Kim Petras Wants It All, And She Doesn’t Care If She Pisses People Off
"I wanna really piss a bunch of people off with my existence, and most importantly, I just want to write hit songs."
“Jigglypuff is just it. Jigglypuff is a superstar, you know. And an LGBTIQ icon.”
It’s safe to say Kim Petras is obsessed, but she wears it well — literally. I’ve asked about Jigglypuff because of Petras’ mini-photoshoot the day before we meet in Sydney’s China Town, in which she’s wearing pastel pink leather boots. At the knee, Jigglypuff stands with open arms, a determined smirk on its face.
See, Jigglypuff isn’t just a cute Pokémon: it’s an aspiring pop-star that the world sleeps on — which is understandable, given its voice lulls listeners to sleep. Unable to build a potential stan base, Jigglypuff is the 52-hertz whale of the Kanto region.
Thankfully, this isn’t a problem Petras has. It’d be hard to nod off while hearing one of her sugar-coated songs, so Petras spells out the connection for me: It isn’t purely aesthetic (which is why fellow pink-ball Kirby doesn’t do it for her), but on personality. Jigglypuff knows what it wants — to sing — and is grumpy as hell that when it doesn’t work out. “I just relate on a deep level,” she says.
She Does Actually Want It All
Kim Petras’ first hit was 2017’s ironically-titled ‘I Don’t Want It At All’, a plastic-fantastic ode to scamming your way into wearing designer labels and living far beyond your means.
Naturally, its music video featured Paris Hilton, whose own proto-influencer lifestyle not only inspired a world of Insta-celebs, but a ‘Bling Ring’ robbery of her own house by ultra-fans in the late ’00s. The two chatted for a Paper Magazine feature last year, which linked them by saying they both revel in saccharine superfluousness. Which is true — listening to Petras can be like an escape: it’s unashamed bubblegum pop, fine-tuned to every beat, because Petras has a goal.
“I wanna be as big as I can be,” she tells me. “I wanna be as good as I can be. I obviously wanna do world tours, a stadium tour, huge music videos. I wanna really piss a bunch of people off with my existence… most importantly, I just want to write hit songs. That’s always been my number one thing. I just wanna be in the studio writing absolute, undeniable bangers that can play at any party.”
The day after our chat, Petras plays a sold-out and incredibly sweaty show at Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory. It’s a last-minute upgrade to a sideshow for her performance at the Mardi Gras afterparty, and her set is simply too huge for a venue with such iffy air-conditioning.
She blitzes through most of her songs, a collection of 10 or so one-off releases and a Halloween-themed mixtape, which, in Petras’ own words, mark the end of ‘Era 1’. Not only do the crowd sing every single work, but you feel the anticipation in the room whenever a song’s ‘Woo! Ah’ — Petras’ trademark vocal inflection — is about to pop up.
“Every time I would just go to the mic and freestyle I would say ‘woo! ah’,” she explains to me. “I don’t know, it just became a thing. And then I noticed that Mario does it sometimes. So I was like ‘that’s sick’. I don’t know it came about, but it’s just here to stay. It’s never leaving. It’s a part of my spirit. I did that!”
In 2008, Lady Gaga played Oxford Art Factory, a sideshow from supporting The Pussycat Dolls on their national tour. Some Little Monsters were already there, aware they’d never see her on such a small stage again; it’s the same with Petras. It’s a no-brainer her next Australian tour wouldn’t be so intimate, so the room took advantage of the moment. It’s clear Petras wants it all — and she’s going to get it.
Kim Petras has long loved pop music, and she tells me it offered a kind of escape.
“All I would ever do was dance around in my room [and] play Best of Kylie Minogue and Best of P!NK and Best of Christina Aguilera and Best of Madonna,” she says. “All of those pop girls were just like my friends as a kid and I looked up to them so hard and idolised them. There’s something about pop music where it’s a vehicle — a really catchy song picks me up and makes me motivated and makes me wanna go out there and kill it.”
When I was a kid I was like, ‘Gwen Stefani would wear this shit so I’ma wear it’. [I’d] go to school in a pink latex dress and everybody would look at me weird, but I was like, ‘I’m stylin”.”
In 2006, at age 13, Petras became something of a household name in Germany, where she grew up. She was interviewed on TV about her plans for undergo gender affirmation surgery, and a few years later, international media picked up the story too: she was subject to a lot of attention, and spent a lot of her teenage years explaining her gender. The diva-dom of pop offered — and continues to offer — another world. Talking about inspirations, Petras rattles off Gwen Stefani (“Love Angel Music Baby-era, that was my jam”), ’90s Madonna, Dolly Parton as well as Sailor Moon, Elvira and Marilyn Monroe.
