2014 was a whirlwind year for Courtney Act. The Australian drag queen who’s, not once, but twice ruled the reality TV waves. Back in her home country, Courtney Act is a household name thanks to her participation in Australian Idol in 2003.
In 2014, she became a house-hold name in nearly every gay home in America thanks to her near vertical rise to the top of RuPaul’s Drag Race, wowing judges and viewers alike with her versatility, costumes and cracking body. We catch up with Shane Jenek, (her boy self), after her touch down in Sweden as she prepared to end her European tour.
It seems there’s a bit of a thing between you and Michelle Visage on the Twitters – care to elaborate?
It’s funny you know, people are like, ‘Why aren’t you padded? Why aren’t you wearing fingernails? Why why why?’ people like the keyboard warriors of the world and if Michelle Visage says something a lot of people think it’s gospel. She’s a woman who has an opinion on what drag should be and quite often a lot of us disagree with her! (Laughter)
As a woman do you think she’s allowed to have that opinion on drag?
I mean anyone can have an opinion and she has grown up for the last however many years on the gay scene and grown up around drag queens, so she knows drag. But she also knows drag from the 80s and 90s and I think drag has evolved.
So who was she having a go at in that message?
Oh she has a go at everybody. She said that I needed to pad more and comments about body shape. Which is interesting.
Are you actually padded?
Yeah. I have a corset and hip and bum pads. Under the particular dress I was commented on I was naked… So there’s no room for padding – just a little room for tape!
You never got into the bottom two on Drag Race… How did that feel? Was it annoying to never have to lip sync for your life?
Every week I knew my songs. I’m not a lip syncer. I was putting in extra effort. I haven’t lip synced since I was 18. So I was well aware that if I ended in the bottom two I had to be REALLY good. I remember in one particular episode, I was convinced that BenDelaCreme was going to be the winner and she ended up going home, so you never really know what the judges are thinking.
So you get to travel an awful lot. Any travel tips?
When I was on Australian Idol I remember Marcia Hines one of the judges, taking us all aside and saying, “When you’re touring sleep when ever you get the chance.” That’s the best advice.
Do you get to experience the places that you go or is it just planes, hotels, cars and stages?
It’s a little bit like that. My assistant and I are both vegans. We have an app called Happy Cow, and every city we get to it tells you where the nearest vegan or vegetarian restaurant is. So that’s kind of our local adventure in every city. On the way to the vegan restaurant you get to see a lot of things. If it’s a 15 to 20 minutes walk we will just walk there from the hotel.
When you go to all these new towns, how has the reaction been from the drag queens that already reside there? You personally, but also to the wider group of Ru’s girls?
It’s always been very positive. I think that they get to see you and they respect what you do – they’re always really lovely. I know that drag race has changed the game as drag goes in America and even in the UK. Before, drag queens in the US would tour from city to city and different performers would become popular and they could command a higher fee and they would tour more. Now it’s made it challenging for those who haven’t been on drag race. It’s bringing drag into the mainstream. A very large female population watches drag race and people are becoming more aware of drag. As such, a bigger audience means more for everybody – hopefully.
There were a lot of personalities, especially in your season. Were any of the girls making life too uncomfortable?
No. I think some of them made their own lives’ uncomfortable. I was fine, Lahanja Estranja, bless her, made her experience much harder than it needed to be I think. That’s what she went through.
Did it get a bit messy?
There’s this rumour… I’d like to see if it’s true. RuPaul can kill a queen’s career… True?
What does that mean?
If she doesn’t like you, you might just drop off the face of the planet and never be heard from again...
(Laughs) I’m sure that RuPaul can positively and negatively impact people’s careers.
In a kind of Illuminati kinda way? Especially her power over the decision making process?
(Laughs) Well she’s definitely got power over who goes and who stays. There’s also obviously power in the editing suite. But I think if somebody is talented and going to be a success, I don’t think RuPaul or anybody can stop them from that.
Do you think any of the girls from your season were wrongly edited, or given a bad edit?
I think Darienne (Lake) and I got a bit of a bum edit as the season plays out, but I look at the positive aspects, more people know me now than ever and I’ve had some wonderful opportunities because of the show, to tour all over the world and show people who I am, it’s a wonderful jumping off platform and you know, they are making a reality TV show, they’re not making a documentary.
This issue is our coming out issue can you talk about your upbringing and coming out in Brisbane?
I grew up in suburban Brisbane, I didn’t really realise I was gay until I was 18 and in Sydney. I guess I remember having posters of the Spice Girls and having a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio, but I didn’t really attribute it to being gay because school yard slagging, like puffta and faggot seemed like something negative with those things, and I didn’t feel negative about who I was. So I never really attributed being gay to who I was, until Sydney.
