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Courtney Act
Photo: Magnus Hastings

Interview: Courtney Act on the changing face of gender

"Drag is more than just a costume. It's more about attitude, expression and a refusal to be put into the binary."

Written by
Nik Addams

A curious byproduct of the increasingly partisan and divisive cultural politics of the West is that the discourse surrounding sex and gender has become increasingly complex. As the opposing ends of the sociopolitical spectrum are being pushed further apart by players on either sides, a grey area has quickly – and loudly – emerged in the realms of sexual and gender identity. This grey area isn’t particularly new but what is new is that it’s come, pardon the pun, out of the closet. Grey, it seems, is the new black.

The increased awareness of these grey areas – that is, that models of sexuality and gender are not binary, but necessarily complex and contested – has been in great part thanks to an increased visibility of people across the spectrum in mainstream media. Enter the drag-on. Exploding into the Australian pop cultural canon in 2003 during the first season of TV talent show Australian Idol, the popularity of drag performer Courtney Act came well before these conversations started to change and long after the wave of post-Priscilla, Queen of the Desert drags. Such was the appeal of the Brisbane-born performer, one of the Idol judges famously declared that she was the ‘sexiest girl on the show’. Act didn’t win the competition, but her instant, magnetic appeal has seen her star continue to shine brightly ever since. 

Now based in Los Angeles, the performer – known to her mother as 34-year-old Shane Jenek – has risen to global fame as one of the most popular contestants to have emerged from cult reality TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race and performs on a near-nightly basis for crowds around the world in a show that’s as much about the comedy as it is about the sauciness and the singing. She also maintains a presence in Australia as a knowledgeable political commentator through a regular series of web videos she publishes on her Facebook page and high-profile antipodean news platforms. Ahead of her much-anticipated October performance at Hong Kong’s Sevva – a perfect setting high above the city – we sit down with Act for an intellectually arousing chat about gender, politics and what it’s like to date a drag queen.

Hi Courtney! Thanks for sitting down with Time Out Hong Kong. How are you?

I’m well! Just finished a show and all showered.

Nice! How long does it take to become Shane, then?

Not long – I got undressed in the theatre and took my lashes off and came back with my makeup on. Then I had a shower. I put my makeup remover on at 12.28am and now it’s 12.42am so it took me 14 minutes.

Down to a fine art, evidently. How was the show?

It was good. I opened last week in Provincetown, USA, which is this old-town holiday destination. It’s very gay, with cute little New England colonial houses and American flags and a lot of cute guys. Lots of theatres and restaurants. It’s a summer holiday destination for Americans on the East Coast. They come a week at a time. Last week was bear week and this week is ladies’ week and then it’s family week. I’m doing the show for two months, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. At the weekends I travel. Last night I was in New York. I did a thing at The Rubin Museum of Art which was really interesting. 

What was happening there?

They do this series called Brainwave and they asked me what I wanted to talk about. I told them procrastination. They teamed me up with a professor who wrote a book about procrastination and then we talked about it in front of an audience. 

When Courtney thinks about procrastination, is it what Shane thinks about procrastination?

Yeah, it’s the same person but it’s just an extension. It’s more than a costume. It’s definitely part of my self-expression but it’s like two ends of the same stick.

Well put! So, what took you over to the States originally?

I was working for Atlantis, the gay cruise company. I did a month in Europe with them and I came to America. I wasn’t that excited about coming but once I got here, I totally changed my opinion. It was 2010, only two years out of the Bush administration, so everybody was still a bit on the fence about America. And then I came to realise how cool the opportunities are in the entertainment industry. You can literally tour all around Australia in two weekends. I’ve been touring the US pretty much for the last two-and-a-half years non-stop and I still have barely been to the same place more than once.

Tell us about going from suburban Brisbane to performing in front of the nation on Australian Idol.

