Trans rights are under attack. Kim Petras fights back with more pop bangers about sex

Kim Petras stands against a red background.
“Transgenderism is being used ... to distract from everything that’s messed up in this country. It’s like a clown show they’re making out of being trans,” says Kim Petras.
(Irvin Rivera / For The Times)

Kim Petras was already an old friend and collaborator of Paris Hilton’s when the pop singer put in a surprise appearance at Hilton’s first-ever concert this month at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood.

In 2017, Hilton made a cameo in the music video for Petras’ breakout single, “I Don’t Want It at All,” in which Petras sings about happily auditioning for a sugar daddy; four years later, Petras sang at Hilton’s wedding to investor Carter Reum in a performance captured for posterity as part of Hilton’s reality TV show “Paris in Love.”


But as she sat backstage at the Fonda before joining the world’s most famous heiress for a romp through Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” — a glittery early-2000s camp classic that had the two twirling for an audience of gay men celebrating Pride month — Petras, 30, still couldn’t quite believe that she’d gotten close with the woman she idolized as a transgender girl growing up in Germany. (The “I Don’t Want It at All” video opens with Petras kneeling at a makeshift shrine to Hilton.)

“I’ve shown Paris pictures of me standing in front of Paris Hilton posters in my bedroom as a kid,” Petras said. “‘Stars Are Blind’ means so much to me. It reminds me of when I was finding myself.”

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That Hilton would call on Petras to help close her live show was just one indication of how far Petras has come since those searching childhood days in a small suburb of Cologne. Last fall, her and Sam Smith’s slithering club jam “Unholy” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, making her the first openly trans person (and Smith the first openly nonbinary person) to top the music industry’s preeminent singles chart. In February, no less an icon than Madonna introduced a fiery, red-leather-bedecked rendition of “Unholy” at the Grammy Awards, where Petras and Smith went on to win the award for pop duo/group performance. And last month Petras appeared in a gold bikini on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, a gig that involved a trip on a private plane with the magazine’s other models, including 81-year-old Martha Stewart.

“It felt like Miss Congeniality in the best way possible,” the singer recalled with a laugh.

Martha Stewart and Kim Petras; behind them, a step-and-repeat banner says "Sports Illustrated swimsuit"
Martha Stewart and Kim Petras at the 2023 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue launch party.
(Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)


Now Petras is prepping for the release of her major-label debut album, “Feed the Beast.” Due Friday from Republic Records, it showcases her dramatic singing voice and her flair for snappy phrases and sharp yet gleaming hooks; it also emphasizes her deep knowledge of pop history, as in “Alone,” a duet with Nicki Minaj that interpolates the 1999 dance hit “Better Off Alone” by the Dutch trance act Alice Deejay. The LP is clearly meant to make Petras a major Top 40 presence after years of hard work in the trenches.

“I admire Kim for being unapologetically herself, and I think in this industry that takes you further than projecting something you’re not,” said Hilton, who added that Petras “has definitely paved the way for other artists and has contributed so much to music already.”

Yet “Feed the Beast” also finds Petras at the center of a web of interconnected controversies, some of her own making and some not. One of her primary creative partners on the album is Dr. Luke, the hit-making songwriter and producer whom Kesha accused of sexual assault in 2014. (In addition to Kesha’s “Tik Tok,” Dr. Luke’s many smashes include Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.”) Dr. Luke, born Lukasz Gottwald, denied Kesha’s allegations, and in 2016 a judge dismissed the singer’s legal claims. To some listeners, though, he remains a toxic figure whose alleged misdeeds impute a moral if not a commercial stain on artists who continue to work with him.

Petras has also been criticized by fans who say that “Unholy” — in which Smith and Petras address a straight cisgender man caught cheating on his wife — represents something of a lost opportunity to center the stories of queer people.

Asked to respond to that critique, Petras framed “Unholy” as a product of her lived experience. “As a trans girl, I’ve often been taken as the side chick, and I don’t want to be that,” she said in a cramped dressing room at the Fonda. Dressed in a filmy purple dress, two black ribbons tied into her blond hair, she sipped an energy drink through a straw between puffs from a banana-yellow vape pen. “So for me and Sam, it’s like we’re the allies of girls whose guys do s— behind their backs. To men who cheat, we’re like, ‘We’ll f— tell.’”

