy of ‘Teenage Dream’-era Katy Perry, it became a word-of-mouth hit and set Roan on the trajectory she’s riding skywards today. But when she released ‘Pink Pony Club’ in April 2020, it baffled her label so much that they dropped her a few months later.

Credit: Kristen Jan Wong for NME

“It was a hard left turn from my original EP [2017’s ‘School Nights’], which was really dark, angsty pop that was pretty boring,” Roan says. “I had a very small fan base, but they were scared I would lose it. And sure I lost a few people, but I gained so many more – and it was a new community that I was now in. But I don’t think [the label] believed in me.”

Though Roan felt “discarded and misunderstood” at the time, she now believes it was “the best thing that could have happened”. She went back to Willard and worked at a drive-thru while cultivating her new, queer fanbase. “I was the thrift store pop girl – it was so drag; I learned how to embellish my own costumes,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna give it one more year – and if it doesn’t work, I’ll rethink.’ But do you know what, it fucking worked.”

In fact, Roan’s independent artist era was such a slay – to use a drag term – that in early 2023 she signed a new major label deal, this time with Island Records [Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj]. “I was very picky and I had a fuck ton of leverage,” she told NME in June. She says everything happening now is “the icing on the cake”, particularly her support slot with Rodrigo, whom she salutes as a “pop star for real”.

Credit: Kristen Jan Wong for NME

The two artists share a producer, Dan Nigro of noughties indie band As Tall As Lions, with whom Roan is already writing her follow-up to ‘Midwest Princess’. “Right now I’m really inspired by dance [music],” she says. “What I really want is just to dance on stage and not sing as much because singing ‘Red Wine Supernova’ is so hard. I know that sounds stupid!”

She laughs at the slight absurdity of this thought – after all, Roan has such a fabulous, full-bodied voice that she smashes a cover of Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ in her live show. Maybe she could make a house record filled with spoken word parts? “I love that! Kim Petras did that with [her 2022 EP] ‘Slut Pop’. She’s kind of like talk-singing and I just feel like I need to do that.”

Levelling up to arena shows with Rodrigo isn’t the only adjustment Roan is making. She has recently scaled back pre-gig meet and greets into “a VIP experience with group questions” because one-on-one interactions were triggering her social anxiety. “What fans say to me is really flattering and I’m so thankful, but sometimes I would have panic attacks after because I felt so overwhelmed,” she says. “It was a lot to take in and then do a show.”

Because she sees Chappell as her drag persona, she finds it jarring when fans call her ‘Kayleigh’. “Can you imagine someone calling Trixie Mattel ‘Brian’ when she’s in drag?” Roan says, drawing a parallel with the RuPaul’s Drag Race star. But she’s come to expect queer Twitter’s current favourite compliment: “Mother”, a nod to matriarchal figures from the LGBTQ+ ballroom scene. “There are people 10 years older than me being like, ‘Mother! Mother!’” she says with a smile. “And I’m like, ‘I’m your child!’”

OK, let’s try another term of endearment from her mentions – does she feel like a ‘main pop girl’? “I definitely feel mainly pop, but do I feel [like a] main character?” Roan ponders. “I feel like another girl in the local drag competition. Like another girl on Drag Race. I don’t think I’m a judge yet.” It’s an admirably humble response, but Roan is already well on her way with a clear sense of purpose.

“The queer community is my main fanbase, so my responsibility is to pay it forward by donating a portion of ticket sales and sales in general [to LGBTQ+ charities] and show up at Pride events,” she says. “Really, I’m here to give back all the energy that the queer community has given to me.”

Chappell Roan’s debut album ‘The Rise And Fall Of A Midwest Princess’ is out now via Island Records

Words: Nick Levine
Photography: Kristen Jan Wong
Styling: Genesis Webb
Hair: Faye Celeste
MUA: Ali Scharf
Label: Island Records

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