Kim Petras Wants To Be The Next Big Pop Star
The songwriter has been making gay anthems for years. Now she's ready for her big label moment — on her terms.
Kim Petras was just coming off the high of the Met Gala when we met in her publicist’s West Village apartment in the fall. The night’s theme was Americana, and the German-born pop star put her signature twist on the red carpet. From the tail braid on her head to the large plastic equine head stuck on her dress, the outfit was horse girl homage in the style of Heidi meets The Godfather.
The morning we met, she went for a simpler look: high ponytail, glistening blue cat eyes, black sweatpants, and a crop top. She was getting ready for her day, with the help of two makeup artists and a sweet twentysomething assistant. But Petras was warm and earnest as she opened up about her career trajectory so far.
It’s been an eventful year, even in a pandemic. “I’ve done a lot of growing during lockdown, and life has changed, and I’m kind of like, ‘You know what? It’s most fun for me to make really out-there pop songs, really going for being outrageous,” she said. “And I feel very very liberated by that and very excited to share that.”
The 29-year-old was able to launch her new era on the MTV stage, where she became the first openly trans artist to perform at the network's award shows, twice over. At the September Video Music Awards, she unveiled her Europop-inflected new sound — with the neo-disco “Future Starts Now” — in a bubblegum dress that looked like pink everlasting gobstoppers exploded on Barbarella (in a good way). In November, she staged the liberation part: bursting out of an enormous revolving coconut at the MTV Europe Music Awards, belting out her latest single, “Coconuts,” which sounds like Katy Perry doing a suntan lotion’s jingle about breasts (in a good way).
Getting on the music network was a career highlight for Petras — a far cry from making the rounds of radio stations on her own just five years ago. She faced confusion from the industry about being a trans artist; her musical style, built on her shameless love of sugary melodies, was deemed too queer clubby by radio and labels.
“In the beginning when I did the rounds to major labels and played them the music, people didn’t really get it,” Petras said. “People were kind of like, ‘Ah, I don’t know who the fanbase is for this.’ It was kind of like almost a little bit like, ‘You’re going to be a gay artist, and that’s niche and we don’t know.’ So I got shitty deals offered to me.”
Still, starting in 2017, her euphoric bops, like the spoiled princess anthem “I Don’t Want It At All,” and her shimmery longing-infused songs, like “Heart to Break” and “Hillside Boys,” began getting hundreds of millions of streams, thumped out of speakers in gyms and queer clubs, and made her gay famous.
She’s been interviewed by Paris Hilton (who cameos in one of her earliest videos) for the cover of Paper magazine, collaborated with Kygo, performed at Lollapalooza, opened for Troye Sivan, and drawn stan Twitter backlash for trying to defend working with Dr. Luke (before apologizing).
Pop stardom is all about timing, though, and right now queer is “in” in a different way. Bottoming anthems and gay lap dance videos are par for the course; Sam Smith and Demi Lovato came out as nonbinary, as did Halsey and Kehlani. The world and industry seem open to new kinds of stars, and it looks like it might finally be Petras’s moment. Of course, being a pop star is about a musical style, a narrative, and the zeitgeist all aligning. Those other acts were all already celebrities when they came out. Petras has had a very different journey.
Kim Petras always lived for pop music. She was born in Cologne, in 1992, to an architect dad and dance teacher mom, and music was an integral part of her household. The late ‘90s and early ‘00s were all about Orlando teen pop and Britney Spears and boy bands. She was obsessed with Max Martin machine pop songwriting and stardom. She loved the Spice Girls movie and yearned to be a Disney kid. “I have two older sisters,” she said. “We used to lip-synch Disney songs.”
As a teen, she was shy; music, though, was her outlet. She’d enlist her sisters to film her videos, and she started working on music for real, with a sister’s friend, who “had this little studio where he only did, like, metal bands,” she said. “It’s literally in his attic, sometimes he would give me studio time, and I’d just record my demos. I’d be on my laptop and make little productions.”
“Back then I wanted to get discovered more than anything,” she remembered, smiling at her naïveté. “But I never did. And then I learned like, Shit, I gotta do it myself.”
She’d use MySpace and YouTube to try to get the music out there. There are still traces online of that 15- and 16-year-old Petras, debuting songs on then-file-sharing site Napster, with titles like “Fade Away” (2008) and “Last Forever” (2009). The style was synthy Europop, with lyrics about breakups and love drama.
A decade later, when Petras first started getting press coverage in the US, the headlines often emphasized her supposed desire to Just Be a Pop Star, as if she wanted to transcend her transness. “I don’t care about being the first transgender teen idol at all,” the New York Times quoted her as saying in 2018.