My friends took me to Stonewall, which is a bar in Sydney, and I just remember like being, “hang on, all of these people are gay, this newspaper, this is a gay newspaper!” I just remember that very first night, it all just made sense, and I was like: Oh I get it! That night I had my first kiss and went home with my first boy all on one night – and they were two separate people!
You dirty girl…
So the day you discovered you were gay, you actually had some GAY!
That’s right, I had a bit of bum fun! (laughs)
Did you end up going out with him or was it just one night?
One night, but I do still know him now, he lives in London actually.
Are you happy with that as a first experience, or would you have wanted it a different way? Maybe being a proper lady!
No! Being a proper lady is boring, let’s face it. If you’re a proper lady then be a proper lady, but if you want to be a whore be a whore, I say…
When did you come out to your parents?
My Mum and Dad came to Sydney and we were having dinner and I was talking about friends who were drag queens and boys with strange names like ‘Girl Craig’ and I remember my Mum asking, whether if one of them was my “special friend…” there was that awkward moment at the table, and Dad was like, “I’m going to get a drink…” and we all sort of stood up and left the table.
So she left a stink bomb of a question…
Right! “Special Friend…” I was like No no, he’s able bodied…
So your Mother had an inkling that perhaps you were gay?
Well I guess so, she said that she didn’t, but asked that question. The next day we didn’t talk about it again. I remember calling my friend and like crying in the bathroom not knowing what to do and going to my friend’s house. I remember a time, struggling coming out to my parents and my own gender identity, I didn’t know whether I wanted to be the archetype ‘gay underwear model’ or be a woman because I was doing drag and I had a lot of people telling me that because I was so pretty I should take hormones and live as a woman and I know I felt very confused about everything. The next day, at the only job I’ve ever had in my life, like a ‘real’ job, I was working at an internet café and I went home for lunch, I guess I had a bottle of wine in the fridge, and I sat there eating lunch at home drinking a bottle of wine, watching Touched By An Angel on television, I just remember like crying, I guess it was inspired by Touched By An Angel, but the cry went much deeper than that. I remember it was just like howling. I sent Mum a text, this is the year 2000, so the advent of text was a new thing, and I texted I AM GAY. She wrote back, ‘That’s nice dear see you at dinner!’
So that night at dinner my Dad said that he had lived with 6 drag queens back in the 70s, I asked him to stop there; I felt that one revelation was enough for the night.
This is my moment!
Yes! My Mum used to be a beauty therapist and she used to wax the legs of Australia’s most famous transsexual Carlotta, so it was funny, once I came out I was very fortunate, my parents were very supportive and understanding.
I could tell that Mum had that dream of her boy marrying a girl and having babies and whatnot. I could see that she was still hanging on to that a little bit, but Dad was completely fine. He was very conversational about it. It’s a great learning experience, for the child and the parent, for their relationship. Often being gay, or other life questions, seem like they can be a hindrance, I have ultimately found that those things have been the greatest gifts. In some ways, I think having to question your sexuality and actually understand that you are gay and understanding what that means is a great gift in getting to know who you are. You’re more in touch with yourself.
Young people now, which I love, are just, you know, refusing to be put into a heteronormative box, because even gay and straight have become somewhat heteronormative in a way, and I love the concept of queer. I like to identify as queer for my sexuality and as gender queer for my gender identity.
There’s something I like about being queer. It’s like refusing to be put into a box. It’s political and personal.
Can you explain what queer means to you?
Well queer for me, with my sexuality – Not often do I actively go out to look for sex with women or anything, but I still think women are attractive, and I’ve had sex with women over the years… I like men and I like having sex with men, but queer for me says that I’m not going to conform to the concept that I should like men or I should like women or I need to conform to a stereotype of society. It says that I’m me and I’m going to express myself freely – have sex with who I want, when I want, and with as many as I want. Or none at all. It’s about the individual’s personal feelings rather than the identity of a group.
And from a gender point of view?
From a gender point of view, I think that, interestingly in gender we have male and female – it’s a binary thing and then we love to polarise – we love the binary. Even with CIS gender and transgender we still manage to polarise that as well. You’re either a trans or you’re not. The odd thing is that the definition of trans is in-between genders. So we tend to think of trans people as people who were assigned one sex at birth and then go about changing their gender expression to the opposite gender. For me, I love dressing up as Courtney. I love being Shane. I have no desire to take hormones to live as a woman, but the fact that I chose to do drag, especially such realistic female illusion. I used to say in my twenties, when I was more uncomfortable with my gender identity, I would say that drag was being like a policeman. Putting on a uniform and going to work, or someone who works at a theme park putting on a Mickey Mouse costume and there’s nothing strange about that. I used to try and justify my choice of occupation by saying that there was nothing strange about putting on a costume. I’ve realised in my thirties, who cares if it’s strange or if it’s not what other people think I should do.
