Photography by Daniel Seung Lee. Hair: Iggy Rosales at Opus Beauty. Makeup: Mikayla Gottlieb at Opus Beauty. jacket by Image Du Image.
Kim Petras is on the phone from her hometown of Siegburg, Germany, a picturesque village about 25 minutes outside Cologne. (Do a search, and it looks like the sort of place where Julie Andrews might frolic with the von Trapps.) This is the first time the 25-year-old budding pop star, who now lives in Los Angeles, has been back in two years, and she’s reveling in the simplicity.
“I’m just playing Mario Kart and eating curry wurst,” says Petras, who calls the dish comfort food. “I’m seeing friends I’ve missed, and people are congratulating me, saying, ‘I heard you on the radio!’ It’s a cool feeling.”
But this downtime is rare for Petras, who’s idolized American pop since growing up in a musical family (her mother sang in jazz clubs; her dad played in multiple bands). She found salvation in pop, particularly as a preteen, when classmates called her “tranny” or “fag,” or threw their lunches at her. “I would run home crying and put on headphones or Gwen Stefani videos,” she says, “and all my problems would be gone.”
While there are some conflicting reports, Petras is widely considered to be the youngest person to undergo gender confirmation surgery. She started hormone therapy at 12, and by 16, after endorsements from psychiatrists, she completed her transition. It was essential for a young girl with suicidal thoughts. Says Petras, “The one thing that changed with the surgery is I felt like something lifted off my shoulders, and I liked myself — I could identify with my body and feel OK.”
While not to be undervalued, this milestone felt more like a stepping stone for Petras, who was already writing songs and dabbling in production around the age of 14. That passion was almost entirely sidelined after a probing 2009 interview on This Morning, a U.K.-based talk show, wherein Petras’s music became a footnote amid a throng of questions about her gender identity. Granted, this was well before Petras’s domination of YouTube and Spotify (in the past two years, all six of her singles have topped 1 million streams).
“I’m a proud transgender person,” she says, “but I want to be known as a great artist. It’s really frustrating when so many people think that because I’m transgender I can’t be mainstream. And it’s always, ‘Talk about being transgender.’ It’s crazy because I’m not interested in a person’s gender. I don’t care. Are you genuine? Honest? Hardworking? But that’s the way the world works.”
And it’s not just the prying press that Petras has to contend with. Since she moved to Hollywood six years ago and rose to fame with the Dr. Luke–produced bop “I Don’t Want It At All,” she has discovered that marginalized communities, especially her own, want her to be absorbed into the pop landscape just like a cis diva would, yet they also want her to draw attention to her trans-ness, lest anyone forget the progress she represents. It’s a conundrum that landed her in hot water in March when The New York Times ran a profile of Petras using the quote, “I don’t care about being the first transgender teen idol at all.”
“A few people thought that was bad, because it sounds like I don’t care about transgender people,” Petras says. “Actually, I care so much, and I want to be a good face for my community, but I’ve also worked so hard to put out music and live my dream.”
What’s indisputable is that Petras is a new kind of star, and the swirl of mixed feelings surrounding her celebrity hits you hard when watching the video for her recent track “Heart to Break.” Belting vocals that mix the rasp of Charli XCX with the bubblegum pitch of Bonnie McKee, Petras comes off as both a natural pop princess and a queer trailblazer. And she’s primed to keep going.
“I never feel like I’m there,” Petras says. “Whenever I achieve something, I’m happy for, like, five minutes,” “and then I’m like, ‘OK, what’s next? How do we make this bigger? How do we get the fans more music?’ That keeps me on my toes.”