But what she’s actually battled is trying to exist as a musician without having her celebrity defined by her trans identity outside of her terms. This is what happened early on. In the early 2000s, she became Germany’s proto–Jazz Jennings, through documentaries about early transition, which exposed invasive details. “I was 13,” she said. “My whole school saw that, and it was I felt used, I felt not seen, I felt not protected.”
Today pop culture understands trans teens only just a little better; young celebrities like Hunter Schafer have storylines on teen dramas like Euphoria. But Petras felt isolated in school. “I grew up going to gay clubs way too young,” she said. “I loved gay club music. I felt very at home with my gay friends and felt understood.”
“I wanted to be a raver, and I wanted to wear crazy outfits,” she added. When she would step out into the media, on talk shows, they used her as a spectacle rather than an ambitious teen who wanted to be a musician. So she “made the decision to get out of Europe,” she said. “I’m seen as a joke, and nobody wants to talk about my music, people don’t want to work with me. I’m just, like, ‘the tranny on TV’ to people.”
“Back then I wanted to get discovered more than anything,” she remembered, smiling at her naïveté. “But I never did. And then I learned like, Shit, I gotta do it myself.”
“Fantasy is often better than reality,” Karl Lagerfeld once said — at least according to those refrigerator magnet quotes that attach themselves to celebrities. Petras cites that as her artistic philosophy: “Imagining what I would be like if I was some spoiled Hollywood brat. … The fantasy of something is super interesting, and new things can come out of that.”
In reality, around 2011, when she was only 19, Petras came to LA with only $500 in her pocket, which meant $10 a day for food. “Little Caesars pizza and Subway was my shit.” She slept on a producer friend’s couch and started making connections. The Stereotypes, a production crew that later produced Bruno Mars’ massive hit “That’s What I Like,” gave her the first break: use of their studio.
They “believed in me,” she remembered fondly. For a pophead, she said, it was an honor to work with the makers of MTV reality trio Danity Kane’s debut hit, “Damaged.” Through them, she ended up writing on JoJo’s 2013 album Jumping Trains, which was shelved; Fergie recorded one of her songs and never ended up using it; she ghost sang on one of the 2014 Danity Kane reunion songs. Finally, one of her songs, “Bratz What’s Up,” made it onto a 2015 Bratz web series.
A publishing deal contracting her to write songs — with Dr. Luke’s Prescription Songs — allowed her to move into her own place, and she blew a lot of the money to live in the Hollywood Hills, that mythical slice of reality show dreams. She made industry friends — like English electropop star Charli XCX, who featured her on 2017’s “Unlock It”— and fellow songwriter Aaron Josephs at a Halloween party in Toluca Lake. “There wasn’t a plan,” she said. “It was just kind of like, OK, use studios with Aaron, make more songs, make more demos, write songs for other people, maybe.” But she decided to write for herself.
Josephs, a lover of Rage Against the Machine and Metallica, became a pophead like Petras after falling for Rihanna’s “Only Girl (in the World).” “We love things that are silly and fun, and flamboyant and careless,” he said of their chemistry. “I think we just were both escapists. We wanted to make music that took you out of real life and was about having fun and living a fantasy, or just making people want to dance.”
“Hillside Boys,” an homage to her new home, was one of their first creations. It’s the details that make a pop song, and everything in it builds up to perfect catharsis: the fizzy champagne opening, ‘80s synths, melodic chord changes, the desperation of the belting vocals. “Boys” is like pop about the euphoria of pop, and the lyrics include one of her best lines, about the fleeting nature of summer love: “You only stay until our tan lines match.”
The bratty “I Don’t Want It At All” is the other side of her. “I want all my clothes designer,” she sings. “I want someone else to buy them.”
“I've always been obsessed with girls who get what they want and are strong and ditch the guys, and I was never that,” she said.
Petras said she draws from her personal experiences for her music. “I was always kind of like the girl who was fun for a little bit and then bye, for guys, and I ended up so obsessed with them and needy,” she said about those early lyrics, chuckling. “But I just wanted to be someone's girlfriend, and they never wanted to do that.”
There’s a haziness, a girlish romance to her synth-pop, almost like talking about boys among girls.
Her early experiences made her self-protective in her personal life; she’s never online-dated or dated anyone she doesn’t know through friends. And there’s a romantic, diffuse lens to the boy fantasies in her songs. “Heart to Break,” which features desperate belting about giving up her heart to pain, is really about the illusion of not caring and giving oneself up to love; “Hillside Boys” is a celebration of the idea of being into men, evoked through the distance of Paco Rabanne cologne. There’s a haziness, a girlish romance to her synth-pop, almost like talking about boys among girls.
She and Josephs shopped the songs to labels. “We went to everybody,” he said. “We’d bring a guitar and just sing acoustic and a cappella demos of songs, and it got things started for us.” There’s a video of her performing “Hillside Boys” in acoustic mode, with Josephs on guitar wearing an “I Love Pop” shirt. She introduces the song in her matter of fact, vaguely Teutonic inflection, “So this is ‘Hillside Boys.’ It’s about rich boys breaking my heart.” Then she adds the wink: “A tragedy by Kim Petras.”
