Waiting for a call from Courtney Act on a cold, wet August night was a nerve wracking experience; she seems sweet enough on television, but Courtney, the Kylie Minogue of the Drag World (Australian born, at the height of fame in her industry and with more talent than you’d think could fit in one body), has every reason to be a diva; as one of the most famous, followed and fawned over of the Drag Race alumni she has legions of fans, and with her acclaimed tour The Girl From Oz (which is in the midst of a residency in Massachusetts USA, but she tells us will hopefully come to the UK in the not-so-far-off future) in full swing, Courtney could be forgiven for being a brash, rushed interviewee. She was anything but.
Running late through no fault of her own, in a display of a courtesy that was somewhat unique for someone who found success in the entertainment industry, Courtney phoned to apologise and politely asked, not demand, that she phone us back in 10 minutes. Most people would have kept us waiting without explanation or apology, but when she does ring back, it’s with a second apology, an infectiously cheery tone, and a natural ability to put people at ease. In the conversation that follows she proved to be not only as nice and sweet as she seems and as funny and entertaining as she’s proved, but more intelligent, inspirational and eloquent that we can possibly give her credit for.
For those of us who don’t go drag, can you explain a bit of what it’s like to have a drag-alter ego? Are Courtney and Shane different people, is she a character you’ve created, or is Courtney just a different part of who you are that comes out when you put on a killer wig (by Wigs by Vanity, obviously), a gorgeous gown and (a sickening supply) of make up?
“I think it depends from person to person. For me, I like to think of it as two ends of the same stick. It’s not so much an alter-ego…well I guess it is an alter-ego. It’s still me, it’s just me…expressing myself differently. “
Drag was something Shane Jenek discovered at 18, finding Courtney Act at the age that most people are still trying to find themselves. It all started, he said, with a party…
“I think it’s how everybody gets in to drag the first time; it’s like a party and somebodies like “Hey let’s go in drag!” and then, you know, you can’t put it down.”
For a lot of people, though, it won’t be Parties but RuPauls Drag Race that convinces them to give drag a go, meaning Courtney, one of the shows most famous alumni, will have contributed to a lot more people wanting to follow in her footsteps.
“At one time I would’ve felt guilty [about that]…but, I’ve resolved my own internalized dragophobia and…I’m able to acknowledge that drag is such a fun and wonderful thing, and a creative way for people to express themselves and you know…I hope that in the future everybody will do drag for 15 minutes.”
“I hope that in the future everybody will do drag for 15 minutes”
Courtney, born and bred in Australia, where she found fame as a finalist on Australian Idol before increasing her status as a Drag Superstar in USA as a contestant on Season 6 of RuPauls drag race, has extensive Drag experience on two different continents. Was there much difference between the US and the Australian Drag Circuits?
“There certainly was. Definitely over the last however many years Drag Race has certainly informed Australian drag culture quite a lot, but there’s still that unique Australian Flare that came from The Legendary Les Girls of the 1970s and of course the Priscilla culture of the 90s so Australia its own flare but it’s definitely been informed by Drag Race. I think drag all around the world has, to a certain extent, been informed a little bit by Drag Race.”
America has become a bit of a second home for Courtney, who will spend her summer touring there, with 3 dates a week in the venue in Massachusettes. For the uninitiated though, the goings on of a drag queen tour are a complete mystery. What can fans expect to see with The Girl From Oz tour, and how are you finding the experience of it so far?
“It’s a celebration of the music from the other place called Oz, obviously my homeland of Australia, and I just take a journey through all the music. A lot of the songs that people don’t know where from Australia, particularly in America. I think in the UK you’re a little more switched on to the Aussie radar, but everything from Kylie to Olivia to Air Supply to ACDC, The Vinyls, Natalie Imbrulgia…there’s lots of different stuff in there.”