“Mostly just flamboyant girls inspire me,” she says. “I just love girls that are out there and that are just killing it, living life stylishly….When I was a kid I was like, ‘Gwen Stefani would wear this shit so I’ma wear it’. [I’d] go to school in a pink latex dress and everybody would look at me weird, but I was like, ‘I’m stylin”.”
In addition to copying style, Petras also started studying the songs she loved at a young age, dissecting why she loves them and then trying to write her own.
“I’ve just always been really obsessed with how to make pop songs: what makes it good and what makes it catchy,” she says. “And I’ve wanted to find the formula for it.”
To do so, she moved to L.A. from Cologne at age 19, after a producer there noticed her YouTube cover of a Chris Brown song. She slept on couches and wrote, wrote, wrote.
“I [was] a broke kid from Germany trying to do it, and songwriting was my way to make money,” she says. “‘Cause that’s a skill that I can sell. I’m an artist it’s not something … you know, I can go to open mic nights, I can pay people in clubs to perform there, but I [didn’t] have money. So it was really just that. I’ve always wanted to be an artist and that was always my end goal.”
“I had like five, ten dollars a day or something and just struggled really hard, but I would meet people, find people on the internet to write with and just kinda hustle my way up.”
It took two years until someone cut one of her tracks. It was Fergie, though as the case with 90 percent of songs, it was never released. But it was enough to get her in the door with a publishing deal. “From there on, I took that money and was like, ‘okay I’m gonna take it and make my own album’.”
The quest to find the perfect pop formula took her straight to one of the music industry’s powerhouse pop producers: Dr. Luke.
It’s Petras’ ongoing recording relationship with Dr. Luke (real name Lukasz Gottwald) has produced her biggest hits and her greatest obstacles.
While previous collaborators like Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry and Britney Spears have declined to work with Dr. Luke after Kesha accused him of sexual, emotional and physical abuse, Petras has not. In fact, she began releasing music produced by him after Kesha went public with allegations.
Repeatedly, Petras has been asked about Luke, and her answers, unfortunately, approach double-speak. After Troye Sivan’s fans asked him to drop her as a support on his US tour last year, Petras gave her most lengthy statement yet on Twitter.
Repeatedly, Petras has been asked about Luke, and her answers, unfortunately, approach double-speak.
“While I’ve been open and honest about my positive experience with Dr Luke,” she said. “That does not negate or dismiss the experience of others or suggest that multiple perspectives cannot exist at once.”
I weighed up whether to ask Petras the same questions she’s been asked in every single interview I’ve read before, and ultimately, in the moment, I decide there is no real point. She’s already extensively spoken about it, the words rarely changing, let alone their substance.
The relationship continues to mire her career, as fans struggle to reconcile Petras’ positioning as a trans pop-star with her less-than-ideal stances on Dr Luke and, at times, her own gender-identity. Petras has made it clear she doesn’t “sing about being transgender”, a mindset which to some, seems to suggest she’s saying to make ‘universal’ pop music, you must confine your experiences.
Petras is not in the game to be a voice of a community, which, admittedly, is a big burden. Over the years, Petras has had to explain and re-explain gender theory 101, let alone be probed with invasive questions about her body — even sympathetic meta-questions about the Difficulty Of Navigating The Media As A Trans Pop Star would be exhausting.
It’s the opposite of the pop music Petras describes loving, though of course, nothing can truly be divorced from the political. In February, Petras released three singles on one day including ‘1,2,3 Dayz Up’, a collaboration with SOPHIE: supposedly, the trio marked the “end of Era 1”. I ask what’s next.
Kim Petras has big goals. Much like Charli XCX (“love that bitch”, she says), she wants to write for the pop icons she loves and respects. Cher, Rihanna, Madonna, Kylie; they’re all on her dream list, and she’s “promised” to write a song for Paris Hilton’s return to music. She’s planning on dropping a Vol 2. to Turn Off The Lights on October 1, and is working on that debut album.
“As much as [my music is] really fun pop music, it’s also ‘sad, loner, broke internet girl’: ‘If U Think About Me…’, ‘Homework’, ‘Can’t Do Better’,” she says. “But now that my life has changed, I’ve evolved. I wanted to end it with the neon heads — the full rainbow. And now I have a clean slate.”
UPDATE: Clarity, Kim Petras’ debut album, is out as of June 28. Each of its 12 songs were co-written by Dr. Luke.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Supplied