Kim Petras Broke Records With ‘Unholy’ — Now She Wants to ‘Break The Cycle’ for Fellow Trans Artists
It’s been a rough morning for Kim Petras. “I have strep throat,” her voice croaks through a Zoom call. She chuckles at the sound of her own groggy delivery: “I am swollen and sick, but I will survive.”
The 30-year-old pop star is happy to push through the soreness, because she has plenty to celebrate — after five years of releasing fan-beloved club songs, Petras has scored her first Billboard Hot 100 entry with her featured appearance on Sam Smith‘s “Unholy.”
As the song currently sits at No. 2 on the Hot 100, Petras is quick to joke that she can practically taste a new No. 1 single. “I love you, Steve Lacy — I think ‘Bad Habit‘ is a great song — but move out of the way!” she cracks.
It’s a big moment for Petras, and also for the LGBTQ community — not only is “Unholy” a hit song brought forth by a non-binary artist and a transgender artist, but it makes Smith and Petras the highest-charting solo, publicly non-binary and transgender artists in the history of the Hot 100, respectively. (Smith also scored a No. 2 hit in 2014 with solo breakthrough “Stay With Me.”)
So where does Petras want to go from here? Billboard caught up with the singer, chatting about her upcoming Max Martin-produced single, creating a new debut album from scratch, and how she intends to “break the cycle” of trans artists being “paid dust.”
“Unholy” is at No. 2 right now! What was it like when you found out about the spot?
It’s crazy. When it debuted at No. 3, I was over the moon, like, “Wow, nothing like this has ever happened for me.” But to see it climbing? That was even better. It does look like a kind of [chart-topping] trajectory, not gonna lie — that No. 1 slot would be pretty sick.
Honestly, though, it’s such a magical collaboration for me, because it was really a situation where Sam and I were really just connecting and being slutty writers saying, “No, we’re gonna do it our way.” It’s been such a pleasant collaboration with someone I truly respect and feel very inspired by. I’m extremely happy for Sam — and of course for me, too.
This was a very sharp left turn for Sam’s music — how did you get involved on it, and did you find it at all jarring how different this was from their other work?
Well, Sam and I have been trying to collaborate for about four or five years. We’d been sending songs back and forth, and it was just never the right vibe. Then this song came along. Sam DM’d it to me, and I was like, “Yes, this is the one, when can we get in the studio?” Sam was so cool, saying, “I want to write it with you, I want it to feel like a complete story and really collaborate on this.”
It was so awesome, because I’m a writer first, I’ve been in songwriting rooms for the last 10 years. I’m lucky to be an artist, but I really connect with artists who write — like Sam, like Charli XCX, like SOPHIE. So it’s really cool to have worked with Sam and their extraordinary voice.
You’re building on the momentum with “Unholy” with your upcoming single “If Jesus Was A Rockstar” — it’s definitely a different vibe from your past releases, with a very fresh take. What can you tell us about how you made this new song?
It’s the first song I’ve ever written with Pop Jesus — Max Martin — which is such a life goal for me. He’s someone I’ve truly looked up to my entire life. Max and Savan [Kotecha] helped make this such a special song.
I just had to dig really deep for this. For me, religion and spirituality is such an intense topic, because I grew up trans, not fitting into any religion. All of my friends were pretty religious, and I kind of just wanted to write this song about how I wish religion would include me — and how it doesn’t, and how a lot of my friends in the LGBTQ community are forced to feel this way. That’s why I always looked for spirituality elsewhere. That’s why I loved music, because it gave me a similar sort of sensation, and gave me a place I belonged. So yeah, the song kinda says maybe if religion was cooler, then I would wanna be a part of it. So, if Jesus was a rockstar, maybe I’d want to be just like him.
It’s a pretty deep song for me, which is nerve-wracking — especially when I performed it at TwitchCon! I only make gay club songs, and I love doing that, because the gay clubs raised me, and they’re in me forever. But when everyone got their glow sticks out for that second chorus, it was crazy. It’s a big departure for me — it’s a brand new chapter!
Let’s talk more about Max Martin here — you got your start in the business as a songwriter, and have spoken about how you studied a lot of Max Martin songs early on. When you got in the studio with him, what was it like getting to flex those skills you learned from listening to his songs in front of him?
The main thing I took from those sessions was, “Wow, I am worthy of being in the room with these people.” I brought the same amount of ideas that everyone else did, I felt like I was being treated equally and fairly, and I couldn’t speak more highly of Max and Savan and Ilya [Salmanzadeh] and Omer [Fedi] and that whole crew, because I felt taken very seriously.
For me, in my writing process, it’s no ego — the best idea for the song wins. That’s something they have really perfected and stand behind as well. It was awesome being in the same mentality as everyone else, because a lot of the time, people are just obsessed with getting their line into the song so then they can say it’s theirs and collect some percentage of publishing. It was so great to see that, for this crew, the song came first, and every idea got measured, put into the mix and judged equally.
