Queenstion Time #1: Courtney Act
Kicking off a new semi-regular feature talking to drag artists from around the world, Andrew Nicholls catches up with Drag Race finalist and current Celebrity Big Brother winner, Courtney Act.
Courtney Act is on one of those interminably long press junkets, and has just come off hours of interviews when she finally reaches us.
Understandably, she sounds a little fatigued, and goes as far as to apologise; “I’m sorry – I think you’re my last interview of the day”.
Truth be told, though, she’s far too professional to let it show. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the drag superstar has quite the CV.
Born Shane Jenek in Brisbane, Australia, her career in the public eye began when she entered the first season of Australian Idol in full drag, finishing in 13th place overall. From there, she moved to Los Angeles, where her fame rose further as runner up in the sixth and most celebrated season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Earlier this year, she won Celebrity Big Brother in the UK, with almost half of the overall votes. During her time in the fabled house, she engaged in many conversations about gender and sexuality that set social media buzzing.
Unsurprisingly, following the win, she is about to mount her most ambitious UK tour to date.
Gender is at the forefront of pop culture, the world is awakening to the idea that everything may not just be black and white. Courtney Act is an emerging artist who captures this zeitgeist. She breaks the rules and lives life on the gender divide, sometimes as a girl, and sometimes as a boy. She’s a pop culture star for a new generation that is beyond labels.
Courtney Act is a Prius driving, vegan, pansexual, polyamorous, genderfluid, Burner hippy child who is passionate about human rights, the environment and Justin Bieber whom she one day hopes to marry. She was once voted as one of FHM’s Top 100 Sexiest Women in the World (despite not actually being a woman), Fader Magazine’s Ten People To Watch, and, perhaps most impressively, Mr Tiny Tot 1987.
We have also been informed by the press release for the tour that she has a webbed toe.
Planet Slop: You have your tour coming up – what can we expect from the show?
Courtney Act: It’s a 75 minute cabaret show – me, a piano player and a piano – cos I can’t play piano! And we’ll be doing famous covers of songs. So the Bjork song It’s Oh So Quiet is actually a cover of a 1951 song by Betty Hutton, which is a cover of a song from 1948 called Und Jetzt Ist Es Still – which is German for It’s Oh So Quiet. So it’s kind of exploring famous cover songs, why we cover songs and why we cover ourselves in so much stuff.
PS: That sounds different from what you would expect from a typical drag show.
CA: Yeah! I mean, there’s light hearted songs, there’s ballads. I do I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, but don’t worry I do the Dolly Parton version…
PS: Oh, good!
CA: Nobody should ever try to recreate Whitney’s version! Although I saw Jessie J singing it on that Japanese singing competition. Have you been following that?
PS: I haven’t, no!
CA: I really want to watch it. I love Jessie J. Do you know that she is on this like Pop Idol in Japan as a contestant?
PS: As a contestant?!
CA: It’s all famous people who are contestants, they’re all big stars in their own country and they’re all on this Pop Idol in Japan and Jessie J won it, I think. Anyway, she sang I Will Always Love You, so I’ll have to look that up.
PS: I didn’t know that! I didn’t really follow Jessie J closely and then she just disappeared a bit.
CA: That’s cos she’s been in Japan! [Laughs]
PS: She has! That explains it! Anyway, you’re doing your tour now on the back of Celebrity Big Brother – why did you decide to do the British Big Brother?
CA: Why did I decide? Because they asked me! [Laughs] No, well, mainly because they asked me, to be honest. But they said that this year was the year of the woman, that it was a different tone of Big Brother, that it was more about conversation. But I was excited to be on a different…well, we’re not really on a continent, are we? We’re more on an island. In another part of the world, and a part of the world that I love.
The way that the UK deals with social and political issues is different than the US and Australia. I’ve always loved coming here and performing. I remember thinking that instead of selling a few hundred tickets for one of my shows, if I could sell a few hundred tickets more, then it was worth going on Celebrity Big Brother. I didn’t really think that I would win and get this amazing response from the nation.
PS: It was great to see you on there – and congratulations on your win!
CA: Thank you!
PS: But it was great to see you go on there and talk about gender and sexuality in such a way that it did reach a lot of people. How do you feel about possibly making people think about these subjects who may have been a bit ignorant?
