Kim Petras Opens Up About How Bullies — and Childhood Idols — Prepared Her for Pop Stardom

"I was told that I'd always be a niche act," says the "I Don't Want It At All" singer-songwriter, who is on tour for her debut album Clarity

Photo: Thom Kerr

Kim Petras is making her pop dreams come true — on her own terms.

Born and raised in Cologne, Germany, the singer-songwriter has been pursuing pop stardom since she was a teen. An unabashed fan of the divas, from Madonna to Minogue, Petras started writing songs in her bedroom at age 13. She moved to Los Angeles to chase a career in music at 19. And in the years since, Petras has slowly built a committed cult following thanks to pure pop bops like "I Don't Want It At All" and "Heart to Break."

Pop music has always been important to Petras, long before it became her profession.

“It means everything to me. When I was a kid, I used to not really have friends in school. I hated going to school — I got bullied pretty bad,” says Petras, who underwent gender-confirmation surgery at 16. “I used to run home from school and watch Gwen Stefani music videos, and I felt like I could escape my problems with that.”

Now, the nascent star is providing her own growing fanbase with a similar respite from reality.

This summer, she released her first LP Clarity, which evokes the ’90s and 2000s pop of her childhood idols on standouts like "Icy," "Personal Hell" and "Sweet Spot." And she’s about to hit the road for The Clarity Tour, on which she’ll perform tracks from her debut album and the sexy Turn Off the Light, a 17-song, Halloween-themed dance project she released on Tuesday.

“For me this is definitely just the start,” says Petras, 27.

PEOPLE caught up with the performer about her long rise to stardom, how pop music changed her life and why she refuses to be defined by her gender identity.

What does pop music mean to you?

Well, I grew up in the countryside in Germany — literally cows, no neighbors, nothing. I felt like pop stars were my friends — or I wanted them to be my friends. I used to just dance around in my room to pop all the time. And I used to dream of this life that was in Gwen Stefani’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby. album, in Kylie Minogue songs, and Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, and Britney Spears albums and Destiny’s Child albums.

It was just I was so obsessed as a kid and just such a big fan. I felt like I could escape to that world whenever I didn’t want to think about my problems or was just hating my life. It helped me tremendously as a kid to have that dream and have something to really look forward to.

For more on Kim Petras, who appears in PEOPLE’s annual Ones to Watch portfolio, pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

Kim Petras. Megan Walschlager

Let’s talk about your own music. Most songs on the radio right now are heavily influenced by hip-hop, but your stuff is very pure pop.

I just feel like I’m taking all the elements of [pop] that are magical and that I love about it and making it into my own thing. I’m definitely inspired by all kinds of genres and all kinds of things. But I’m not scared of pop, which is I think one of the big things with a lot of people right now: It’s just being scared to not just all sound the same. Sonically, I feel really free.

My fans just relate to how much I love pop; I love it in the same way as my fans do. We have this really special relationship where we really get each other, where everybody’s a community of people — it’s really cool. I feel so much less lonely since I found my fans. My fans are like my friends. I write a lot of s— now for my fans. I’m just really happy that I make the music that I want to make and people love it.

I’m an independent artist, so I’m really the boss of everything. I am a big part of every part of this whole thing.

Tell me about the freedom being an indie artist has afforded you.

My focus is on my whole discography as an artist. I really want my fans to fall in love with everything, all the songs — not just one hit song, and the rest is filler. And I want to tour as much as possible. l started out in every little gay club there is in the U.S., playing them for years and years and building a real fan base out of that. It’s been cool that that’s possible, especially without a radio hit song, because you need to spend so much money to have one. I’ve just been using the internet as an amazing tool to find my fans and to make my vision become a reality. I’ve been hustling really hard and performing all over the place all the time, not stopping.

Kim Petras
Kim Petras. Burak Cingi/Redferns

You’ve been hustling for almost a decade. When did you know this was something you were going to pursue as a career?

