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Courtney Act Talks Music, Masculinity, and Marriage Politics

Courtney

Photo by William Baker

With jaw-dropping looks and an abundance of confidence, Courtney Act proved a somewhat divisive character on RuPaul's Drag Race Season 6—very much to her surprise. A little more than a year after her season wrapped, and with a public image more in line with her true self, Courtney, who got her start down under as a finalist on Australian Idol, has dropped her first EP, Kaleidoscope. The culmination of many months of work and collaboration, it's seen a steady climb up the iTunes charts as fans awaited today's release.

We sat down with the Aussie to talk about the inspiration for her music and the reasons she decided to wait so much longer than her co-runner-up, Adore Delano. Amid talk of Willam and Alaska, we discussed gender and drag, sleeping with straight-identifying men, and marriage.

Out: First off all, congrats! Your first EP, Kaleidoscope, is available starting today. Can you talk about where the music comes from?

Courtney Act: I started writing it about a year and a half ago. The first song I wrote, 'Kaleidoscope,' I wrote with Sam Sparrow, and the album just sort of built as more songs happened—there wasn’t a concept for the album beforehand. I definitely had some ideas for things I wanted to write about. For example, with ‘Body Parts,’ Jake Shears and I were just sitting around, throwing out ideas, and then at one point Jake said ‘body parts’ and we were like, ‘Oh that’s cool.’ I started thinking about how that could apply, and then realized that with my sexual liaisons with straight men and how, um, body parts… there’s this line “Now that you got me I’m not what you thought/ rip off the labels I’m not what you bought/ but you still like me, what does that mean?/ I'll be your peaches, just add cream.” Having been with straight identifying men, there comes the part where it’s like, ‘Oh! Body parts, hello!’ And in my experience, those moments have led to some interesting observations about sexuality and gender.

In the Kickstarter campaign you used to help fund this project, you say that seeing Adore follow through on her dreams really inspired you. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Last year when Drag Race finished, Adore and I both had the same idea, that it would be the right time to release music. But then as the show was airing, there seemed to be a bit of a negative spin on who I was perceived to be… it felt really out of alignment with who I am. So, I thought I would use the time to keep refining the music and, I guess, getting what I felt was a truer version of me out there on social media, on YouTube, at gigs. Over the last year, one of the comments that I’ve been reading the most is people saying, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t really like you on Drag Race, I thought you were a bitch. But I actually really like you now that you’re off!” And I have to admit, it’s validating. I know I shouldn’t be validated or berated from internet comments, but the truth is that both of them get to me sometimes.

But seeing Adore succeed, was just so inspiring, and her music is so good—she’s like a new breed of drag. I’ve always thought of myself as more of an artist who happened to be in drag, and I think Adore is like that. Sometimes it’s questionable whether she’s drag or not… I remember she was wearing her pajamas once on stage, but that’s what makes her brilliant! I’ve never really been one to follow the rules of drag, either. A lot of people say that I don’t wear enough makeup, or that I could be wearing bigger costumes and bigger hair, but I just do what I do because I love doing it.

You and Adore obviously come from musical backgrounds. What do you make of all these other queens putting out albums?

Well, you know what? I love that Drag Race has given people an opportunity to create music. I don’t think—maybe some of them do—I don’t think that all of them are looking to create legitimate musical careers, but I do think that they are creating moments in pop culture.

Willam and Alaska are both very talented, they’re great singers and performers and know their audiences really well. I don’t think that other queens are under false pretenses, that they’re about to break into the top of the pop charts—nor am I. I just see this EP, Kaleidoscope, as my resume, or like my portfolio. I want this to say, ‘This is who I see myself as.’ In my head, I’ll say, Yeah, I want to be a drag pop singer, or a pop singer in drag, and this is how I can get other people to understand me—through my songs, music videos, performances.

You've been working a lot with Willam and Alaska, as part of the American Apparel Ad girls. What's that like?

Willam and Alaska are a lot of fun, and I’ve learned a lot from touring with them. I think the biggest things I’ve learned is—and this is actually a positive attribute—but I’ve learned from Willam how to care less. And from Alaska, I have learned how to allow the audience to come to me, that I don’t always need to be going out to them. Alaska has this real power when she is on stage where she just stands there, and everybody, like, leans in, because they’re enthralled by her. Whereas I just come out and I’m like ‘Hi! Look at me! I’m Courtney Act!’ So that’s been really great. And before meeting Willam I would only wear costumes that were made for me, but now I wear off the rack things. I used to have real anxiety about wearing off-the-rack clothing, because I felt like I wasn’t doing drag. Because I’d been raised in this drag culture of Sydney, in the post-Priscilla Queen of the Desert era, and it was about wearing a costume. That’s what you did.

So, we have the American Apparel ads, Willam was recently in some commercials for Magnum ice cream, and then RuPaul's Drag Race is becoming more and more mainstream—what do you think of drag and drag queens permeating society so much? 

