Courtney Act Says It's Time To Throw Out Labels
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Courtney Act pulled the rug out from under me. Before attending a recent New York revue by the RuPaul’s Drag Race finalist (otherwise known as Shane Jenek), I’d prepped a lot of questions for a post-show interview, most of them centered around the fact that Courtney, more than most of the queens who’ve ever competed on Logo’s hit series, presents as a remarkably convincing woman while still embracing classic showgirl-style drag. Courtney is not a Carmen Carrera, who famously became a trans model after her stint on season three of Drag Race, nor is he a Gia Gunn, whom he’s defeated this season, and whose range of talent seems to begin and end with the ability to mask masculinity. Courtney falls somewhere in the middle, just as he leans toward the middle when it comes to the increasingly complex world of gender identification.
Spurred on in small part by a moment in one of this season’s Untucked episodes, wherein Courtney passively, yet provocatively, described bedding men in and out of drag, I came ready to discuss precisely this. I second-guessed myself when the performance started on a fluttery note, then felt fully disarmed when the show, aptly and wryly named “Boys Like Me,” led steadfast with the theme of gender being an endlessly tricky thing. Detailing past trysts and tribulations relating to his life on the gender divide, Courtney answered my questions as his act unfolded, punctuating the anecdotes with ample showstoppers (yes, children, this queen can truly sing). Luckily, as I discovered after the fans trickled out of Manhattan’s Laurie Beecham Theater, and we were left to chat until night became morning, Courtney had only been scratching the surface.
Out: Tell me about growing up in Brisbane, Australia. Was Courtney Act always brewing from the start or did it take a while for her to blossom?
Courtney Act: I was in a theater company from the age of about 5 years old, and I would always be in some sort of pantomime musical or something like that. I was a mouse in Cinderella and I was a dwarf in Snow White, so I was always dressing up as things that were kind of odd. And mice are pretty gender neutral—there is really no gender applied to those mice. And then when I was maybe 14, I went to a costume party and the theme was “come as a letter.” And I asked for the letter W so I could go as Wonder Woman, and my mum took me to the costume shop and I got the costume and did my own makeup. That was the first occurrence.
Do you have a theory as to why you made it onto Australian Idol as Courtney Act but not as Shane Jenek?
Sure. There were thousands of blonde twinky boys auditioning that first day. And then I came back the next day as Courtney and…well, there was only one Courtney Act auditioning. And even one of the judges, said on TV, “You added another element and you blew us away.” And I just think I always loved performing in drag because there was that whole other element. Performing as a boy still seems kind of limiting. A boy can wear a sparkly suit, he can brush his hair, he can wear a hat like Justin Timberlake or Adam Lambert or Elton John. And then there’s Liberace. But that’s about as far as you can go. With drag there are no rules that apply. It’s even beyond the rules that apply to females—I think that drag has even fewer rules. So for me, just having this freedom is always going to make the work have a more liberated feel to it.
You’re a drag queen who brings gender-bending to a different level, and I didn't know that was such an integral theme in your act. I’m glad it is because it’s what I find most interesting. Like, for instance, what was your reaction to be being named one of FHM World’s 100 sexiest women?
That was such a brilliant moment. It's tongue in cheek, obviously, because I'm not a woman, but to sort of be recognized in that way was really cool. Shortly after I was recognized as one of OUT magazine’s most influential people, in 2005, which was great. But, yeah, to be included on a list like that—you know, Australia has a history of drag with Priscilla and Dame Edna, and there was also this very mainstream sort of dinner theater in the ‘70s that my parents went to. It was called the Les Girls. So, internationally, or in Australia at least, I feel like we have a bit of that drag acceptance interwoven in our society. I mean, to be on Australian Idol, and be accepted in such a mainstream and normal way—it wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t being made fun of.
You also lead with this persona of being a “female illusionist,” and it seems like you are using this idea of illusion “being a big part of a woman's charm” to both define your brand and also empower women. I know you’ve done makeup campaigns and things like that.
The thing for me is that...well, I guess it's like RuPaul says, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.” I think it’s a literal thing for men and women. Women are, in particular, sort of sold this concept of beauty in magazines and everything like that, and I hope to articulate the fact that I started off as a boy, and I'm dressed up as a woman—looking like a glamorous woman. I hope women can see how beauty is created, and how I'm literally creating the illusion of a woman, and that’s what many women are doing as well. I don't think there's anything wrong with beauty or that illusion, but I think the issue is that people think it’s real. And I think that once you acknowledge that it’s all sort of make-believe, and that we’re creating a painting or a work of art, like those photos on covers of magazines (with just as much detail going into the work), then it’s fine. But I think the problem is that all of that influences our lives so much.