You have been a vocal LGBTQ advocate for years, especially looking back at something like your 2021 MTV EMA performance where you flew in the face of the Hungarian government for their anti-LGBTQ laws. Especially with a song like “Jesus” further critiquing the way some people treat queer and trans folks, how do you go about translating that advocacy into lyrics?
I think I grew up in a more difficult time than now — 10 years ago, I could not have imagined how accepted my presence would be. I used to get spit on on the street for being trans, got called a “tr—y,” all of that. It was always something that fueled me to prove that it doesn’t matter — as long as the music is good and you’re really freaking good at what you do, you can make it. I’ve built this fanbase over the last five years which is all kids that are like me; it’s my job to stand up for my community and my fans who have been there since the beginning.
But it’s also for myself — I want my point of view out there because it deserves to be heard, and frankly, it hasn’t been heard in pop music. It’s exciting that I get to do that on the highest level now with big-time players in the industry who believe in me, and are down to have me share my thoughts. I can’t not talk about it, because it’s a part of my life, and it will be forever.
Absolutely — and it’s working. You are the highest-charting solo, publicly transgender artist in the history of the Hot 100 with “Unholy.” What does that mean to you, not only for your career, but for the community you’re aiming to represent?
I just really don’t want to be the last. There’s always been incredible and talented trans artists, and they have been paid dust, you know? I mean, I was friends with SOPHIE — her influence can be heard on practically every popular song these days. But in her lifetime, she didn’t get what she deserved to get. Looking at artists like Amanda Lear in the ’70s and ’80s, who was an absolute disco queen, she got paid dust. People don’t talk about her the way they should. Ayesha Erotica has been so influential for me, and did not get what she deserved at all.
That same story just keeps repeating over and over for trans girls who have been making exceptional music and have been pushed under the rug while someone else takes credit from them. I’m just happy that Sam gave me the chance to shine here. I hope I can help break the cycle — it feels like people are finally ready for us to succeed, and that fills me with a lot of joy.
You’re 100% right, things are changing — but there are also things that haven’t changed, especially when you look at lawmakers taking aim at trans folks as of late. How tough is that for you to watch, while also experiencing this personal success lately?
It’s a huge step backwards; just when you thought we were headed in a better direction, we turn back. But, I’ve been around long enough to know that this is how it goes — it’s been this way before, and then it got better, and then it took a few steps back, and then it got better again. I’m hoping that this is just the latest wave before we get back to progress. Trans people have had to deal with this forever; It’s not new, and it’s dangerous to see it happening again. I’ve seen what this kind of discussion can do to your self-esteem as a trans woman when people are questioning everything about being transgender.
I am someone who, without the healthcare I received in Germany, would not have been able to transition. I had to go through countless meetings and evaluations with doctors in order to get hormones, to get my surgery, to get the help that I needed. I know what this kind of healthcare actually means for people, and it’s disgusting and devastating that people are trying to end it.
Earlier, you said that “Jesus” is the start of a “brand new chapter” for you. I know you’ve openly spoken about your struggle to put out your debut album; is this single a signal that you’re starting a new debut album from scratch, or a reintroduction of the album you’ve been trying to get out?
Yeah, it’s definitely the start of something completely new — a couple of the songs from the old album made it, but only a couple. Honestly, it’s been a cool experience, because for the first time, I’m not going out there on my own and hoping people like it. I’m really grateful to [Republic co-president] Wendy Goldstein, because she really took me under her wing and introduced me to a lot of people that I would have never had the chance to work with. It’s actually a blessing that I got to refresh everything — we knew the Sam single was coming, and I always believed it was going to be a smash, so we were like, “Okay, I have until then to be ready with the new music.” So I went in with Max and Ian Kirkpatrick and all of these incredible new people to put together this new thing.
I know for the fans, it was very hard to see a whole album go away — for me, too! That original album got me through the pandemic. But I also realized in that process that I was just doing what I always do; I was writing escapist pop songs about wanting to get away from everything. It was, once again, “The world is ending, let’s party.” I love that, but I’m at a different place now. It’s more important for me to talk about the things that are actually meaningful to me in real life. I’ve always been very guarded about letting people in, where I have the stage persona that’s kind of a b—h who gets whatever she wants. It’s a very different thing for me, and it’s vulnerable and strange to open up like this.
It’s worth noting that “Unholy” is your Hot 100 debut, and it does not feature any sort of writing or production credits from your past collaborator Dr. Luke [Lukasz Gottwald] — does that feel significant to you?
I’m just grateful that I have a hit, period. I’ve spent so long in this industry, and I feel like the music industry in general is just this weird game that people play, and it feels awesome to actually have success with an artist I adore. That’s been a really authentic journey for me, coming along the way that it did. So yeah, I’m just grateful people like a song I made.