With the impending debut of the long awaited second season of All Stars 2, and the recently released casting announcement and first trailer for the series, Courtney’s surprising lack of involvement, for a variety of reasons, most importantly her undeniable status as one of the biggest drag stars there is- was a bit of an elephant in the room that we could not resist questioning Courtney about.
How do you feel about not competing in the second season of All Stars, and if there was to be a third series, could Courtney make a return?
“I feel like I made it out of Drag Race by the skin of my teeth and I’m kinda happy to leave well enough alone. I love watching the show and I can’t wait to watch All Stars Season 2, but I’m happy to watch on the sidelines.”
Still, Courtney’s season is considered by many to be the best series of Drag Race and, even if Courtney is happy to watch from the sidelines, surely there where other queens from season 6 beside Courtney’s fellow Season 6 runner up and long time friend Adore Delano who could’ve represented the Season 6 queens in the second series of All Stars?
“Yeah! I mean…They obviously have their algorithm for picking…there’s a lot of season 5 girls but…I’m excited to watch, I think it’s gonna be good. I hear the gossip and er….” There’s a pause, before she continues with a bit of a giggle, like she’s laughing at an inside joke we’re not in on yet “…it’s going to be action packed from the very first episode.”
“I hear the gossip, and All Stars 2 is going to be action packed from the very first episode”
She may not have won the Drag Race Crown, but with years of drag experience under her belt, there are few people better poised than Courtney Act to pass judgement on other Queens.
If there was to be an All Stars Drag Race; Queen of the Queens, in which each seasons winner returned to battle it out to win the title of Queen of the Queens, who do you think would win?
Courtney’s answer comes quickly.
Bianca Del Rio. She…she just, you know, she’s…people always say you know to me like “oh you should’ve won” and I’m like, Bianca is the winner. She is amazing and what she’s done in the past how many years, it’s been since the show she has just taken it to new levels. You know her show in London sold out 2000 seats in a day. There’s a second show on sale but that’s some One Direction shit right there”. We confirm that Bianca seems to be one of the most beloved Queens by us Brits, but Courtney knew that already. “There’s always all these rumours about Bianca going on the next series of Celebrity Big Brother and oh my god I just want her to…obviously she’d have to get out of drag, but like, I’d kind of want her to just be in drag all the time. Like she says…when she’s in a wig and make up she’s hateful and fabulous and they love it, but without the wig and makeup she’s just a C**t. She’s a lot of fun.”
Speaking of fun, not only are Courtney Act, Alaska and Willam basically a three person party and some of the fans favourite Queens, but they also make up the American Apparel Ad Girls. Is it as much fun to work with Willam and Alaska as it seems?
“It’s a lot of fun working with those two. It’s very different, ‘cause we’re all kind of unique but we all respect each other a lot, so I think our girl group dynamic works because of that. And, you know…keep your friends close and your Willam’s closer. But yeah, we respect each other a lot and we love working together and we’re working on some new music actually at the moment, which is exciting. Currently we have one single and two Christmas songs but people just…like we do these gigs and it’s just crazy, the fans just eat it up and I’m like “We don’t even do anything together we have one song!” and then we have to do Christmas songs for the rest of the gig in like, April. So we decided it’s high time we get our shit together and we recorded some more stuff, so we’re planning on having an EP come out in the fall, which we’re excited about.”
In season 6, Courtney and eventual winner Bianca Del Rio were undoubtedly the most experienced, seasoned and polished Queens; it got both through the entire completion and in to the final without ever falling in the bottom two and having to face the dreaded Lip Sync For Your Life. More than that, though, both Queens also put their experience to good use and were often seen lending a helping hand to the less experience Queens. Her exposure as a much loved, well known Drag Queens means she’ll undeniably have an impact on the next generation of drag queens, and her experience means the next generation of Drag Queens would benefit from what advice she has to give. So, what advice would Courtney Act give to up and coming Dram Queens?
