Six years ago, Kim Petras was in her German hometown of Cologne, listening to Britney Spears' "Toxic" and wishing she wrote it. As a teenager in an emo phase, she crossed the Rhine to go to school, wearing checkered Vans and a single hot pink hair extension, clicking on an outdated Hello Kitty phone. By the time she was in her early twenties, she had written hundreds of songs hoping someone, someday would hear them. She still has the notebooks stashed in her childhood home. "I was kinda trash," a refreshingly candid Petras says upon recalling her angsty years. "JK, it was tragic yet also amazing. I had a great childhood, but we all have to start somewhere."
Now, Petras is based in Los Angeles, likely still listens to Britney Spears (who doesn't?) and, as she sings on Clarity, her debut full-length project's lead single, "Broken," she's "in Paris with Marc Jacobs [...] Lookin' lavish, dipped in carats [...] Life's amazing." That song introduced new sonic terrain for the already-proven bop star. But that was a year after she wrote about "all my clothes designer" and wanting "someone else to buy 'em" on 2017's "I Don't Want It at All," a contemporary "Material Girl" update that saw Petras fantasizing about a life that wasn't yet hers.
Material extravagance is nothing new in pop music, but consider the dream and the source. While the American Dream — and its promise to make you rich, successful, and happily lording over a white-picket fence behind a gated community — engenders cynicism in citizens here at home, carving out her own was a worthwhile pursuit for Petras. Many Americans are now overwhelmed by pop star/influencer/politician/self-made public figure rags-to-riches narratives. But Petras, a 26-year-old German woman who, at 14, became known as the "world's youngest transsexual" to have undergone gender confirmation surgery, found Western culture inspiring enough to leave her past behind and forge a new life in the States.
Western culture is forever undecided on who it champions and why. One one hand, America loves a take-down that cancels and nullifies anyone we've previously adored, yet we also always love a "sweetheart," someone who keeps the American Dream alive when it's dead for everyone else. It's done through a savvy mix of capitalism and personal triumph, and our elected Sweethearts are usually women — the "It Girl" archetype — with double the responsibility to make it all look good.
Who else can patriarchal societies both uplift and scrutinize quite like women? In different but parallel timelines, America's Sweetheart was Marilyn Monroe or Britney Spears (who still wears that crown, albeit reluctantly, for some). These days, it's more like the Obama's, Cardi B, and Lizzo. But more than anything, America's Sweethearts shift old paradigms and inspire millions to work towards becoming them. Petras is on that track already, and it's hardly been two years since her first song dropped. If she can make Forbes' 30 Under 30 Europe list, it'll be no time before she does the same in America.
Petras used money saved from waitressing and writing German commercial jingles to fly to Los Angeles six years ago. When she first arrived, she met producers and wrote with anyone she could. She'd crash on studio couches, making friends from work sessions and sleeping at their apartments. It took her two and a half years to get placement for any of her music. In that time, she wrote 300 songs in addition to the 200 she wrote back home. Finally, in 2015, Petras got a break penning "Bratz What's Up," performed by teen pop singer Skylar Stecker for what would've been the long-rumored Bratz movie sequel. The anthemic song about dreams fulfilled was produced by The Stereotypes and gives a look both into Petras' star-powered potential and her aspirations for a bigger, better life: "I got one shot/ That's all I got/ I'm 'bout to blow up and tear it up."
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As a kid, Petras says that her parents, though supportive in most ways she expressed herself, didn't allow her to have Bratz dolls because they were "too slutty." "They were just crazy looking with plastic surgery faces, and had low-rise jeans, like fucking exposing the thongs. Which is all incredible. I wanted the Bratz so fucking bad, because honestly, that was so me and what I wanted to be — which was a slut," she says.
Photo courtesy of Thom Kerr
Eventually, Petras achieved her dream, yes, of being a slut, she jokes, but also, in her own pursuit of pop stardom, signing a publishing deal with BMG that ultimately led to her recording "I Don't Want It At All." The breakout song, co-written by regular collaborators rapper Lil Aaron and producer Aaron Joseph, is grounded in big-budget, glitzy '80s synths and bright, instantly memorable hooks about shopping and sugar daddies. By the time the song came out, she had entered into a work relationship with embattled pop producer Dr. Luke. Controversy is a hallmark of any Sweetheart, but that partnership was especially so, given #MeToo's widespread, on-going impact around the world and especially in entertainment.