I think we’re seeing a gender revolution right now, different to the women’s lib movement, this is about trans people. We’re seeing Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Chaz Bono, were seeing inspiring trans people, we haven’t seen that in the media before. Often trans people were portrayed as extreme… And people like Laverne, Janet and Chaz are everyday people who are inspiring and talented and I love that about them. I think there is a gender revolution going on and I love this queer movement as well.
Do you think that a “queer” movement, will make it harder for people to find what they’re looking for? When you label someone or yourself as gay or bisexual, or this person is a man or this person is a woman, you know what you’re getting. Does queer blur those lines?
I think when you label it, or you put it in a box you limit it to being just that. The reality of the situation is that most people aren’t just that. I think that it’s limiting people’s own expression and maybe limits people finding what they want, but I’ve found that places like Burning Man or even on the road when I’m travelling, I meet people I wouldn’t identify as gay, but someone that I’ve been seeing, who had never been with a guy before, was completely comfortable having sexual experiences with one.
You can tell it’s a subject you like talking about. It’s very considered!
(Laughs)… Now tell me your favourite colour…
Do you remember the first time you dressed up as a woman?
The very first? I went to a theatre school, after school, and we were always dressing up as things, like a mouse in Cinderella or a dwarf, and it was in 1996 or 1994, whatever year Pricilla came out… We were on tour around southeast Queensland doing a show, called the Spirit of Christmas and we were having a cast party where we did performances for ourselves. My friend Scott and I, we borrowed the girls’ bikinis and lip synced to I Love The Night Life, from Priscilla. That was the first primitive form of drag.
When I moved to Sydney, New year’s Eve 2000, was where the first authentic experience happened.
That was when Courtney Act was born.
Was that a paid gig?
No just for fun. A lesbian friend had a crush on me and I think she thought if I was dressed as a woman then somehow we’d be two women… and it would be okay! It didn’t quite work out that way. But that is how Courtney Act was born…
How did you get the name?
My friend Vanity Fair and I were sitting in a café in Crown Street in Darlinghurst and we were talking about names and I wanted to be called Ginger La Bon, because I wanted to be a smokey red head night club singer, and she thought that name was not appropriate for me, she thought that I should be something cute and girlie like Courtney.
In Sydney all the drag queens have double entrendre names and I said, Courtney really slowly… Court… ney, Cour…t…ney Court…in…the Act…
And a star was born!
When did you start performing as Courtney?
Shortly after… I had a business idea to start selling chewing gum and Chupa Chups from a neck tray and I approached some clubs about doing that, and they loved the idea, but they wanted a drag queen and I couldn’t afford one… So I started doing it myself. Some friends asked if I wanted to be in a show and within a month or so I was working four or five nights a week, up and down Oxford Street, and then I won the Drag Industry Variety Award, Diva Rising Star that year. When something feels good then it’s usually the right decision. In my body I loved it so much but intellectually I thought there was something wrong with it. But I’m glad I listened to my heart, and not my brain.
Do you think you broke some TV screens 11 years ago when you decided to go on Australian Idol as Courtney Act? Did it confuse people?
Yeah! I mean I hope so.
I still get messages from kids, who said that they came out to their parents after watching me on Idol. Watching idol with their dads and dad being like, “Whoa she’s a hot Sheila”, and the kid explaining that in fact she was a boy… and then “by the way dad I’m gay…” (Laughs) Dicko, one of the judges on Australian Idol he really created a safe place because he would talk about the fact that Courtney was a beautiful woman saying stuff like “I’m going home to tell me wife that I’m leaving her for Courtney,” and he made it okay for the men of Australia to appreciate it as well.
Did people think that you were transgender? Because you went to rehearsals dressed as Courtney?
I went along the first day as a boy and I got knocked back and I went the next day in drag so if you missed that episode then you didn’t quite get what was going on. But because I got through as Courtney they insisted that I did the whole thing in drag.
Oh really? So if they hadn’t insisted do you think you may have reverted back to Shane?
Yeah! That would have been much easier. I’d have to get up two hours earlier than everybody else to get into drag!
Is there a Mr. Courtney Act?
There is NO MR. ACT….
Are you looking?
I’m not, not looking… But I’m not looking… I like the idea of meeting somebody and sharing my life with them. But I’m not in anyway needing that. The fact that I’m constantly on the road, there’s no time for that at the moment. I think Courtney and Shane are kinda in some strange relationship for the time being.
What’s your type if he happens to be reading?
He has a pulse.