Courtney Act as Elvira in STC's Blithe Spirit
Photograph: STC/Rene Vaile | Courtney Act as Elvira in 'Blithe Spirit'

The people’s queen of Australia, Courtney Act

Australia’s biggest drag export ruminates on her first dramatic role, the meaning of Sydney Mardi Gras, and life at 40

Alannah Le Cross

“It's one of those times where, I don't know, the gay gods give you a little bit of extra oomph,” says Shane Jenek. “Because as tiring as it is, I never feel tired. I feel kind of invigorated by it all.”

The professional drag performer, singer and actor is fresh faced and energetic as we grab a quick coffee in a short break after rehearsals for his upcoming role with the Sydney Theatre Company. Dark grey clouds and the Harbour Bridge loom over us where we sit at the waterside bar at STC's home in the Walsh Bay Arts Precinct.

The weeks leading up to the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade are always the busiest time of year for Jenek, better known as drag superstar Courtney Act. That is made even busier by preparing for Courtney’s first “serious” leading role in a major stage play, as the late but not exactly absent Elvira, the deceased first wife of a troubled writer in STC’s Blithe Spirit.

The blonde bombshell, who uses she/her pronouns in drag he/him/they pronouns out of drag, has come a long way since her early days performing on Oxford Street as a baby queen two decades ago, with an international career gaining her fame and work overseas in both the UK and America. But as high as Courtney’s star soars, with television and touring commitments outside of Australia, she always makes it back home for Mardi Gras. She hasn’t missed it since her first time in 2001. 

Courtney Act hosts the Sydney Mardi Gras broadcast in 2021
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Mardi Gras | Courtney Act hosts the Sydney Mardi Gras broadcast in 2021

“Mardi Gras has always been this special, amazing thing. I guess, religious people have church. And I think for a queer person who lives in Sydney, or from anywhere, Mardi Gras is that form of institution that brings together the community in a much broader sense than usual,” Jenek reflects.

“The thing that was overwhelming about Mardi Gras my first time was that there was like 18,000 people, and they were all different. It was just really cool as a young person to be like, “Oh, look at us all!”. I thought it was just like 200 of us in a club every Friday and Saturday night. But actually, there's thousands of us.”

In 2022, Act is one of the co-hosts for the ABC’s live coverage of the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade on Saturday, March 6. The star also recently marked the beginning of Mardi Gras season and their 40th birthday with the announcement that Courtney is being honoured with a wax figure at Madame Tussauds. She's also competing in the new season of Dancing with the Stars: All Stars, recently dropped a certified best selling memoir, Caught in the Act, that went into reprint on the day it was released, and has ticked off too many other achievements than there’s even room to mention.

I don't know how exactly I got to be so shameless. But I'm really grateful.

During the process of writing that memoir, which became a sort of introspective lockdown project when Covid first shut everything down, Mardi Gras arose as an important touchstone for the last 20 or so years of Jenek’s life: “When I was writing my book, I got some index cards and I wrote out what I wore to Mardi Gras every year for the last 21 years, because I could remember all of them. I’ve been to lots of prides all around the world, and they're amazing. But there's always something about Mardi Gras that is magical for me.” 

While Mardi Gras is a much looked forward to celebration and occasion to party, Jenek also believes in the importance of not letting go of the radical activist roots of the event and engaging in discussions about issues that are affecting LGBTQIA+ Australians. 

“I think it's so easy to see how relevant and how important Mardi Gras is this year, more than ever, because of the Religious Discrimination Bill that was just being debated in federal parliament. The One Nation Mark Latham Bill didn't get anywhere at a state level, which is lovely to see, but the federal bill [which is currently shelved], the fact that so much time and energy has been spent debating essentially queer and trans people's right to exist, is disgusting, and heartbreaking and hurtful. That focus really should have been on Muslim Australians and people of different faiths who experience discrimination,” says Jenek.

“The Ruddock Report did say that there were things missing for minority faiths, so that that's what should have been addressed in this Religious Discrimination Bill. But the bill was really about discriminating against queer people and disabled people and women. And it's just, it's despicable.”

Courtney Act poses for Time Out Sydney in 2008
Photograph: Daniel Boud | Courtney Act poses for Time Out Sydney in 2008

It seems the experience of that first Mardi Gras back in 2001, feeling unified with a crowd of people with queer identities so much more diverse and intriguing to Jenek than the majority of gay men he would bump into at gay clubs on the Pink Mile in the early 2000s, has become symbolic for the trajectory of his own relationship with his activism, drag career, and his own queerness. As explored in Courtney’s one-woman show Fluid, which came to Sydney for Mardi Gras in 2020, Jenek identifies as both gender fluid and sexually fluid. 

This fluidity also informs Courtney’s role in STC’s new production. The glamourous and ghostly role of Elvira is not played as a drag character, but acted as a woman. “There's no “wink wink, nudge nudge”, it's not a gender bending role. I'm just playing her as I guess any actress would, I just happen to have a penis,” says Jenek. 

Courtney’s previous roles in stage productions include the Teen Angel in a stadium spectacular of Grease, another angelic turn as Angel in a production of Rent in the late noughties, and more recently a role in drag muder mystery Death Drop on London’s West End. Jenek was headhunted for Blithe Spirit by director Paige Rattray, whom he says he feels he is in safe hands with.

“When my manager mentioned that Sydney Theatre Company were asking about me playing a role, I kind of assumed that it was going to be some sort of gender bending bit part. And then as I was reading the script, I was like hold on, Elvira is like the glamorous comedic lead of this whole thing. And I was like, “oh, oh oh, I’m a leading lady!”” 

While it may not be drag, Jenek assures us that Blithe Spirit will certainly be camp: “Paige is pretty out there with her interpretation of it. For the first few days [of rehearsals] I was like, this seems a little whacky, even for me. And then as the weeks have gone on these little bits have all woven in, and I'm like, oh, that really works! That's so good!”

Jenek has many more things to say about art and politics and all the topics that you’re told are far too impolite for a polite chat over coffee. But there’s no time to ruminate, after our interview, he needs to run off to do more press, costume fittings and makeup for Mardi Gras. The rain is still pattering down, and is not likely to relent before the Mardi Gras Parade hits the SCG on the weekend. But if you squint, you’d swear that there’s a rainbow emerging.

Blithe Spirit plays at the Sydney Opera House from March 21 to May 14, 2022.

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