Your song “Mean Gays” plays like your outcry against those same sort of pressures in the gay male community.
Gay men have all sorts of body image issues, which I definitely know now living in West Hollywood. Facebook is just white, topless, muscular gay man after muscular gay man. For years I was clinging to this image of a man—I wanted to look like a DNA underwear model. And I remember struggling with drag because I wanted to be more masculine, but then I also respected Courtney and wanted her to be the main focus, because my passion for drag was so strong. I was always trying to be a bit more butch in the bedroom, and I literally felt myself going, Hang on, he’s into women; you shouldn’t be butch. And I wasn’t going to be feminine either because then I’d feel strange as well. In these moments, I’d be like, I don't know; it does not compute. It was only recently that I was getting intimate with someone, and I just realized I was completely comfortable with being a feminine kind of boy. Like, Oh you know, you don't have a six-pack and you’re not an underwear model, and that’s okay. It was a nice little moment for me.
It’s a bit of a strange time to be a drag queen, particularly one as convincing as you. The more visibility that trans issues get in culture, the more the lines seem to blur, and what is PC and what isn’t PC gets complicated, even within the queer community.
It’s funny. I'm good friends with Chaz Bono and we constantly find ourselves talking about trans issues. Trans issues are the thing of the moment right now. Trans is the new black. And speaking of Laverne Cox, she is such a brilliant woman. I met her recently and she is such an inspiration. I watched her speech about leading change for the future, and there is something about her that transcends her story and connects with the audience on a human level. And when you do that you realize that our similarities are greater than our differences. Even though she’s a trans woman, and I might not feel like a trans woman or the audience might not feel like a trans woman, we still realize that that part is almost irrelevant and we have this connection. Janet Mock is another inspiring and brilliant woman, who, again, she just transcends everything. And I think that when people in the general population see that, they realize they have a human story to associate with the topic of trans.
I appreciated the way you articulated in your act that there is this broad spectrum of things when it comes to queerness and gender. Where do you feel you fit in that spectrum? Or maybe you feel that you don't need to fit anywhere—maybe you think, I'm and entertainer this is what I do.
For me, I'm a boy, I love being a boy, and I feel very comfortable as a male. But I really love getting to dress up as Courtney, and obviously the image that I portray is a lot more feminine and realistic than most. And it's not just a job—it's definitely part of a lifestyle. Still, I don't have any desire to live as Courtney or take hormones or alter myself in any way. The thing that I love most of all is that I do kind of get the best of both worlds. Recently, there was this really good Reddit thread, and some girl asked, “Does Courtney identify as gender queer, or has she just, you know, not bothered to identify as anything?” And I think, to be honest, I've just felt so comfortable with who I am that I've always thought, I'm a boy now and when I'm in drag I'm Courtney. I've never really felt threatened to identify.
Is this something you and Chaz discuss too?
Chaz and I were talking about the word “trans.” And it's odd because, as a gay man, I have made the term “trans” a binary term. It’s the, “You are trans or you’re not trans.” But the term “trans” literally means in-between, or changing from one to the other. To me, “trans” meant you were born male and you wanted to become a woman, or vice-versa, but then I realized that “trans,” like everything else, is this spectrum. So I don’t know—if I spend 20 percent of my time in drag, am I 20 percent a woman and 80 percent a man? I don't know. I think that although drag and trans are definitely separate things, perhaps gay men in drag could be the axiom. If gay is your sexuality and trans is your gender, maybe drag is almost a little axiom where gender and sexuality can kind of cross. Maybe drag is kind of like a facet of trans.
As evidenced even by certain segments that were pulled from RuPaul’s Drag Race, what you’re describing has become a very sensitive subject for a lot of people.
Yes, obviously. And there are trans people who go all the way, or part of the way, or some of the way [in their transitions]. I met someone in Sydney recently who presented very feminine, had a male chest, took hormones, had a penis, but looked like a woman—very glamorous. And that was all. I think she identified as a she, but that was all she really wanted to do physically. And she was walking around with a bare male chest and I was like, “Oh wow.” I'd never met somebody who really stuck in the middle like that. “Trans” isn’t a binary issue. Nothing is. It is all shades of gray. I feel like we're at that point where we can truly start accepting that things aren't black or white. Maybe that’s the next frontier. We've always been like, “OK, you're gay; you're straight,” or, “You're a man; you're a woman,” or, “You're trans; you're not trans.” We've spent all this time coming up with all these labels to identify all these people. And now it’s time to throw them all out. What’s next is acknowledging that there are things that don't fit in boxes—that most things don't fit in boxes.