Petras, perhaps wisely, released a statement declaring her support for survivors who come forward with stories of abuse. She then dug into her work, which was not only getting better, but more attention. "I Don't Want It At All" topped Spotify's Global viral chart. Paris Hilton made a cameo in the video. In October 2017, Spotify named her a RISE Artist, a category designed to identify and break the next wave of music superstars. Petras released other standalone singles like the summertime bop "Hillside Boys" and the chilled-out "Hills." Her efforts built hype and acclimated listeners to her diverse musical tastes. Pop tastemaker Charli XCX handpicked Petras to sing on Pop 2's "Unlock It." The upbeat "Heart to Break" became Petras' first Top 40 radio hit. Self-empowerment ballad "Can't Do Better" showed Petras' range, vocally and emotionally. This phase of her still-early career — including last year's experimental Halloween-themed mixtape, Turn Off the Light, Vol. 1, which smartly traced the links between queerness, Camp, and horror through expensive-sounding pop — became known collectively by her fans as "Era 1."
Era 1 gained Petras a legion of loyal pop fanatics and some indie cred, positioning her both as an artist unconstrained by mainstream appeal while successfully pandering to it. Typically, when a woman in pop accesses mainstream success, she's treated as if she can't have engineered or envisioned that for herself. Her collaborators are credited with the heavy lifting, and we find things to pick apart about our supposed female idols. "She can't sing; she can't dance; she doesn't write her own music." Petras co-writes everything she sings, and her live singing only solidifies her credibility. Onstage, she adds improvisational runs in surprising places, sings to the back of the room (and beyond), and doesn't let herself take any vocal shortcuts.
"Some people were religious and were like, 'We can't work with you because it's against God.' And that was just two years ago."
Getting to that place did not come without challenges, though. When Petras was pursuing record deals, her trans identity was made an issue by several major-label industry executives. "It became a huge deal with everybody and they were talking about either marketing strategies with it, or keeping it a secret, or what to do or not to do," Petras says. "Some people were religious and were like, 'We can't work with you because it's against God.' And that was just two years ago."
Having already developed an independent streak, Petras took the feedback in stride, and set out to make even bigger moves. "I decided to do it myself," she says. "I performed at every gay club in America. I promoted my damn self, with help from my team, of course. But I did all of it with integrity and how I wanted to do it. I feel like that wouldn't have been possible even 10 years ago."
Starting in her adolescence with her confirmation surgery, Petras became familiar with what it meant to be the first, and to do so in the public eye. She first appeared on a German news program called Stern TV to discuss her transition at age 13, in 2006. The year after, Petras gained more attention from international news media following more German TV appearances in an effort to get permission to undergo confirmation surgery by age 16. (German law states a person must normally be 18.) When Petras completed her confirmation, outlets then breathlessly marveled at the presence of the "world's youngest transsexual."
None of this public history is something Petras can run away from, but she is rewriting the narrative. Now, having become the artist she once dreamed of embodying, Petras is at the center of a different conversation about trailblazing: that of a pop star normalizing trans experience for the masses.
"Am I supposed to sing, 'I'm transgender, I'm so sad?' Fuck that."
"I heard from a lot of people that trans people cannot be lucrative," Petras says. "At the end of the day, people weren't really willing to take me seriously and all the talks were just about being transgender and not about the music. I always came in [to industry meetings] not telling anybody and then they would Google me and find out, and they would be like, 'Write a song about it.' Like am I supposed to sing, 'I'm transgender, I'm so sad?'" Petras considers this, laughs, then takes a deep breath: "Fuck that."
Clarity, Petras' first full-length "project," finds her even more determined to break through barriers. Its opening track of the same name boasts atmospheric twinkles and trap beats, which she's been trying on adeptly these days. Front and center is Petras' voice, high and clear as a bell, singing: "I'm the bitch with the sauce, apparently." And referencing what's changed: "VVS's 'round my neck, now they stare at me/ Ain't no wonder why they all so scared of me/ I'm a rarity."
Photo courtesy of Thom Kerr
When it comes to the harder-edged new dimensions to Petras' sound, she says incorporating those styles is not as complicated as some might think. For her, cultivating a sense of limitless expression was the most important goal, especially when recovering from heartbreak. "When I was in that phase, that's just what I was doing," Petras says. "After being heartbroken and seriously thinking I couldn't do this, I starting writing about fucking and horny shit over beats that sounded really sexy. I just found fun and freedom in that, and expanding my sound."