When I was 16 or 17, I went to Sydney for the open day of Nida, the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, but I never made it – instead, a friend took me to Stonewall [an iconic Sydney gay pub] and then it all made sense. From there I just started discovering myself and expressing myself. I’d always been a performer, growing up in a theatre school. I was drawn to drag. It was colourful and fun and creative but at that time I never believed that it could be a career. It didn’t feel like there was anything dignified or honourable about it, but there was something that I just loved about it. I did it with a lot of shame at first because other people didn’t think that I should do it and I didn’t know that I should do it. It was the year 2000 and it’s so funny to think about how attitudes have changed and how my attitude has changed since then. I even remember thinking then that if I wanted to be an actor, I had to play it straight. It just sounds so absurd now because a) that would have been impossible and b) it’s just not the right idea. I’ve made a living out of doing what nobody would ever dream you could making a living out of doing.

You famously went as Shane to the Idol audition and then, the next day, you went as Courtney. Was that always part of the plan?

I always wanted to go as both and it was funny because when I didn’t get through as Shane I was really confused because I just had this sure-as-day kind of feeling. And I was like, ‘no, no, no, no, wait, wait – oh, I’m coming back tomorrow’. When it’s right, it’s right, I guess. You’ve worked for so long at so many things and all of a sudden one thing falls into place and it all just starts to steamroll.

So how did Courtney actually come to be?

On New Year’s Eve, 2000, my friends and I were going to a party in Melbourne and I decided to do it in drag. It was the happiest night of my life. And then it was a hobby for a little while. I would find opportunities to go somewhere in drag and soon I was asked to be in a show at Stonewall. I was performing all up and down Oxford Street, doing shows five nights a week and getting immersed in a really creative scene, working with really talented, creative performers and doing it all on a shoestring budget, which amps up the creativity. I learned so much about costumes, hair, makeup, music and performance through that world. 

In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned names like Fran Drescher, Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep and the Spice Girls as sources of inspiration. What about these stars inspired you?

It’s so interesting when you look at references like these because they all have something in common. They’re all female and, maybe with the exception of Goldie Hawn, none of them are recognised as being traditional beauties. They’re all really strong women who carved their own way – there’s just something about them. The Spice Girls and Fran Drescher were such important parts of my childhood. There was something about them that allowed me to be myself. I was fortunate that after school I went to performance school, and that was really a place where I could express myself. If I didn’t have that, it would have been a much more challenging time. And there were these women who are all about feminism and strength. And although I wasn’t a woman – so that kind of concept maybe didn’t directly apply to me – I definitely took a lot away about feminism and equality between the genders. I don’t know if they made me want to stand out or I loved them because I had difficulty fitting in but I definitely got a lot of strength from them.

What does sexiness mean to you?

Sexy is a combination of someone’s character. The way someone feels about themselves and presents themselves to the world, and then all of the physical finishings that they choose. It’s not just about someone who looks pretty and has a good body. For me, it’s more about the essence of the person and what they bring into the physicality. The more comfortable you can become, the more comfortable other people feel. There’s a real sexiness to someone who knows who they are and they’re not afraid or ashamed of it. 

What’s it like to date Courtney Act?

Well, no-one has really dated Courtney Act, but people have dated Shane. But I’ve had relations with guys as Courtney and it’s interesting for me. It’s interesting for them too. It’s like an exploration of something. There was also a straight-identifying guy I was dating who I met when I was Courtney but then was dating as Shane. But I’ve definitely dated a lot more in the last few years. I think it has to do with that self-comfortability thing. I think that the more comfortable I become with myself and with what I do, the more comfortable other people feel. It’s just kind of always like that lovely, shocking thing that you always second-guess. I still always second-guess being myself and then I’m constantly proven that being myself is the only way I can be. I think with dating, you have to be sure of yourself as well. I do think that although I’m perceived to be feminine, I also have a lot of masculine qualities, not necessarily physically. Because of my career, I’m very strong and focused and I take charge and I like things mapped out and I like linear things but then I can also be creative, so there’s definitely a big mix of masculine and feminine qualities. So I think the other person has to be comfortable with their masculinity and their femininity. I think that’s really important.

