When British singer-songwriter Sam Smith and German electropop maverick Kim Petras went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with their vibey club banger “Unholy,” they made history as the both the first openly nonbinary solo artist and trans solo artist, respectively, to achieve that feat. And the two continued to blaze that trail at Sunday’s 65th Annual Grammy Awards, when “Unholy” won Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.
When Smith requested that Petras, the first transgender woman to win in this category, deliver the Grammy acceptance speech on their behalf, the tearful Petras thanked her supportive mother; her idol, Madonna; and “all the incredible transgender legends before me who kicked these doors open for me so I could be here tonight,” including her friend, the late electronic artist/producer SOPHIE. And, of course, she told her duet partner, “This is a huge moment for me, Sam. Thank you. You are a true angel and hero in my life, and I love you,” as she received a standing ovation.
“Honestly, the world doesn’t deserve Sam,” Petras gushed the day before the Grammys, speaking with Entertainment at Sir Lucian Grainge’s 2023 Artist Showcase at Hollywood’s Milk Studios (where she, Smith, Shania Twain, and other rising Universal Music Group artists like 2023 Grammy-winners Samara Joy and Muni Long performed for a private audience that included Sir Elton John, Billie Eilish, Jon Batiste, Sabrina Carpenter, and Niall Horan).
“Sam’s just such an angel and sweet person, and so talented. … This is a very magical collaboration, in the way that we have both experienced the same things — we both grew up in Europe being artistic queer kids, and we share some of the same stories of being spit on in the street or being insulted every day in school. Sam’s been a light in my life for years and very supportive, and it’s nice to have someone who goes through some of the same things I go through to talk to about this stuff. Every time we’re onstage together, I just feel really safe and like I can fully be myself. So, this has been lovely.”
For than a decade, Petras, now age 30, has been steadily amassing an underground base of devoted fans — among them Smith, who slid into her DMs four years ago to form this “Unholy” alliance. “Sam messaged me on Instagram and was just like, ‘You are amazing. I would love to one day work with you,’” Petras recalled. “We’ve been sending back and forth songs for years, but it was just never the right fit. We were both like, ‘When we do something together, it needs to be iconic, and it needs to make sense for both of us’; we’re both big fans of like real duets, like Sonny & Cher shit. Then this song came around, and we both said, ‘Yeah, that’s the one.’”
Reflecting on her tough childhood “growing up next to a highway two hours outside of Cologne, Germany… when I had no friends and was hiding in my room and listening Madonna like she was my friend or the only person who ‘got’ me,” Petras admitted that this level of success was “definitely something I couldn’t have dreamt of as a kid.” Back then, she found comfort and inspiration in ‘90s rave music, Kraftwerk, Rammstein, French house (“I think with European music and growing up in Germany, it is a little stranger”), Cher, Boy George, George Michael, Marina & the Diamonds, and a truly “eye-opening moment for me as a kid,” the Moulin Rouge remake of “Lady Marmalade” by Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya, and Lil’ Kim. And all of this set her on her long path to the Grammys.
“I don’t think I would’ve a place in music without all these artists that pushed those boundaries,” Petras said. “But I definitely credit being able to do what I do now to Madonna, who pushed open doors for the LGBTQ community for longer than I’ve been f***ing alive. I don’t think I would have a place in music without Madonna. Madonna is like the pop Bible to me. I don’t think that any of the pop girls of the last 20 or 30 years would’ve had their careers had they not followed Madonna’s blueprint. She invented all of us pop girlies.”
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So, it was a full-circle career highlight when Madonna visited Saturday Night Live when Petras and Smith performed on that show last month (another iconic TV moment, when Smith figuratively “birthed” Petras with a Drag Race-worthy big reveal, as ), and especially when Madonna made a surprise appearance at Sunday’s Grammy Awards to introduce Smith and Petras’s fiery “Unholy” performance.
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“Madonna has been very sweet and encouraging to me, and that’s the most meaningful thing,” Petras marveled. “She came to the afterparty at SNL to say congrats and take some pictures, and I got to tell her all this stuff — just that I adore her so much, and what her music meant to me, especially as a trans kid. It was just like, wisdom. Her message of being your true self is not so on-the-nose, but it’s beautiful and poetic. Honestly, her music really pushed me in life and made me feel like there is a place out there for me to share my art.”
Another person that gave Petras a place, who the singer made sure to thank at the Grammys, was experimental pop artist/producer SOPHIE, who in 2021 at age 34. Before Petras, SOPHIE made history as one of the three first openly transgender women to be nominated for a Grammy, and was heralded for a signature surrealist, warp-speed sound that bridged the mainstream and the underground, incorporating elements of Japanese and Korean pop, Eurodisco, U.K. garage, Y2K pop, and ‘90s house and hip-hop. SOPHIE and Petras worked on four tracks together, and their collaborations helped lay the groundwork for Petras’s mainstream breakthrough.
