How Petra Collins went from Tumblr darling to Olivia Rodrigo's go-to director

The Canadian artist has directed four of the pop superstar's music videos, including two from new album GUTS. The duo are up for a 2023 VMA for "vampire."

The Canadian artist has directed four of the pop superstar's music videos, including two from new album GUTS

Still frame from Olivia Rodrigo's music video for the song Vampire. Rodrigo sits in a field holding a microphone, with dream-like fog filling the scene.
Olivia Rodrigo's music video for "Vampire," directed by Petra Collins. (YouTube)

On the heels of her sophomore album GUTS — the much-anticipated follow-up to her 2021 smash debut, SOUR — Olivia Rodrigo's "vampire" will compete this week for Video of the Year (one of its six nominations) at the MTV VMAs. It's the second ceremony in a row where the 20-year-old star has been up for the top music video honour (following "brutal" the last time around), in keeping with her rapid journey from Disney series regular to pop powerhouse.

One of the key players on that journey? The director of both of those videos: Canadian artist Petra Collins, whose collaborations with Rodrigo — four in total so far — have helped add "music video heavy-hitter" to an already dazzling list of career accomplishments.

The daughter of a Canadian father and Hungarian refugee mother, Collins was raised in Toronto's North York alongside her sister, Anna. When Petra's lifelong plans to become a professional dancer were dashed by a devastating knee injury and surgery — the cherry on top of an adolescence already made complicated by learning disability, mental illness, financial woes, and what she's described as an abusive relationship with a much older person — she started taking photos of Anna and their friends.

"Art for me has always been a way of survival, but also a way of play," Collins said in an interview with NOWNESS, photography having provided a bit of childishness in a somewhat shortened childhood.

After dropping out halfway through an OCAD program that she couldn't continue self-funding, Collins moved to New York City with a suitcase full of negatives. By then, her work — young womanhood through the eyes of an actual young woman, who saw it as both "dreamy and pretty" and "very, very dark" — had already made significant waves on platforms like Tumblr and Instagram.

"I wanted to be a teenager so badly," Collins has said of how her own upbringing informed her photographs. "What I was capturing, I guess, was half of my angst and then half of this nostalgia for something that never happened … for this teenhood that I wish I was able to experience."

Since then, she's become one of the most sought-after names in the art and fashion worlds, working with just about every major magazine as well as brands like Bulgari and Mac. Included in that is a double-digit number of commercials and shorts — fitting for an artist who's always considered film her main obsession (and has raved on many occasions about body horror in particular). "I started shooting photos because I wanted to create movies, and photography was easier and cheaper," she once said

Collins has honed one of the most distinctive aesthetics of her day, freezing her subjects on grainy 35mm in a sort of perpetual summer haze. While her style isn't quite as predictable as the odd meme suggests, there are certain trademarks: glitter, smoke machines, bold uses of light (sometimes the result of her wearing a headlamp or holding a flashlight), and pops of neon. Visceral and sometimes sensual, another constant is mess: think water somewhere you wouldn't expect it, or someone playing with their food, or perhaps something on fire.

Any resemblance to HBO's Euphoria, by the way, isn't a coincidence: earlier this year, Collins told the Hungarian website Punkt that creator Sam Levinson wrote the show with her work in mind. She says she moved to Los Angeles to spend five months working on it as the proposed director, but was then dropped from the project. Her vision, however, seemed to stay intact, which she learned from a billboard advertising the show outside her home.

(The original quote was removed from the interview after this article was published on CBC Arts, and "a source close to Levinson" disputed Collins' version of the encounter in a statement shared with The Daily Beast.)

Though it's been years since Collins could be called an up-and-comer — the 30-year-old currently has 1.1 million Instagram followers — music videos are a relatively emerging piece of the puzzle. But music, like film, has always been one of her biggest inspirations (she's laughed about getting into trouble for playing the same songs over and over again while on set).

In the 2010s, she directed half a dozen one-offs for artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, Cardi B, and Selena Gomez. "Boy Problems," the 2016 Jepsen video that Collins had reached out asking to make, was arguably the first to bear the artist's unmistakable stamp: Jepsen and her girlfriends stress on their devices from their bedrooms, then dance it out in a sea of sparkles. 2018's "Bartier Cardi," a collaboration with Cardi B and 21 Savage that subverts domestic-goddess imagery, was the first to court serious awards attention, including garnering a VMA nomination for Best Hip Hop.  