According to Petras, no labels were interested. “A lot of people were like you write gay club music,” she said. “As if that was a bad thing.” (“That’s an honor for me,” she added.)
“I was kind of known in LA ‘cause I was always wearing a bun, and people called me bunhead,” she recalled. So in 2017 she created BunHead Records to release her own music. She made videos for the singles, enlisting Paris Hilton as the fairy godmother sugar mommy with the credit card for “I Don’t Want It At All.” (Hilton offered to appear after Petras reached out to her stylist to borrow a Hilton dress, which is in the video.) “Heart to Break” featured then-rising YouTuber Nikita Dragun, who’d used “I Don’t Want It At All” in one of her first makeup ads.
“But all the radio stations were weirded out,” Petras said. “And it was like a lot of them had probably never met a trans person, also it was like, ‘This is, like, loud and you sing really loud, and it’s not what’s happening right now.’ They were like, ‘Sorry.’”
The maximalism of Petras’s sincerely glossy vocals was definitely out of step during the reign of indie-pop voice. But streaming, and performing at gay clubs and pride festivals, got her name out there, and she was one of those big-voiced pop girls beloved by queer men.
“Heart to Break” made it onto RuPaul’s Drag Race, used in one of the infamous lip syncs. “Some people were down to play it,” she said, “and it went to the top 40 on radio, which was exciting.” It was streamed more than 50 million times, and it helped her accrue a highly engaged social media following.
Petras keeps her fanbase interested by constantly releasing collaborations, one-off singles, and EPs. In 2019 she collaborated with Sophie, the hyperpop pioneer who died this year. “I jumped on stage with her in Brooklyn at LadyLand Festival,” Petras said. “Her crowd of fans is incredible. And she was such a wild artist. She would play unreleased songs. She would drop stuff that's half-finished, that's still a demo. And it was just like full freedom. And I'm still very inspired by that.”
She’s tried to re-create that freedom in her career through streaming, releasing singles and EPs on her own timetable. In the whimsical Halloween-themed album Turn Off the Light, Petras plays Elvira, and the thumping club anthem “There Will Be Blood” became one of her most-streamed songs on Spotify. There was also Clarity, which was inspired by a breakup and included some less upbeat lyrics as well as more overtly sexy songs. “It was like everyone was like, ‘You need to do midtempos, you need to not sing, that’s how we’re going to play you on the radio,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘OK, bitch, you want something that sounds like everything else? Here you go.” “Do Me” and “Sweet Spot” had a more house-y feel, with subdued vocals that were still very Petras-y.
She toured — from Kansas City to London — and saw herself mirrored back in a “fanbase that’s as passionate about pop as I am.” The shows were like pophead conventions, and before her own performances, they whipped up the crowd with a DJ playing hits like “Potential Breakup Song” and “Toxic,” and fans were “screaming these songs; those songs are their bible as much as they’re my bible,” Petras said.
But Petras’s elevated profile has also come with higher scrutiny. With trans rights under siege, and trans representation moving into contesting cis beauty standards, Petras’s image and celebrity can come off as assimilationist. And in 2018, Pitchfork ran a piece about Petras and what it means to be an apolitical trans pop star.
"I think my fantasies say more about me than my actual life, because I’m just like a person, waking up in the morning, same old shit.”
I asked her if she has ever thought about what it would mean to write songs more specifically from a trans perspective. “I think I do,” she answered. “I mean I write honestly, I write about my fantasies, and for me I think my fantasies say more about me than my actual life, because I’m just like a person, waking up in the morning, same old shit.”
The wave of attention also brought on her first backlash. Amid the growing awareness of power imbalances in the music industry, the #MeToo movement, and Kesha’s 2014 accusations of sexual assault against Max Martin disciple Dr. Luke, there has been newfound surveillance of women artists signed to his label or publishing companies.
Like Saweetie and Doja Cat, Petras has been made to answer about why she works with his label. And Petras’s first unofficial statement on the matter, casually dropped during an interview — “I would like my fans to know that I wouldn’t work with somebody I believe to be an abuser of women, definitely not” — upset a lot of her fans.
The comment continues to follow her, and when Troye Sivan asked her in 2018 to join his tour she issued another statement: She did not want to "dismiss the experiences of others or suggest that multiple perspectives cannot exist at once."
When I brought this up in our interview, Petras’s publicist got uncomfortable. Even though we did a preinterview and she knew I’d ask about the backlash, she broke in: “That’s not a fair question to ask her.”
