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Out's Cover Star Kim Petras Is the New Princess of Pop

Out's Cover Star Kim Petras Is the New Princess of Pop

Kim Petras
Devin Kasparian

With “Unholy,”May/June cover star Kim Petras made trans history at the Grammys and found mainstream fame. But the darling of gay clubs keeps her first fans front and center.

At this year’s Grammy Awards, the world was watching as Kim Petras became the first out transgender performer to triumph in a televised category — for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, alongside Sam Smith for their ubiquitous hit “Unholy.” (Previously, Wendy Carlos won three Grammys in 1970 for her electronic classical album Switched-On Bach, nine years before she came out as a trans woman.)

In her historic acceptance speech, Petras thanked her mother for believing her when, as a youth, she first declared she was a girl. It was an impromptu moment. The “Heart to Break” singer had written up a more traditional speech full of names and acknowledgments, but she scrapped it minutes before her category was announced.

Kim Petras Out CoverEllen von Unwerth

“I literally was very suicidal as a kid, and I just wouldn’t still be here had my parents not believed me,” she says. “So, I was like, ‘OK, first thing, I’m going to thank the person who’s responsible for me being alive.’”

As a young girl growing up in “the middle of nowhere, Germany” in the early aughts — she was born in Cologne — Petras first became internationally famous when she publicly discussed her gender journey on television at age 13. At the time, the press deadnamed and misgendered her constantly. And while much of the coverage was somewhat positive, it also treated her like a medical oddity, inviting audiences to scrutinize her teen body and mind.

While life for trans people has improved in many ways since then (Petras is now 30), the last few years have seen a political and cultural resurgence of transphobia and transmisogyny. Much of this vitriol is aimed at trans youth, which breaks Petras’s heart.

“I hate that another generation is going through this, and I hate that young kids are going through the same shit I was going through, and that apparently just isn’t changing,” she says. “I think it’s sad. I just never understood why people were so obsessed with what people do to be happy. Just focus on what you can do to be happy.”

Kim PetrasDevin Kasparian

It was music that first sparked happiness for Petras. As a teenager, she was drawn to the German pop music scene. There, she immersed herself in the Eurodance genre — an amalgam of techno, rap, and disco — which laid the foundation for the gay club music she’s made for much of her career.

This sound traveled with her. At 19, she moved to the United States by herself and spent years writing songs, recording EPs, and playing shows in gay clubs. Before long, she had built up a reputation as a strong songwriter with bops like “Malibu” and “Heart to Break” — not to mention sex-positive anthems like “Coconuts” and “Throat Goat” that established her as a budding icon. Petras also released the Halloween-themed Turn Off the Light, Vol. 1 in 2018 and the dance-pop album Slut Pop in 2022. Both EPs have become staples in the queer scene.

Then and now, gay clubs are near and dear to her as places where she found community, her voice as an artist, and her first audience. “I pretty much only go to gay clubs, and now it’s a little harder because now it’s a lot of photos and stuff like that,” she says. “But that just feels like fucking home. And I am so grateful for all the people that came up to my last tour, when I didn’t have any hits, and I just had the songs that I made that weren’t big, but they were big to the people that I wanted to be big for, and would’ve been big for little me.”

“If you love ‘Heart to Break’ and ‘Hillside Boys’ and ‘I Don’t Want It at All,’ all of those first ones, then I just will forever be linked with you and love you so much because I’m so fucking grateful,” she continues. “Even back in the day, the gays that encouraged me to put my song on with the DJ and get on the tabletop and fucking fake perform it in the club, thank you to those gays.”

Kim PetrasDevin Kasparian

For much of her career, Petras had a hard time finding a label to sign her — and straight producers and artists willing to work with her. One exception, Dr. Luke, who was accused of sexual abuse by Kesha in 2014, opened a door of public criticism for Petras. While she’s historically noted how other artists avoid the same kind of scrutiny for working with the record producer, who was recently involved with “Alone” but not “Unholy,” Petras did not comment on Luke for this interview. (The charges against Luke have either been dropped by Kesha or dismissed by the courts, with a pending defamation countersuit.)

But it’s at her shows, especially at gay clubs, that Petras feels like she can fully be herself because “there’s such mutual understanding of what it’s like to be LGBTQ in today’s climate.” And fellow members of the queer community have helped her rise professionally.

