Kim Petras Is Pop Music’s Biggest Scholar

Kim Petras Is Pop Music’s Biggest Scholar

The unabashedly glitzy, transgender star is a prolific songwriter and outspoken advocate for the trans community.

The unabashedly glitzy, transgender star is a prolific songwriter and outspoken advocate for the trans community.

Photography: Ben Hassett

Styling: Anna Trevelyan

Text: Jake Viswanath

This article appears in the pages of V112, on newsstands now. Order your copy now at vmagazineshop.com.

It’s not often that a Sephora checkout inspires an entire song, but that’s exactly what happened to Kim Petras. “My manager took me to Sephora and said, ‘Buy whatever you want,’ and I did,” the pop singer-songwriter recalls of how her debut single was conceived. “He got tense at the checkout and the checkout lady was like, ‘Just close your eyes and swipe it sweetie,’ and we laughed, wrote it down, and were like, ‘This is the greatest lyric ever!’”

That line spawned “I Don’t Want It At All,” which topped Spotify’s Global Viral 50 chart after its debut and kicked off Petras’s career. Her pop fantasy sound nods to the frothy bubblegum and rhythmic melodies of the early aughts. “I lived in a small town in Germany,” she says. “I felt so far away from everything, and I just always went home to watch Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Spice Girls music videos on loop, and escape to that fabulous world. I think that’s the core of why I love pop music, because I felt like I could live in it."

You’d be hard-pressed to find a popstar today embracing the joys of superficiality and plastic fantasy quite as much as Petras, who created her own fabulous world with the “Want It” video, even scoring a cameo from Paris Hilton. "I remember watching The Simple Life all the time. I remember her life, and just the 2000s, how crazy they were. And I feel like I’m definitely very influenced by the 2000s," she recollects. "She’s really sweet. She took pictures with everybody from the crew. She had a pretty shitty dressing room and she didn’t complain. She did the take as many times as she had to, and then she danced with me and gave me a goodie bag of most of her perfumes and fun stuff. She was just a sweetheart."

But prior to launching her music career, the artist caught worldwide attention for a completely different reason: she’s one of the youngest people on record to have had gender reassignment surgery, undergoing the procedure at just 16 years old. “I always felt like a girl,” Petras says. “I grew up wondering what was wrong with me. I was really depressed and suicidal as a kid.” Terrified of going through male puberty, she started hormone treatments around 11 years old with the unconditional support of her parents, who even urged her to participate in documentaries about being transgender to help families who weren’t as understanding. “My mom told me there was a way to live life as a girl. I didn’t have to live life as a boy, because I didn’t want to live as a boy,” she says.

Petras underscores that her experience as a transgender woman doesn’t figure into her songwriting—at least not anymore. “Of course, the way I was feeling during that time was very, ‘I’m an outsider, people think I’m crazy.’ A lot of my earlier songs used to be about that, but then as I grew up, it was just more about normal emotional things,” she relays. “I just write pop songs that I want to live in.” That world she wants to live in is most prominently inspired by her glitzy, over-the-top vision of American life, one she still mesmerizingly dreams about despite knowing the realities of LA. "As a teenager, I was always fantasizing about what life is like in America, in Hollywood and all the fabulous places, so I love to keep the fantasy going and just really exaggerate on the idea I had of Los Angeles and California and Hollywood before I came here. Things aren’t as crazy as you’d imagine they’d be when you’re across the world, but it will always have a little bit of the quality for me—that dreamy, movie feel."

She dedicated herself to the craft of songwriting from the age of 12, sacrificing some things most pre-teens would never forego. "I didn’t go to parties, I didn’t hang out with my friends. I was always just like home writing songs. [My goal was] 'I want to be a great songwriter and I want to learn all the tricks'." She notes that her artistic growth wasn’t rapid: “I wasn’t great in the beginning. I wrote these stupid songs about guys I liked in school who didn’t like me back.” But she hit the ground running after moving to Los Angeles. Petras ended up writing an astounding 400 tracks over the process of creating her debut album.

“It’s funny because my first album feels like a greatest hits of the last five years,” she says. “I feel like a princess on Hollywood Boulevard. I love really glossy, glamorous stuff with a little dirt on it.” What if she were to ironically title her debut record Greatest Hits? “We’ve thought about that,” she says. “That would definitely be funny, but I don’t know if people would get it at all. They’d be like, ‘Who is this?’” Pretty soon, the world will know regardless.

THIS SPREAD: CLOTHING SALVATORE FERRAGAMO, JEWELRY CARTIER, ON EYES MARC JACOBS BEAUTY BROW WOW DEFINING LONGWEAR PENCIL, ON EYES AND CHEEKS BITE BEAUTY THE MULTISTICK IN LOTUS, ON LIPS MARC JACOBS BEAUTY ENAMORED HI-SHINE LIP LACQUER IN UPROAR
Credits: Makeup Marla Belt (Streeters) Hair Joey George (Management+Artists) Manicure Naomi Yasuda (Management+Artists) Digital technician Carlo Barreto Photo assistants Roeg Cohen, Eric Hobbs Makeup assistant Alex Almeida Location VSCo Studio

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