Said Smith in an email: “When she came into the studio, all I wanted was for Kim to do Kim and really put her stamp on the track.”


Kim Petras and Sam Smith hold a Grammy Award
Kim Petras and Sam Smith pose with their pop duo/group performance Grammy Award.
(Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

Whatever the viewpoint of the song, the success of “Unholy” has brought attention to Petras’ identity at a moment of widening anti-trans rhetoric and legislation. This year Republican lawmakers have passed numerous bills restricting young people’s access to gender-affirming care, while conservative activists recently called for a boycott of Bud Light after trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney posted a piece of sponsored content about the beer. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) targeted Petras specifically with a tweet about her and Smith’s Grammys performance (“This…is…evil,” he wrote); ditto Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News personality, who said on her podcast that Petras’ Sports Illustrated cover defied the purpose of the swimsuit issue, which is for “15-year-old boys to spend some alone time with it in the bathroom.”

What does Petras make of comments like that? “It bounces off me at this point,” she said, a bit fidgety but with no shortage of eye contact. “I’ve been called crazy by doctors since I was 10 years old — like, ‘You will always be a man!’ So that whole mindset, it’s always been this way.” The difference now, she said, is that “transgenderism is being used as this sensationalist thing to distract from everything that’s messed up in this country. It’s like a clown show they’re making out of being trans. But I don’t think that people actually care that much, to be honest.”

Prof. Karen Tongson, chair of the department of gender and sexuality studies at USC, said it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Petras’ ascent has come amid such attacks on the trans community. “Mainstream exposure for minoritized communities is often accompanied by resentment-fueled backlash,” she said, pointing out that Laverne Cox’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 2014 preceded an uptick in violence against trans women of color. “With greater visibility comes greater vulnerability,” Tongson added.

A person holds their hands to their face.
“I wanted to make songs for girls who need them to not feel ashamed,” says Petras. “Me and my friends pride ourselves on being sluts. I think everyone should.”
(Irvin Rivera / For The Times)

In her acceptance speech at the Grammys, Petras spoke movingly about her mother’s support when she was young, though she now has regrets about taking part in a German documentary about her transition. “It was just deadnaming and showing me topless, underage and on hormones — horrible s—,” she said.

Petras grew up obsessed with pop music, particularly Madonna, whom she described as “the first person where in her music she was so masculine at some points and so feminine at some points. And the music was so much about your mind and how that’s all that matters.”

She began writing songs as a teenager and sang covers on YouTube; at 19 she came to Los Angeles at the invitation of a producer who let her sleep on a couch in his garage in Redondo Beach. Eventually she met Dr. Luke, whose once-surging career had stalled in the wake of Kesha’s accusations and who found in Petras a talented up-and-comer without a huge number of options.

Having been criticized in the past for seeming to doubt Kesha, Petras these days avoids talking in interviews about Luke, who beyond his work on “Feed the Beast” has produced songs recently for Minaj, Doja Cat and Lil Durk, among others. But Petras allowed that she’s “learned a lot about songwriting from working with Luke” — that “there’s a very specific science to music that I had no idea of when I was starting out.”

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Together the two created a string of early singles — including “I Don’t Want It at All,” a clever riff on Madonna’s “Material Girl,” and the ecstatically lovesick “Heart to Break” — that attracted a devoted fan base of queer folks and pop aesthetes. Since then, Petras has toyed with variety of styles and attitudes, alternately pushing her music toward steamy R&B, throbbing EDM and the fractured, highly digitized sound of hyperpop. (In her Grammys speech, Petras thanked Sophie, the influential hyperpop musician who died in 2021.)


“Kim creates a kind of fantasy world in her music,” said Sarah Hudson, a songwriter who’s worked with Dua Lipa and Justin Bieber and who co-wrote the wistful “Castle in the Sky” on “Feed the Beast.” “It’s so fun and colorful but so touching at the same time.”

Last year, Petras released an EP called “Slut Pop” of ultra-raunchy tunes including “Throat Goat,” about … well, you can figure it out. “I love songs about sex,” she said. “It’s one of the best topics to ever exist. Like, why wouldn’t you want to write a song about that?” She added that she sees a political dimension to “Slut Pop,” which came out shortly after OnlyFans said it would ban pornography (a decision the internet platform later reversed).

