German-born, L.A.-based pop princess Kim Petras, 26, is famous for a string of viral hits and videos such as “Heartbeat,” “I Don’t Want It At All,” “Faded” and “Heart to Break” that have been streamed on Spotify more than 16 million times.
Her manager, Larry Rudolph, has bona fide pop cred having managed the careers of Britney Spears, Miley Crus and 5th Harmony. She was one of four young artists chosen for Spotify’s Rise program in 2017 for emerging pop “superstars,” which sent her song to No. 1 on the company’s Global Viral Chart. She claims about 140 million streams on all platforms worldwide.
“Much of her frothy approach harks back to the era of ‘Dynasty’ shoulder pads and Cyndi Lauper quirks, bolstered by Ms. Petras’ full-throated vocals and ultrabright melodies,” a 2018 New York Times profile noted.
In 2004, at age 12, she was among the youngest trans youth in her native Germany to get hormone therapy paid for by national health care. She had fully transitioned by age 16.
In a heated spate of new music — she’s released 10 cuts so far this year — she brings her “Broken Tour” to the Fonda Theatre June 24-25. She spoke to the Blade by phone two weeks ago from her Los Angeles apartment.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Tell us about your tour. How long will your set be, how is it shaping up, what we can we expect, all that.
KIM PETRAS: I just started rehearsals. I just got back from a writing trip to Hawaii, which was cool, that was a really cool project. So I’m going into rehearsals. I finally get to make the stage the way I want it to be, so that’s really exciting. And I can make my set as long or as short as I want to make it. So I’m picking all the faves and a few songs people don’t even know. I’m definitely going to do some new songs. But yeah, it’s a mix of everything. I love really kind of making each section of my show its own little chapter and a moment of its own so it’s going to have costume changes, different scenarios, different lighting, but I don’t want to spoil it too much. But yeah, it’s definitely going to be good. All the favorites and a little more.
BLADE: Will you have a band with you?
PETRAS: Yeah, my whole crew. … We get along really well.
BLADE: I noticed it wraps in Germany in September. Did you purposefully save Germany for the end?
PETRAS: I want to stay in Cologne for a little bit. I haven’t been there in over a year, which is the city I was born and raised in. I’ve lived in L.A. for about seven years now, so I go back like once a year but not much more, so I’ll take some time to see my family at the end of the run. Everyone else can go home and I’ll hang out with my family for a little bit, then head back to the U.S.
BLADE: Most of the dates are sold out. Will you be adding more dates or bumping up to larger venues or is all that set?
PETRAS: Unfortunately it’s set. After that I go back to writing a bunch more stuff. I’m really prioritizing being in the studio drafting as much new stuff as possible. But I’ll be back touring really soon. I don’t think it’s enough the U.S. tour I’m doing this year, but I’m so excited it’s sold out. Most of it sold out in pre-sales like in five minutes, so it’s pretty nuts. I’m really excited.
BLADE: I saw you on the Troye Sivan tour last year. Your pitch was so dead on all through your set. Do you just have really good ears and lungs or did you have to work on that?
PETRAS: Thank you so much for saying that. I feel like I worked on it every day, just vocal strength. I have those days where I don’t speak at all, where I’m on vocal rest ‘cause yeah, most of my first songs, I wrote them so high because I was a songwriter for a long time and I didn’t realize when you write a song, then you have to sing it every night and that’s really difficult. So I had to quit smoking (laughs) and had to start learning vocal technique really well to be able to do it.
BLADE: I know you idolize Madonna. Do you think she deserved the drubbing she got recently for her pitchy Eurovision performance?
PETRAS: I absolutely have not seen that performance so I can’t really talk for it, but I think Madonna is like my absolute favorite and I just think she’s like a performer before anything else. I think with her, it’s like about a statement or provoking a thought.
BLADE: Did you get to hang out much or get to know Troye Sivan on tour?
PETRAS: We hung out after shows. His boyfriend is really cool, I really love his boyfriend. His whole team, like his mom was on the tour, it was so sweet, just really cool energy. It was like being friends on this little tour, but it was so much fun. I had a blast. His crowd is so cute and massive so it’s really fun and I feel like I gained a lot of fans. I’m really thankful for Troye having me on that tour and I really loved it. I was sad when it was over.
BLADE: You play a lot of Pride dates but it seems like you’re trying to make your music as mainstream and accessible as possible. Do you sort of downplay being trans to perhaps reach a wider audience or not really?
