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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Michael Segalov

Kim Petras: ‘I am unapologetic about who I am’

Rated R … Petras says her explicit sex-positive era is over … for now.
Rated R … Petras says her explicit sex-positive era is over … for now. Photograph: Jason Al Taan

Kim Petras’s Slut Pop era is over. At least, it is for now. That was the title of the 30-year-old German-born, LA-based musician’s last EP, released in February. The first lines of the opening track – cheekily imploring listeners to disrobe – set the tone. From there, other offerings on the record continued in the same catchily explicit, sex-positive vein.

It was a very freeing record to make and perform,” Petras says. “I wrote it at the time when OnlyFans was looking to ban sex workers from their platform. It’s fucked up how badly sex workers are treated; how they’re disrespected. I wanted to make music that championed them and took the shame away.”

It seemed an obvious theme for a set of songs, Petras reckons. Growing up, a friend’s mum worked in the sex industry (“She was lovely but everyone was so mean to her”); through adulthood, Petras noticed a similar situation among her peers as well. “Being trans,” she says, “I’m so lucky my family supported me. Had they not, sex work might have been the option open to me as a way to pay for my transition. You need cash urgently, and sex work is one way to get it. That’s what lots of my friends have done.” The EP, she says, speaks to a simple message: “Sex is fun, and it should be for everyone … And so what if I’m a slut?”

Given her past work, I had expected Petras to inhabit a certain type of pop persona in real life: confrontationally confident; explicit and uncensored, too. But when we meet in the restaurant of a swanky London hotel, she is reserved, dressed head-to-toe in baggy black clothing, nervously smiling, all thoughtful. It’s clear that while her last EP offered Petras unprecedented exposure, it also presented a carefully curated character; one she meticulously designed.

“For me, pop has always been escapist,” she says. “I’ve always created a different personality for a record. Sometimes I’m an extreme super-brat, a murderer or – like on the last record – a massive slut.”

While certainly toned down, the latter is a role she reprises on Unholy, a lust-laden collaboration with Sam Smith that’s been inescapable since its initial release on TikTok late this summer. Its slightly more mainstream, commercial sound has yielded results. When it reached No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late October, Petras became the first out trans artist to top the US chart.

Until now, she has focused on heavily produced, in her words, “artificial” albums, keeping much of herself hidden in final product and presentation. It felt, she suggests, safer to have something of a professional mask. “From the melody to the aesthetics, fonts on artwork to every detail of a show’s staging,” says Petras, “I could be in total control of how people perceived me. For a long time I wasn’t the narrator of my own story. I love the fact that with music I could be in charge of how I’m seen and heard.”

Through childhood and adolescence, Petras had that power taken from her. She was born and raised in a small town, Hennef, about 40 minutes from Cologne. “It was farm vibes,” Petras says, “all cows and horses. The nearest neighbours were at least 10 minutes away.”

Being trans only added to her sense of isolation. “My dysphoria was bad as a child,” she says. “I was suicidal from really young into my teenage years. There was no medical care locally, so from the age of 10 my parents took me across Germany to find doctors to treat me. They pushed for me to get the help I needed, and believed me. And that was over a decade ago, it was a totally different time.”

kim petras
‘It didn’t feel exciting to do another round of artificial pop’ … Petras performing in San Francisco earlier this year. Photograph: Casey Flanigan/imageSPACE/Rex/Shutterstock

One doctor the family found had a connection to a German TV channel. “I was the youngest kid he’d treated,” says Petras, “so he started treating me with the whole thing captured on camera.” The resulting televised film “was really messed up”, she says, audibly pained. “I’m still scarred from how I grew up being ridiculed on national television.”

She agreed to participate in the hope of accessing trans healthcare at a younger age than German guidelines generally allowed for. “I just innocently wanted to help other trans kids,” says Petras, “and it made me the town freak. But it also gave me drive: I knew I’d need to get out of my town, and probably the country. I made that my goal.”

From the age of 12, Petras was making music in her bedroom. Writing songs would be her escape. “I can’t tell you how driven I was,” she says. “It’s the only thing I woke up for. I wrote song after song, desperate to get good.” By the age of 16 she had sold her first song: a jingle for a laundry detergent TV advert. Next was a telecoms company. Petras had a publishing contract by the time she was 17. Still in her teens, she flew out to Los Angeles, initially staying for six months, before relocating permanently. “I was meeting with and writing with producers I’d met online,” she says. “I stayed without a visa, so I got into trouble.” She would sleep on studio couches, before finding a garage by Redondo Beach. “Every day I thought about giving up,” she says. “But I couldn’t. You just have to get up again and again until people can’t ignore how good you are.”

Three years after Petras arrived in the US, Fergie recorded one of her songs. It seemed the hard graft would finally pay off. “But it never came out,” she says. “It happens all the time; so brutal. You don’t get paid when that happens, you don’t even get to hear it. Still, it helped me get signed on a publishing deal in 2014 with BMG. It allowed me to get my visa and be in the US legally.” Until 2021 she was still releasing her music independently. “I toured – and I think this is a fact – every single gay club in the United States of America,” she says proudly. “I built my own fanbase, going from 100 tickets to 10,000-ticket shows.”

Be on your bonnet … Kim Petras.
Be on your bonnet … Kim Petras. Photograph: Jason Al Taan

The last few months have seen Petras’s stardom soar. Unholy hit No 1 not just in the United Kingdom and the United States, but Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. The night after we meet, she will join Smith on stage to perform at the Royal Albert Hall. Her next release, meanwhile, marks the start of a new era. If Jesus Was a Rockstar is her first single written with super-producer Max Martin. Until now, her solo work has featured producer Dr Luke listed in the credits. She met Luke early on in her career, and signed to his publishing company, Prescription Songs, in 2016 (today, Petras is signed to Republic). Fans who have been critical of Petras’s continued association with her early supporter in light of sexual assault allegations made against him by Kesha, which he denies and is suing Kesha for defamation over, will no doubt hope his absence on this single is a sign of things to come.

“This is a very different song for me,” says Petras. “It didn’t feel exciting to do another round of artificial pop. It felt like the craziest thing I could do was strip back and sing a song with a guitar lead and just my voice.” It marks a shift, Petras thinks, in her confidence and presentation: “I’m learning how to be myself more as well – from trying to get everyone to like me to being unapologetic in who I am.”

In part, that includes finding a way to navigate the pressures of being a trans public figure on her own terms, after a childhood where that caused Petras real harm. “There’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says, “and I don’t know if I’m doing ‘trans pop star’ right.” She’s received contradictory advice. “I’ve been told not to talk about it, so that people focus on my music,” she says. “Others have told me to talk about it more.

“Now I’ve got to a place where I feel it’s nothing to shout about, and nothing to hide,” she says. “I don’t want to be seen as hiding it, or selling it. It’s just who I am. And I realised it was everyone else’s opinions on who I should or shouldn’t be – can or cannot be – that was the most difficult part to handle. So I’ve decided to leave all that worrying to others. I want to make music and be a great artist. How people handle the trans thing? Well, that’s entirely up to them.”

If Jesus Was a Rockstar is out now.

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