“I think that the most important thing with drag is to understand why you want to do it, because I think so often people will replicate people that they like. You can only go so far when you’re replicating. I think you really need to find out what it is that you love about entertaining and performing and hair and makeup and costumes and all of those sorts of things and just, you know, really spend some time discovering what it is that you love, and then bringing that to it.”
“Keep your friends close, and your Willam’s Closer”
Courtneys passion and appreciation for Drag is obvious in the way she speaks of it. It’s clear when she talks she has an intricate understanding of her craft; Courtney knows it takes more than the good wig and a great costumes that often see pageant queens leave Drag Race mid-way to become a fully-fledged drag superstar, and if you ever thought that it was the fame that came with Shane Jenek putting on a wig and a dress and becoming Courtney Act that made it such an important part of his life, then you thought wrong.
“If you’re doing drag just for the adulation and the validation, that will get tired…pretty quickly. It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of gruelling hours and I think we…the girls who stick it out and continue on it’s because we love it and we’re passionate about it. For me I love performing. The Girl from Oz is an hour long show with me and a piano, I’ve got some beautiful costumes and fabulous arrangements, and every night I go on stage I absolutely love doing it and I love performing for the audiences but, you know, you gotta find how to keep that spark alive if you want to do drag.”
Still, though, whilst she might know that it takes more than a great costume to sell out shows and become as revered as she is in the world of Drag, but that doesn’t mean she can’t execute a great runway just as well, or even better, than anyone else; one look in particular springs to mind as the most iconic, show stopping outfit in Drag Race Herstory. We’re talking, of course, about her wings.
“The wings where from a show in Sydney from like…10 years ago, and when I auditioned for drag race I just wrote a list of the most fabulous things that I knew existed, basically. I tracked them down and they where in some ones garage…not even in Sydney, it was somewhere in between Sydney and Brisbane in a place called Lismore, and someone flew them to Sydney and someone else picked them up and put them in a box, and then my trolley dolly friends flew them across to LA as excess luggage and I went and picked them up one morning at 6am and I was like “Ugh, what am I doing here, like I don’t even know if I’ll be on this show, why am I bothering with these wings!” and then, of course, I was extremely glad that I did bother cause it turned out to be a very iconic look.”
After making it through an entire season of Drag Race and then appearances at Subsequent Battle of the Seasons Tours, who better to get Drag Race gossip off from Courtney Act? When we mention it, she cackles;
“It’s funny, because the cool thing about it is you’re kind of brought together, this massive group of 100 girls in total. I don’t have close relationships with all of them but it’s surprising how many I really love and get on well with… from other Seasons as well. Katya and Trixie and I just spent Monday night hanging out in Boston together ‘cause we all happened to be there and it’s just fun. You bump in to girls in all corners of the globe and it’s just fun when you get to hang out with people who kinda get what you’ve been through and get the experience and understand, and all have a lot of the same thing. It’s a pretty cool sisterhood or a fraternity…well, I guess it’s a sorority, that we all get to be a part of and experience.”
Our question was expertly avoided (What else could we expect from someone whose been in the entertainment industry for so long?), but the message was clear; she mightn’t shy away from throwing shade on stage, but behind the scenes, for Courtney at least, there’s nothing but love for her fellow queens, and she’s not about to tell us any of their dirty little secrets. What happens on tour, stays on tour.
Drag is, almost by definition, a form of expression that does not take itself too seriously, as proven by the success of comedy Queen and series 5 champion Jinkx Monsoon, who makes a last minute and much welcomed interruption to the interview that completely destroyed any chances of this particular interviewer maintain a professional front and containing our inner fangirl (one Drag Superstar we could handle, but two sent us overboard!), but Courtney Act was never one to shy away from the more serious issues, and our conversation is soon steered in that direction. In a world that seems, increasingly, full of hate and intolerance, Courtney Act is a beacon of love and tolerance, and is eager to use her platform to spread it.
