As we look back on the legacy of pop royalty, we tip our hats to Madonna’s gondola writhing, Britney’s crystal encrusted bodysuit, and Gaga’s poker face (on the other side of a wearable meat locker). Though each one sported her own version of girl power, they were united in the creation of pop anthems that just. wouldn’t. quit. It’s in this spirit that we’d like to intro you to Kim Petras. The internet sensation has been shutting it down (like, all of it), since being discovered back in ’07, and it’s just been a steady snowball of slaying ever since, including her recent rise to the top of the Spotify Global Viral 50 Chart, a Times Square billboard in all her avante glory, and a shout out from pop culture’s ringmaster, Paris Hilton, by way of lip syncing Petras’ infectious debut single, “I Don’t Want It at All,” from the confines of her closet (one of them anyway). It hasn’t been all glamour and champagne though. A trans woman (the youngest ever to undergo gender reassignment surgery), Petras is no stranger to bullying, escapism, and just generally thinking that life sucks. We sat down with the Cologne, Germany-native to talk about abandoning the fantasy of L.A., the role empathy plays in her songwriting, and why nothing makes a shit day better than singing along to some seriously good pop.
You’re originally from a small German town. How do you think that shaped you as an artist?
Nothing was ever happening where I lived. If I ever wanted anything to happen—ever—I had to do something about it; I had to make it myself. So I learned to do that. It also made me dream big and think about seeing the world. There was no songwriting going on anywhere near there, nor any kind of music industry. But that just made me realize that I had to go to L.A., so even that was beautiful in its own way.
Speaking of, you started coming to L.A. in 2013 to write with producers like The Stereotypes and Aaron Joseph. What was that experience like coming from your hometown?
It was great. I’d really only written songs on my computer by myself. L.A. was where I learned how to collaborate, which is a great skill to have; it’s basically my foundation now in terms of being an artist. Plus I was being exposed to so much; even the radio stations in L.A. are super different from Europe’s because they play a lot of urban music, so that’s been really inspiring. I started really hustling, going to the studio every day, writing two or three songs a day—I’ve learned so much from coming to L.A.
Were you intimidated at all?
I mean, I was definitely intimidated by the songwriters I was working with and how good they were—they all had a bunch of hits. But my parents raised me to believe that everybody is the same when it comes down to it, so I was able to play it cool and just be up for a challenge. Getting there was something I had to learn though. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed by all the changes, by being different and trying to do everything right. Then I just started doing my thing and getting good at it, and eventually I felt like I could face any challenge. I went into label offices like, “This is my music. It’s the shit. It’s the greatest thing you’ll ever hear.” I was a little cocky about it because that’s also something that L.A. taught me: a lot of people here want to achieve great things, so you have to outwardly believe in yourself and let everyone know how great you are.
That’s interesting because you’ve also talked about music as a way for you to escape from the world.
Totally. I used to just run home from school to watch pop music videos to forget that I wasn’t popular or didn’t have friends. I’d be making music, dreaming about what I was going to do. It was a really powerful relationship for me at that time, helping me through being a kid and a teenager. That’s been my inspiration: I want to make music that lets you forget your problems and escape for a couple minutes. I want to do for others what Christina Aguilera did for me.
Did that escape concept inspire the video for “I Don’t Want It at All”? I see a lot of the elements you’re talking about in it.
Yeah, the song lent itself to that concept. It’s about that weak moment that everyone has when you’re working really hard on something, thinking about how you wish you could just have everything for free—just grab a credit card and go shopping. I thought the video was the perfect opportunity to dig into that idea.
Since we’re on the topic, it seemed like “I Don’t Want It at All” is an homage to how you imagined the “L.A. girl” lifestyle; and your subsequent singles, “Hills” and “Hillside Boys,” make lyrical references to L.A. and beach culture. Together, they sort of mark your evolution with Los Angeles: starting as an outsider looking in, transitioning to actually being in the hills with hillside boys. Talk about your relationship to Los Angeles now—is it what you expected it would be?
Yeah, that’s right. It starts with the imagination aspect, how, as a kid and teenager, I thought it would be to live in L.A. It’s so funny to me now that I live here, to think about how overly glamorous I thought everything would be, when really it’s not a glamorous life. I lived on a [music] studio couch for the first three months I was here—I’m not rich. That dream of L.A. definitely inspired me before I came, but I also love living here now. Of course I miss my best friends in Germany, but some of my favorite people are in L.A., and I’ve made a kind of musical family here with the writers and producers I work with. I really love it now; I really feel at home.
So, we obviously have to talk about Paris Hilton being in your video because that’s fucking massive.
Honestly, none of us even believed that she was going to do it until she showed up. The video’s director, Charlotte Rutherford, had shot Paris before and sent her the song to see if she would be in the video. Paris posted a video [to Instagram] of her dancing in her closet to the song—but even then, I still didn’t believe she was going to show up. And then she did! And she was the sweetest, most down-to-earth person. Honestly, she’s super real and hardworking. She was down to do the same shot a million times; she was nice to everybody. It was really lovely and amazing.
Were you nervous??
I mean, totally. I definitely went through a Paris Hilton obsession phase, just like everyone else who was a teenager during her glory days. She’s so iconic, looks amazing, smells amazing—everything about her is cool.
I want to shift gears a little and ask you about something you said that stood out to me when I read it. As a trans woman, you were bullied a lot, and through that experience, empathy became something you really valued. You talked about the importance of empathy in your songwriting, which is interesting because most people don’t readily associate pop music with empathy. Talk about that relationship for you.
I think that the best songs are the ones you can relate to. I love writing a lyric and then having friends come up to me and say, “I’ve totally been there; I get it.” As a songwriter, I write about what I go through, so it’s meaningful to me when someone can relate and understand, when what I put out there really hits something in people.
Well, it’s definitely worked. You’ve inspired so many people—who do you look to for inspiration now?
I’m a huge fan of Freddy Mercury. I love everything that he did—his presence, his songwriting, how he dressed, how he performed. He was such a badass. I actually also love Goldie Hawn. I watch old Goldie Hawn movies all the time—Death Becomes Her is my favorite. She’s always entertaining, but I also love that she’s super positive.
Dude, have you ever seen Overboard?
Oh my God, she looked so incredible in that movie. I just love her. But in terms of music—obviously I love Max Martin; he writes crazy big hits for everybody and their mom. I’m obsessed with him. Beyond that, I’m honestly just really inspired by my friends—Baby E, LIZ Y2K. My next song is going to have lil aaron featured on it; he’s a rapper and such a talented songwriter. I’ve been writing with him because we’re always in the same studio, so it’s kind of a little game we have. I also think Julia Michaels is incredible; I love Daft Punk; I love The Weeknd.
There have been so many things to celebrate in your career just in the last year. What do you have coming down the pipeline?
I have a Charli XCX collaboration dropping on December 15th, and my next single comes out December 15th, too. I’m also shooting a video for that next single. Till the end of the year, I’ll be doing a bunch of gay clubs, which is my favorite thing to do. And then next year I’ll hopefully be a supporting act, joining a lot of people on tour as much as possible. And then more music videos next year. So yeah, a ton.
Photography by Cat Roif
Styling by Keely Murphy