ON THE RISE
Kim Petras, Transgender Pop Star, on Working With Dr. Luke
She first earned fame as one of the youngest people in the world to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Now Kim Petras is a rising pop star working with the embattled Dr. Luke.
With her long blond hair with a signature side bun reminiscent of the ’80s, there is something nostalgic about bubblegum pop princess Kim Petras. The 25-year-old musician is gradually ascending to fame through collaborations with pop music’s top producers, including Aaron Joseph and Dr. Luke. As a transgender artist, Petras also feels a responsibility toward her community as she continues to gain traction with catchy synth-pop tracks.
Born in Cologne, Germany, Petras first caught the attention of the public in 2007 at the age of 14 when she discussed her gender transition on Stern TV, a German news network. Petras knew herself at the age of 2, and began transitioning with female hormones when she turned 12.
At 16, she became one of the youngest people in the world to undergo gender reassignment surgery. (German law requires a person to be 18 before receiving this surgery, but an exception was made for Petras after multiple psychologists testified that waiting would be damaging to her health.) After two operations, Petras completed her transition. She still finds the recognition she earned for undergoing the surgery so early a bit strange.
“I always felt like a girl, so how can there be like a ‘youngest?’” Petras says in a phone conversation with The Daily Beast. The distinction, she says, “doesn’t mean a thing to me. I think it’s great that transgender people get to start becoming who they are as kids—early too! I think that’s really important.”
Aside from her own personal transition journey, Petras was determined as a youngster to become a pop star. She has said she was bullied in school and did not have many friends, and so spent most of her time alone writing songs. While she does not write songs specifically about being transgender, Petras’ upbeat and memorable melodies are inspired by her own resilience and the struggles she went through growing up.
“I think that as a person who went through something like that, it just makes you care less about what other people think about you,” Petras says. “I think that’s the one thing that helped me so much—I know that I’m very strong in that way.”
In her home country, Petras struggled to break into the music industry. Though she released two singles, “Fade Away,” and “Die for You,” in 2008 and 2010 respectively, she found herself unable to connect with German audiences. Producers there felt her music was “too pop” for the German market, forcing her to rethink her path forward.
“I had a laundry detergent jingle in Germany so that was how far I made it there,” Petras jokes.
It was then that Petras decided to take her talent to Los Angeles. She made the move without any real connections in the city, but her work found a way of speaking for itself.
“I had this one producer who sent me tracks because he saw my YouTube videos that were popular and got a couple million views,” Petras says. “People started noticing my singing on YouTube and then I came to L.A. and I lived on a studio couch. I wrote songs every single day with whoever I could write songs with.”
Petras originally intended to build her career through songwriting, hoping that publishers would acknowledge her work. A song she wrote for Fergie was never released, but she did impress Grammy award-winning production group The Stereotypes. She began making regular trips between Los Angeles and Cologne to work with the group writing songs for other artists—while casually sliding in mentions of her own work as well.
“I’d always tell producers that this was the music I made for myself,” she says. “It was definitely not the easiest thing.”
Petras’ breakthrough arrived in 2015 when producer Aaron Joseph became enamored with her songwriting. Joseph contacted Petras while she was in her mother’s basement writing music in Cologne, and the two struck a deal. Two years later, she released their collaboration on Spotify, her debut single “I Don’t Want It at All,” co-written and produced by a team including Joseph and Dr. Luke. To her shock, the song shot up to No. 1 on the app’s Viral Global Chart.
Petras remembers the days that came after that as “pretty crazy.”
“We hadn’t really done anything to promote it,” she says of the single. “People really loved it and started looking me up and following me on social media. It helped me build a foundation.”
In October, Petras released a music video for the song featuring Paris Hilton, one of Petras’ biggest fans. “She’s like the coolest,” Petras gushes. “She’s super down to earth and sweet. She was nice to everyone on set and she was just out-of-this-world cool. We still text each other, too!”
The synth-pop, ’80s-inspired song armed with an infectious chorus became Petras’ signature sound. Petras’ other singles, “Hillside Boys,” “Slow It Down,” “Hills,” “Faded,” and most recently, “Heart to Break,” are all equally difficult to get out of your head. Lyrically, the songs range from end-of-summer flings to hard partying and drugs. She was also featured in “Unlock It” on Charli XCX’s recent mixtape, Pop 2.
“Sonically they are just huge, radio-sounding songs,” Petras says, describing her upcoming tracks and debut album. “They’re very nostalgic and pretty. They all connect to each other. It’s kind of like a narrative when they’re all together.”
Many attribute the stellar production of these tracks to one of Petras’ main collaborators, Dr. Luke. Media outlets have dubbed Petras the producer’s “new protégé,” but despite serious allegations against him from another pop star, Kesha, Petras has only kind words to say about him.
In 2014, Dr. Luke was accused by Kesha of forcing her to take a date rape drug and proceeding to take advantage of her in a hotel room. Kesha also accused the producer of psychologically abusing her, driving her to the point of developing an eating disorder. While Petras is aware of the controversy surrounding him, she says she can only speak from her own experience.
“My personal experience has been great,” Petras says of their working relationship. “I’ve been learning a lot from him and I’ve always been a fan of his. It’s been really fun working with him.”
Petras is also intent on using her platform to highlight issues affecting the transgender community, she says. After such a unique experience involving her own transition, she feels a responsibility.
As a rising pop and transgender star, Petras has her work cut out for her. She is currently performing in gay bars across the country, where drag queens often perform her songs. “It means a lot because so much time is put into a drag performance,” she says. “I’m thankful and really excited about what everyone has done for me.”
Petras plans to continue releasing singles until she feels her album, which is still in the works, is ready. Her most recent track, “Heart to Break,” was released on Valentine’s Day, and is very much a “bop.”
“That’s all I wanna be known for,” Petras laughs. “Just bops!”