CA: I feel honoured that I got to go on there and have these conversations, and they went to air and people enjoyed them more than anything. It’s where we’re at in society, I think. Young people get it, the Millennials get it, the Gen Y’s get it. Maybe the wider Big Brother viewing audience doesn’t get it, but maybe some of the conversations that we’ve had in the house explained to some parents out there what their kids were trying to communicate. Or maybe they don’t fully understand it, but it’s been de-mystified a little bit. Maybe it’s continued the conversation. But I just feel honoured that I got to be someone who contributed to the conversation in that way.
PS: Yeah, it was great to see, especially with people’s reactions towards Ann Widdecombe and her views on the LGBT community, it was good to see you up against her in that respect.
CA: Yeah, I was kind of there representing LGBT rights, women’s rights, the environment, human rights in general.
PS: Did doing drag help you in realising your gender identity?
CA: Oh, yeah, for sure. They’re kind of interwoven for me. As Courtney and the way that I do it, it forced me to know who I was outside of the status quo. So when everyone says you should act and dress a certain way, and you love doing something so much that you just do what you’re not supposed to do, you start to learn something about yourself. Doing drag taught me a lot about my own gender identity, sexuality and about my own identity in general.
PS: Drag artists obviously have a lot of female inspirations – so who would you say were your female idols when you were starting drag?
CA: Geri Halliwell!
PS: Geri Halliwell! Was it that Union Jack dress?!
CA: It was everything! It was Geri’s attitude, and like when she pinched Prince Charles on the bum, I was just like, she doesn’t have any fucks to give. And that was just so cool about her and the Spice Girls, I thought. I loved Fran Drescher from [90s US sitcom] The Nanny. Madonna, I think Cher, Bette Midler. All the usual top picks.
PS: What was behind your decision to go for Drag Race?
CA: Well, I moved to LA in 2010 and I saw a TV show called Hillbillies Who Handfish, and I thought…wow. If there’s a place on American television for hillbillies who handfish, there’s a place on American television for me! And I didn’t initially think it would be on Drag Race, I was doing the sort of very LA thing of going to all the meetings with all the production companies and networks, and then I auditioned for Drag Race and got on, and then that happened and that was magic.
PS: Do you feel like you represented yourself on Drag Race, because you did arrive looking very polished and really prepared for everything.
CA: I think the thing that Drag Race does so well is entertaining and fun, two dimensional characters with great catchphrases. But you don’t really get to see that much more of the person. And so while I think I did a great job of all the challenges and the looks on Drag Race, the thing that’s really important to me is the essence of who a human is. That never really got to get conveyed on Drag Race, but luckily I got to go on Big Brother.
PS: And obviously you’d had some experience of reality TV with Australian Idol. How would you compare them?
CA: They’re all so different. Also, I was on the first Idol about 15 years ago – like back at the beginning of time. And Drag Race was in its sixth season and was a well-oiled machine. So, yeah, very, very different.
PS: Do you have any favourite moments that really stick in your mind from your time on Drag Race?
CA: Probably the times when I won the challenges! [Laughs]Shade: The Rusical and the interview challenge when I wore the wings…
PS: Yes! That was a great outfit! Were the wings heavy?
CA: They were very heavy, but it doesn’t matter!
PS: I don’t get how you can even pack that in your suitcase allowance!
CA: Well, thankfully I live in LA, and you know when you’re in the airport and your bag is overweight so you put your heaviest coat on, and then you put a couple of coats on at once to try and get them on? I kinda just did that, where I was like “Oh no, these are my wings, I’m just wearing them under my coat”.
PS: So you managed to get around it then? [laughs]
PS: We were talking about gender identity earlier, and recently RuPaul made some comments about how he felt about trans contestants on the show, specifically Peppermint, who was the first out trans contestant on the show, but didn’t have breast implants until after she left the show. Do you have any thoughts on what he said?
CA: I’m glad that he apologised for the comments that he made. I just think he lacks a bit of understanding in the conversation around women’s bodies, around trans bodies and around where drag in in 2018. Ironically, he is the person who brought it to this pinnacle. But I think he missed some of the nuances in the conversations surrounding gender and drag, whether that be for trans women, or whether that be for cis women who are doing drag. I think that there is a place for everybody.