I knew that nobody was going to write me songs, that I’d have to become a really good songwriter. I started watching every documentary there is about songwriting, every documentary about artists. I really spent my time studying how other people broke into the industry. Ever since I was 13, I was just making songs in my room, producing songs, and making demos and sending them out to people; finding producers online who would send me tracks and then writing on those tracks; and building a network of people I could work with online, even though I couldn’t go anywhere because I was in the middle of nowhere. Instead of going to parties I would just be in my room and writing hundreds of songs until I became good.

So how did you go from writing in your bedroom to recording and releasing albums?

I was waitressing, just living in my own apartment saving up for tickets to come to L.A. Then I went by myself the first time when I was 19. I didn’t know anybody but just went to open mic nights and sent my songs to people or started finding people in studios who were willing to write with me. I worked my way in. I wrote for other people a lot — artists would start cutting my songs — then I got a publishing deal. Then I was like, “Okay, I’m going to take this publishing deal and make my own album.” Then from there I just went into releasing my own stuff.

Moving to a different country by yourself is hard. It’s hard being an immigrant, being in the U.S. illegally in the beginning, going back and forth; just trying to be here was hard. Then once I got a publishing deal I got a visa and everything worked out.

Kim Petras
Kim Petras. Shirlaine Forrest/Getty

It’s been quite a long journey to this point, but it’s definitely been like school, pop school: learning how to do all of this, how to catch people’s attention, how to write good enough songs. I feel like I’m completely self-taught. Nobody walked me through this. I just worked really hard on becoming good. I’m really proud of that part.

There were a lot of times where I was close to giving up, where I thought nothing was ever going to happen. I’m just really blessed and happy that I am in this position now. I still can’t believe it sometimes. Especially with being transgender — for record labels, that’s a huge deal. I was told that I’d always be a niche act because I’m transgender. So, having people just listen to my music a lot, and not even knowing I’m transgender, was amazing.

Going off that — how do you balance being a voice for the trans community, while also not letting that define you as an artist?

I don’t ever want that to be in my songs much. I feel like my songs are good because they’re relatable to anybody. I feel like that is a big part of the equality that I want: for people to realize that everybody’s just equal and the same and have the same issues and go through the same things emotionally.

I just want to be taken seriously as an artist — not as a transgender artist. I don’t want my career to be about my gender identity. I’ve written too many songs and worked too hard for that. I love being a voice for transgender rights and fighting for what I think is right and making the world a better place. Maybe the next generations will have it easier than me. I care so much, but at the same time I don’t want it to become about [my gender], because I’m really proud of my music. I work really hard on my music. It has nothing to do with me being transgender.

Kim Petras
Kim Petras. Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty

As for Turn Off the Light, tell me about your obsession with all things spooky.

I love movies that are really horrifying. They relax me; I don’t know why. I love Elvira, obviously, which is why she was on my last record [the title track on last year’s Turn Off the Light Vol. 1 EP]. And I always used to look forward to Halloween and dressing up and the parties. I just love the scarier things.

Turn Off The Light is so cool because it’s definitely like an alter ego, a very different version of myself: It’s basically like me singing as a villain. It’s really freeing, writing-wise, because I’m not constricted to just my own emotions and stuff like that. I get to make a larger-than-life character and really play it out. It’s really dramatic and theatrical, which I love being. This one sounds harder and darker than the last one did. I don’t feel like there’s anything that sounds like it out there.

When did you know you had started to “make it”?

I still have a long way to go; I feel like every time I drop something I learn from it and I get better. But yeah, I’m definitely not where I want to be at all. This is a really great start, but now I’m doing this next tour and it’s way bigger venues than I’ve ever done. That’s a huge deal for me. Everything I do, I keep growing and everything keeps growing. I’m independent so I’ve built it from the ground up. From the beginning, it was just clubs in New York that played my songs. Now I’m selling out huge venues, which is amazing.

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