The VMAs pre-show has always signaled tomorrow's biggest superstars, making space for performers who tend to find their way on subsequent years' main stage with some eventually winning awards for their work. Nicki Minaj's iconic 2010 appearance alongside Will.i.am immediately comes to mind, with her robotic purple and pink bodysuit and futuristic bouffant for "Check It Out." But alongside Minaj, there's been No Doubt, Rihanna, Fergie, Ariana Grande, Cardi B and more — a list that'd later establish themselves as pop mainstays.
This year the same path for success was laid out for Kim Petras, the rising Los Angeles pop star who just signed a massive deal with Republic Records after organically building buzz for her work on projects like Clarity and Turn Off the Light. Her VMAs pre-show slot also ushered in an important piece of history for the award show, cementing Petras as its first-ever out transgender performer — a long-overdue win for the German-born musician and the trans community at large.
Petras sang "Future Starts Now," the French-inspired lead single off her forthcoming debut album with Republic (Yes, everything released up until now was only considered a mixtape). A perfect post-pandemic piece of synth-pop with disco undertones and euphoric lyrics, the track suggests that every new moment is another new beginning. "You're more than just anybody," she sings on the chorus, like leading her listeners through the apocalypse. "Don't give up, the future starts now."
With her biggest stage yet, "Future Starts Now" also felt personal for Petras, who used the VMAs opportunity to establish her unapologetic approach to making music. "BUBBLEGUM POP FOREVER," she tweeted a few days prior, teasing out what would become a sticky and sweet performance that quite literally brought the genre to life, from the set to the costumes. "The inspiration for this performance happened after Lollapalooza in Chicago," Petras told MTV during rehearsals. "Going on stage and performing really frees my brain up, and I woke up the next morning and I was like, 'I have the idea.'"
So she decided to transform the VMAs stage into a massive bubblegum fantasy, wearing a dress and bodysuit underneath that looked as though a giant bubble had exploded onto her and taken shape. Matthew Mazur, Petras' longtime stylist, wrote on Instagram that they wanted the entire thing to appear "playful but grotesque," and executed the vision alongside an all-star team of custom designer Chris Habana (of CHRISHABANA) and creative director Thom Kerr. (Full credits are listed here).
"The fun thing with Kim is that she always arrives at the table with a very solid creative idea," Kerr told PAPER after the show. "With this next record, she's exploring the fantasy of French culture from an outsider's perspective. There are a lot of songs on the record that pay homage to the euro style music she loved growing up."
When it came to the VMAs, Kerr said "[Kim] had a clear idea of bubblegum bursting" to symbolize the idea that "as an artist, she is 'about to pop.'" He then built the stage show around Petras' dream of wearing burst bubblegum, which Habana completed with matching boots and a little pet monster. "It was inspiring to watch [Chris] make the dress in various stages. What's really fun about Kim is she's willing to dive into big ideas that other artists would be a little scared to explore."
Habana, who previously worked with Petras and Mazur creating custom jewelry for the Clarity Tour, said he had a "very definite idea" of how they could realize her look while keeping in mind the performance aspect. "I had to factor in the fact that Kim would be doing a lot of dancing, so it had to be both stunning and practical," he said. "The dress had to be removed easily for her bodysuit reveal, which we worked with club personality Blair Spicer on, and all elements had to be structural and lightweight at the same time."
Using a clear vinyl base with "an insane amount of boning" so it'd be structurally sound, Habana and his team "crafted slimy shapes out of cut and melted EVA foam" that they adhered to the dress form and layered repeatedly. Habana then dipped holiday ornaments in silicone for the bubbles on top, and added more EVA foam and silicone to existing clear heels as footwear. "We were given a good amount of time to realize this look, which is always appreciated when it comes to working with new mediums," he said.
During the VMAs, Petras and her dancers performed slick, ballroom-inspired choreography in front of a giant bubblegum monster with glowing eyes and oozing tentacles. Video monitors behind them screened a clip of the Eiffel Tower engulfed in chewy, popping bubblegum. For the finale, Petras briefly disappeared and reemerged from the monster's mouth wearing a "nude illusion" bodysuit with a perfectly round piece of gum popping from her mouth. She stood on a rotating platform with her matching pet monster as dancers sprayed pink paint onto her in homage to Alexander McQueen's 1999 robot paint show and just a touch of Carrie.
Courtesy of Thom Kerr
"Kim loves horror movies, so the whole performance kind of felt like a pop horror moment," Kerr said, explaining how his inspiration for the production came from "scary, but exciting" visuals that "stained his memory" as a kid. He thought about the Ghostbusters Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man "and how it looked both friendly and evil," and wanted to create a new monster that seemed as if it could be from the world of Mario Brothers or Pokemon — "something that felt familiar, but also didn't belong to any particular zeitgeist."
Kerr also considered Petras as a polarizing public figure and how she has "courted controversy in the past for a variety of reasons," but still believes "historically she's a very important artist and deserves a seat at the table of pop." For him, the VMAs monster represented this "celebration of that dichotomy. You either love the monster or fear it — or both simultaneously. I'm proud of [Kim] walking forward through all the difficulties and obstacles to claim her own voice and power."
To execute the monster, Kerr collaborated with artist Barbara Hernandez to 3D render its form, while art director Emily Jones worked with Shop Studios to physically build it over the course of a week in New York. She also created the "Oui Ah!" backpacks that Petras' dancers wore in homage to the singer's signature catch phrase, "Woo Ah!" Australian artist Luca Dante was responsible for the surreal animation of Paris drenched in bubblegum with magenta fireworks filling the sky.
"I was fortunate enough to be present at the dress rehearsal of Kim's performance and it was so cool to see our design become the centerpiece of this larger than life performance," Habana said, explaining how his own "subversive" design ethos was reflected in the "cute and gross, sticky and slippery" final design. "It is definitely not lost on me just how fortunate we are to be involved in projects like this — projects that not only exercise my design eye and work, but also get to be showcased in such a major worldwide stage."
For Kerr, creative directing Petras' VMAs performance was a "memorable moment," as someone who grew up "obsessively watching" music videos and award shows. "To work on a historically important show with Kim being the first openly trans artist to perform at the VMAs made it even more special," he said. "I'll always smile when I look back at that performance and feel privileged to be a part of it."
As for Petras, who now lovingly refers to herself as the "Baguette Bitch" online, "Future Starts Now" is not only an optimistic rally cry for all her Bunheads, but a self-fulfilling prophecy for an artist who's spent the past decade hustling her music to the top of the charts. "Ain't nobody gonna stop me," she declares. "Don't you let the music stop now."
Stream "Future Starts Now" by Kim Petras, below.
Photos courtesy of MTV/ CHRISHABANA/ Thom Kerr
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