She continues: "Most of my favorite songs are about a certain kind of freedom, and are also usually about sex and I think they are extremely empowering. Especially for girls and trans girls and the gays, it's important to express yourself in a world where we grew up with people being like, 'That's gross.' Coming from where I was in Germany, there, people can be standoffish about sex and it's not something you talk or sing about. Here in America, it's just different."
For Petras, most of the project also came together in light of her new life: post-tour, feeling displaced and depressed after realizing a partner had been unfaithful, and getting advice from her circle of successful musician friends to get her through it. So much has happened to Petras in the past year, from supporting slots on Troye Sivan's Bloom Tour to performing at Pride events worldwide, and slaying New York Fashion Week. Spotify, which played a role in launching her, counts more than 2.5 million monthly listeners on her page, with "Heart to Break" sitting pretty at 23 million streams. Those figures of support might live online, but they show up in her real life today.
"Especially for girls and trans girls and the gays, it's important to express yourself in a world where we grew up with people being like, 'That's gross.'"
The idea of having fans isn't new to Petras. She's been getting letters of appreciation since her teen years. She calls the real ones her Bunheads (a nod to her original signature hairstyle). In person, she's not only candid and present, but excitable, and, if she likes you, gives lots of hugs and tells you she loves you. As she headlines sold-out shows on The Broken Tour, she's in awe of what's materializing. But she's playing a longer game.
"I'm very excited about doing this and dedicating my life," Petras says. "I feel like that's what my destiny is; all I need to be doing right now is touring and making amazing music and writing and working on it. So, that for me was clarity."
As a project, Clarity finds Petras doubling down on the proven formulas that work in pop music: wildly catchy melodies, sprinkled in details about her proclivities in love and sex, space for her bright, big voice to shine, and the openness to experiment. Petras exhibits the kind of mastery and elasticity that suggests she could do anything from here. Take for instance how she goes for the jugular in songs like the synthesized '80s hair metal of "Do Me," off Clarity: "Hurt me so good/ make me wanna be bad." Or on "Icy," where she draws a connection between VVS ice and going cold in a relationship on the rocks. Pop metaphors are so amazing if you let them be.
It's incredible that Petras, who was once told she couldn't be successful because she was trans, is now singing about sex and feeling empowered to an audience of millions. What kind of paradigm does that shift? It alters reality and it makes way for a future of greater inclusion. We begin to think of her story not as exceptional, but as the norm. The idea of Kim Petras as a household name becomes more palpable. Her transness as public consideration becomes secondary, then tertiary, until all that's left to discuss is her music and its profound impact on hearts and minds across the globe.
And as technically good as Petras' songs are thus far, it seems Petras is still saving her best work for later, hence her reluctance to consider Clarity a proper album. Plus, Turn Off the Light, Vol. 2 is coming, she says. So the real statement Petras is making is still happening in real time. Such is the journey of the first. Most Sweethearts are.
"I hope that –– my struggle to either people being like, 'You're using your identity to get somewhere,' or being like, 'You're not supporting the trans community by wanting to be an artist and not wanting to talk about that all the time'' — I hope that can just lead to people that come after me, young and trans artists that are probably going to be fucking sick and amazing. I want them to have it easier and not having to go through that shit. I really hope so."
Petras pauses. "But I don't mind doing it because at the same time I'm so proud of that little person who I used to be and I know that I would be so proud of myself now," she says.
America loves to be inspired by someone who has reached great heights after scaling even greater adversity. Or at the very least, we love someone extremely likeable. That's just perfect.
Of course, this is not unlike Spears' early, homegrown, and unstoppable success. Petras, having studied Spears as a pop master all her life, must understand this, somehow. Every Sweetheart knows how integral the narrative of overcoming obstacles is to winning over the masses. Look closely for clues in Petras' lyrics to "Shinin'," Clarity's closing track, which could be thought of as her lighters-up "Stronger" statement. Every history-making pop star authoring her story should have at least one of those.
"Sometimes, you gotta jump through fences with the barbed wire/ You wanna wave a white flag for the hard times/ You're just a little unprepared for the long ride/ But that's fine... You're a star, you are."
Stream Clarity by Kim Petras, below, and follow her on Instagram (@kimpetras).
Lead photo courtesy of Byron Spencer