Collins' videos feel, to some extent, like moving versions of her photographs, the format obviously being ideal for someone still very interested in dance. Motion also adds a fun dynamic to her usual stylistic quirks — it's one thing to see something on fire in a photograph, and another to watch as it's engulfed by flames.

Her first video to cause a real stir was Selena Gomez's "Fetish" in 2017 (featuring Gucci Mane), where an isolated suburb serves as the backdrop for a Possession-inspired breakdown. One of its most visually striking shots — a feat given that Gomez also rolls around in an industrial freezer and takes a bite out of a tube of lipstick — is of the Disney alum sitting at a dining room table while it rains indoors.    

In hindsight, "Fetish" was a preview of the turn towards horror and grotesquerie that Collins' work would take thereafter. She's drawn a link between the genre and what one might call the terrors of young womanhood, but she also suggested earlier this year that she felt compelled to change her style after the Euphoria incident, likening the experience to an exorcism.

Olivia Rodrigo is the second Collins client who's borrowed from horror to help shake Disney roots. The two first collaborated on 2021's "good 4 u," which blew up in part for its references to beloved millennial touchstones like Jennifer's Body. In the video that would earn Collins her first Grammy nomination, Rodrigo burns down her ex-boyfriend's bedroom. "I think we should light more things on fire," the director says in the making-of video, perhaps only half-jokingly.

"Petra and I really love expressing feminine rage," Rodrigo explains in the same clip, "and we think that's something … not always super commonplace in media." 

Later that year came "brutal," a Y2K nostalgia-fest that begins with Rodrigo breaking her ankle in a ballet studio — an interesting detail considering Collins' past. The two videos she helmed for SOUR eventually picked up two VMA nominations apiece.  

While Collins has generally worked with a who's who of Gen-Z cool, there's a lot that makes Rodrigo an especially well-suited collaborator. Both artists exploded into the public eye in their teens and tend to deal in similar subject matter, from coming-of-age awkwardness to alienation in the Instagram era. And, just as Collins has described longing for a past she didn't exactly experience, Rodrigo has become known since her rise for aesthetically and sonically gesturing toward the turn of the millennium — notable for a star born in 2003.

Yet another commonality emerged when Rodrigo released "vampire" earlier this year, kicking GUTS promo off by rebuking the unnamed older man who exploited her celebrity and blighted her adolescence in the process. "Went for me and not her / 'Cause girls your age know better," she sings. Collins' video turns that rude awakening — once again — into an actual physical injury, a surprise horror-esque moment in a deceptively chill set-up.

Whether or not "vampire" takes home Video of the Year, it's likely that the two women will keep setting things on fire together, both literally and figuratively. In "bad idea right?," the most recent of their collaborations, Rodrigo contemplates spending the night with an ex (though her mind already seems pretty made up). In the end, any potential fireworks turn to ash.

Style aside, Collins has a work approach that might appeal in particular to image-conscious superstars. "I like to get really close with my subjects," she's said, "and I like for them to have the most control of the camera." (Case in point: Cardi B asked for a new cut of "Bartier Cardi" that more heavily featured the rapper, and Collins was happy to comply — an anecdote she shares proudly.) Choose any behind-the-scenes clip from one of her Rodrigo videos and you'll see a dynamic that's decidedly sisterly; the director is, in the realest sense, the loudest cheerleader on set.

That energy can only help carry her through her long-awaited feature debut: Spiral, a forthcoming body-horror project about social media addiction that Gomez is attached to star in. Collins has, in many ways, spent half her life making the case for the film — her music videos being just the latest medium for her singular gaze, the one that felt so striking on a circa-2012 Tumblr dashboard. What's another industry to set aflame?


  • This article has been updated to reflect the response to Collins' comments about her work on Euphoria.
    Sep 14, 2023 1:30 PM ET


Sydney Urbanek is a Toronto-based culture writer and editor. She has an MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, which she primarily uses to go long on pop stars, MTV, and the visual album in the newsletter Mononym Mythology. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @sydurbanek.

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