I get that it’s his show. But I think saying that whether Peppermint has breasts makes her either more or less valid to compete on Drag Race is just a weird statement. She was a trans woman who was living as a woman, and for Ru to be the gatekeeper by commenting on her body and how he appropriate he thought it was for her to be a contestant on Drag Race…it just seemed weird.
PS: Yeah, it kinda felt like it came out of nowhere, and I think a lot of people were shocked that it came from Ru’s mouth with the show preaching acceptance.
CA: I don’t think it did come from nowhere. He has a history of making comments of a similar nature. The radio show a few years back with the “She-male” and the “T-word” and that controversy happened [in response to the negative connotations to the use of the word “Tranny”, RuPaul commented in 2014 “They’ve used their victimhood to create a situation… Don’t you dare tell me what I can do or say. It’s just words. You know what? Bitch, you need to get stronger”]. He had a lot of opinions on that. I think he always dances around stuff because he put his foot in it several times previously, and he did put his foot in it again with The Guardian. But, you know, I think it was a defining moment for him. He apologised, which is a lot more than he has ever done in the past. So the fact that he apologised is a step in the right direction.
PS: You were quite vocal during the whole “She-male” situation, when the show was being called out for saying “You’ve got she-male” during the opening of each episode, and they did change it. Was there a moment where it did become a bit more of an issue for you? Because it was on Drag Race for a few seasons.
CA: I think the real issue was not so much the “You’ve got she-male” thing, but more Ru’s comments about the trans community, which was sort of “If you think me calling you a name is an issue, then you’ve got a bigger problem”. And I was like, yeah I think that’s the whole point. There are much bigger problems that the trans community face; the likelihood of trans people in America being murdered, the homelessness and suicide rates of trans people are just horrendously high. I just thought that helping people in our own community was a far more important approach, rather than telling them that not liking being called certain words was wrong, or their own issue or whatever. I think it wasn’t a very nice, practical way to deal with the issue. I feel like we should listen to what other people in our community are telling you, let’s listen to what people with different experiences are saying and go from there.
PS: Do you feel like this momentum with drag becoming more mainstream is going to continue? Where do you think it is going to go?
CA: Hopefully it goes to Courtney Act having her own variety television show in the United Kingdom!
PS: Oh! You could be on the Royal Variety Show in front of the Queen!
CA: Oh, not the Royal Variety Show – I want my own variety show!
PS: Yes! That would be great! Is that a possible future plan?
CA: Yeah, I’d love to have a Sonny and Cher style variety television show.
PS: Are you planning on working more in the UK now, then?
CA: Yeah, I’m moving here!
PS: Oh! Are you?
CA: Yeah, I’ve already started. I’m in a transitional phase with it.
PS: Are you moving to London?
PS: Do you have any other favourite places in the UK that you’ve visited?
CA: Erm…Brighton is lovely, got a nice vibe. I kind of enjoy everywhere I go. The further North you go, the more wild, crazy and fun people get. But I love London, it’s such a wonderful city. It’s such a melting pot. But I love it here in the UK.
PS: Well, that’s good! I wish you the best of luck for your move! How long does your tour last?
CA: I start in Brighton in May, and finish in Edinburgh in August.
PS: That’s quite a long tour!
CA: Yeah, I mean there’s some time off in between.
PS: People on Reddit have noticed that you have a gap in your schedule and think it might coincide with the filming schedule for Drag Race All-Stars 4.
CA: Oh my God! That’s so funny, [Drag Race season four contestant] Willam and I were laughing about that the other day, that people were like “Courtney has got to lie, she must be going on All-Stars!” But I can absolutely, categorically tell you that I am not doing All-Stars!
PS: [Laughs] OK…we will see!
PS: Would you consider it?
CA: No, I love watching All-Stars, I loved being on Drag Race, I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, but I think when you’ve been on three competition reality shows, and you’ve finally got the winner’s edit, I think, you know, quit while you’re ahead!
PS: Yeah, it sounds like you’ve got some exciting things planned in the UK anyway!
Courtney Act plays Manchester’s O2 Ritz on Thursday 7th June 2018. Tickets are available now.