“I kind of always wanted to make gay club music. That’s always been my thing. That was just why I fell in love with music, and I feel like I do make music for the dolls, and I never thought that that would be kind of taken seriously. And I was really fine with that,” she says.

So when Smith approached her with an opportunity to collaborate on “Unholy,” Petras couldn’t believe it. The song, which debuted in September 2022, became Petras’s first number 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, launching her to mainstream fame and awards acclaim.

“Everyone needs a friend to hype you up, and honestly, at the time when Sam came to me, it was kind of a rough time because my album [ Problématique] had just leaked and kind of scrapped,” she recalls. “I was newly signed to a major label [Republic Records in 2021], and everyone felt like I needed to come up with a new album. I didn’t know when new music was coming out. It wasn’t the greatest time for me.”

“So when Sam came along and took me on that whole journey, it was just a friend helping another friend out, and it was really awesome,” she says. “And also the love that Sam has for my music means so much because now I’ve seen a bunch of Sam concerts, and the amount of bops that Sam has is insane. I respect Sam so much as a songwriter and as an artist, and it’s not often that people actually write and want to write with other people in the studio, and so it’s great.”

Kim Petras and Sam SmithKim Petras and Sam Smith accept Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for “Unholy” onstage during the 65th Grammy AwardsGetty Images

Petras made sure to thank Smith in her Grammys speech; the nonbinary “Stay With Me” singer ceded the mic time to their collaborator. Another close friend Petras thanked in her remarks was the legendary transgender producer and musician Sophie, who tragically died at age 34 in 2021.

“Sophie wasn’t just a collaborator, Sophie was also a friend, and we talked about all the shit we wanted to do,” Petras says. “I feel like I’d gotten to know Sophie pretty well over the years, and she was always just this person who just knew exactly who she is, and didn’t give a fuck about anything changing her, ever. And I, to this day, feel so inspired by that, just that determination of Sophie, and knowing her sound, and really being such a trailblazer in music.”

“I’m just grateful I got to know her because she was fucking a beautiful fucking person, and believed in me so much, was so kind to me always,” she adds. “Honestly, I didn’t dream as big as I started dreaming [until] I heard Sophie’s music.”

Of course, Petras also now has the blessing of one of her all-time music icons, Madonna. At the Grammys, the Queen of Pop watched Petras as she stood in a cage getting ready to perform “Unholy” with Smith. Then, with one wave of her wrist, Madonna anointed Kim as one of her successors. “Before I went on, I remember distinctly this moment of her turning around to the cage that I was locked in, fake spanking me in the air, and mouthing, ‘Get it, bitch,’” Petras gushes. “That was right before the performance started. And I was just hands up, tied to that cage, and so that was fucking everything.”

Publicly, when Madonna introduced this performance on TV, she started by giving thanks to the “rebels” and “troublemakers” who forge new paths and spark controversy, declaring they are “seen, heard, and most of all, appreciated.” “So now, speaking of controversy,” she concluded, “it gives me great pleasure to introduce two incredibly talented artists who have risen above the noise, the doubt, the critics into something beautifully unholy. Here are two Grammy Award winners: Sam Smith and Kim Petras.”

This introduction from Madonna made an impact — and not just to the audience. “Madonna is so important to me and was so important to me, especially in figuring myself out,” Petras says. “I think Madonna’s kind of always just been kind of ahead of her time and speaking about things that I struggle with like, what is the role of a woman? And what is the role of a man? And I think Madonna just kind of always blurred those lines in her music, and that’s what I love about her. And even in the ’90s, fighting for gay rights and all of that stuff, she’s just a true icon to anyone who’s in the LGBTQ community.”

“I just respect her so much, and her saying, ‘It was really important for me to introduce the first transgender performer at the Grammys,’ was amazing,” Petras adds. “And the speech that she did, I couldn’t dream that shit up. That’s just fucking wild.”

Kim PetrasDevin Kasparian

While “Unholy” is Petras’s first number 1 song — in addition to vocals, she’s credited as a songwriter and producer of the track, which was part of Smith’s album Gloria — Petras worked hard for years to get to this point, sometimes writing up to six songs a day to hone her craft.

Now at age 30, she’s glad she took her time. “When I was a kid and a teenager, I was always like, ‘I don’t ever want to turn 30. I’m totally going to just die young and party,’ and all of that,” Petras says. “And then all of that went out the door, and I’m just letting things happen at the right time when I’m ready.”