PETRAS: Um, not really. I don’t have to do anything. I’m my own label, I come up with everything, I’m in charge of everything. I did feel like I wanted to downplay it at the beginning because I didn’t want anybody to say or imply that I was using being transgender to be successful as an artist. That’s like not my interest at all and I wanted to prove to everyone that I can have popular music without anybody knowing my story at all, because I think that gender is pretty irrelevant and I know that it’s become the leading story if I talk about it. I’ve had a lot of experience in my past, my first documentary was like when I was 12 years old, and I went on to do a bunch of documentaries about being transgender. My goal was normalizing it and making people feel that you can be a normal transgender person and have a really happy life. But yeah, I just didn’t want anybody to feel that I used my story to become successful because I know people say shit like that and it’s really rude. It sucks that people are like that but in general I don’t talk about it as much because I’ve already done that. I put out a song on Spotify, nobody knew who I was, it wasn’t my face on the cover and it went to the top of the viral chart on Spotify like right away, so that gave me a kick start and it had nothing to do with my story.
BLADE: Your videos have lots of cool special effects. Are they hard to finance?
PETRAS: Yeah, for sure. I always have these crazy ideas. But I put my own money that I make from shows and doing big events, I put it right back into my music, right into my tour, right into my videos. Anything I earn, I put it right back into my creativity and my artistry. It is a struggle sometimes but I’m very happy with the way things came out so far, thank God. It keeps growing and getting better.
BLADE: There’s no real business model to follow to do what you’re doing. How do you know how much to spend when and on what?
PETRAS: Yeah, for sure. I get great advice. My manager Larry Rudolph … he has a lot of experience so I can always call him and ask him about things like that but how I got started and how I got on Spotify was just trial and error and trying to figure it out, spending too much on one thing and not being able to do another and I feel like I’m just figuring out what’s important at the end of the day is to get the most music, the most content out there. That’s my priority, being one step better each time I do something.
BLADE: What was your toughest or longest video to shoot?
PETRAS: Definitely “Heart to Break.” It was really amazing because we got two days, which doesn’t ever happen that anybody can afford two days. It all gets crammed into one, so definitely that was such a blast. I don’t think any of the videos were hard. They’re definitely exhausting because you’re like waking up at 5 a.m. and finishing up at 3 a.m. and it’s like a whole thing, but I always love it. I always feel super alive when I do days like that. I just pull through and have no sleep. I don’t know why but I really get off on that type of thing.
BLADE: Do you feel albums are obsolete?
PETRAS: I don’t. The way a new artist is breaking is just completely different than it was. I look up to a lot of people who drop a lot of music constantly and I want to be one of those people. But I love a good album and I listen to a lot of albums and I can’t wait to have my own. I can’t spill the tea on that just yet, but I do think people still want albums and want to buy the work and I think it’s great that people still want that.
BLADE: How do you decide which songs to release and at what pace?
PETRAS: My strategy for my first record was like drop a song a moth, so I was like, ‘How do I step that up?’ So this round is once a week until something exciting happens, which I can’t talk about for now, but I’m dropping my sixth song tonight so it’s been six songs, six weeks on Spotify.
BLADE: Have you encountered any transphobia from any music industry gatekeepers?
PETRAS: Yeah, for sure. There was literally this one very high up woman who was like, “You’re going to hell if you work on Kim’s project because being transgender, you’re going to hell.” So that didn’t work out. People were really freaked out by it, a lot of industry people, um yeah. I was shopping for deals and people were really excited about the music but were definitely freaked out by the trans thing, so it was definitely my best choice to go AWAL (artist without a label), to go independent. I still feel like there are a bunch of people being like, “Who is this transgender girl,” people are definitely weirded out by it, but just having a fan base and just being able to sell out shows — I’ve been putting in the work, changing things and I think people are starting to think that maybe a trans artist can do the damn thing and be a real pop star, but yeah, let’s see.
BLADE: Your tour is basically sold out without really having cracked U.S. radio. Is that even relevant anymore?
PETRAS: I think it’s still definitely relevant. I’m competitive so I want to have hits, of course. But, you know, at the end of the day, what I really want to be able to do is to tour forever. I really want to be one of those artists who has a real fan base and I’ve been putting in the work for like four years now, I’ve been playing every gay club there is, all over the U.S., making real connections. I’ve been building a real career and a real fan base. I mean sure, I want to have that one song that puts me on the map, I want to have a No. 1, but at the end of the day, this is already like so amazing to me because I never thought I’d be able to do this. It’s my job now to do music and to perform and I’m really excited about that. There are lots of people out there with this who can’t fill a tiny venue that I can fill three nights, so I don’t know. … I do believe that if you keep going and keep working on it, it will happen eventually. I’m very proud to be doing my own headlining tour and I’m very proud of my band. They’re amazing, they complete me. I’m happy.
BLADE: You seem pretty prolific. Do you have to be disciplined to keep writing or does it just happen?
PETRAS: I’m jittery as hell if I haven’t written a song in like three days. I get cranky. I’m always looking for sentences, always watching movies and listening to the dialogue, picking certain things up. In my head, I’m always thinking about the next song. I’m always in the studio when I’m not on the road. It’s studio, tour, studio, tour, all the time and I love it. After awhile I miss being on the road and when I’ve been on tour awhile, I miss the studio.