petra collins, the it girl with a conscience

Toronto-born artist Petra Collins is 21 and on a mission to change the world for girls. Her life might look like a box of chocolates but the filling is a mighty fight for female empowerment.

by Sarah Raphael
11 April 2014, 7:20pm

Petra Collins and Friends

Petra Collins is a 90s child. In this case, that means she dresses like a 70s icon, she was editing videos by the age of eight and she met her best friends online. If you believe everything you see on her Instagram too, then her world is a dream of neon text messages, blue skies, vintage cars, beautiful people and abundant charm. So inevitably, some of the comments under pictures can come out a little jealous: "You're too much of amazing, leave some for others man", "ugh can I just look like this already" and "I wish I was Petra Collins sumtimez". But girls, you're missing the point. Petra isn't just living a fabulous filtered life, she's looking at the bigger picture, and it's not a perfect square. "I guess my life seems perfect, but I want people to know that those are just images. I suffer all the time. Depression is something I deal with all the time." Turning her struggle into accessible art, Petra leads all-female collectives with the aim of empowering young women to be individuals and to have confidence in exactly who they are. She's running for freedom of speech and uncovering a truth about female sexuality that has been shushed for too long. Last year, her Instagram was deleted because she posted a selfie of her natural bikini line poking through her knickers, because she showed the world nothing more than a reality. The censorship pissed Petra off, so she wrote an essay about it for Oyster and The Huffington Post, saying "Do not let anyone tell you what you should look like, tell you how to be, tell you that you do not own your body." Taking photographs for Miss Vogue, Rookie (edited by her friend Tavi Gevinson) and Vogue Italia, Petra also experiments with neon, sculpture, painting and writing. She is muse to Ryan McGinley, casting director to Richard Kern, a radio show host on, a curator and a T-shirt designer. Petra is the it-girl with a conscience. Welcome to her world; get lost in it by all means, but if you start to go green-eyed, remember she's on your side!

1.30pm, New York
Hi Petra, how's your day going so far?
It's good... actually I just woke up! [laughs]

Ha, ok. So tell me about the photos in this collection, when did you take them?
Most of them were taken over the last six months. I take a lot of photos!

How many photos do you take a day?
If I'm in a really awesome spot I can take hundreds, but sometimes I can just take four.

I take photos because I need to do it. I get a feeling from it that I can't get from anything else.

What have you been up to over the past few weeks?
I've been in New York, I just had a solo show, and I curated a group show here before that.

Tell me about the solo show...
It's a combination of all my work, from the age of 15 to 21. It's mostly photos but I also started working with other mediums, so I had sculpture and neons too.

What did you write in neon?
I do these neon lyrics out of Rihanna songs. I take certain lyrics of hers that I find empowering.

Like what?
There's this one lyric in Rude Boy that says "Baby if I don't feel it, I ain't faking no more". And the one that I did for my show is the chorus from the song Cockiness, it goes "I love it when you eat it," over and over again.

So you find Rihanna an inspirational woman?
Totally. Her songs are better for teenage girls than anything else that you can listen to. It's really funny because her songs are inappropriate but her lyrics are actually very sexually empowering for girls, they are about taking control. One Direction's lyrics on the other hand - "you don't know you're beautiful, that's what makes you beautiful" - are saying that you're only pretty when you don't think you are, it's a bad message. In my show I also did these text message neons that are either texts I've sent, or texts from the subjects that I shoot; I collect their text messages. A lot of them are sad and self-deprecating so I thought it would be interesting to put them in neon, because usually neons are used as signs for strip clubs, like "Girls, Girls, Girls". So I thought it would be interesting to put what girls actual feel on those signs.

What do you think are the pressures that young girls face today?
A lot of the pressures have to do with self-image and self worth. I just actually saw this really good campaign that Beyoncé is in, about the word 'bossy'. It's about how the way that we describe girls is different to the way that we describe boys. So if a girl takes charge she's 'bossy', but if a guy takes charge he's 'the boss'. Then there's the imagery that we create for young girls. As women, we're living in this non-existent space where we can't fully exist as ourselves because once we go through puberty we're just taught to like, hide all of it, so that becomes very confusing.

Why did you start exploring female sexuality as the subject for your art?
It's me resolving things and issues. When I started taking photos, when I was 15, I was really struggling with my body and with my sexuality, and with how people perceived me and how I perceived myself.

Has your work, and the people who have met through it, helped you to overcome those struggles?
It's definitely helped. But even though I am aware of all these things, there still isn't a moment in my day where I don't think about what I look like or what my body looks like, which is really upsetting me because I wish I just didn't care. I'm not the worst case, but every girl thinks about it. It's so time consuming and so unnecessary. I'm really happy that I've been able to de-program myself from a lot of things, but I'm still living it.

I wear whatever I feel comfortable in, I think that's what makes people look the hottest.

When you're casting, what do you look for?
It really has to do with someone's personality, I know that sounds cheesy, but if someone has a cool personality or a story to tell, then it really comes through in the images. You can be really pretty but that doesn't mean that you're going to create an interesting photo.

The fashion industry is very interested in you and your friendship group at the moment, how did you all meet each other?
We all met online. We're all fans of each other and met that way.

What do you do together for fun?
We really like hanging out in my bed [laughs]. Yeah we just like to hang around and talk.

If your friends had to describe you what would they say?
I think hyper... and I'm a little spacey... and maybe caring? [laughs]

What do you think you all have in common?
I guess... our artistic drive.

What do you think the word 'artist' means today?
For me, it is something I have to do to stay alive. I've been doing it since I was little; it was something I did for fun and it was something I did because I needed to. I was taking photos because I needed to do it and I get a feeling from it that I can't get from anything else. Human beings go and see art with no intention of material gain, we view these things for no reason but to view them, and gain a feeling from them.

What do you think makes a good photograph?
Something that moves you. Something that creates a feeling inside you. Ryan's photos did that for me. When I look at his photos I can hear music, I can feel this feeling.

How did you meet Ryan?
I met him dancing one night at this gay bar in Toronto! And then he got my number and it was so crazy because I was curating a show at that time, and the next day he accidentally went to it, and then he realised it was my show, so he text me a selfie of him at my show!

Where do you get your creativity from, are your parents creative?
My dad is a criminal lawyer but he's always been really supportive of what I do. My mum used to work in the film business in Hungary, but then she moved to Canada, she was a refugee, and then she put everything into raising my sister and I. She made this great space for us to create art. She bought me this awesome toy - a camera that took 30-second videos and the software that came with it was like iMovie, so I was editing videos when I was eight. I struggled in elementary school, I couldn't read or write properly and I couldn't pay attention, so the only thing that kept me going was creating things.

So, you're half Hungarian?
Yes and I'm fluent in it.

Wow, that's impressive. Did you mum influence your style?
Definitely, she was always like 'just wear whatever you want.' So I wear whatever I feel comfortable in, I think that's what makes people look the hottest.

Do you have any favourite designers?
I love Meadham Kirchhoff. Two of my close friends, Julia Baylis and Mayan Toledano, are designers. They're so good.

What are you doing for the rest of the day?
I'm going to do a photo shoot with Cassie and India and then I have my radio show at six on with Chrissie Miller.

What are you going to talk about on the show?
We're going to talk about depression. We're going to ask people to call in and ask questions, and we're going to try to help. My mum really struggled with mental illness, and I struggle with depression, and I think it's so important to be open about it.

We'll listen in...



Text Sarah Raphael
Photography Petra Collins and friends

Meadham Kirchhoff
Petra Collins
Ryan McGinley
Sarah Raphael
Female Gaze