“It’s very common in the trans realm that a lot of the dolls have no choice but to do sex work to afford their transition,” Petras said. “Had my parents kicked me out, which happens to a lot of trans kids, that probably would have been my way. And I don’t see anything bad with that. So I just wanted to make songs for those girls who need them to not feel ashamed. Me and my friends pride ourselves on being sluts. I think everyone should.”

Five people in fashionable variations on black and white.
Kim Petras, right, at the 2023 Met Gala with, from left, Paris Hilton, Marc Jacobs, Kendall Jenner and Anitta.
(Arturo Holmes /MG23/Getty Images)

Petras’ sex positivity is intertwined with a complicated body image. “I have dysmorphia — I’ve always had it,” she said. “There’s days when I look in the mirror and hate everything about myself, which is why I’m in therapy. Onstage it usually goes away completely and I feel incredible. But photo shoots, especially where it’s a more natural look and I’m not in a crazy costume, that can be hard.”


Does she like the Sports Illustrated photo? “I love it,” she said. “Being in a swimsuit is not the easiest thing for me, but they made me feel like I belonged on the cover.” The magazine shoot took place at the same Pasadena home where Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda filmed parts of 2005’s “Monster-in-Law,” Petras noted with a grin. “We were geeking out over that.”

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Petras co-wrote every song on “Feed the Beast,” a fact she said she wants people to know. “I play with this image of being a brat who gets everything handed to her, but it’s not like I go in the studio and someone cooks me a song,” she said. “I went in with Max Martin, and Max Martin will help you and give you his opinion,” she continued, referring to the veteran Swedish writer-producer. (Other studio collaborators on the LP include Cirkut, Rami Yacoub, Ian Kirkpatrick and the Monsters & Strangerz.) “But you’re still throwing s— out to come up with something together.”

Hudson said Petras “gets on the mic and it’s like a million ideas come out that you can pull from.” According to Smith, the singer “freestyled the entire verse [of ‘Unholy’] and just completely nailed it.”

A person stands in an archway.
“There’s days when I look in the mirror and hate everything about myself, which is why I’m in therapy,” says Petras. “Onstage it usually goes away completely and I feel incredible.”
(Irvin Rivera / For The Times)

For all of Petras’ individuality, “Feed the Beast” feels aligned with a broader Europop resurgence — think of David Guetta and Bebe Rexha’s “I’m Good (Blue),” Calvin Harris and Ellie Goulding’s “Miracle,” Kylie Minogue’s “Padam Padam.” Even “Barbie Girl,” that late-’90s dance-pop curio by Aqua, is getting a reboot this summer by Minaj and Ice Spice as part of Greta Gerwig’s splashy “Barbie” movie.


Petras said she’s “so excited” to see “Barbie,” whose title character played a crucial role in the development of her presentation of femininity. “She’s the ultimate doll,” said Petras, who also looked to Hilton and to horror movies and to the fashion of Karl Lagerfeld. And to Madonna, of course, with whom she hung out at a party following her and Smith’s performance in January on “Saturday Night Live.”

“I basically talked her ear off about how ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ is one of the best albums ever,” Petras recalled. “She finally stopped me and was like, ‘Do you want to take a picture?’ I was so glad she did because I was s—faced.”

Petras’ busy pop-star life doesn’t leave much time for dating. “But dating is hard in general for a trans girl,” she said. “Most apps don’t even have the category, so you have to put it in your bio so that people know, because that’s how you get killed if you don’t clarify it.” For now she’s happily single, living with her three dogs — Schnitzel, Karl and Matilda — in Hollywood Hills.

Kim Petras strikes a pose on a stage
Kim Petras performs at the 2023 Governors Ball in New York City.
(Astrida Valigorsky / Getty Images)

This fall she’ll tour behind her album, with a Nov. 1 stop scheduled at Inglewood’s YouTube Theater. Among her ambitions for the year ahead is to work with Lana Del Rey, whom she calls “one of the greatest songwriters ever.”


She also wants to prove wrong the naysayers who told her earlier in her career that she made “niche music for gay clubs,” as though that were a bad thing. “I’m like, ‘Gay club music is the greatest music there is, because gay people actually care about music,’” she said. “And, you know, most straight clubs are the most awful experience I’ve ever had in my life. I’d rather die than listen to that music.”

What’s a good example of a terrible straight club song?

“Oh, my God, I can’t answer that,” she said, laughing. “That’s very dangerous.”