When Shane dates, does the other person know that Courtney exists?

That’s the funny thing. Now it’s kind of the leading concept. When I was younger, I would desperately try and keep it a secret because I thought it was something to be ashamed of. I mean I can’t hide from it now anyway. The straight guy that I met didn’t really know anything about what I did but I met him when I was Courtney so it became very apparent. But I think that Drag Race is so ubiquitous in queer culture all around the world, so it’s like Courtney is out of the closet in that respect. But it’s actually a really good thing because it’s part of who I am and to pretend that it isn’t creates a little lie that may not be immediately apparent, but it’s like coming out. People who are in the closet think ‘oh no, I’m fine. I don’t need to come out. I don’t need to tell my parents’, but until you actually tell them, there’s a level of dishonesty there – it’s like the elephant in the room. When you can be completely transparent, it creates a more honest place to form a relationship. Honesty and transparency are really important.

That comfort and self-awareness is something that’s instantly apparent about Courtney and forms a huge part of her appeal...

Yeah, I’ve always felt very comfortable. It’s interesting because over the years there’s been a lot of unpackaging of complex psychological constructs. I used to think of Courtney as a curse and as a weakness. When I was much younger, there was shame associated with dressing as the opposite gender and how people would think about me if I did drag. What that would mean to people that I wanted to be attracted to me and stuff like that. Over the years, I really came to learn that I have to think of drag as a strength and not a weakness. It became more than drag. It became more than just a costume. It became more about attitude and about expression and a refusal to be put into the binary, and to really acknowledge that gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum. But even though I was dressing up in clothes of the opposite gender, it was always very binary to me. It was like those two clearly defined boxes and anything in the middle just weirded me out. It wasn’t until the last three years that I really became comfortable with the idea of the grey area. It’s interesting to see how the world changed its interaction with me. When I found that place that I became comfortable with, it was a bit disarming for people, in a good way. If I’m just comfortable with it then they get to be comfortable with it as well.

What is that grey area?

There’s so much pressure, especially growing up in Australia, and I think in a lot of the West, to be a ‘man’. Even as a gay man, you have to look a certain way and have pecs and abs, brown skin and blond hair, and there are all these ideals about how we should look and act. It kind of wears you down or shapes you in a way that you’re not really privy to from the inside. I don’t know whether it was getting older or moving overseas, or whether it was the world at large changing a lot in the last few years in regards to its perception of gender and sexuality, but I was able to step outside myself and have different experiences with different people. The straight-identifying guy I was dating who I met as Courtney had never been with a guy before but found himself attracted to me and then I was like ‘wait, if you’ve never been with a guy, you don’t need me to act masculine, so should I act feminine?’ I didn’t know who or what I should be. I guess I didn’t know who I was meant to be, so I thought I’ll just be me and it was really a profound moment for me where I realised I’d otherwise put on this charade of who I thought I should be. To be able to be who I was was really powerful. When I realised that gender didn’t have to be binary at the same time I was dating this boy, it was like these two moments. One was an external experience – sort of like an experiential understanding – and one was like an intellectual understanding. All the pieces kinda came together and I was like ‘oh wow, I can be me’, this person who I live in as I live.  

Did Courtney or Shane change when you discovered that grey area?

Probably Shane did. It’s odd because the way I present myself is still the same. It was just more about my comfortability with myself. Before I was motivated to go to the gym and get pecs and have abs because that’s what men did. Now all the outcomes are the same but the motivation is different. It’s been a gradual process of becoming more comfortable in my own skin. It has probably manifested physically, like how I interact with people. I notice in social environments when flirting with boys, I keep having to remind myself that guys aren’t attracted to me because of my masculinity. I’d been brought up to believe that if I wasn’t masculine, I wasn’t desirable. I was like ‘wait, if somebody is attracted to me, it’s probably not because I’m the butchest guy in the room’ and that’s okay.

In the gay community right now, though, there’s this idea that you have to be straight-acting, or ‘masc’, to be desirable, which seems really counterproductive...

