Chappell Roan on Elton John, queer stardom, and Olivia Rodrigo’s advice

Chappell Roan released her lauded debut album ‘The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess’ in September  (Ryan Lee Clemens)
Chappell Roan released her lauded debut album ‘The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess’ in September (Ryan Lee Clemens)

Three years ago, a young Chappell Roan was singing Elton John covers on YouTube. Her hair was long and brown, her clothing muted, her demeanour understated. That girl is worlds away from the sparky musician dancing on stage in 2023; red ringlets springing around her face and wearing elaborate costumes heavy with glitter and fringe. Would Roan’s younger self, that one on YouTube, have believed Elton would be a fan of hers just three years later? “You’ve been called a ‘queer pop superstar in the making’ – I think they called me that too,” the Rocket Man himself quipped. “He’s a fan,” Roan tells me now, with a cheeky, nonchalant smile. “He loves it.”

Roan – real name Kayleigh Rose Amstutz – is a star cut from Elton’s cloth: all campy costumes, energetic performances and huge-sound pop. On her acclaimed debut album, The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess (she’s from Missouri), you can hear the stars of her childhood like Lady Gaga and Ke$ha, mottled with the sort of Eighties artists behind “big, anthemic” pop songs such as Kate Bush and Cyndi Lauper. She’s a versatile singer, expressing the pain of forbidden love and chaotic relationships through full-throttle, bratty vocals. At her live shows, Roan fosters an environment not unlike a girly sleepover, plus all the sapphic undertones. She chants lyrics and her fans scream them back, even when said lyrics are come-ons as silly as “get it hot like Papa John”. Music rarely sounds this fun.

The journey to pop stardom hasn’t been easy. Roan was signed at 17 but dropped shortly after she put out a single. The problem wasn’t with the song; fans loved it. It was the label. “They just didn’t get it,” she says. “They felt it was ‘too much’.” Now, too much is basically the Chappell Roan brand. That is, on stage at least. The Roan I’m speaking to from her tour bus is far more subdued. She keeps the background of her video blurred, insisting, “You do not need to see my pile of laundry behind me.” That trademark sarcasm and California drawl are there, but her energy is notably dimmer.

I suspect it’s being conserved for the rest of her US tour and everything else to come: dates supporting fellow girl-of-the-moment Olivia Rodrigo on her Guts arena tour in 2024, and before that two sold-out shows at London’s LGBT+ nightclub Heaven this month. It’s the perfect venue for such a proudly queer artist, who has never once shrouded her sexuality in subtext. Take the mating call of “Red Wine Supernova”: “I heard you like magic/ I’ve got a wand and a rabbit/ So baby, let’s get freaky, get kinky/ Let’s make this bed get squeaky.”

It couldn’t be further from the music of Roan’s youth. Growing up in Willard, Missouri, in a Christian household, she was a “very devoted” child raised on religious rock and country music. Hearing the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Nicki Minaj in middle school was one of those indelible, world-expanding moments. It was jarring, she says, but freeing, too. “I was just drawn to it because it was so opposite of what I was raised on,” she says.

Roan’s sexuality was something she wouldn’t entertain until she left the Midwest and arrived in Los Angeles in 2018. There were crushes at school, but never anything serious. “I was in seventh grade and that’s when it hit me one day: ‘Oh my God, I think I like girls,’” she recalls. When I ask if she considered herself queer as a teenager, she looks shocked. “That was not–” she shakes her head. “I was like, that’s not real. People ask, ‘Oh, what was it like growing up queer in Missouri?’ I grew up straight.”

Roan was 17 when she signed her record deal; she left home for California as soon as she could. But she was young and isolated; her old friends couldn’t relate when her label’s glittering promises turned out to be fool’s gold. By the time she released “Pink Pony Club”, the 2020 banger that catapulted her into the mainstream when Vulture declared it the “song of summer”, she’d already been dropped by her label. She had been deemed insufficiently profitable. Roan moved back in with her parents and was working at a drive-through coffee stand. Now, she sees the song as a testament to her self-belief. “It’s very affirming and validating, whenever I sing it every night with the crowd,” she says. “I was right. I was right the whole time. I knew it.”

Roan is confident to the point of self-proclaimed delusion (or “delulu”, as her legion of Gen-Z fans would probably say). Behind the scenes, however, she considers herself an introvert. Externalising that Chappell Roan persona, she says, makes it “much easier to compartmentalise” her anxieties around fame and fandom. Back then, Roan felt nobody understood her struggles in the industry, but now she has Rodrigo to turn to when the madness of notoriety gets to be too much. The former Disney Channel star’s advice is simple: “Stop reading. Don’t read anything.”

Easier said than done, right? But Roan was desperate for someone, anyone, to tell her what to do. “I was just really struggling,” she begins before hesitating. I can sense her deciding if she wants to finish her sentence; eventually, she does, “... with the bullying online.” It was earlier this year, says Roan, explaining how she sought help from her industry peers. “I was going to reach out to Phoebe Bridgers and see what she was doing,” she recalls, “and I asked Olivia if she had talked to Billie [Eilish] or anything. People who are in similar circumstances.”

If fans want to overcomplicate the music, good for them. Have at it. Have a ball!

Rodrigo’s answer was honest, but it made Roan “kind of sad”. “She was just like, ‘No one has it figured out. No one has the answer. It’s different for every person,’” says Roan. “I do think it was really helpful for me to hear that no matter who you are or how big you are or how small you are, you feel the same.” The hurt becomes audible in her voice. “And you know what, of course there’s not a solution for people hating you. People hate you and they want to say mean things to hurt your feelings. The only solution is to not read.”

Between the onstage armour and keeping out of the comment section, Roan is slowly learning to handle fame. When I mention the fans who search for Taylor Swift-esque “Easter eggs” in her lyrics or film her entire show for TikTok, Roan rolls her eyes so hard I laugh out loud, but says she finds it easier to just let them run with it. “It’s their art to dissect now. It’s no longer mine,” she says. “If they want to overcomplicate it, good for them. Have at it. Have a ball!”

Letting go has provided some “relief” – although she does take issue with audience members chatting when she’s speaking to the crowd. “I’ll just be like, ‘Stop talking!’” she says. “I command an audience and I know how to run a room, but at the end of the day… you paid for a ticket here and you deserve to do whatever you want.” She shrugs, slipping back into her cool nonchalance. “I’m just trying to have a party on stage.”

Chappell Roan is playing at Heaven, London, on 7 December