“I feel like I would’ve just combusted under the pressure a few years ago. I wouldn’t have been able to give a speech. I was smoking way too much weed. I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she laughs. “So I’m happy it happened at a time when I was capable of doing that, and getting my thoughts together, and thanking the people I need to thank.”

Now that she’s reached a new level of stardom with billions of streams, a Grammy, and global reach, Petras is still going to make music for her most loyal fans, which will be demonstrated on her debut album from a major label. Dropping June 23, the album, named Feed the Beast, contains a dream collaboration for most artists: Nicki Minaj, who is featured on “Alone.”

“I remember standing in line on the release day of [Minaj’s debut album] Pink Friday in Germany,” Petras says. “And I remember so much how that album kept me going, and kept me trying, and trying to believe in my music, and keep working on it.”

“And to this day, I think Nicki just pushes the quality of her music and keeps getting better. That’s so fucking inspiring. I’m a Barb for life. I can’t tell you the amount of Barb group chats I was in on Twitter,” says Petras, referring to the Barbz nickname embraced by Minaj’s online fandom.

But this collab isn’t just for Kim; she knows that her die-hard fans will love it as well. “It’s really for the dolls. It’s for the Barbz. It’s for the gays,” she says. “It’s a perfect match, isn’t it? The international implications that this has!”

In addition to her summer album, Petras has a few acting projects coming up, and she is hoping to set up a new tour. She’ll also be performing at the Governors Ball Music Festival alongside names like Lizzo, Kendrick Lamar, and Diplo.

JEAN PAUL GAULTIER Yellow Tartan DressDevin Kasparian

But right now, Petras is also getting to enjoy her success. When she’s not working on music, Petras loves to spend time with her friends and dogs, and she loves all things horror. Her perennial favorite films include Battle Royale and The Ring, and she’s currently obsessed with Pearl and its star, the scream queen Mia Goth. Petras is also learning how to make movies, as one of her dream projects is turning her horror-themed EP Turn Off the Light into a film.

“That’s always kind of been my goal [with that project], because I listen to a lot of horror movie soundtracks in life, like getting ready,” she says. “And I want to live in [Disneyland’s] Haunted Mansion and get ready to horror music.”

Has Petras’s success also supercharged her dating life? Not necessarily. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s so-so,” Petras says. “I feel like right now, I just don’t have time for it. So even if I wanted to, I can’t really get too attached to anyone. And so I just have cute boys in different cities that I hit up when I’m in that city. So, it’s cute. It’s a cute situation.”

Petras also doesn’t have set Pride plans this year. She’s normally booked and busy throughout June, performing at events like LA Pride and Can’t Cancel Pride, the livestream LGBTQ+ benefit thrown by iHeartRadio and P&G.

“Maybe this year I’ll just celebrate like everyone else and not work, because I feel like a lot of Prides in the past have been work, and going from gig to gig, and I love that,” she says. “But maybe I’ll get to just be a normal tranny this year.”

After years of refining her music and fighting for her space in a transphobic music industry, Petras definitely deserves some celebration. And she hopes to share this joy with her fans upon her album’s release. “I do everything I do for the gays and the dolls. I love you bitches,” she concludes.

“We did it. We got a Barbie feature! And I’m so fucking grateful for all of you just being on this ride with me. I am so sorry it took a little while to get this project done, but it was worth it, and I can’t wait for all of you to hear it. And I love you bitches, and woo-ah!”

Ellen von Unwerth

photographer DEVIN KASPARIAN @devinkasparian
hair IGGY ROSALES @hairbyiggy and RIO SREEDHARAN @rio_hair

cover image photographer ELLEN VON UNWERTH @ellenvonunwerth / TRUNK ARCHIVE

This article is part of the Out May/June issue, out on newsstands May 30. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News. And don't forget to pre-save the link for Petras's album Feed The Beast, out June 23,here.

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Mey Rude

Mey Rude is a journalist and cultural critic who has been covering queer news for a decade. The transgender, Latina lesbian lives in Los Angeles with her fiancée.

Mey Rude is a journalist and cultural critic who has been covering queer news for a decade. The transgender, Latina lesbian lives in Los Angeles with her fiancée.