Overnight success was a long time coming for Kim Petras. After a decade navigating every rung of the music industry, she finally hit the jackpot with “Unholy.” At the beginning of October, the slinky Sam Smith collaboration became Petras’ first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 and, to her complete astonishment, topped the chart a month later and earned a Grammy nomination. “There was a lot of crying,” the German artist says.
Her shock is rooted in doubt about the public’s willingness to embrace a trans pop star. “Executives would say, ‘You make gay club music, you’re niche and we don’t know how to market you,’” she says. It turns out, all she had to do was stay true to herself and join forces with a superstar.
Smith first floated the idea of working with Petras years ago. They have been sending songs back and forth ever since, but nothing felt right until a rough demo of “Unholy” arrived in Petras’ inbox. She knew it was the one immediately. “It just made sense,” Petras says. “I actually had something to offer to the storyline.” A week later they met for the very first time at L.A.’s Capitol Studios.
Petras broke the ice by telling Smith how much she loved “Nirvana” from 2014’s “In the Lonely Hour.” Before long, they were friends and supportive collaborators. Petras’ process involves freestyling in the booth, which Smith strongly encouraged. “I went in and wrote that whole thing pretty quickly,” she remembers. They then completed the song together. “We sat on the floor, drinking whiskey and smoking weed, and filled in the blanks.”
The duo was assisted by a smattering of music’s biggest songwriters and producers, including ILYA, Cirkut, Omer Fedi and Blake Slatkin. However, Smith took charge creatively and insisted that Petras was heard and empowered. “Sam was like, ‘I want Kim to do whatever she wants to do. I want her to be authentic.’” In the process, she expanded her group of collaborators: “It’s really cool because ‘Unholy’ introduced me to the Max Martin crew.” (Superstar producer Martin co-wrote and sang backup on her single “If Jesus Was a Rock Star.”)
While Petras loved “Unholy” immediately, she wasn’t sure about its commercial prospects. But Smith knew they were on to something special. “Sam really believed in the song from the start and fought for it,” she says.
When “Unholy” dropped, the response was instant. It debuted at No. 1 on Spotify’s U.S. and Global charts and entered the Hot 100 at No. 3. All of a sudden, Petras was making the kind of moves she had dreamed of since dropping her first independent single as a teenager. “I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve never had that kind of mass appeal,” she says. “It was my first Hot 100 entry and it went to No. 1, which is crazy. It really made me proud of all the work that it took to get to that point and all the years performing at clubs and hustling,” she says.
It’s doubly rewarding, then, that the song that finally broke her is a defiant celebration of queerness. “It proved to a lot of people that if you make good music, it doesn’t matter what your gender identity is,” she says.
Now Petras hopes to usher in a fresh generation of trans talent while honoring the trailblazers who came before her. “I hope that I’m opening the doors for new artists,” she says before turning her attention to those who inspired her, such as the late Sophie. “I feel like I’m carrying the torch for everyone that came before me, and it feels really beautiful and amazing that I get to do that.”
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