After Years of the Industry Selling Her Short, Kim Petras Is Glad People Are Finally ‘Catching On’
"I'm happy there are more trans artists now that are being taken seriously," says Billboard's historic 2023 Women In Music Chartbreaker. "I just don't want to be the last."
When Kim Petras emerged from beneath Sam Smith’s layered pink tulle gown on Saturday Night Live in January, it was a perfect visual metaphor for her presence on the Hot 100 chart-topper they were performing, “Unholy.” Cooing and belting about her virtues as a no-hassle, dirty-chic sugar baby, Petras was magnetic — the hit’s secret weapon, revealed.
Two weekends later, at the Grammy Awards, Petras had an even more definitive moment in the spotlight. “Unholy” won best pop duo/group performance, and, at Smith’s behest, Petras accepted the award, exuding joy and liberation in a speech that became a high point of the night. “I just want to thank all the incredible transgender legends before me who kicked these doors open for me so I could be here tonight,” said the German singer, who in that moment became the first out trans artist to ever win a major-category Grammy.
Changing the game has become habitual for the dance-pop devotee, who signed to Republic in summer 2021. In October, “Unholy” made Petras and Smith the first openly trans and nonbinary artists, respectively, to top the Hot 100 in its 65-year history. When Madonna introduced their performance of “Unholy” at the Grammys, thanking a new generation of “rebels out there, forging a new path and taking the heat for it,” it felt like both a coronation and vindication for Petras, who, since her 2017 arrival, has always carried herself like a main pop girl but has only recently started to be treated like one.
“My whole life revolves around strong, amazing women who do whatever they want and have an artistic point of view,” says this year’s Chartbreaker, casually vaping beneath a hoodie just days before unleashing new single “brrr.” “[They’re] the reason I found the power in myself to do what I do.”
Is the industry treating you differently since “Unholy” became a smash?
Hell yeah. [Before] it was like, “Oh, the gays love her,” but people didn’t want me on their songs. I didn’t get budgets approved. It was rough. I’ve been an independent artist for so long just hustling and playing clubs, and now different people are hitting me up to collaborate and get in the studio. It’s cool that people are catching on.
TikTok played a role in breaking “Unholy” before radio paid attention. What are your thoughts about the app?
I love the humor — nothing is so serious on there. I like that more weird songs blow up on TikTok than you would expect, like “Running Up That Hill.” The new generation just cares if they like the song. There’s less industry control because of TikTok.
This is your biggest hit, and first major one without Dr. Luke as a collaborator. People have questioned your working relationship with him. Do you see “Unholy” as a chance to move past it?
I’ve always been a songwriter. Anything I’ve done, I’ve been a big part of writing. I’ve always collaborated with different people and producers. Luke is the one person people like to pick out and be like, “This is obviously who has to write all of this girl’s music because she can’t be talented and that’s a big name.” But I am here because I’m good at writing, and I do my sh-t.
What was it like playing SNL with Sam?
It means the world to me. Even growing up in Germany, SNL was a huge thing. I’m a huge comedy fan, and I love Bowen [Yang] on the show. We’ve kind of become friends — there’s this really sweet story of Bowen listening to [my song] “I Don’t Want It at All” before his SNL audition.
In the last five years, how much has the industry changed its attitude toward trans artists?
A lot. When I tried to sign to [labels] in the beginning of my career, it was like, “What is the fan base going to be? How do we market this? There isn’t a place for you.” Then I went to gay clubs and built a solid fan base and showed everyone it’s possible. Now they have to accept it. I’m happy there are more trans artists now that are being taken seriously. I just don’t want to be the last.
Who are some of your career idols?
Cher. Nicki Minaj. Madonna. Lana Del Rey. Marina. Kylie [Minogue]. The list goes on. Women in pop music were my only friends in high school — they were everything I wanted to be and [gave me] the strength I [needed] to transition and live my life authentically. They gave me the strength to be myself.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 25, 2023, issue of Billboard.