The road to self-acceptance is a struggle within many communities. It can be a quiet path or a sensational journey across the planet. Sometimes, it takes enough time to find a place in the world you’re already in.
Pop songwriter and drag performer Shane Jenek/Courtney Act was already a continental superstar back home in Australia. After auditioning in drag and ending up a semi-finalist on Australian Idol in 2003, Courtney Act (can you say ‘caught in the act’ with an Australian accent?) and her dance-pop singles landed a Sony recording contract with her top 40, tours with Lady Gaga, TV appearances. The readers of FHM Magazine even named her one of the “100 Sexiest Women in the World.”
Moving to West Hollywood in 2010 to further her career, Courtney Act was named Second Runner-Up on Season 6 of the wildly-popular TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race and is now riding a wave of fame this summer. She is the first drag performer to sing with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, extended the run of her one-woman show “Boys Like Me”, and headlines in clubs and international festivals, including Ottawa’s Capital Pride this weekend.
Q. I’ve been listening to your songs “Welcome to Disgraceland” and “Mean Gays”, and particularly the acoustic Soundcloud Live and Untucked sessions. Besides your obvious talent and vocal range, I can also hear elements of Natalie Cole. Then I think, with the purity of tone in your sound, you could almost sing a Disney princess. How did you find out you had that voice?
You mean, like “Part Of your World” (from The Little Mermaid)? Thanks! When I was little, I was always being told ‘Shane, sing like a boy! Shane, sing like a boy!” and I guess before puberty, most boys have the high girlie voices. I guess because I was singing all the way through, my voice never ‘broke.’ It was a very gradual process. Unlike other boys, I guess because I was in singing lessons at the time when my voice would have broken, my range remained pretty high.
I only really started singing in drag for a few month before Australian Idol in 2003. Because of Australian Idol, I kept singing as Courtney. With Sony, I was often handed pop songs that anyone could have sung. I wanted to move to songs that nobody else could sing, so I wrote “Welcome to Disgraceland” about my favourite times in Sydney.
Q. When I heard your new single, “Mean Gays”, and saw the video, it was certainly fun, but it reminded me of about 14 people I know. Lines such as: “They’ll take you down with just one look”, “Too young for Botox”, or “They don’t care what you’re about.” What else can you tell me about the song?
Sometimes I forget that I just didn’t move to West Hollywood, I actually moved there to the other side of the world. With “Mean Gays”, I remember writing it while driving back from Las Vegas. I had started calling a group of friends “Mean Gays” affectionately. It did start as a swingy tongue-in cheek about a group of friends I knew, but it does address a wider portion of the world that is not just that.
Also, for me, it was about my own struggle with my place in the gay world. When I came out when I was 18, I had all these ideals of the gay community thrust upon me, you know, most of them visual – how you should look, how you should act, the right gym, the right hair, the right teeth, having the perfect underwear model body and all that. At the same time, I started doing drag, and so fell in love with performing. Having the underwear model body and the Courtney Act body were mutually exclusive. I struggled throughout my 20s. Oddly I kind of blamed Courtney for some of those struggles and I then I kind of realized I had to thank Courtney because I wasn’t able to conform to the gay aesthetic ideal and therefore had to learn to be comfortable with myself how I was. In some ways, through my 20’s, I thought that Courtney was a detriment but now I realize she was an asset. A Sydney drag queen once said to me me that you have to look at drag as a strength, not a weakness. Now, it’s strangely of the greatest gifts I’ve been given.
Q. Your current success in North America now is largely due to RuPaul’s Drag Race TV Show, but how do you feel about being edited into the TV role of “mean girl” or having been painted as the “pretty over-confident one”?
It was odd for me watching it back because my experience didn’t match what I saw on the television. And I thought that it was… I felt a little bit hurt by the way that I was portrayed, because I didn’t feel it wasn’t accurate. It seemed a little obvious . They thought ‘Oh, she’s pretty. Let’s make her the mean girl’.
Obviously, when I see myself on television I’m aware what that world is all about, but seeing the manipulated image on TV was a lot more challenging than I thought, you know, I felt a little bit hurt. I don’t care what people think if what they think is about who I am if I’m being myself. If you don’t like it, that’s completely fine by me. But, when I’m being portrayed as not myself, and people don’t like me, then that’s a challenge. As a result, I’m now traveling around the world more than ever and meeting more people who can get to know the real me.
How do you think drag fits into your own sense of gender ?
I do think that drag and gender do intercept. The path I’ve chosen to express myself creatively, it does give a sense of gender. I think for a long time I pretended that I put on drag like somebody put on a uniform. I think that I was in some ways, maybe, scared of admitting that perhaps there was something more than just putting on a costume. I’d say that it was some sort of internalized transphobia in some strange way. There isn’t a full acceptance of drag within the gay community. Living in L.A. has given me a chance to get to learn more about myself and I love the term “gender-queer.” I love the term “queer” for sexuality and I love the term “gender queer” for gender identity, because there’s also a political element to it, refusing to be put into a box for gender. I feel we’re on the leading edge of that civil rights movement now.
Courtney Act performs as part of the Bank Street BIA & Capital Pride Rainbow Party Friday Night Aug. 22 at Barrymore’s. You can hear more of Courtney Act at www.courtneyact.com