Does Courtney, as a rare representative for a subculture and the wider LGBT+ community that often goes unrepresented in mainstream media, feel it’s her duty to use herr time in the spotlight to try and make a change?
“There’s that saying, “Evil prevails when good men do nothing.” And I just think, these are the things that are important to me. I honestly couldn’t give a rats arse about Pokemon Go and Kim Kardashian, but the things that really make me tick are social policies and politics and the environment, like…real things that actually are going to effect us in extremely good or extremely bad ways some day. I just got so in to those things, I honestly find them fascinating and interesting, much more interesting than, you know…I love pop culture, but I love it as a past time, and I think for most people it’s become like a full time. My American Act videos that I’ve been doing, sort of explaining American Politics and things like that, I try and package it in a fun and entertaining way that is hopefully accessible by my audience, and so far so good. They’ve been giving me a good response.”
“Evil prevails when good
men do nothing”
You’ve mentioned in the past that your sexuality and gender are fluid, that you’re comfortable “existing in the grey area” and that the realisation of that was liberating. How did you come to that realisation.
“There was a practical application and a theory application [to this realisation] that both happened around the same time. The practical was that I was dating a boy who had never been with a boy before, who identified as straight and we met when I was in drag with Courtney, and then we dated for about 6 months and each time with me as a boy, not in drag. And I just kind of realised that I had all these insecurities about being a man and not feeling masculine enough or manly enough and all of those things that we’re taught are valuable by society, and…I was going to see him and I was just feeling like those insecurities of going to see a boy, or another person who you’re romantically involved with, and a lot of those insecurities were to do with my masculinity. When I realised that he’d only ever been with girls, that must’ve meant that my masculinity wasn’t the thing that attracted him to me; in fact, it was probably my femininity. Growing up in society I’d always been conditioned that femininity wasn’t a good thing to possess as a male, and having this person except me for my femininity and my masculinity was a really powerful moment for me, and I realised that who I was was enough, and that I didn’t need to be societies version of masculinity to fit in.
Help in coming to this realisation came to Courtney from Chaz Bono, the transgendered son of Sonny and Cher, who made an appearance as a guest judge on Courtney’s season of Drag Race, and was on hand to offer Courtney advice.
“I remember it very well. We were talking about my description of what I did in drag and all that sort of stuff, and I’d described it as a very…like it’s a uniform that I put on when I go to work, and Chaz was like “is it though? Is that really it?”,. Then we started talking about terms like Gender fluid and Gender Queer, and I realised for most of my adult life I had compartmentalised what I do in drag to justify it to the outside world because there was a huge shame associated to it. I had to tell people that I was a performer and an entertainer and that there was no funny business going on, but the reality was that I love dressing up in women’s clothes and I love performing in drag and I love expressing myself femininely, and sometimes that does mean having intimate relationships with people when I’m in drag and it’s all part of my sexuality and my expression. I realised there wasn’t any shame in that.”
In fact, it’s become something Courtney is able to take pride in, showcasing it in another form of art; a series of photographs released in in a magazine that show Courtney in full drag, in various intimately posed positions with men.
“It’s been an amazing liberation. There was a shame associated with it, and once I let go of that and I realised drag was a strength and not a weakness, it turned out to be one of the greatest things to happen to me, that I was able to come to know who I was outside of the community.”
Self-awareness seems to be something that Courtney Act holds in high regard, both personally and professionally; throughout our conversation much of it circles back to that. As her top tip for both succeeding in drag and finding liberation from some of the gender and sexuality related boundaries that might often restrict us, Courtney can’t seem to understate the importance of knowing, accepting and loving your own identity. If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gon’ love someone else?
“Gender and sexuality are both concepts that society sort of made up, and we have to live with them everyday but, I think…I think if you’re struggling with your sexuality or your gender the best thing to do is check in with yourself first. You can give yourself permission to think any thoughts you want to think, and you don’t need to go from thinking them to publicly announcing them to the world. I think so often people are too afraid to even go there in their mind and that results in a lot of internalised homophobia and trans phobia. I think just giving yourself permission to go there in your mind and exploring it…and knowing that it’s 2016, there’s nothing wrong with difference in gender or sexuality, and I think the world agrees on that a lot more now.”
