Photography by M. Sharkey
This is the debut installment of "XXM," photographer M. Sharkey’s column profiling underground and emerging artists and performers (with the occasional legend thrown in for good measure). To kick-off the series, Sharkey photographed and interviewed Austin-based musical artist and performer, Paul Soileau, creator of CHRISTEENE.
CHRISTEENE first came onto my radar a few years ago when a friend turned me on to one of her first music videos, “Tears From My Pussy.” The video, made with longtime collaborator (and 2015 Guggenheim grant recipient as well as 2010 OUT 100 honoree) PJ Raval, is a heart-felt ode to the many trials and occasional triumphs of the, um, “street-walker.” I was instantly smitten.
It’s difficult to put into words the very special kind of pathos CHRISTEENE evokes since this variety of abjection has few precedents. Yes, there’s a bit of Karen Finley or Lydia Lunch and maybe a pinch of Diamanda Galas and Divine (the designer Rick Owens has referred to her as “his Beyoncé”) but CHRISTEENE is entirely her own, unique creature. So how do you solve a problem like CHRISTEENE? Well, you don’t of course (even though you may feel compelled to). But, if you’ve courage enough and a strong constitution, she’ll happily solve some of your own.
XXM: Good morning, Paul! I take it you are now back home in Austin? I'm so glad we were able to connect while you were here in New York and make some cool photographs.
Paul Soileau: Well good mornin' Mr. Michael! Yeah, I made it back to Austin in one piece. It took us, what, three years to finally get together? But so glad it finally happened.
Me, too! It was a blast. Paul, your performances as CHRISTEENE thrill me like few others do. She is at once filthy, profane, demonic… and yet entirely lovable. Then you add a completely unhinged ferocity. It's an unusually powerful mix. Can you tell me a little bit about the circumstances surrounding her creation?
CHRISTEENE represents a dangerous and possessive energy inside of myself… a hunger, an immediate action. It all took shape during a kind of perfect storm about six years ago when huge changes were happening to me in my environment, my social circles, my beliefs… and our country experiencing massive change as well. The work being made has been slow-burning and very, very organic. Patience and curiosity have been key in cracking this stank mess open, letting it grow and breathe, and the result has been and continues to be life changing.
This transformative power you mention is very interesting to me. I think that people often see a performer in one of two ways: as either completely divorced from their stage persona or indistinguishable from it. With CHRISTEENE you've managed to create an unusual space which is somewhere in between. Much like another of my favorite creations, Divine, part of CHRISTEENE’s power comes from an uncanny sense of her being "real". I mean, who is Harris Glenn Milstead? It seems as if he was almost entirely subsumed by his alter ego. Do you think you could ever lose yourself completely to CHRISTEENE?
There's always a moment in John Waters' films where you can see a piece of Harris Glenn Milstead peaking through, and I think that's the moment when you knew that he was in there, he was aware, he was steering the ship. Like when Divine eats the dog turd in Pink Flamingos: you see Harris looking at that turd, looking at the camera, gawking and laughing to himself about what the fuck is about to take place. Or when she's on that goddamned trampoline in Female Trouble or flopping on her parts with a fish. You can see Harris Glenn Milstead getting a kick outta that shit. It's beautiful. CHRISTEENE feels a lot like that for me. I'm in there, I'm steering this garbage truck, but I'm lost to it. There will be moments when I become somewhat coherent, clearly aware of it all, but then those moments wash away again into the cray. I don't think I could ever completely lose myself to it. It's a relationship. It takes two.
I began documenting drag queens almost as soon as I arrived in New York nearly 20 years ago. I've witnessed an incredible evolution take place. Drag has always been charged with a special power but lately I've seen this grow exponentially. Part of this must have something to do with the popularity of shows like Drag Race but that doesn't explain it all. What do you think accounts for the extraordinary "fierceness" (to use one of the genre's clichés) of contemporary drag performers? Also, do you even consider what you do to be "drag?"
There isn't just one particular brand of “drag.” It's such a multifaceted network of performance and entertainment. Keep in mind, what a large majority of our lip-synching drag queens are doing is impersonating or channeling contemporary female singers and pop stars that they truly admire. So you really must consider handing much of this rise in fierceness over to the actual women in performance who are raising the bar in their own right and regime, thus forcing particular drag queens to up their ante. What a wonderful madness to experience. Then you must also consider the counter culture queens who are always acting up against this style of mainstream drag with their rebellious, punk, queercore nature.
As for myself, I strive on serving up creatures cut from their own cloth: counter-culture, queercore rage, and rebelliousness. These are entities that possess me, that take on their own lives. Are we all from the same lineage? You betch'ya. Do we all carry the work and wisdom of our ancestors? I hope so. We all just do it in our own way, and sometimes we meet up in that magical holiday drag house to gawk at each other. You can't take this too seriously. We're entertainers for chrisssakes!
I often wonder why assuming an alternative gender delivers so much power into a performance? It's hard for me to think of men playing male characters or women portraying female characters that achieve the same command and allure.
It immediately destroys those damned social codes and gender roles that we've been raised with since we were wee children.
“From shamans to Flawless Sabrina, this lineage is long and potent and the experience of witnessing — as well as contributing to — this spiritual art form is so very necessary in this fucked up world we live in.”
What music are you listening to these days?
I've been listening to some Boards of Canada, some Andrew Sisters, a little Heart, Elmer Bernstein, some Faith No More, and some Ethel Merman Disco Album. I’m also obsessed with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
What other (non musical) artists do you admire today? Anything flying under the radar we might keep our eyes peeled for?
I'm feeling on the short films of Zackary Drucker (Lost Lake, At Least You Know You Exist), the documentaries of PJ Raval (Before You Know It, Trinidad), James Bidgood, and Fassbinder, anything and everything from Rick Owens and Michele Lamy, Murder She Wrote, Mariska Hargitay, and seeing eye dogs.
Can you tell me a little about what you've been up to lately and what we can expect to see from you and Christeene in the near future?
This has been one hell of a ride with stanky ol' CHRISTEENE. PJ Raval and I just released a new video for the song "FUK V29" that took the work in an entirely new direction. I'm currently working on getting new songs out of my head and into the room so that the new babies can run run run. As for touring, we are super fucking stanked to be opening for Faith No More for three nights, and then heading back across the pond for some UK/EU lovin’ and terrorizing. That, and some more touring this summer and into the fall. It's proving to be a fun fucking year.
I sometimes think of CHRISTEENE as a kind of soothsayer, divining the future. Is there anything she'd like to warn us about what lies ahead for planet earth and its citizens?
[As CHRISTEENE]: Haaaaaaay yallzz. lez juz lay it down riyeet now cuz we all fuggin know dat ROME IZ BURNIN an da fukkers are grabbin all dey can while da shit iz red hawt. iz time tooo assess whut tha fuk u got in dat backyard an fukkin understand what da fuk dat shit means tooo youuuu. iz time to return to da woods. iz time to releese dat pony inside of u an ride it into da woods an reclaim dat language dat is urs an dat majiic dat is urs an get all dat wonderful mess under da radar an away from da soul suckers out there tryin to tie it all up in a bundle an burn it quick. find ur fukkin herd. hold dat majiik high an wurk diz shit around an around til a diamond fall outta ur ass dat u can buy da new future with!
M. Sharkey photographed CHRISTEENE on April 1 in Red Hook, Brooklyn. To stay up-to-date with CHRISTEENE and see more of her work please visit: ChristeeneMusic.com
Follow M. Sharkey on Instagram @msharkeyfoto