I’ve always thought that gender was the next frontier, and it seems to be the hot topic at the moment. Drag is definitely a hot topic, but even more so gender, like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, Chaz Bono. Transgender people are finally being represented in the media in a really serious way. Even Ruby Rose from Orange Is The New Black—and, just as a side note, I’ve met her and she is so beautiful. I have no qualms saying that I would definitely… I don’t know what the right word is… she could have her way with me. Anyway, gender is really hot at the moment, and it’s been interesting for me. Over the past few years, becoming friends with Chaz, I’ve come to accept my own gender diversity a bit more. I don’t identify as a trans woman, because I am quite content living as a boy, but I’ve heard this term genderqueer, which I really like. It’s somewhat more of a political statement, it’s saying, ‘I’m not going to be put into a box of gender. I don’t need to be a man, I don’t need to be a woman, I can be in between or I can be whatever I want.’  

I’ve also realized over the past year, traveling around America, having relationships with straight-identifying boys, I’ve had this realization that I’ve always judged myself by this sort of imposed idea of what it means to be a man. I even remember when I was eighteen, coming out to my parents, the night before I was at my friend Sarah’s house, who happens to be trans, and I was just kicking and screaming and crying, because I didn’t know if I wanted to be a man or a woman. The image of a man that I had in my head was an underwear model—it wasn’t just a regular man, it was either an underwear model or a woman. I didn’t know which one I wanted to be, but I saw things as completely opposite ends of the spectrum, it was just these two extremes of gender expression, and I was feeling so confused by that.

Through dating straight-identifying boys who are used to being with girls, I think—I met them all as Courtney, but then all the consecutive times as Shane, and the first time I was with one of these guys as Shane it was like, ‘Oh my god, straight guys. They’re what I’m scared of. I’m not good enough, I’m not man enough, I’m a sissy, I’m a pansy.’ As Courtney I didn’t care. I’m what straight guys want, just with a little extra. But as Shane, I had all these anxieties.  And I realized that with guys, I was always trying to butch it up, because I thought that’s what they were attracted to, my masculinity, which I know sounds absurd, but it’s what we’re taught. When we think of ourselves sexually, it’s our masculinity that we think is desirable. But then I had this one experience with a guy where I realized, this is a straight guy who’s only ever been with biological females, so he’s probably not attracted to my masculinity.  And since then, I’ve come to see that, in some cases, it’s actually my femininity that guys find attractive. I had always felt some shame, as a gay man, because I didn’t think that femininity should be celebrated in me. This last year has been a real learning process for me, for my my gender expression, my sexuality. I’ve had more relationships and more quality connections than I ever had previously.

From Ireland to the United States, marriage equality is sweeping across the world. While it's not yet happened in Australia, there's a lot of popular support for it. What do you make of the situation?

It seems so dumb that we’re even like talking about it. Marriage equality should just be a thing. People are equal. It’s just a fact, and people should be afforded equal rights across the board, it doesn’t matter your color, race, gender, or sexuality. Hopefully America does lead the way. Unfortunately, our current government in Australia—Tony Abbott is a dickhead prime minister. Dickhead is not really an American term, is it? It is? He’s a dickhead. There’s no two ways about it. It’s just so unfortunate for Australia at the moment, with such momentum on marriage, that he’s the prime minister. He’s like tits on a bull, just useless. Actually, he’s more than useless, he’s damaging. It was wonderful to see that Ireland was the first country to vote for it in a public referendum, but we don’t need a referendum in Australia because marriage equality is not unconstitutional. We just need our lawmakers to make it happen. 

Here at Out we like to ask people what their spirit animal is.

Oh. Well, Amanda Palmer was my spirit animal for my Kickstarter campaign. Sometimes, I think that Adore and I are each other’s spirit animals, especially when alcohol is involved. And then, I’ve always had an affinity for giraffes. But actually, when we were doing Drag Race, there was this one time when we all got massages. And the woman who came to give them to us was this hippie spiritual lady, who spent about 20 minutes rearranging our chakras before even touching us. So this woman said to me, ‘Have you ever heard of a white herring.’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘Oh, you should look it up  when you get out of here.’ So I got out and I looked up white herring, and I was looking everywhere and I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. Then a friend said, maybe she was talking about the Native American spirit animal the white heron? It all made sense. And actually, the white heron, interestingly, in Australia it’s the ibis, which was my school mascot. Although, we’d really just see ibises with their heads in the bins pulling out rubbish… so I’m not sure I should really take that as my spirit animal.

And you're having your launch here in New York City this week. What do you have in store for guests?

Yes! July 10th is my concert, my EP launch at The Gramercy. It’s my first ever pop concert. I’ve got two synth players and an electronic drum kit, basically because I saw Robyn in Vegas and she had two synth players and two drum kits and I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. But then, she’s kind of the coolest thing I have ever seen. But I’ll be doing all of the songs from the EP, plus I’ll also be doing two covers, and a retrospective. I’ll be performing some of 'Rub Me Wrong,' my first single, 'Welcome to Disgraceland,' and 'To Russia With Love.' Out of everything that I’ve ever done, releasing this EP and performing this concert feels the most in line with what I want to be doing. There’s really nothing that I’ve ever wanted more. From when I was little, I’ve always wanted to be performing my own music on stage, and here I am! I can’t wait.

Click here for remaining tickets to the launch party, and watch the video for 'Ugly,' off Kaleidoscope, below:

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