Welcome to VOL.UME: Love Now, a new series of stories chronicling how we find and experience romantic connections in the digital age. For the full experience, head to volume.mtv.com.
Kim Petras is killin’ it. As the camera clicks away, she lies back on a translucent, inflatable couch, throws her hands up, and kicks her orange heels in the air. With a pouty smile and platinum blond waves, she looks every bit the Barbie Girl; cool, confident, untouchable. And then we hear it: a blasting pop pierces the soundtrack of camera clicks and Madonna hits blaring from the speakers. One of her stilettos punctures a hole in the blow-up sofa, and she yelps, momentarily shocked, before erupting into a fit of giggles. Life in plastic, it’s fantastic.
This is a rare day off from tour rehearsals for the 27-year-old pop star, who, in the week preceding her photoshoot with MTV News, released Turn Off the Light, a full-length follow-up to the Halloween-inspired EP she dropped last year; filmed a music video for one of that album’s standout tracks, the gory stomper “There Will Be Blood”; and hopped onstage during Charli XCX‘s Los Angeles concert for a charismatic duet of “Click.” All the while, she’s continued prepping for the Clarity Tour, her biggest headlining trek to date, in support of her debut album. It’s an “intense” show, she says, and admits she’s nervous about mastering all the tight choreography it demands.
But on this Wednesday morning, Petras is all smiles as she scans the monitor to review the photos for which she’s just posed. She rests her pointy nails on her hips and a grin creeps over her face. “Sick!” she approves. This is how Petras describes most of the things she likes: The royal-blue Balenciaga dress hanging in her dressing room is sick. The mix of Britney Spears and Lady Gaga hits that blares over the speakers is sick. Her loyal fan base, affectionately dubbed the Bunheads, are the sickest of all. It’s also how she characterizes the recording studio in Hawaii where, between breaks on the beach, she channeled her murderous, “straight-psychotic” alter-ego to make Turn Off the Light. (“Hawaii is actually really scary at night,” she insists.) Crafting that music was a true vacation for Petras, both from her Los Angeles home and her own real-life problems. “It’s really freeing to write as an elevated version of myself who goes and kills everybody and is just the baddest bitch out there,” she says proudly.
Writing as different characters is nothing new for Petras, who launched her pop career in 2017 with a batch of bubblegum bops — a collection she refers to as “era one” — that illustrated what she wanted her life to be like. Take her breakout hit “I Don’t Want It At All,” a “bratty, rich-bitch anthem” written while she was sleeping on a futon in a tiny apartment shared with three roommates. But for Clarity, which arrived at the end of June, the intention was different; Petras was ready to “pull back the curtain” and capture her life as it truly was. And, as it stood at the time, she was newly single, totally heartbroken, and “really depressed.”
“In the beginning, I was going to make the whole record emo and depressing,” Petras tells MTV News. “Broken” was the first song she wrote for the album. Over an airy trap beat, she spits at her ex, “Pray to God / That she leave you broken, broken / Like you left me broken, broken.” Next was “All I Do Is Cry,” another gloomy trap-pop concoction inspired by Post Malone, Juice WRLD, and Kanye West‘s 808s & Heartbreak, all of which she was listening to on heavy rotation. She was on tour with Troye Sivan at the time, and the routine was the same every night: Put on a happy face, go perform, then get offstage and cry her eyes out. But over time, those breakup songs would become her “bangers,” and the album she was writing started to lighten up.
“Halfway through, I found the fun side of it and the sexy side of it. I was still making sad songs, but it was, ‘I’m still cooler than you even if you cheated on me and fucked me over.’ I think through that, I found the album I wanted to make, which is half-fun, half-sad,” she says. “It’s a very accurate representation of me. It’s like going out with me for a night and then coming back to my apartment and crying over dudes.”
And make no mistake, plenty of tears were involved. “I definitely cry, and I definitely have a hard time closing chapters, which is why I’ve learned a lot of mechanisms to [deal with] a breakup. I know to lock myself in my apartment for a week with a bunch of weed and write a bunch of songs and watch all my favorite movies — First Wives Club, Death Becomes Her — and listen to a lot of Lana Del Rey. And then I move on.” She pauses. “But wait for the next breakup, and it’s going to suck, and I’m going to have forgotten all of this.” (Equally essential: absolutely zero contact with said ex. “I block all of my exes. They’re deleted entirely from my life. But I am hoping he hears the songs when they’re out and he’s just like, ‘Damn it. Fuck that bitch,'” she says with a laugh.)
