Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our June selection: Kim Petras
Surveying a crowd of screaming fans by the thousands, Kim Petras takes a breath. With a gesture of her hand and a dead-serious face, the 26-year-old princess of pop quiets her royal subjects in New York’s Irving Plaza to deliver an empowering message. “I want everyone to repeat after me,” she says, a smirk creeping across her face. “We are all skinny!”
With those words, Petras launches into the final songs of her Broken Tour, delivering her kingdom of squealing admirers old favorites like the ‘80s-tinged “Heart to Break” and new singles like the house-infused “Sweet Spot.” The overflowing crowd of young, mostly queer fans sing every word with the star as she emanates casual confidence on the stage, owning every note, every costume change and every time she belts out her signature catchphrase, “WOO-Ahhh!”
But just three days prior, speaking via phone to Billboard ahead of her tour’s opening night in Nashville, Petras says she can’t help but feel nervous. With new visuals, a bit of stage design, and her name taking up the marquee’s headlining spot, her new set of dates is the biggest tour she has ever performed. “I’m just trying to keep my voice down and speak really soft and not do anything weird and just not fuck it up,” she says with a laugh.
On top of preparing for her tour, Petras is also gearing up for the release of Clarity, her brand new collection of music out today (June 28). The star makes it clear, though — Clarity is not the long-awaited debut album that fans have been clamoring for. Instead, Clarity is a project consisting of 12 songs that she just needed to get out into the world. When it’s time for her album, Petras says her fans will know. “This is still my building phase,” she says. “I’m still not close to where I want to be.”
That statement speaks more to Petras’ unwavering ambition than it does to her current status as a pop singer; upon the announcement of her tour, the star sold out multiple dates in a matter of days, including her shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for which she had to add additional performances. Her near ubiquitous presence on Apple Music and Spotify’s in-house playlists, along with her more than 140 million streams since her debut, shows her growing reach, while the sparkling songcraft and knockout performances across Clarity prove her inherent talent.
Yet still, the singer says she’s not satisfied, and won’t stop her campaign until she’s attained the heights of pop stardom, listing a performance at Madison Square Garden and a No. 1 album as just a few examples of the success she’s searching for. “I want to be as successful as I can be, and that’s it!” she says. “I just want to kill it and be a huge star.”
Petras’ strategy heading into promoting Clarity has been markedly different from her pop contemporaries. Where most pop singers would release three or four singles ahead of a project like this, Petras instead decided to release nine of Clarity’s 12 songs ahead of the collection’s release, with each new song arriving once a week every week until the project was finally out.
When asked why she decided to release her music this way, the star names at least four different reasons, the first and most irreverent of which is “I’m really shit at picking singles.” Petras also says that she wanted to try an “unconventional” approach, allowing fans to choose the best singles of the bunch, and even compared her strategy to watching your favorite weekly television show; “It gets you through the week.”
But the key reason behind her methodology, she says, circles back to her plans for world domination. “The first time around (with her initial batch of singles), I would drop a new song a month, especially with streaming and staying on top of people’s minds and getting playlisted,” she says. “So this time, I was just like, ‘Let’s pick up the speed and do it weekly, and then kind of stay on top of people’s minds all of the time.’”
Keeping herself at the top of everyone’s minds was an important step for Petras, since she knew her new batch of singles were different from her previous work. Starting with “I Don’t Want It at All,” the singer’s ode to bratty pop girls like Paris Hilton (who she ended up working with for the song’s music video), the star’s first time around releasing new music — which she now lovingly calls “Era 1″ — was rooted in a fantasy world. Creating a caricature of herself as a bossed-up diva, Petras provided her fans with an escape from their reality into a realm of pink, glittery music.
But while touring with fellow queer pop star Troye Sivan, Petras was struggling to escape from her own problems. “I was going through a pretty bad heartbreak at that time, from being cheated on,” she says. “I would be in my room crying by myself, and then be on stage and sing these super bubblegum, sparkly songs.”
Instead of trying to suppress her feelings and continue creating sugar-sweet pop confections, Petras instead decided to lean into her sadness, penning her heartbreaking-and-catchy “All I Do Is Cry” throughout Sivan’s Bloom Tour. With a fresh perspective, the star embarked on creating music that could more accurately reflect what she was feeling, while also still providing fans with her signature earworms.
In the ensuing months, Petras balanced writing and recording more than 40 new songs with her growing schedule as she performed around the world. “It’s definitely been just non-stop,” she says, chuckling. “I felt so inspired and had so many ideas that I was just so antsy to get into the studio and do these new songs and drop them.”
While it’s a new idea in her music, being open and vulnerable is not a new concept for Petras. Since she was a pre-teen growing up in Cologne, Germany, the star grew up in the public eye. At just 13 years old, Petras began publicly speaking about being a identifying as a woman, campaigning publicly for her country to allow her to have her gender-confirmation surgery earlier than the age of 18. Over the course of a few years, and quite a few documentary television series, Petras quickly became known as one of the world’s youngest advocates for the trans community.
It’s a story that Petras has heard and told for most of her life, and one that she still struggles with. When she left Germany to pursue her pop music dreams in Los Angeles at 19, Petras wanted to become known for her music, not her gender identity. But she also knew that she had a responsibility to speak up and represent for the trans community, since there were so few openly trans people in the public eye.
Even today, that push-and-pull still torments her. “When I started performing … people would say, ‘She doesn’t want to represent for the trans community.’ But then when I do [speak up], people will say I’m using being trans to get ahead in my career,” she says, sighing. “It’s been extremely difficult and extremely disheartening sometimes, because I really do care so much, and I want to inspire trans people … but I also don’t want my transness overshadow or label me.”
Public pressure was only further exascerbated when fans noticed that the young star had been working with controversial producer Lucasz Gottwald (known as Dr. Luke) despite allegations of sexual assault from pop star Kesha. While Petras still works with Gottwald, she offered in a statement last year that her experience with the producer does not “negate of dismiss the experiences of others, or suggest that multiple perspectives cannot exist at once.”
But for all of the negative comments she receives, Petras receives twice as many comments from young trans people thanking her for being an example of love and success. That’s why Petras is more than happy to play multiple Pride festivals throughout the world, including WorldPride in New York City. “There’s probably a bunch of transgender kids in that audience watching me who are like, ‘Oh, I can be on that stage, too,’ which is a really big moment for me.”
Now, Petras says she’s in a more confident place than ever before. On her “Era 1” singles, the star says that she chose not to use her face for the cover art because she thought “‘I’m lanky and weird and no one’s going to like me.’”
But now, the star proudly displays her face across all of her new singles and the artwork for Clarity, owning her image and her identity as a burgeoning queen of pop. “I was making these songs that took me out of my reality because I hated my reality,” she says. “Now, I feel like I found confidence in myself. I feel like my fans are a big part of that, because I know that they are people who want to hear what I have to say, and who feel inspired by what I have to say.”