“What comes to my mind with ‘Unholy’ is you can hear SOPHIE’s influence in that,” Petras pointed out. “SOPHIE’s such an important artist to me, as someone who I actually collaborated with, who I just admired and still look up to so much, who I never get tired of being inspired by and am forever grateful for. SOPHIE believed in me as much as I believed in SOPHIE, and collaborating with her was really, really magical. I carry the encouraging words of SOPHIE with me. SOPHIE was just a really, really special person and I think ahead of their time, sonically. I think this new generation of artists kind of recognizes that; they see how genius it was. So, I’ll always have a little bit of SOPHIE’s inspiration in my music, just because she changed the way that I see music. She was fearless and knew exactly what she wanted, and she didn’t take any other thing for an answer. And that forever inspires me. I’ve never seen someone like that in the studio, who’s making the most insane sounds and it just worked. I always want to rep the f***ing name, because SOPHIE really changed music and changed my life.”
But most importantly, Petras made sure to thank her mother — a choreographer, artist, and “special person” — in her Grammy speech. Growing up, Petras knew early on that she wanted to transition, and while her father “was not getting it and would do things like shave off my hair, send me to school dressed as a boy, just all that stuff that sticks with me,” her mother thankfully understood her and stood by her. “At 5 years old, I tried to kill myself. I just didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Petras revealed. “My mom really is the reason I’m alive. She had a dance studio and friends that were gay, and she knew trans people. She talked to me and told me there were things I could do once I’m old enough to do them. She believed in me.”
By age 14, Petras, with her mother’s support, began seeking permission to undergo early gender affirmation surgery in Germany, where the legal minimum age for such a procedure is 18. “We didn’t have money. We didn’t know how to afford any of this. It’s a lot easier of an experience if you have any money,” Petras explained. “But my mom would drive me across the country to go to doctors to help me become myself, and I’m forever so grateful for that.” Petras even appeared on German television to try to generate attention for her situation, and she eventually underwent surgery at age 16.
“It was years of convincing people, of people saying I’m nuts or people not believing me,” said Petras. “It is really a crazy thing to think that I started transitioning almost 20 years ago. It was not a thing. It was not accepted. I was really a joke in German media. I mean, that’s why I left Germany, because they did a bunch of documentaries about me. I was just like, ‘I want to help other people,’ but then they detonated me on TV and called me a ‘transvestite’ and all of those things. So, I never really had a chance in Germany. I moved to L.A. as soon as I was old enough, where the only thing that mattered was: ‘Can you write songs? Can you sing?’
“It was a little rough in Germany, and I definitely have a bone to pick with a lot of media outlets there,” Petras continued. “Right now I feel like I can’t believe my life in general, so I’m not even thinking about what [the German media] might have done, but I definitely don’t want that to happen again. I want to help the new generation of trans kids so they don’t have to go through that, so that they’re not seen as a joke or as entertainment to make fun of. Everybody deserves respect, and I hope I can be a part of pushing that so people say, ‘Well, Kim Petras is a really successful musician who’s really talented and performs at the Grammys, so I can be whatever I want to be too.’ I would love to do that for the new generation.”
It seems the timing is finally right for Petras. “With the TikTok community and the new generation, it’s amazing to see how open they are, and how much open the future can be, and how much of strange and outside-the-box music we hear,” Petras said. “Now radio is forced to play this stuff because the kids love it, and these kids don’t want to be fed the same shit. They want new stuff. So, it’s a really exciting time to be an artist.” And Petras has finally found a label, Universal/Republic – which recently dropped her solo singles “brrr” and “If Jesus Was a Rockstar” — that understands her vision and takes her seriously.
“Universal has been such an incredible blessing. I mean, they’ve been chasing me for four years, and that’s what ultimately convinced me. … They just believed that I could push the limit and break the ceiling,” Petras said. “Even a few years ago when I was only performing in gay clubs, I was feeling successful just having my core fanbase that loved me, but everyone was always kind of questioning, like, ‘Can a trans artist have a big fanbase, or is it just going to be gay people?’ It was kind of the question of: ‘How do we market you? Do we hide it? Or do we make it a thing?’ Like, I came into record labels playing my music, and I feel like my music was completely disregarded and all that mattered to these people was how to handle me being transgender and what that means and where I fit in. It was definitely treated either as a problem, or something that they wanted to make an ‘event.’ But this is my identity — it’s not a gimmick. So, yeah, that just didn’t feel good.
“Yes, I’m a part of the LGBTQ community, which is amazing, and I couldn’t do life without the LGBTQ community; I’ve never felt accepted anywhere than in a gay club, to this day, and no one loves pop music than gay clubs,” Petras continued. “But also, my achievement is being a good musician, where it’s not about being transgender. Even though I think it’s really important that there’s visibility, I also think it’s really important that people in general are seen not for their gender, not for their sexuality, but for their insides. I think the world would be a much better place if we didn’t say, ‘Is this a woman? Is this a man?’ We limit ourselves; we put ourselves in boxes. I think everybody is a person that deserves to be respected equally, and that includes trans people, gay people, all kinds of people. I’m very anti-label. I just think every person is their own special, unique being.”
Petras is definitely a special, unique being and artist, and with her historic Grammy win, No. 1 hit, and Universal/Republic deal now giving her an unprecedented platform, she is sure to continue to break new ground, ceilings, and barriers. “It feels incredible, and I just feel so honored to be the first person to achieve that,” she said of her success with Smith. “And I hope this opens doors for even .”