“I just feel like a lot of it is like getting transferred to me,” Petras said. “A lot of people like to blame it on the women.” I asked her if she understood that the questions are all part of a wider conversation around women in music and Svengalis. “Of course. But I think I'm sometimes being held to a different standard than other artists,” she countered.
Some stans have started shifting the conversation from the artists signed to Dr. Luke’s companies to his continued dominance in the industry, and his power over women he signed early on in their career. Doja Cat’s fans theorized that they’re tied to contracts in which Dr. Luke gets publishing credits regardless of his involvement. Becky G eventually sued him because of the restrictiveness of her contract. Petras was guarded on what she could say about her agreement. “So people want me to quit making music?” she said at one point. “Because that’s the option.”
But when news came out of her signing to Republic this year, fans uncovered that it was for a Dr. Luke sublabel, Amigo, and wrote about the ethics of supporting her music. “I've kind of become a punching bag for that, and that’s what it is, and that’s OK.”
The afternoon we met, Petras’s long nails were shaped like bloody knives in anticipation of a Halloween Kills premiere party. She was going to a dinner with Marc Jacobs and Sofia Coppola later that night. The publicist’s apartment had music history on the walls, including a Bob Dylan painting in the living room, and in the kitchen, a picture of bubblegum punk pioneer Debbie Harry cooking in the kitchen. With Britney blasting in the background, Petras would later pose on a piano and a rooftop, as the apartment suddenly became a stage.
“I’m a shy person until I get onstage,” she said. “I get to be this person I wish I was in real life. That’s when I feel like I don't think about what I do. I just am and I feel powerful, and I feel like I can do anything.”
But there’s still a shyness to Petras, and not in the annoying way of extroverts who claim to be introverts. She comes off more like an excited studio nerd than a diva performer. “I was kind of more fearless as a kid than I am now, to be honest, or that I became later,” she said.
During the pandemic, Petras got three dogs: a pug, a Pomeranian, and a Chihuahua mix. They help her unplug. She started writing for her new album, moving in with Aaron Josephs and queer DJ Alex Chapman. “Into an Airbnb in LA, and we started writing sex songs, a million sex songs, and there is this element of Europop in it, which I don’t think I’ve fully explored,” she said.
The result was on view in her homecoming performance on the MTV Europe Music Awards in November. On that stage, in Hungary, she unveiled her newest songs and a more “out-there” sexual persona. She turned the stage into a tropical Carmen Miranda fruit stand, shimmying as she sang about giving her chest pet names. “‘Mary Kate and Ashley,” she sang-sashayed, “everybody loves the twins.”
In “Hit It From the Back,” she mixed her love of heartbreak drama with the specter of anal (“Before you break my heart / I’ll let you hit it from the back”). In the performance, she hip-thrusted a rope with a bevy of jockstrapped dancers. (“I came I pegged I conquered,” she tweeted after.)
The high-budget staging was unlike anything I’d seen from Petras before. She’s now working with Wendy Goldstein, the same woman who helped guide the careers of pop titans like Ariana Grande and The Weeknd. “I have full creative freedom, in which I make the decisions,” she said. “I get to release whatever I want whenever I want, but I still get the advice.
When we talked, she admitted that starting with the neo-disco track “Future Starts Now“ on the VMAs was “a bit of a misleading first single in a way.” She said the untitled forthcoming album (no release date yet) is “a lot more the songs [she] didn’t dare to do, it’s a lot more sex, it’s a lot more going for really going for being outrageous.” When I first heard the lead single, “Future Starts Now,” it sounded more like Dua Lipa than Petras, and maybe a concession to a label asking for a broad song for a big audience. “You're more than just anybody,” she sings. “One day, everyone will notice.”
But relistening to it after we met, I can hear how she smuggled her message in; it’s really a queer club-kid anthem. “Don’t let love get out of focus,” she sings. And she doesn’t mean romantic love, but love as life energy, the kind that powers people on dance floors. “I know you can take the pressure,” it continues. “Take the pain and make it pleasure.” It’s the philosophy that has carried her this far.
The newer songs push the envelope of white girl pop divas; “Hit It From the Back” is like a less metaphoric version of Grande’s “Side to Side” (which is saying something). The tracks come off differently on an MTV stage than in a gay club, though, where they’re received by a queer gaze that loves femininity outside of cis-hetero anxieties. In the broader pop landscape, these songs could still seem out of step with a moment when even aspirational Disney princess pop divas have gone punk.
I asked Petras if she thought she’d have to edit herself for broad appeal. “I wouldn’t enjoy what I'm doing,” she said. “I want to love my life, I want to feel free as an artist, I want to express myself,” she added, with conviction. “I don’t really need a huge hit to feel successful. I’ve been feeling successful since I could tour. … That's what's driven me, my career and this goal of me on a huge stage, with people who sing my songs. That was all I’ve ever dreamt about.”●