Less than a year ago, Kim Petras released her debut single, the pop gem “I Don’t Want It at All.” But already, she has learned to toe a tricky line: how to keep people’s focus on her music without downplaying her transgender identity. “I’ve been asked in a meeting at a company I was debating signing with if I was transgender because it’s trendy,” says the 25-year-old, cocking her head. “I’m like, ‘Bitch, I’ve been transgender my whole life.'”
Petras grew up in Cologne, Germany, and at 16 became famous as one of the world’s youngest persons to undergo gender-affirmation surgery. By then, she had started songwriting, but Germany’s music industry “didn’t want to take me seriously at all. It was just like, ‘Nope, joke.’” She came to the United States at 19 to give writing another shot, drafting “600 songs” while couch-surfing, but eventually realized she had to sing her “big, emphatic pop songs” herself.
“I feel like I get a real shot here,” says Petras, sitting in a Los Angeles rehearsal space, her long blond hair twisted in a topknot. She secured Britney Spears’ manager, Larry Rudolph, and last August, “I Don’t Want It at All” went to No. 1 on Spotify’s Viral Songs chart. With just a handful of songs released, Petras has earned 16.7 million on-demand U.S. streams (audio and video combined), according to Nielsen Music. This summer, she’ll open for Troye Sivan on select dates of his Bloom Tour.
A trans pop poster girl is seemingly unprecedented, and Petras doesn’t just want to make catchy tunes — she wants to be truly popular. That has meant working with big producers like Dr. Luke, whom she recently came under fire for appearing to defend in the face of Kesha’s sexual assault allegations against him. (She has since clarified that though her own experience with Luke was positive, “that doesn’t mean that Kesha’s experience was.”) She’s still navigating plenty of hurdles. “I don’t want to run away from the transgender community,” she says. “At the same time, there’s just not a category to fit in. I identify as a female, so yeah, compare me to female artists.” Like her idols, she just wants to be listeners’ “little escape, because that’s what pop music is. It takes you out of your life and puts you in a different world.”