THE MUSIC ISSUE

Kim Petras Wants to Create a Whole New World Through Pop

Photography by Nick Sethi

Celine by Hedi Slimane jacket, balconette top, pants, necklaces, sandals, and bag; her own rings.
Kim Petras wears a Celine by Hedi Slimane jacket, balconette top, pants, necklaces, sandals, and bag; her own rings.

You can’t accuse Kim Petras of not working hard. Born in Cologne, Germany, she’s been actively pursuing a pop career since she was a preteen in her bedroom, and technically released her debut single back in 2008, when she was still a teenager. Along the way, she made headlines for declaring her desire to receive gender affirmation surgery before the age of 18, which at the time wasn’t legal in her home country. But it wasn’t until 2017 that Petras had her major pop breakthrough, with the tongue-in-cheek brat anthem “I Don't Want It at All.” Since then the singer, now 29, has released a steady stream of viral hits, has played (as she puts it) at “every gay club in America and Europe,” and is gearing up for the release of her third studio album. Here, Petras talks about her childhood dream of wanting to become a Disney Imagineer, writing laundry detergent jingles, and moving beyond everyone’s expectations.

You first garnered international attention as a teenager, when you appeared in a documentary and on German television to talk about your gender transition. Back then, you mentioned your dream of being a pop star. All these years later, you’ve actually done it.

When you tell people you want to be a pop star and you’re from the middle of nowhere in Germany, no one takes you seriously. It’s like a cute little joke. But basically, when I was 12 years old, I got myself a MacBook Pro and GarageBand, and I was writing demos in my bedroom every single day after school. I started out by writing jingles for laundry detergent and cell phone companies. I realized early on that no one’s gonna write me songs, so I’m gonna have to become a good songwriter and keep working on my craft. I don’t come from money. I don’t have any connections. I saved up from my waitress job to move to L.A. when I was 20, and then it took three or four years for other artists to start cutting my songs.

Loewe bustier top, pants, and sunglasses; Tiffany & Co. necklace; Simon Miller platform sandals; her own rings.

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People can think of pop music as a commodity, and the artists who “make it” as handpicked for overnight success, but more than ever, pop musicians really have to work at building themselves up in the same way a punk band or a rapper might.

I’ve put in years of playing every gay club in America and Europe. It went from, “What is this bitch doing onstage? No one’s ever heard of you” to, like, 500 people, then 5,000 people, 10,000 people. My fan base just naturally grew, which I’m really happy about. I think a lot of people have big hits and chart successes but can’t fill out venues, you know?

Even Madonna and Lady Gaga were playing gay clubs before they hit it big, and it’s nice to see the queer club pipeline now lifting up people from inside the community too.

I mean, thank god! It’s really amazing, because gay clubs have been my culture and my friend group and my chosen family since I was a kid. I could go and just listen to pop and feel accepted and happy and not like a freak, like I did in school or in straight clubs.

It definitely comes across that you’re passionate about the craft and aesthetics of pop music.

I love storytelling. When I was a kid, I wanted to become a Disney Imagineer and design roller coasters. Then I wanted to be a fashion designer. Having an idea and seeing it in your head and then executing it is the most magical feeling ever.

Loewe bustier top, pants, and sunglasses; Tiffany & Co. necklace; Simon Miller platform sandals; her own rings.

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You have your main pop albums, but you’re also able to turn around and put out something completely different and fun, like the Slut Pop EP and your Halloween album, Turn Off the Light.

I sometimes go through phases where I’m bored of my reality and writing about my feelings. I just wanna make music that is a completely different character. Everyone has a million sides to them; the best thing about being an artist is that we get to show those sides. It doesn’t matter what’s real, what’s not, or what’s embellished. Some critics might feel that the only real music is about the truth in your life and blah, blah, blah. I wanna create a whole different world. Look at The Lord of the Rings: Somebody came up with a whole language. Creating worlds can be more interesting than just talking about your boyfriend and what’s going on in your life.

Sometimes it feels like men are more allowed to create worlds, whereas women will write songs, and then there will be entire blog posts dissecting what the lyrics mean about their real-life relationships.

Totally. Completely unfair. I’m a trans woman, so it’s a different experience for me than it would be for a cisgender woman, because the LGBTQ community can have a lot of opinions about what I should be and what I should not be. That can be hard to navigate too. I don’t think that gender should define your music. We should completely disregard gender in terms of art, but I don’t think people are ready to do that. I want to break free of this ceiling of like, “What can I be as a trans woman?” I wanna be anything and everything.

Hair by Dylan Chavles at MA+ Group; makeup by Grace Ahn at Julian Watson Agency. Set design by Lauren Machen at Lalaland Artists.

Photo assistants: Jorge Solorzano, Nick Tooman, Chris Whitaker; retouching: D-Touch; fashion assistant: Antonio Soto; hair assistant: Alison DeMoss; makeup assistant: Christina Roberson; set assistant: Kevin Carniero; tailor: Irina Tshartaryan; production assistant: Asher Gardner; special thanks: the Revery LA.