What advice would you give to any of our readers struggling with their own gender or sexuality?
“Take baby steps. See what it means to yourself; find a supportive friend you can speak to, or there’s a lot of information online. Go to a gaybar! Sneak out! I came to this realization once that like, if you’re old enough, if you’re living at home with parents who don’t understand, or in a society that doesn’t understand, and you’re old enough to move outta home…move outta home! Move to a big city and start a new life. At first when I said that I was like “It sounds like bad advice” but I think it’s good advice. Find people that support you and understand you, and that you can feel comfortable discovering yourself with. I think that’s the best advice. ”
“It’s really empowering just to come to realise that our femininity is just as valid as our masculinity.” She says, in an attempt to alleviate some of my own insecurities.
Activism is in right now; it’s not unknown for a someone in the public eye to highjack an issue of social justice in an attempt to benefit themselves, to further their own cause, and to improve their own perceptions. For Courtney, that’s definitely not the case; she talks, entirely unprompted, for longer about her feelings on feminism, homophobia and transphobia longer than we talked about anything else, with such intelligence and eloquence that it would be impossible to think up on the spot; it’s clearly something she’s considered in more than passing thought.
“I think a lot of homophobia and transphobia and sexism is all based in misogyny, because we’re taught in our society that women aren’t equal, or aren’t enough, so those feminine qualities, whether it be a feminine look or a feminine voice…we are taught as children, and whether we actively think this or not…there’s this idea in our society that women aren’t equal, and we see it with the wage gap and things like that. It’s just absolutely absurd and when I came to investigate those feminist feelings that I had and really decided for myself that women are equal and that my femininity was good enough, then I was able to let go of any of that shame.”
The day of our interview, the more serious, ever present and ominous dangers of homophobia made headlines when the actor Colton Haynes confessed in an interview with Out magazine how homophobic bullying led not only to Haynes needing to be escorted through the School corridors for his own safety, but his own fathers suicide being blamed on sexuality. When it came to Homophobia, Courtney sounds thankful to say she had never experienced anything on that level, but confesses she had experienced homophobic bullying that lead to her developing an unusual defence mechanism; she would actively give people other reasons to pick on her by making herself purposefully stand out. “Everything I could do to make myself different from everybody else I did. I had these defence mechanisms, and I allowed myself to believe that they where picking on physical attributes; my headgear or my wheelie bag or my woody woodpecker bag, and that they weren’t actually picking on me.”
To end on a higher note, conversation turns to a topic more trivial; Courtney, after making it right through Drag Race without ever Lip Syncing for her life, still had one very big question she had yet to answer; If she were invited to appear on Lip Sync Battle, which two songs would she Lip Sync too? Out of all the questions, this is the one that stumps Courtney most.
“I remember Lip Syncing I Am Telling You I’m Not Going once, when I was 19. Someone told me that I should never do that again. So I feel like I’d like to do that just as redemption. And what else would be fun to Lip Sync…something Kylie, something by the Spice Girls. I love the Spice Girls. I love Who do you think you are.”
The plan was, after polite goodbyes, to end the interview there, but it’s hard to turn talk to the Spice Girls without mentioning the inevitable, especially when Courtney confessed that her favourite Spice Girls song was “Who do you think you are”, so the interview ends on an unplanned, spontaneous question instead? which Spice Girl was Courtney Act’s favourite?
“Geri. Geri was the activist, and she was the one who was so inspiring. I loved them all but Geri…Geri is my homegirl.”
We love ya, Courtney!
Courtney Act is spending her summer in Massachusetts, performing “The Girl From Oz” in Provincetown on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with aims to bring it to the UK later this year; details of upcoming events can be found here.