Newly invigorated, Petras reveled in the rebound and her post-split “horny phase,” which she details in the sexy bops “Do Me,” “Got My Number,” and “Sweet Spot.” Then there’s the Weeknd-esque “Icy,” which has become her Britney Spears “Stronger” moment, on which she confronts her ex and proclaims, “I’m on a higher level.” It’s her most treasured song on the album, her favorite to perform live, and, she believes, one of the best songs she’s ever made. It’s also entirely emblematic of her current mindset. “Sometimes when you’re in relationships, you forget who you are as a person, and you forget all the shit you want to do,” she says. “Once that happened to me, I was just like, ‘OK, I’m going to go so hard on my career, and I’m going to write so many songs. I feel so inspired, and I feel bionic right now.'”
Petras is like this — driven, excited, unabashedly self-assured — for a reason: She’s made it this far, and she’s done it all on her terms. She’s still an independent artist with no major label backing her, and she’s the one who charted her own path from the German countryside to the Hollywood Hills. As a kid growing up in a small town about two hours outside of Cologne, she was unpopular to the point of being suicidal, she says. When she was 16, she basically became Germany’s poster child for transness after appearing in a documentary that chronicled her own operation; it made her a public figure but also an easy target for school bullies. Around the same time, she got a MacBook and started obsessively making beats and writing songs. She learned English by watching Britney Spears interviews online and began thinking of pop stars as not just her idols, but her friends.
“I would just watch Gwen Stefani‘s Love. Angel. Music. Baby. videos and literally think about nothing else,” Petras says. “It was a way for me to escape my life, which I hated, and escape school, which I hated. When I put on my headphones and listened to pop songs, it transported me to somewhere where I wanted to be.”
That place was Los Angeles, where Petras moved at 19 to manifest her pop star dreams. But as she steadily climbed the ladder of the music industry — by working her way in as a songwriter and subsequently scoring a publishing deal — she found it increasingly frustrating trying to separate her art from her identity. “There were a lot of people who were either telling me that I needed to hide being transgender or that I needed to make a big deal out of being transgender,” she says. “A lot of people didn’t think I could ever be lucrative because being transgender is a niche thing in their eyes. I’ve always felt like there was a big wall for me to break through and a lot for me to prove, and there still is.”
In the beginning, Petras shopped around for major label deals but was disgusted by execs who wanted to use her identity as a marketing tool. “A woman really high up at one of the biggest labels ever was like, ‘So are you transgender because it’s trendy right now?'” she says. At the time, Petras would rarely speak up for herself, but that’s certainly not the case anymore — even though doing so can present its own challenges. “It’s been quite difficult, to be honest, because there’s also been backlash whenever I just want it to be about the music. There are trans people being like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to support the trans community.’ And then when I do, people are saying I’m using it. It’s such a balance, which is so hard to figure out. And I’m one of the first people that has to figure it out.”
With the media qualifying her as a trans pop star, Petras’s team intentionally decided to keep her face off the “era one” artwork, opting instead for neon outlines of her head. But with Clarity, everything is out in the open — on the cover and in the music — and Petras’s confidence is at an all-time high. “I always thought I wasn’t interesting enough or pretty enough or a good enough singer,” she admits. “I was always wondering, ‘Is anybody going to want to listen to my shit?’ Like, ‘Who the fuck cares about what this person from the middle of nowhere in Germany has to say?’ I used to feel alone and like a little bit of a freak before I met my fans.”
During our conversation, Petras repeatedly makes two points, with different variations but always with the same conviction: Making pop music is her “purpose, and her fans fuel her confidence. Her love for them is so strong that she’s even broken all pop star etiquette by becoming friends with them — a bunch have her phone number, and she texts them about how school is going or about what music they’re into. Recently, Petras even sent one of her fans a rough cut of her “Icy” video to get his opinion; it’s a testament to their mutual trust that it hasn’t leaked online. “Maybe I shouldn’t have done that,” she says, “but all my fans are so talented, and they just get it.”
She maintains that it’s because of her fans she has the life she always dreamed of, and she’s determined to impress them and make them proud. Today, that means slaying this photoshoot — and an inflatable couch or two. “I really want to kill every look that we’ve got. I’m just trying to stay focused and remind myself to arch, to breathe, to look like I’m not trying…” She pauses and reconsiders. “I feel like I’ve got my angles down. I got this.”
Photographed by Clare Gillen
Styled by Matthew Mazur
Hair by Iggy Rosales
Makeup by Gilbert Soliz
Set Design by Haley Appell
Photo Assistant: Julian Tuzzeo
Stylist Assistant: Diego Lawler
Back to VOL.UME: Love Now.