Yeah, it totally is. I think it’s much healthier to not be afraid of femininity. I remember thinking about my own feelings on gender and I think a lot of it is based in misogyny. The concept of gay men is that they are feminine and society has this idea that feminine is bad and so then there’s this push towards masculine. I think not being afraid of femininity is really sexy in a guy. I met a muscular, hairy, ‘normal’ guy who has these really quirky things that he loves that are actually really girly. A few years ago I would have been scared by that. But now I think that’s actually perfect because I wear women’s clothes for a living and that’s not completely normal in the outside world, so finding someone who has this completely feminine hobby is interesting. Someone who’s not afraid of their femininity. That’s a really powerful place to be in in 2016.

And that obviously comes with exposure, understanding and education...

And there are so many conversations that go with that. There are these transwomen now who transcend the fact that they’re trans. When I listen to [American trans activists] Laverne Cox or Janet Mock or Chaz Bono, they’re really intelligent and inspiring and it’s got nothing to do with their trans-ness. We’re seeing models in the fashion industry who are androgynous or trans. All of that gender spectrum is being modelled in a cool way.

On this spectrum, do you think concepts like desire and sexiness and attraction can exist?

Totally. I think that the challenge is acknowledging the spectrum. Kinsey talks about the scale from zero to six – I have a feeling that the zero and the six are actually the minorities. I certainly know that I’ve been attracted to females and to more feminine or more masculine people, but I think it’s about the individuality. When you start acknowledging feelings, without shame and the fear of being judged, and having a physical, mental and emotional attraction to a person, you can start just being in the moment with that attraction and seeing where it takes you. So often we cut things off before we even give them a chance to grow because we put all these conditions and ideas on them. I don’t know how that permeates into the mainstream. I guess it just sort of starts somewhere and picks up speed. Even with Drag Race, my main demographic is 16 to 25-year-old girls. I think they really love the message. It’s not just bouncing around in this queer ecochamber any more. It’s reaching beyond that. Society goes through different evolutions. The conversation keeps growing. It’s a slow process but, over the past couple years, it seems to have been shockingly fast. 

Speaking of Drag Race – how did the experience shape you?

It definitely broke me down a lot. I guess when you go through any extreme live experience, it changes you. Being on Drag Race was really interesting because it’s nice to think that you don’t care about what people think about you. But what I realised was, I don’t care about what people think about me, so long as what they think about me is what I think about myself. I was completely fine if somebody disagreed with who I was. I didn’t care because that’s me. But, on Drag Race, a certain aspect of me was portrayed and a different perception of who I was came to be. It wasn’t necessarily what I thought of myself, so I had a real challenge in coming to feel comfortable with people thinking things about me that I didn’t necessarily think about myself. It’s the next level of letting go of those insecurities and becoming more of myself. 

You also do a regular politics video as Courtney. Is there a concern that talking about political issues in character might put some people off?

I think that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you talk about – some people are always going be put off. But I think a lot more people are drawn to it because it’s colourful and it’s interesting. One of the things that’s drawn me to the feminine side is just that there are more tools. There are costumes and wigs and there’s a whole different nuance to the whole feminine side that just excites me. It does confuse people in a good way. They’re like ‘wait a minute, this is a boy dressed as a girl talking about politics’. I think it’s a talking point and that’s why it works. It’s because it’s different. For so long, drag and gay, gender and sexuality weren’t legitimate. They had to pretend to be legitimate to fit into the mainstream. We had to look like everybody else and act like everybody else. But now, we’re actually allowed to be ourselves and I think that everybody is allowed to be themselves a little bit more. It’s not just queer people who are allowed to express themselves. I think straight people are allowed to express themselves more and delve into that grey area, generally speaking. That’s a cool place to be in.

Courtney Act live, Oct 27-29, Sevva, 25/F, Prince’s Bldg, 10 Chater Rd, Central, 2537 1388; Exact times and details to be confirmed.

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